Robert's Sermons

Key Principles of Christian Living

6. No Pain, no Gain


Let’s begin by reviewing the first five key principles of the Christian life:

  1. He’s God and We’re Not
  2. God Doesn’t Need Us – But We Desperately Need God
  3. God’s Bidding is God’s Enabling
  4. What we Seek, we Find
  5. God Responds to Faith

Now the sixth key principle of Christian living is one you may not like much – but it’s just as important as the rest: No Pain, No Gain which simply means there’s no growth without struggle.

Because we live in a fallen world, nothing works the way it’s supposed to. Sin has stained every part of the physical universe and sin has deeply infected humanity. Things break. Our bodies wear out. We grow old and die. People kill each other. Marriages break up. Children get hooked on drugs or alcohol or sex. Babies are born with defects that cannot be corrected. Priests and teachers and family members molest children. Our friends disappoint us and we disappoint our friends. And the list goes on!

As the old jazz song from the 1930’s says, “Into each life some rain must fall.” This sixth principle brings us face to face with a reality that some Christians would rather not talk about. The Christian life is not easy.  Jesus did say that His yoke was easy, and His burden was light, but He also talked about taking up your cross daily, denying yourself, and following Him. He also said that the world hated Him, and the world will hate us too. There’s nothing easy about that. That being said, the Christian life is still the best life there is – because it’s the only true life. To know Christ is to know God and to know God is to know eternal life. Jesus said that anything you give up will be redeemed many times over in this life, and more in the life to come. (Mark 10:29-30).

The paradox is this: If you follow Christ, you must lose your life to save it. You must let the cross do its job in you every day to discover the power of the resurrection. You must die to yourself to find abundant life. You must reckon yourself dead to sin to experience the fullness of life in Christ. None of this is particularly easy to do. If you think it’s easy, it’s only because you haven’t taken the Bible seriously. Romans 7 speaks of a ‘war’ going on in the inner life of the believer. Romans 8:13 exhorts us to “put to death” the deeds of the flesh. Galatians 5:17 tells us that the flesh and the Spirit are continually at war with each other.

Christians traditionally have spoken of three great enemies we face: the world, the flesh and the devil. The world is ‘out there’ and all around us. The ‘flesh’ is inside and loves to answer the call of the world. And “ … the devilroams like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.” (1 Peter 5:8). No wonder the Bible says that “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). And that’s why Paul told Timothy to “share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 2:3).

The most sung hymn of all time, “Amazing Grace,” contains a verse that teaches this same truth: Through many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come. ’Tis grace has brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home. Truly, there are many dangers, toils and snares which come our way as we journey with Jesus. But this principle reminds us that those difficulties can be for our spiritual benefit. Spiritual growth is not instant or easy. There are no shortcuts to maturity in our faith. Football coaches have said this for generations: No pain, no gain. So here are four truths that help us think clearly about our trials:

1)  Because we live in a fallen world, bad things happen to all of us.

2)  We have no control over many things that happen to us or to those around us.

3)  We do have complete control over how we react and respond.

4)  Our response to our trials largely determines our spiritual growth – or lack thereof.

If I was to expand this sixth principle more, it would say: Struggle in the Christian life is inevitable, lifelong, and ultimately beneficial. We encounter God’s grace through our trials in ways that would not happen if the trials had not come in the first place. It takes a mature Christian to understand this principle, and ironically, it is this principle that makes us mature.

Many years ago, a mentor of mine told me: when hard times come, be a student, not a victim. The more I have pondered those simple words, the more profound they seem to me. Many people are professional victims, always talking about how unfair life is. A victim says, “Why did this happen to me?” A student says, “What can You teach me through this Lord?” A victim looks at everyone else and cries out, “Life isn’t fair.” A student looks at life and says, “What happened to me could have happened to anybody.” Victims feel sorry for themselves and have little time for others. Students focus on helping others so that they have no time to feel sorry for themselves. Victims beg God to remove the problems in life so that they might be happy. Students have learned through the problems of life that God alone is the source of all true happiness.

In the book of James we find many practical guidelines that will help us be students and not victims when hard times come our way. Here is one of them

James 1:2  “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds.”

James is reminding us that sooner or later (probably sooner) we will all face trials of various sorts. The word “face” has the idea of falling or stumbling over a problem. Picture someone driving down the highway in a convertible. The top is down, the music is blaring, and the driver is having a great day. Not a problem in the world, not a care or a concern. Suddenly there is a bump, a jolt, and the car comes to a sudden halt. What happened? The car hit a massive pothole and snapped the axel. Suddenly the happy journey is over. Life is like that for all of us.

No matter who we are or where we live, trouble may just be a phone call away. A doctor may say, “I’m sorry. You’ve got cancer.” Or the voice may inform you that your daughter has just been arrested. Or you may be fired without warning. Or someone you trusted may start spreading lies about you. Or your husband may decide he doesn’t want to be married anymore.

The list is endless because our trials are “multi-coloured” and “variegated” (the meaning of the Greek word translated ‘of many kinds’). How, then, should we respond to these hard times that suddenly come upon us? James offers what appears to be a very strange piece of advice: “Consider it pure joy.” That sounds so odd that you wonder if he’s serious. “Consider it pure joy? Are you nuts? Do you have any idea what I’ve just been through?” It does sound rather idealistic, if not downright impossible.

I confess to be being bothered by this many years ago so I decided to check it out in the Greek. Guess what the word translated as “joy” here really means? Joy. No help there – so I decided to check out some other translations.

One version says, “Be very glad” and another says, “Consider yourselves fortunate.” That didn’t help either, so I turned to my J. B. Phillips translation, hoping for some light (if not a way of escape). This is how he handles verse 2: “When all kinds of trials and temptations crowd into your lives … don’t resent them as intruders but welcome them as friends!”

I stopped searching at that point. I got the message. I think it’s the exclamation point at the end that does it for me. It’s not just “welcome them as friends,” which would be hard enough, but “welcome them as friends!” To me it sounds like he’s shouting with excitement, like he’s welcoming long-lost friends to his home.

As I’ve pondered this issue, and considered my own difficulties with this concept, the thought occurs to me that to “consider it pure joy” when troubles come is just not a natural response. If we want a natural response, we can talk about anger or despair or complaining or getting even or running away. It just isn’t natural to find joy in hardship. But that’s the whole point! James isn’t talking about a natural response. He’s talking about a supernatural response – made possible only by the Holy Spirit Who enables us to see and to respond from God’s point of view.

I suggest then, that to “consider it pure joy” is a conscious choice we make when hard times come and it’s probably a choice we’ll have to make again and again and again. And to do that, we’ll have to take the long view of life, to understand that what we see is not the final chapter of this story. If we can make the choice to view life that way, then we will always trust God when the trials come, knowing that nothing catches Him by surprise and even though God may not have ‘sent’ this trial our way, He certainly knew it was coming and only God knows how to use the nasty stuff in life to perfect us and transform us into the image of Christ, which is God’s will for us all.

But here’s a very practical tip. Don’t trust your feelings! When those you love are in great pain; when you face senseless tragedy or loss; when friends turn against you; when life tumbles in around you – your feelings won’t be an accurate guide. You won’t ‘feel’ joyful or grateful or full of trust. You are quite likely to be filled with a whole bag of negative emotions. Don’t judge your circumstances by your feelings. Judge your circumstances by the Holy Spirit and by the Word of God. When you do that, you begin to look at your trials very differently. Seeing things God’s way doesn’t cancel your trials and it doesn’t turn them into non-trials, but it does transform your responseand attitude to those trials. You will view them differently because you believe that God intends, through them, to give you a great blessing that could not come any other way.

I think our main struggle with this passage in James comes because we misunderstand the word “joy.” In our contemporary vocabulary, the word is virtually a synonym for happiness. Joy to many people speaks of a day at the beach or a great party or a New Year’s Eve bash. To us, joy means the absence of all pain. But that’s not what the Bible says it is. Joy comes from God – it is one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit in us. Joy emerges from a deep satisfaction that comes from knowing that God is in control even when my circumstances seem to be out of control. The key to joy is knowing that God is God and we are not and that as out of control as our life may feel, God has not taken His hand off us – not even for a second. If you know that, then you can be satisfied at a very deep level, even while you weep over what is happening around you or to you.

We also need to understand that excessive grief can be very selfish and when we turn inward for too long, it’s not healthy at all. There are many of us who make some disappointment, some loss, some grief, the excuse for shirking other responsibilities. There is nothing more selfish than sorrow, nothing more absorbing, if we let it. Serving others and God is our best comforter next to the promise of God’s Holy Spirit. And so, how can we go on when sorrow has paid us a visit? What shall we do when tragedy strikes, and we feel like giving up? Here are five suggestions:

> Remind yourself of the promises of God

Talk to yourself and forcibly call to mind the promises of God’s presence, His comfort, His divine care, and His declared purpose to mould you into the likeness of Christ. In the darkest hours, the promises will not come easily. You must do whatever it takes to feed your own soul with the Bread of Life.

> Give thanks for all the good things

There are times when thanksgiving seems almost impossible and sometimes even inappropriate. But even if you cannot give thanks for 99% of what is happening, focus on the 1% you clearly see and give thanks to God for that. There are always blessings to see – ask God to show them to you.

> Refuse to give in to bitterness and despair

Here I speak of the conscious choices of the heart. Too many times we speak as if we were involuntarily overwhelmed and had no choice but to be bitter, angry, and hostile. Or we had no choice but to give up our faith in God. Better that we learn to say, “I could give in to anger but by God’s grace I will choose a higher road. I could turn away from my Lord, but I will turn to Him.”

> Choose to believe in God

That means exactly what it says. Believe in God! Believe in His goodness. Believe in His love. Believe in His kindness. Faith is a gift from God, but it’s our choice to exercise that faith and believe in the goodness of God. If you want to believe, you will believe, and all of heaven will be cheering you on!

> Make up your mind to move forward

Grief is good and proper, and it is healing and even beneficial, but after grief has done its job, we must move on. The past is gone, and we can’t go back. Don’t even try. You can’t live in yesterday. The voice of God calls us onward toward tomorrow – He never calls us back – that’s Satan’s strategy! Let me share with you a simple principle which I call the First Law of Spiritual Progress. It goes like this:

>  I can’t go back 

>  I can’t stay here

>  I must go forward

Even if we want to go back, we can’t. And we can’t stay where we are. God’s call is always onward, forward, moving out by faith into an unknown future. This is not easy, but it must be done. And when we do it, we will discover a well of joy springing up to refresh our souls as we move forward with the power of the Lord.

James 1:3  “Because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance.”

Every word of this verse is crucial. The phrase “you know” does not refer to head knowledge but to heart knowledge, the kind gained by years of experience. Some things we learn from books, others we learn in the School of Hard Knocks. This lesson comes from daily life. God wants to put our faith to the test. The word “testing” here refers to the process by which gold ore was purified.

In order to separate the gold from the dross, the ore was placed in a furnace and heated until it melts. The dross rises to the surface and is skimmed off, leaving only pure gold. That’s a picture of what God is doing to us during our “fiery trials.” We all must do some “furnace time” sooner or later, and some of us will spend an extended time in the furnace of affliction. But the result is the pure gold of Christ’s character emerging in us.

Job spoke of this experience when he declared of the Lord, “He knows the way that I take; when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold.” (Job 23:10). What is God trying to do when He allows His children to go through hard trials and deep suffering? First, God wants to purge us of sin and to purify us in Christ. Second, God uses suffering to test and strengthen our faith. Will you still obey God in the darkness? Will you serve God when things aren’t going your way? Will you hold on to the truth when you feel like giving up? Third, God uses times of difficulty to humble us. When things are going well, we tend to get puffed up about our accomplishments. But let the darkness fall and we are on our knees crying out to God, a great place to be! Fourth, God definitely uses hard times to prepare us to minister to others. He comforts us so that we may comfort others. I know many Christians whose greatest ministry has come from sharing with others how God helped them through a time of crisis. Fifth, I believe God uses hard times to prepare us for a new understanding of His character. In the furnace we discover God’s goodness in a way we had never experienced it before.

Until your faith is put to the test, it remains theoretical. You never know what you believe until hard times come. Then you find out, for better or for worse. Until then, your faith is speculative because it’s untested. You can talk about the kingdom of heaven all you want, but you’ll discover whether you really believe in it when you stand by the casket of someone you love.

God’s great design is to produce “perseverance.” The Greek word here is sometimes translated as “endurance” or “steadfastness” or “patience.” In the book of Revelation, this word describes the faith of those brave saints who would not take the Mark of the Beast. So, it describes a certain kind of ‘battle-tested’ faith that stands up under enemy fire and does not cut and run. William Barclay notes that in the early church the martyrs gained the respect of unbelievers because in the moment of death, they had this quality. To the very end, they died with their faith intact. Of them it was said, “They died singing.”

James 1:4  “Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”

There is a process involved in our trials that leads to an end result. Perseverance requires work and faith and hope and dogged determination to hold on to our faith even when the world seems to be disintegrating around us. Perseverance says, “I will not give up no matter what happens or how bad life may be. I will hold on because I promised and because I believe the Lord has something in store for me.” The end result of such gritty stubbornness is genuine spiritual maturity.

When trials have finished their work in us, we will not lack anything. If we need faith, we will have it. If we need hope, we will have it. If we need love, we will have it. If we need any of the nine-fold fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23), it will be produced in us. The great danger is that we will try to short-circuit the process by running away from our problems. Eugene Peterson (The Message) translates part of this verse this way: “Don’t try to get out of anything prematurely!”  That’s good advice; but it’s not always easy to follow. So, when trials come (and they will come to all of us), we can’t always know why things happen the way they do, but we can know that God is at work in our trials for our blessing and growth and for His glory. To say that, is to say nothing more than the words of Romans 8:28. For the children of God, “all things” do indeed work together for good. Sometimes we will see it; often we will simply have to take it by faith. But it’s true whether we see it or not.

So, when hard times come, when trials fall upon us, or we seem to fall upon them, when the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune knock us to the ground, what should we do? Remember these two words. Pray and stay. Don’t run. Don’t hide. Don’t shake your fist at God. Don’t start arguing with the Almighty. And don’t waste time trying to make excuses or empty promises. Just pray and stay.

Pray: Seek God’s face. Spend time with the Lord. Listen for His voice. Ask God, “What are you trying to teach me? Speak, Lord, and I will listen to your voice.”

Stay: Wait. Be patient. Don’t try and rush God. Refuse to run away. Affirm by faith that God is at work even though He seems invisible, and your life seems chaotic.

The Christian life is not an easy life and any representations to the contrary are false. There is an abundant life to be had, and there is spiritual victory and there is joy in the Lord and the filling of the Spirit, but those things don’t come in spite of our trials. Most often they come through and with and alongside our trials. But in the midst of every trial, we are totally responsible for our choices and there are many we must make:

Joy or bitterness.

Forgiveness or anger.

Trust or unbelief.

Faith or fear.

Love or hatred.

Kindness or malice.

Temperance or self-indulgence.

Gentleness or stubbornness.

Mercy or revenge.

Peace or worry.

Hope or despair.

God is ready, willing and more than able to empower our right choices … but He will not be a guest at our pity parties; He will not indulge our wound-licking inward focus; He cannot empower choices which hurt us more and hurt those around us. His love will never fail us, regardless of our choices, but in the midst of every trial we face, the voice of God is calling to us, “Come to me … don’t run from me – and we will get through this together.”