Why is Life Hard?

The overarching reason is always to know and depend on God more than you already do. This applies to people who don’t think ‘God’ exists as well as to those who are devoted to God. Whether a child of God or not, our need should drive us to seek God.

A more specific reason is that the pain and unsettling is used by God to change for the better the conduct and character of those who are his children. (Quoth James MacDonald as perceptive distinction, “Everyone is not God’s child, no matter what you hear on Oprah.”)

I’m writing this, once again, in accordance with the purpose behind this blog, which is to figure things out by putting it into words. Hopefully it doesn’t just help me. My small group at church has chosen to do When Life is Hard by James MacDonald. Initially, I resented doing a ‘book study,’ which seems somehow inferior to a ‘Bible study,’ but thus far this book has been showing itself solid, as each of the two chapters we’ve read are anchored in a significant passage from the Bible that relates to trials. It has already clarified my understanding of one passage in an I-can’t-believe-I’ve-been-so-blind sort of way. (James 1 on wisdom, btw.) I suppose that in a sense, this is a book review, but also a book summary, analysis and reflection. If you get a chance, read this book! The latter half may disappoint (I haven’t finished it yet), but I can tell you the first two chapters are great. Even if you are not currently in a trial, it doesn’t hurt to prepare your perspective because trials will come.

First ideas under consideration (backdrop of Hebrews 12:5-11)

It could be that a trial results from your sin, and the consequences are your correction. It may also be that the trial results from no fault of your own, but God still wills it to improve your character and let you display good conduct in it. That is one point MacDonald makes. Someone in my small group pointed out further that, even if your trials do not directly result from your own sinful actions, it still exposes your sin! So true. Furthermore, in considering trials as “discipline,” we also see that there is discipline for correction as well as discipline for training. Reactive discipline for correction keeps one in line, whereas proactive discipline keeps one in shape. You’re never in a place where you don’t need discipline, however good you are doing, because becoming ‘unfit’ in character and conduct is not an acceptable alternative.

MacDonald gave three principles to keep in mind as related to Hebrews 12:11, presented concurrently here:

  1. The pain is momentary (For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later)
  2. The profit is immense (it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness)
  3. The promise is conditional (to those who have been trained by it.)

Second batch of ideas under consideration (backdrop of James 1:2-8)

We like to ask why things happen. MacDonald deftly categorizes 4 types of why and defines 3 that God doesn’t answer and 1 which he loves answering. God doesn’t answer

  • The EXISTENTIAL WHY (Why do bad things happen to good people?)
  • The ULTIMATUM WHY (Why is this happening to me?!??!?!! Tell me why!!!)
  • The OBSERVATION WHY (Why is this not happening to him/her?)

God loves to answer The PERSONAL WHY of ‘Why did you allow this to happen – what do you want to teach me, do in me, and do through me?’

One stipulation: this fourth why cannot be asked with doubt, but with reckless abandon and willingness to learn and be changed as one who trusts the giver of wisdom to be wise about all that needs to be changed, whether you like it or not. I mentioned an “aha” moment about James earlier, and this is it. For some inexplicable reason, I had never before read James 1:5-8 as specific to trials, even though before it and after it James is talking about trials and perseverance in trials. Going against all logic, I extracted this “wisdom” section from the idea of trials to just mean a general need to be ‘wise.’ Read James.

Meanwhile, “don’t bail!” (I didn’t sign up for this.) “Don’t fold under the pressure!” (Take me Lord, just crush me and let me be with you forever.) Those are two temptations MacDonald mentions are common, along with complaining and/or lashing out. Anyways, I think Charles Spurgeon has a morning or evening devotion about this very cowardice of not wanting to remain under trials. We want to run away from our problems to the safety of death and eternal life with God. This is stupid. We actually need to stand firm and remain under to let God change us at the deepest level. “We think the answer is a new environment when the real answer is a new me.” Random examples I’ll throw out there:

Young adult angst: I want an adventure. I want to make something of my life. I need to go abroad and do something really meaningful.
Relational issues: I just can’t get good relationships going with my family / co-workers / spouse. I’m not ‘going there’ with mom or dad / I need a new job / I want a divorce.

We want to run away. Or we want to withdraw and let circumstances or other people change or pass over. We are like distracted, hyper puppies (“Stay…”) or like hermit turtles (I’m in my shell). It’s so hard to just stay and work yourself out. But how can we refuse God’s wisdom to change us with painful thoroughness yet seek God at the same time? And we ask why we keep having to work on the same things.

Flies or Children?

The following concerns how one sees oneself when unceremoniously dumped into a less than ideal situation: am I a dirty, hairy, worthless fly, or a beloved child dealt a painful but sobering blow?

In other words, am I with the stricken and woeful King Lear, infamously betrayed by two of his daughters while having unfeelingly rejected the third one who loved him? In his suffering, he says, “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods.” He seemed to think the gods tortured people for fun as boys tortured unsuspecting insects like flies, ants, etc. to sate their curiosity. (Apparently I have some fascination with Lear, as I found two other previous posts on this!)

If not Lear’s perspective, then might I have a more sober view of myself as one who could use some discipline, and a more reverent view of God than to see Him as a wanton boy looking for cheap curiosities and thrills?

The following passage from the Letter to the Hebrews makes me want to read it all in a sitting!

Do Not Grow Weary

[3] Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. [4] In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. [5] And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons?

“My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,
nor be weary when reproved by him.
[6] For the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
and chastises every son whom he receives.”

[7] It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? [8] If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. [9] Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? [10] For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. [11] For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.
[12] Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, [13] and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed. [14] Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. [15] See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled; [16] that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. [17] For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears.

(Hebrews 12:3-17 ESV)

3 Things of Interest

  1. I’m not that interested in my holiness, on a standardized scale. Perhaps relative to a handful or more of people I could think of, I’m more interested in my holiness than they are in theirs. Nevertheless, as the author of Hebrews points out (correctly), in my struggle against sin I have not yet resisted to the point of shedding my blood. Touché.
  2. To our benefit (in most cases), we receive painful discipline from our legal and loving guardians, a.k.a. parents. We also reserve our energies and thoughtfulness to express the painful truth to those we love, not to any old acquaintance. We expect nothing less than the painful truth from those we trust. (“Do I look stupid wearing/doing this?”) Shallower words are for shallower relationships. Hence, we can expect painful discipline from a holy and loving God who wants us to be holy, like Him. (Romans 8:28-30)
  3. Pain always sucks because it hurts. There’s not really a way to go around this predicament or sugarcoat it. But as for the pain of God’s discipline for the followers of Jesus Christ, his adopted children, at least we know that this pain will eventually yield the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.

1 Thing to Keep in Mind for the Rest of Life

  1. I am not yet holy enough for God to stop disciplining me. (Not even after next time. Or the time after that.)

I happily self-identify as a beloved child of God! I am no fly :)

Discipline and Punish

Positive reinforcement. Encouragement. Suggestions. Warnings. Consequences. Time outs.

Some educators and parents I have come across in Canada/North America tend to be more lenient than your average Asian (or other culture) regarding discipline. Some don’t believe in punishment. ‘Learning should be positive.’ Aye, instead of telling people what not to do all the time, we should be suggesting what they should do. That is a splendid way of being positive yet corrective. Still, I submit that punishment in the right context is essential for a good parent/educator:

  1. Punishment must exist in the context of unconditional love. (Love the person, not the behaviour.)
  2. Those subject to punishment must be made aware of the possibility and consequence of punishment.
  3. Punishment should take the individual into consideration. (What is the person’s track record?)
  4. Punishment must be proportionate to the transgression.
  5. Punishment needs to be reasoned, not emotional.

I am inclined to claim with confidence that punishment meted out from someone also giving unconditional love is more appreciated than tolerance from someone not giving an assurance of unconditional love. I feel this topic is too vast for me to expand upon with the amount of thought I have given it (some 15 minutes on and off) but that bold line, that punishment must exist in the context of unconditional love I believe to be key. Without unconditional love there is nothing to discuss as far as educational/growth related punishment goes. (Not really talking about legal punishment.)

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The system that God has going with us reflects all these things. Given, the ultimate punishment for sin (death) Christ himself suffered for us [1], but God allows suffering (a consequence of punishment) to take place in the world (suffering being the residue of sin/misbehaviour) for our good [2]. We are made aware of eternal life vs eternal separation from God through God’s revealed word, but even without it, we are aware of our mortalness [3]. God deals with each person according to the individual and everything we do is relevant. [4] God does not function according to moods as we do [5].

[1] This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. – 1 John 4:10
[2] For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. -Romans 6:23. More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope… -Romans 5:3-4
[3] Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him. -John 3:36
[4] Yet you say, ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’ O house of Israel, I will judge each of you according to his ways.” – Ezekiel 33:20 For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done. – Matthew 16:27
[5] “Give thanks to the Lord, for his steadfast love endures forever.” – 2 Chronicles 20:21  Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. – James 1:17

Disclaimer: This post has barely anything to do with Foucault’s text. I just wanted to make a literary reference to a text that gives a negative idea of discipline and punishment for the purpose of ironic juxtaposition.

Eternal Perspective // procrastination

It is always worthwhile to do work when assigned. (Especially readings.) It seems to me that it is a microcosm of the eternal perspective.

“Oh this is so boring I am going to have a pie party right now.” That is an attitude that focuses on the temporal moment, not the future. Of course, an actual eternal perspective is different even from this.

Procrastination (putting off till tomorrow) – maybe one of the habits more detrimental to an eternal perspective.

How difficult it is to be saved! [Isaiah 1]

Many people’s reaction to the idea of salvation as a gift for repentance is not wonder, joy, or gratefulness. Rather, it is one of doubt and skepticism. “That’s too easy.” “Well then wouldn’t you just keep sinning and asking for forgiveness?” The feeling is that it is kind of cheap on our part.

But one must really consider what repentance actually means. It is not just admitting “Oh, that was wrong. I feel bad for it, and don’t want to do it again.” Someone who repents must, by definition, also actively turn from that of which he/she repented. An alcoholic may decide to quit. She may stop drinking for a day. Or two. But would she last for three? During those first few days would she be living a normal life, or would she be constantly thinking of alcohol and reproving herself every time she did? When we sin it is like pure silver that has become worthless slag. When we repent, we decide we want to become pure again, and turn to God, the refining fire. He says “I will melt you down and skim off your slag. I will remove all your impurities.” [Isaiah 1:25] Meanwhile, people say that being melted down and purified by God is “too easy”! No, salvation may be free, but it is not cheap. It costs you your old, familiar, comfortable life. (Dirty and unsuitable as it may be.)

No, changing your life hurts alright. It is truly difficult. It is different from making New Year’s Resolutions. It means following your NYRs.

It pains us when we fail. It pains God when we fail. It doesn’t mean we don’t try. We do something bad, and think that whatever good we do can balance out the equation. But what is done is done. We have no power to erase that bad, that unique action, that we have committed. “I am sick of your sacrifices,” says God. [Isaiah 1:11] and I think here he meant to add, “So I will give you my own.” (And yea that means Jesus.)

Only God can forgive our wrongs. But only we can accept that forgiveness (and first we have to admit that we need this stuff.) Then we have to go into the next, unknown room. We have decorated and set up our old room, and turned on the air conditioning. But God calls us to the next, empty, hot room. We do not want to sweat out our toxins; we want to stay comfortable. But God wants us to sweat, and toil, and make something good of ourselves. In the process we will deck out the room too. Then we must move on again, until we reach the final room.