I also remember televangelists saying if one had a problem, all they had to do was come to Jesus and He would fix it. Many even gave the impression the abundant life was life without physical, emotional, or spiritual pain. At first, I bought into that lie only to end up obsessively looking for hidden sin that caused my problems. I lost sleep as I replayed each day over in my head, examining every word spoken and every action taken that might have been sinful. Every trial that presented itself and every temptation I faced were proof I had messed up in some unknown way. I even began to think others' unkind words or hurtful actions indicated unknown darkness in me. The lies I had accepted as truth had lead to some pretty stinking thinking.
As I spent more time in the Word, I realized God never promised us a picture-perfect, painless, or sorrow-free life. The author of Hebrews told us, "Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God." These verses and many others make it clear that the Christian life is not trouble-free. Pastor Brent Van Elswyk recently shared in a sermon that the original word for race implies struggles, pain, and suffering. It is the word from which we derived our English word "agony." I love that because it is more inline with what we can see from Eden on.
Abel's race included offering a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain's. But it also resulted in Cain going into a jealous rage and striking Him dead. And, his faith that caused him to do things God's way is still speaking to us this day.
Noah's race included being born at a time when every thought and intention of man was evil. It included years of reverent fear that motivated him to build a giant ark on a bone dry desert to save his household from an impending flood. It included the knowledge that his obedient faith would ultimately condemned the world and that included people he knew. And his faith that saw God as Savior is still speaking to us this day.
Sarah's race included years of infertility while living in the midst of a culture that worshipped fertility gods. It included living with a fearful husband who put her in compromising situations to save his own skin. It included trying to help God fulfill His promise and the messiness of giving her servant to her man to bear him children she could not bear. It included long waits between the giving of God's covenant and its fulfillment in the form of the little one named "Laughter." And her faith that matured beyond her doubts and allowed her to see Jehovah as God of life is still speaking to us today.
Jacob's race included his deceitfulness and the resulting shame and consequences. It included a dishonest father-in-law who substituted the bride of his choosing with her less desirable sister. It included the conflict between two wives who continuously competed for his affection. It included the long trek home with a large family in tow to meet a brother who may or may not kill him. It included a long night of wrestling with the Lord and His sovereign plans that resulted in him walking the rest of his race with a limp. It included the humbling that comes with repentance and seeking forgiveness. And his faith that is balm to all who have stepped out of God's will for a season is still speaking to us today.
Joseph's race included being sold by his brothers, being falsely accused by a woman, and being cast into prison and forgotten there. It also included coming face to face with those who had betrayed him and having to face the painful grief he had buried deep. It included having to struggle through the practical side of forgiveness. It included having to make the decision to help the very brothers who had hurt him so much. His faith that said, "You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good," is still speaking to every wounded heart today.
Moses's race included a lonely ride in a river as a tiny baby that resulted in him being raised by an Egyptian princess. It included being called to lead a nation of stiff-necked people out of Egypt. It included a steady diet of manna and a dry walk through a riverbed with waters heaped high on either side. It included forty years of wandering because others did not believe and obey God. His race included harsh, unwarranted criticism by the very people God was using him to rescue. His faith that shows us how to persevere when the race gets tough is still speaking to us today.
Daniel and his friends had races that included being taken captive and carried to a foreign land. It included having their identity changed by their captors who trained them to be leaders in their new land. Daniel's faithfulness landed him a night in a lions' den and his friends' faith landed them in a blazing-hot furnace. They didn't enter these races knowing the results we know, but they did enter them knowing in Whom they believed. Their faith that took them through their trials is still speaking to us today.
And there were others who ran similar races that resulted in their deaths. Because they faced death in faith, their deaths were not in vain. Their faith that says I am willing to die because I believe in God speaks just as loudly as those who believed and lived. In fact, their dying faith is still speaking volumes to us today, especially to those of us who know death is imminent.
Even the disciples who walked and rubbed shoulders with Jesus ran hard races. Many lost their lives. Many were disowned by families they loved. Many suffered under brutal persecution. Many were run out of the villages they came to evangelize. Paul, in his second epistle to the Corinthians tells us he endured countless beatings, hard labor, being stoned, being shipwrecked three times, and being adrift at sea for a day and a night. He tells us on his frequent journeys he was in danger from rivers, robbers, Jews, Gentiles, city dwellers, wildlife, exposure, and people posing as believers. He also endured poverty, got little sleep, and was often hungry, thirsty, and cold. He endured anxiety as he felt burdened for all the churches he had started. He suffered under an affliction that he called a thorn in his side. And his faith that kept him going is still speaking to us who are at a place that it takes great effort to keep putting one foot in front of the other.
As Pastor Brent put it, the diagnoses just received, men's struggles with pornography, the addictions with which we struggle, the broken marriages we want fixed, the struggles we have with "extra-grace-required" people, the besetting sin that leaves us shrouded in shame, the abuses we experienced in the past that still impact us in the present, the chronic illnesses that leave us exhausted and dealing with constant pain, the besetting sin that draws us into toxic shame, the memories of bloody wars served in, and the grief experienced over the loss of dreams, things, health, and loved ones are the races we have been called to run. As Pastor Brent's said, "Welcome to the race!"
As believers, we need to understand how we see the Christian life will determine how we run the race set before us. Satan wants us to believe hard races prove God has forgotten us, has turned his back on our suffering, or simply doesn't care about us. But the Word tells us God is a God who sees, a God who hears our cries, and a God who understands our pain. We know this because Jesus left glory to take on flesh to endure rejection, hatred, being misunderstood, being called crazy, being accused of being demon possessed, being arrested, being betrayed, being deserted by friends, being beaten beyond recognition, being mocked, being spat upon, being stripped, being crowned with thorns, and being nailed to a cross. His race included having the weight of all of our sin placed on His shoulders. It included experiencing the wrath of God we deserved for us. God never promised us an easy life, but He did promise to never leave us and forsake us.
It is important to understand the pain we experience is a tool in the hands of a loving God who desires to strengthen faith and mold character. We often respond by complaining about the unfairness of the race we're running or about our God or we complain to Him, What might be different if we choose to trust God and look at the race as an opportunity for God to do His perfect work in us. Our Pastor encouraged us to remember suffering came through sin, it is not the work of God! Our faith grows when we stand firm on His promises--promises like He will work all things for our good, He will never leave us or forsake us, and the hard we live is being used by Him to move us to spiritual maturity. God desires us to confront our pain with faith because it will give us the opportunity to see God's faithfulness and allow Him to weed out sin and help our unbelief. When pain is met by faith, God is able to complete His perfect work in us and prepare us for the eternal weight of glory, which will far outshines the painfulness of the races we are running. The bottom line is that you and I grow the most when our faith confronts what we tend to believe about pain.