Hope Amidst Struggles
Many years ago, the magazine of the defunct PACE Airlines, shared this story: “The scene is the campus of the University of Florida in the early 1960s. The football team is in practice session. They are running wind sprints for conditioning. One of the large linemen, Jack Katz, who played tackle, had proven himself to be the fastest lineman on the team. Katz walked up to coach Ray Graves and asked if he might run sprints with the faster backs. Permission was granted. For the next several days, Katz managed to finish last in every race with the backfield runners. Nobody was surprised. The coach asked if Katz wouldn’t rather be a winner with the linemen than a loser in the competition with the backs. Katz responded, ‘I’m not out here to outrun the linemen. I already know I can do that. I’m here to learn how to run faster; and if you’ve noticed, I’m losing by a little less every day.’”
Katz had his attention focused on more than just being the fastest lineman on the team. He set his focus on becoming the best football player he could be. Indeed, Katz became one of the heroes in Florida’s upset win against Alabama in 1963 and was voted into the University of Florida Athletic Hall of Fame in 2008.
If our goal in life is to be as comfortable as possible or to live a life that is perpetually happy, then we resent struggles that come our way. But if our goal in life is to become a better person—a person who is becoming more Christ-like and whose character is in keeping with the fruit of the Holy Spirit—then we look upon our struggles as opportunities for growth.
At least that is the outlook of James 1:2-4: “My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.”
The struggles that come our way are not fun, but if the struggles can help us to become better people, it is worth it to us to embrace them.
Consider what adversities have done in the lives of others: Bury a person in the snows of Valley Forge, and you come up with a George Washington. Raise a person in poverty, with multitudes of setbacks throughout his life, and you get an Abraham Lincoln. Strike a person down with a paralytic disease, and you get a Franklin Roosevelt. Take away a person’s ability to see and to hear, and you get a Helen Keller. Raise a person in the cruelties of slavery, and you get a Washington Carver or a Harriet Tubman. Lock a person in a prison camp for sheltering Jewish neighbors during the Nazi regime, and you get a Corrie ten Boom. Lock a person in prison for 27 years for striving against apartheid, and you get a Nelson Mandela.
Adversities are never fun, but in the midst of adversities we gain strength and wisdom and fortitude which are needed for us to become the best that we can be.
Booker T. Washington sums it up well, “No one should be pitied because every day of his life he faces a hard, stubborn problem…. It is the one who has no problems to solve, no hardships to face, who is to be pitied….. He has nothing in his life which will strengthen and form his character, nothing to call out his latent powers and deepen and widen his hold on life.”
Rick Warren adds words of hope in the midst of our struggles: “God never wastes a hurt! In fact, your greatest ministry will most likely come out of your greatest hurt. Who could better minister to the parents of a Down syndrome child than another couple who have a child afflicted in the same way? Who could better help an alcoholic recover than someone who fought that demon and found freedom? Who could better comfort a wife whose husband has left her for an affair than a woman who went through that agony herself?…. If you really desire to be used by God, you must understand a powerful truth: The very experiences that you have resented or regretted most in life—the ones you’ve wanted to hide and forget—are the experiences God wants to use to help others.” (The Purpose Driven Life, p. 246-247)
Glory Came to Live Among Us
Late one evening, a small voice penetrated the stillness of the night. It came from the bedroom across the hall. “Mommy, I’m scared!” the little girl cried out.
From the grogginess of sleep, the mother called back, “Don’t be afraid, Honey. Mommy is right across the hall from you.”
After a brief pause, the little voice came back, “I’m still scared.”
“You don’t need to be afraid,” the mother replied. “God is with you.”
This time the pause was longer, but when she answered, there was still fear in the little girl’s voice. “I don’t care about God, Mommy. I want someone with skin on.”
God heard a similar cry from a scared and lonely planet, so God came into our world in Jesus Christ, as God-with-skin-on.
John 1:14 expresses it this way: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory….”
The word used here to describe Jesus as living among us, eska’nosen, derives from the word ska’nos which means “tent.” Literally, John is telling us that Jesus set up his tent among us for a while.
This points our attention back to the “Tent of Meeting” in Exodus. When the Jewish people fled Egypt and wandered through the desert, they were anxious and afraid, so God called for a tent to be set up among them. The tent represented God’s home with the Israelites. During all their years of traveling through the desert, the tent was the visible evidence of God’s presence with them.
Still, there was a cry from our world for a God-with-skin-on, so God came in Jesus on Christmas day.
In doing so, God changed forever the dynamic between people and God. By becoming one of us, God understands us. By becoming one of us, we understand God.
God understands us: In the concluding chapter of his book The Jesus I Never Knew, Philip Yancey remarks, “The author of Hebrews reports that Jesus became a ‘sympathetic’ advocate for us. There is only one way to learn sympathy, as signified by the Greek roots of the word, syn pathos, ‘to feel or suffer with.’ Because of the Incarnation, God hears our prayers in a new way, having lived here and having prayed as a weak and vulnerable human being.”
Then Yancey adds, “As a doctor who works in hospice told me, ‘When my patients pray, they are talking to someone who has actually died—something that’s not true of any other adviser, counselor, or death expert.’” (p. 271)
We understand God: John tells us, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory….” Exodus tells us that “glory” filled the Tent of Meeting (Exodus 40:34) because God was there. John tells us that Jesus revealed the “glory” of God because in Jesus, God set up his tent among us.
In Hebrew, the word for glory was kabod, which comes from the word kabed, which means “to be heavy.” Glory had to do with how heavy something was. If you were mining and found a supply of gold nuggets, you would want to know their value. The way you would do that would be to weigh them. Glory had to do with the value of something, which was determined by their weight. But if you dug up a nugget that was a mix of gold and other minerals, you could not just weigh the entire nugget to determine its value. You would have to melt it down to separate the gold from other minerals. Kabod came to be understood as having to do with melting away the extra stuff to get down to the essential nature of the nugget. How much of the nugget is truly gold? What is its real value?
John tells us that in Jesus we see the essential nature of God. In Jesus we see what remains when all the extra stuff—the trappings of religion, culture, and tradition—is melted away.
What is it that we see in Jesus when all the trappings are melted away?
What stands out to me is love. In Jesus we see the purity of God’s love. We see one who was willing to learn sympathy by becoming one of us and by suffering with us. We see one whose love is unconditional, so he died for our sins. We see one whose love is invincible, so he rose from the dead for us. Jesus’ love is the glory of God—the essential nature of who God is.
Child of God
In the introduction to his account of the life of Jesus, John tells us that Jesus came into our world for a specific reason. He tells us that Jesus came so that all who receive him, who believe in his name, can receive power “to become children of God.”
Is that just a sweet, little Christian saying? Or does it actually mean something to become a child of God? Is there any real difference between being a child of God and being a subject or a servant of God?
In his book Freedom from the Performance Trap, David Seamands stresses that a world of difference separates how a servant approaches and deals with life on a daily basis, and how a loved child does. Seamands writes, “The servant is accepted and appreciated on the basis of what he does, the child on the basis of who he is.
“The servant starts the day anxious and worried, wondering if his work will really please his master. The child rests in the secure love of his family.
“The servant is accepted because of his workmanship, the son or daughter because of a relationship.
“The servant is accepted because of his productivity and performance. The child belongs because of his position as a person.
“At the end of the day, the servant has peace of mind only if he is sure he has proven his worth by his work. The next morning his anxiety begins again. The child can be secure all day, and know that tomorrow won’t change his status.
“When a servant fails, his whole position is at stake; he might lose his job. When a child fails, he will be grieved because he has hurt his parents, and he will be corrected and disciplined. But he is not afraid of being thrown out. His basic confidence is in belonging and being loved, and his performance does not change the stability of his position.” (p. 23)
The animated Disney movie Toy Story offers a glimpse of another difference that comes from being a child of God. Early in the movie, out of annoyance at the astronaut toy Buzz Lightyear, Woody, a toy cowboy, shouts at Buzz, “You’re not a space ranger! You’re an action figure—a child’s plaything.” Later, after failing to fly, Buzz realizes the truth of Woody’s statement. Grief-stricken and disillusioned, Buzz hangs his head in resignation and laments, “I’m just a stupid, little, insignificant toy.”
But Woody comforts his friend with a deeper truth. He draws Buzz’s attention to the love of the boy who has claimed them as his own. Woody tells Buzz, “You must not be thinking clearly. Look, over in that house, there’s a kid who thinks you’re the greatest, and it’s not because you’re a space ranger; it’s because you’re his.” As Buzz lifts his foot, he sees a label affixed to the bottom of his boot. In black permanent ink is the name of the boy he belongs to. Seeing on his foot the name of his owner, Buzz breaks into a smile and takes on a new determination.
When we become a child of God, God writes his name on us, marking us forever as his own. As soon as that happens our identity, our worth, and our future are made secure. There is no identity higher than being a child the Lord of all creation! There is no worth greater than being a child of the King of all kings. There is no future more certain than being a child of the God who is eternal and invincible.
As 1 John 3:1 declares, “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!”