Coping with Life’s Challenges
President John F. Kennedy, in his speech accepting the Democratic nomination in Los Angeles (on 15 July 1960) said, ‘We stand today on the edge of a new frontier… but the new frontier of which I speak is not a set of promises – it is a set of challenges. It sums up not what I intend to offer the American people, but what I intend to ask of them.’
Life is a set of challenges, problems and hassles. We sometimes imagine that if we could just deal with the immediate challenge that we are facing, all our problems would be over. But life is not like that. If we resolve one problem, others are just around the corner.
The temptation is to see these challenges as preventing us from carrying out the ministry God has given us. In actual fact, dealing with the problems is the ministry. As one former Bishop of Kensington put it: ‘These are not the problems associated with the ministry, they are the ministry.’
The Bible is true to life. The psalmist faced pain and distress. Paul faced false accusation and the frustration of being kept in prison on trumped up charges. The kings in the Old Testament faced battles and a massive building project challenge.
As I read the passages for today, I am reminded that the relatively minor challenges, problems and hassles that I face are nothing compared to what the people of God have faced in the past, and still face around the world today.
1. Talk to God about the problems
Psalm 81:1-7Are you in a time of testing? God sometimes allows us to be tested, as he allowed his people to be tested by the waters of Meribah (v.7, see also Numbers 20). But he does not want you to face the tests and challenges of life alone. You can talk to him about your problems.
God says, ‘I removed the burden from their shoulders… In your distress you called and I rescued you’ (vv.6a–7a). Or as The Message puts it:
‘I took the world off your shoulders,
freed you from a life of hard labour.
You called to me in your pain;
I got you out of a bad place’ (vv.6–7a, MSG).
We are reminded of the importance and power of prayer. Whatever situations or difficulties you may face, you can bring them to God in prayer.
God removed their burdens and rescued them in their distress. The psalmist starts, therefore, with worship, celebration and joy: ‘Sing for joy to God our strength!’ (v.1).
Lord, thank you that you are my strength and joy as I face challenges and problems in life. Thank you that you remove the burden from my shoulders. Thank you that I can call on you in my distress and that you rescue me. Lord, I call on you today to rescue me from…
2. Trust that God is in control
Acts 25:1-22Faith means trusting God. ‘Faith’, as C.S. Lewis wrote, ‘is the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods.’ It is hard to trust God when everything seems to be going wrong.
Luke records Paul’s trial in a very objective and unemotional way. This must have been an extraordinarily frustrating time for Paul. This great leader of the church, evangelist and teacher is locked away, apparently unable to exercise the ministry, to which he has been called by God. He is in custody, enduring the physical constraints and discomfort of imprisonment, such as poor diet and lack of hygiene.
Serious charges are brought against Paul (vv.1–7). He defends himself by pointing out that he has done ‘nothing wrong’ (vv.8,10). But Festus was more interested in what people thought (v.9) than in what was right. He was more concerned about popularity than justice. In the end, Paul appeals to Caesar (v.11).
When King Agrippa arrives, Festus discusses Paul’s case with him. Festus says, ‘When his accusers got up to speak, they did not charge him with any of the crimes I had expected. Instead, they had some points of dispute with him about their own religion and about a dead man named Jesus whom Paul claimed was alive’ (vv.18–19).
This reminds us that the resurrection of Jesus should always be at the heart of the message we proclaim. The only accusation that could be made to stick was that Paul was preaching that Jesus was alive, yet numerous other accusations and false charges had been brought against him.
For Paul, in the midst of all these difficulties and frustrations, it must have been very hard to see what good might possibly come out of all the dishonesty, delays and dithering in his trials. Yet, as always, God was at work for good. As Paul himself wrote, ‘We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose’ (Romans 8:28).
First, in the short term, it resulted in an opportunity for Paul to speak to Agrippa. After hearing all about Paul, Agrippa said to Festus, ‘I would like to hear this man myself’ (Acts 25:22). In times of frustration and hassle you never know when opportunities may appear, but sometimes they do.
Second, in the medium term, it resulted in Paul being sent to Rome. Paul had expressed his desire to go to Rome to preach the gospel (see Acts 19:21, Romans 1:15, 15:23), and the Lord himself had spoken to Paul saying that he would testify in Rome (Acts 23:11). It was because of what took place in Paul’s defence of himself that he was eventually sent to Rome.
Third, in the long term, 2,000 years later, vast numbers of people have read Paul’s story and been encouraged to know that he too faced false imprisonment, accusations and criticism. I suspect that Paul would have been astonished in the midst of all these difficulties to know how much good was going to come of them. You may never know, in this life, how God uses your faithfulness in the face of challenges.
Lord, thank you that you are with us whenever we face accusation and criticism, from colleagues at work or the press or wherever else it might be. Thank you that through all of these frustrations of life you work together for the good of those who love you and are called according to your purpose (Romans 8:28).
3. Take every opportunity that God gives you
2 Kings 12:1-14:22In the middle of this rather depressing history of the kings of Israel and Judah, there is an incident in the life of Elisha that encourages us to take every opportunity that God gives us, to be persistent and never give up.
Leaders are a mixed bag. Some do ‘evil in the eyes of the Lord’ (13:2,11). Some do ‘right in the eyes of the Lord’ (14:3).
God is extraordinarily gracious and when Jehoahaz, who did evil in the eyes of the Lord, ‘sought the Lord’s favour… the Lord listened to him’ (13:4). Whenever you seek the Lord’s favour he listens to you.
In this list of Israel’s leaders Joash was probably the best example. He ‘did what was right in the eyes of the Lord’ (12:2), even if it was only for part of his reign.
Joash took on a building project. Like many projects, it took far longer than he expected: ‘But by the twenty-third year of King Joash the priests still had not repaired the temple’ (v.6). The king calls a meeting and asks, ‘Why aren’t you repairing the damage done to the temple?’ (v.7).
They do eventually get on with the work. They collect the money they need (v.11). They all acted with complete honesty (v.15) and progress was made.
Of course, today God’s temple is no longer primarily a physical building but the people of God. Our money and effort should go into building up the people of God – in number (evangelism), in maturity (discipleship) and in care for the community (social transformation). However, sometimes we need buildings for this and it is not wrong to spend money on the infrastructure of church when necessary.
As well as the challenge of buildings, the people of God faced the challenge of battles. In particular, in this passage we see how they had to face Aram. Elisha says to the king of Israel, ‘Get a bow and some arrows… Take the arrows… Strike the ground’ (13:15–18). The king ‘struck it three times and stopped’ (v.18c). Elisha said, ‘You should have struck the ground five or six times; then you would have defeated Aram and completely destroyed it. But now you will defeat it only three times’ (v.19).
I remember reading these verses in 1999 after we had done the first Alpha initiative in 1998, inviting the nation to Alpha to hear the good news about Jesus. We were wondering whether to do a second initiative or wait another year or so. I sensed as I read these verses that we should keep on striking the ground again and again.
Whatever challenges you’re facing today, keep praying, keep trusting, keep looking for opportunities to serve God and never, ever give up!
Lord, as we face battles ahead, give us a determination not to give up but to persevere and carry through to the end.
May peace of God be with you all,