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September 10, 2022
The Beauty of Hardship
By Nathan Fowler

My three-year-old wants to drink espresso. He thinks he wants to drink espresso. Of course, he doesn’t realize coffee is an acquired taste. As with Brussels sprouts and dark chocolate, we learn to enjoy coffee’s bitterness — at least some of us do! It’s much the same with suffering. Maybe you will never crave an IPA or arugula, but I do pray that you come to appreciate hardship in your life. I’ve been thinking about suffering lately because I have just experienced the greatest trial I have ever known: guiding Circle Community Church through death to be resurrected at Grace. 

Like any hardship Christians face, there is, or there will be, good on the other side. Good is ahead. But what about in the middle of the trial, when stress saps appetites and steals sleep? Ahead feels far away, or perhaps in our lowest moments, like never. When life feels solely bitter, what gives us confidence to keep following Jesus? Let’s consider three truths from Hebrews 12:1-13 that motivate endurance.

We follow Jesus through temporary suffering to lasting glory.

All the faithful people listed in Hebrews 11 anticipate the greatest example of faith — Jesus Himself. We see both the road He traveled (suffering) and His destination (glory).

And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before Him He endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider Him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart (Hebrews 12:1b-3).

Jesus was always aimed at glory (His Father exalted Him, enthroning Him), but even He reached that grand outcome through endurance (see also Heb. 2:10).

Pain may cause us to question our path: “This hurts — I must be doing it wrong!” But, like learning to floss, pain means, “Keep going.” (I once thought bleeding gums meant I shouldn’t floss. Then I learned my gums were bleeding because I wasn’t flossing often enough!)

Focusing on Jesus, we’re assured that hardship isn’t a detour or a roadblock, but the road itself, the means our Lord uses to perfect our faith. We walk the same way Jesus, the “Pioneer,” walked because we’re aimed at the same destination.

Every hardship (paradoxically) proves God’s love.

Everyone experiences hardship, but Christians have a unique hope in hardship: God “is treating [us] as his children” (Hebrews 12:7). The connection between being disciplined by God and being God’s child is counterintuitive, especially if we equate God’s goodness and power with our moment-by-moment happiness: “If God loves me, I won’t experience hardship.” Maybe, because of hardship, we come to believe God doesn’t love us. Maybe we view God as powerless to help us. Maybe suffering tempts us to stop following Jesus.

The author of Hebrews says the opposite: “If God loves me, I will experience hardship.” On the surface, this doesn’t make much sense, unless we remember that Jesus suffered before He was exalted. For believers, hardship means that God is our Father and Jesus is our brother (Hebrews 12:7; see also 2:11). In other words, we belong; we’re included in God’s family. The suffering that would discourage us becomes the very assurance that we need to persevere. Suffering means that we are God’s children. Even so, some might say God has a funny way of showing that He loves us. This brings us to the third truth.

Every hardship brings our ultimate good.

In Hebrews 12:9-12, the author makes an argument from the lesser to the greater. If fallible human fathers discipline their children to train them, how much better is the discipline God gives His children? God “disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in His holiness” (Hebrews 12:10). This discipline results in level paths, healing, righteousness, and peace (Hebrews 12:11, 13).

So is this just a case of the ends justifying the means? No. The only way we will ever be truly happy is if we are truly holy. As C.S. Lewis points out in The Problem of Pain, reconciling our suffering with a God who loves requires a robust definition of love and a God-centered perspective.

God does not exist for the sake of man. Man does not exist for his own sake…. We were made not primarily that we may love God (though we were made for that too), but that God may love us, that we may become objects in which the Divine love may rest ‘well-pleased.’ To ask that God’s love should be content with us as we are is to ask that God should cease to be God: because He is what He is, His love must, in the nature of things, be impeded and repelled by certain stains in our present character, and because He already loves us, He must labor to make us lovable [emphasis added].

God simultaneously loves us as we are — with perfect knowledge of everything we’ve done or will do — and loves us too much to leave us in the muck. He knows that happiness requires holiness. He’s making us into who we will be: imitators of Jesus.

Christians aren’t masochists, but our gut-level assurance that good is ahead alters the gastronomy of bitterness. What was once unpalatable blossoms into a complex and even desirable experience.

I am thrilled to serve the Lord at Grace and to enjoy a season of rest from the hardship of the past few months. And yet, to my great surprise, I find myself looking back on those months with a strange nostalgia. I have never been more tried; I have never been more formed. Amid difficulty, God granted me great joy, deepening my conviction that He is my Father, and I am His son. May the Lord do the same for you, even in hardship.

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