I remember I used to love going to church when I was growing up. Well at least I remember loving it at first. Everybody was so happy at church. Old ladies would come up to me and pinch my cheeks and tell me to smile because God loved me. I never knew whether they did that because they really wanted me to believe that or whether I had the fattest cheeks in the church. People were always so happy and nice at church. I knew that even if I had been bullied at school or things were crazy at home, I could go to church and feel good because everyone was so happy. I wished I could just stay at church all the time because everywhere else I went, people were mean and didn’t smile and didn’t pinch my cheeks and give me hugs. Those feelings didn’t last long though.
It didn’t take long for me to get burnt out on people telling me to smile because God loved me. I missed out on a lot of the Bible growing up because I only heard the preacher talk about things that were suppose to make me feel good. I heard about how we should always show people how happy we were and tell people how great heaven was going to be. To me Christianity was all about feeling the most happiness and least amount of pain. I thought I was somehow doing something wrong if I wasn’t feeling happy. As I began growing up, all the smiling people at church seemed fake. I thought they must either have been brainwashed or they smiled all the time to cover up the junk in their lives.
Now, 20 years down the road, I still see many people telling me to smile because God loves me. Now a follower of Christ, I know that I don’t have to go through life smiling all the time to know that I am secure in Christ. As much as joy was a part of Jesus’ life, suffering was just as much a part. It would be foolish to think that we can go through life without experiencing moments of joylessness and pain.
There are people in the Bible who went through unpleasant experiences. These experiences were part of their journey in the Christian life. They may have not reached the mountains in their lives if it wasn’t for the valleys they had to go through on the way to the mountains. Abraham despaired that he and his wife couldn’t have a child, and when he finally did have a child, he was told by God that he would have to sacrifice it (even though it was later found that God was testing Abraham). Job had his family, home and land destroyed, only to have his friends turn their backs on him. Daniel was thrown in a lion’s den. Paul had a “thorn” in his flesh that couldn’t be removed, and John was exiled to an Island. These aren’t just ordinary people from the Bible who experienced the hard knocks of life; these are the ones who Christianity was founded on. Yet, so many believers keep running from pain and unhappiness like it is counter-Christian.
I remember a couple years ago going through my own valley. The Christian life had become such a drag. I would read my Bible, pray, go to church and talk to people about Jesus just so that people would think I was being a good Christian. I couldn’t imagine what people would say if they found out that I wasn’t doing well. This burden became increasingly heaven, and it wasn’t until after a series of events that I started coming out of the valley.
For years I had said that I believed that we were sinful, but that God still loved us. Yet I had never truly believed it for myself. During those depressing months, I felt like I was loved less by God because I wasn’t feeling my faith like I thought I was supposed to. When I finally opened up and told my closest friends how I had felt, I experienced a freedom like I never had before. I felt loved by God like I never had before. I knew that no matter what bad thing I had done, God’s love for me didn’t change. I felt loved by my friends and family like I never had before. I didn’t have to do things to feel accepted by them. They loved me for who I was. These were things I had said that I believed, but hadn’t really until that moment.
It took going through some difficult times for me to experience God in some unique ways. I felt like I learned more from those few months of difficulty then the years of ease I had experienced as a Christian. I’ve been so resistant to difficulty in the Christian life, but now I want to be quicker to embrace it. Now I know that it’s OK to not smile. I don’t have to tell people that I’m doing good when I’m really not.
Difficult times will come in our lives. Yet difficult times aren’t an indicator that we’re not loving God like we should. God’s not distant from us or disciplining us when we aren’t feeling our faith. People in the Bible experienced difficulty, yet they may have not become the people they were if it weren’t for those difficult times. Daniel became highly favored by kings after enduring the lion’s den. Abraham became the foundation of the Jewish race after he and his wife were unable to have children for years. And Peter became the foundation of the Church despite denying Jesus. These are but three examples of men who experienced difficulty, yet also prospered.
We should read about difficulty in the Bible and take refreshment from it. We’re going to mess up, and we’re going to experience the hard knocks of life. Yet those things don’t affect our standing before God whatsoever. When Jesus died on the cross it was no longer our filthy deeds that stood before God, but Christ’s perfect righteousness that stood before God. Let us revel in the life that we now have because of Christ, and let us say along with Christian from the Pilgrim’s Progress, “You have chosen the roughest road, but it leads straight to the hilltops.”