I’ve run up against something difficult today, and I’ve had to preach to my heart again the sermon about what to do with difficult things. Anyway, I thought maybe it could help a few of you, in case you, too, have run up against something difficult recently, and so here she is.
It pains me to know of your pain. Life is hard, isn’t it? And there always seems to be something, doesn’t there?
Well, from where I sit, you have two human-way options and one Christ-way option.
The first human-way option is to lie down and let the difficult circumstances or feelings mow over you. If it is something that brings out your fear/anxiety/worry, this means you will choose the safest path rather than the path of courage. If it is something that brings out your anger/rage, this means choosing resentment rather than freedom. If it is something that brings out your self-pity, this means you will choose to despair rather than hope. I have said that you “choose” a path, but in reality hardly anyone ever exactly chooses this path; it is almost as if this path chooses you. This is the path that most often just seems to happen to you when you do nothing in your power or in the power of the Spirit of God to do something differently. It is as if a river of your instinctively reactive thoughts and feelings picks you up and takes you with it, unwittingly, wherever it may flow.
The second human-way option is to attempt to transcend the difficulty by denying or avoiding its pain. “I’m not anxious,” you will hear yourself say, while your mind races and you cannot tear your thoughts away from the difficult thing. “Me? Angry? No way!” you will hear yourself say while bitterness simmers in your bones. “I’m fine,” you will hear yourself say, while you distract yourself with shopping or sex, screen or work, food or drink. A lot of Christians like to call this option the way of faith; it is actually the way of dishonesty. A lot of Christians like to consider this the heroic way. They chant positive phrases while they charge blindly ahead, unwittingly bayonetting Reality with the inchoate battle tactics of a revolutionary war soldier.
Another way to think of these two human-way options is to consider the invitation of N. T. Wright in The Challenge of Jesus: “[to hold on] simultaneously to the pain of the world and to the love of God…and to live in prayer at the places where the world [and ourselves in this world] are in pain.” [italics, mine] The first response to difficulty I have described would be like holding onto the pain of the world while abandoning the Love of God. The second response I have described is like holding onto the Love of God while abandoning the pain of the world.
Now. The third way. The Way of Jesus, the “Christ”-ian option, is to walk with God (and others) through the difficult thing.*
First, we will just sit with the reality that this thing is, indeed, difficult. Go ahead and let yourself admit it. You may even feel sorry for yourself for a moment, if you need. Poor you. Life is hard and the hits just keep on coming. If you live in the western world, if you had a mostly happy childhood, if you have imbibed any of the entitlement of the so-called American dream, these together have forged in you such a strong expectation for ease and comfort and happy-as-the-status-quo that any difficult thing really does seem to jar you deeply. I do not mean that as an indictment, just as an observation, and in response to your pain, I release an onslaught of sincere compassion for your plight.
man of sorrows
a life of descent
the pain of pain
At home you are
in your difficulty
It is wise of you to bring your difficulties, your worry, your ranting and raving, your habitual self-focus to the One who knows it all full-well and can handle it, can handle you.
Now. There is only one thing left to do: Keep walking. Only keep walking. Walk right on through it. Resist the temptation to let yourself be buried by it. (Do not stop or lie down on the path.) Resist the temptation to paste on a smile and avoid within and without the hardship of it. (Do not attempt a rainbow leap over the path in a single bound.) Instead, walk through it. Take in your small hand the gargantuan Hand of God. Put one foot in front of the other.
Your journey through difficulty may be short-lived. You may have forgotten it all by bedtime tomorrow. Or your journey may be long. You may still be forging this very same path through the dark, through the wilderness, through the desert of difficulty all your live long years. You simply do not know and it is not for you to know. It is only for you to walk.
Do not fret about your pace; do not feel guilt over the unsteadiness of your step. Do not pressure yourself to run or jog or skip. Do not lose hope if you lose the path entirely for a bit.
Do not feel the need to come up with fancy prayers, pouring out excesses to the Man of Sorrows who already knows. And, if you can, do not speak many words at all about the difficulty, whether to God or others. Give the difficulty a one word name, if you can, and then pray that word to God.
You do not have to resolve today all of the problems.
You do not have to bear today all of the misery.
You do not have to anticipate today all of the future.
Today you must simply walk.
Today you must simply walk through the portion of it that belongs to today.
Today you must simply walk.
Benediction: Concern yourself only with the difficulty of today, knowing that the Man of Sorrows hears your prayer and walks with you. Amen.
Peace & patience to you today, friend.
* Timothy Keller, in Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering, paints a brilliant picture of these three “options” for dealing with difficulties – the particular language here is mine, the idea was first planted in my mind by him.