Imagine a long hike up a mountain. When you first begin the day there is a sense of anticipation – even joy – as you plan, prepare and pack. The first mile or so your spirits probably remain high like the early days of the Christian life. As the walk continues it begins to drizzle. Many of life’s hardships are like a drizzle and a breeze. Exams, tiredness, the common cold, conflict with a work colleague or family member make the walk unpleasant but not unbearable.
At other points the drizzle may turn to a more persistent rain and the wind picks up as you gain elevation. These may be the sustained hardship of depression, singleness but wanting to be married, marriage but wanting to be single, rebellious children, or an ongoing health complication.
Sometimes we face the heavy storm of the death of someone close, a serious, debilitating or life-threatening illness, divorce or abuse. These kinds of hardships leave us struggling to put one foot in front of the other, at times even knocking us off our feet. Although we nod along to truths about a broken world when they actually come at us, they leave us a bit uncertain, struggling to connect our creeds to the crisis. The journey is harder than we anticipated.
The 18th century pastor and poet John Newton gives us hope that even in the midst of brokenness we will see beauty:
“How grand and magnificent is the arch over our heads in a starry night! But if it were always day, the stars could not be seen. The firmament of Scripture, if I may so speak, is spangled with exceeding great and precious promises, as the sky is with stars, but the value and beauty of many of them are only perceptible to us in the night of affliction.” 1
What do we need to do when hardships come? Look up at the stars of hope. If we only ever travelled through the daytime of blessing, we would not have gazed at or grasped hold of some of Scripture’s most spectacular stars. In the midst of hardships Scripture gives us words of hope:
Hebrews 11 gives us stories of fellow climbers who have reached the top before us. “All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth” (Hebrews 11:13). Hardships remind us we are foreigners and strangers who are promised an eternal home. We have not yet received all the things God has promised. Revelation 21:3-5 is like a postcard from home. This postcard paints a stunning picture, and one day the picture will become reality. The harder the climb gets the more we need reminding of the view from the top, so we might live by faith while we wait.
Another of God’s great promises is that he will be present with us every step of the way. Jesus isn’t just the gate who opens up the track to the mountain top, saying “See you at the top.” He is the Good Shepherd who leads, guides and protects us en route. Indeed, he is with all the climbers till the end of the age (Matthew 28:20).
Not only is he present, repeating promises of what life at the top will be like, he is full of power to keep refuelling us for the journey. The second verse of the hymn How Firm a Foundation puts it beautifully:
“Fear not, I am with thee, O be not dismayed,
for I am thy God, and will still give thee aid;
I’ll strengthen thee, help thee, and cause thee to stand,
upheld by my righteous, omnipotent hand.”
God may sometimes use his power to ease our hardships. But, as the hymn describes, he will more often use his power to sustain and strengthen us for the journey.
Why he uses his power in this way is only really understood in light of his purposes.
This may not be the first star we point out but eventually it must catch our gaze. We really can’t understand hardships without the hope of a good God with good plans to grow his children in the family likeness. Romans 5 gives us some specifics of what that growth will look like. “And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope” (Romans 5:2-4).
Hardships produce perseverance. We only use the word perseverance to describe something difficult. We don’t say I persevered through the tub of Ben and Jerry’s! We talk about perseverance through something that was hard work like a mountain climb because there was something worthwhile about it. The worthwhileness of our perseverance in the Christian life is the character that is being formed and the hope rising in our God in relation to what he promises at the end of the climb.
The truth of God’s promises, presence, power and purposes are often delivered to us by God’s people. God gives us fellow-travellers, Christian brothers and sisters who walk alongside us, who help us to keep going through the darkest nights, who encourage us to keep looking up at the stars. Jonathan Edwards in a letter to a friend once wrote:
“Let us thus endeavour to help one another (though at a great distance) in travelling through the wide wilderness, that we may have the more joyful meeting in the land of rest, when we have finished our pilgrimage.” 2
If we are walking with others in their darkest nights is there a balance to the beauty that we share? Which of the stars of hope mentioned in this blog do our eyes tend to miss?
- Reinke, T. Newton on the Christian Life, Crossway, Wheaton, Illinois. 2015
- Ortlund, D.C. Edwards on the Christian Life, Crossway, Wheaton, Illinois. 2014