Guest blogger: Kevin McAlvey, Director of Community at University Reformed Church
You take stock of your life and things are going pretty well. Home is fine except for [insert child/spouse/recurring problem]. Work is humming along nicely or would be if only [insert client, coworker, boss, situation, task] weren’t present. Church is a wonderful place but [insert brother/sister/pastor/leader] always seems to be able to spoil that. A word of caution: be careful filling in those blanks too quickly. I am sure there have been people that would put my name in some of them at various times and it is likely the same for you. It is so easy to fixate on the challenges we encounter–not in order to overcome obstacles, but with an I-wish-this-would-go-away-so-I-can-be-happy attitude. I have found myself believing that I am only a few steps away from being truly happy if only I could change a few things in my life.
We should not be surprised when things are more difficult than they seem; as though we have been singled out for trouble. Scripture tells us there will be trials. After Adam and Eve had eaten from the tree in which they were explicitly told not to eat from, God described to them what their post-sin real life would look like. In Genesis chapter 3 God says:
Cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, til you return to the ground.
Not all of us labor directly in the field but we all live in this same cursed world. The same reality will be true for us until Jesus returns or until we return to the ground out of which mankind was created. Our labors will be mixed with pain, sweat, and thorns.
Working and living in such a world, we will encounter thorns. When these catch us by surprise, we are tempted to respond sinfully. But when we know these thorns are coming and are properly prepared, we can more successfully fight this temptation. There are at least three temptations we need to be on our guard against as we walk through this thorny life.
Painful, thorny situations do not necessarily mean that you are in the wrong place or with the wrong people. It doesn’t mean there will be no harvest or that it is all in vain. It is good to examine ourselves from time to time, and there may be things that need to change, but simply encountering problems should not prompt us to give up or bow out. Take heart. What you are encountering is not abnormal. Keep pressing on.
I complain more than I wish I did and am less thankful than I should be. I suspect many of you are the same way. We expect life to be easy and follow our particular plan. When life is hard, we get frustrated and grumble. Things may look easy for others or you may not get the respect and appreciation you think you deserve. Being caught off-guard by unmet, unrealistic assumptions of a pain-free existence can often lead to being disgruntled and dissatisfied. Instead, those who belong to Christ are exhorted again and again to rejoice and give thanks in all circumstances. Fight for contentment by focusing on all that you have been given in Christ. Be thankful.
In Matthew 13 Jesus tells a parable demonstrating how different hearts respond to hearing the message of God’s kingdom. The word is received by some but the resulting growth is choked out by nearby thorns, which Jesus says are the worries and cares of this world. Thorns hurt. Pain hurts. When something hurts, it screams for our attention. This is often a good thing, telling us we need to address something that is wrong. However, sometimes it can distract from what we really need to be looking at. When we focus on the worries and cares of this world we easily lose sight of that which we are actually working towards. Our goal becomes removing the pain, minimizing the sweat, or uprooting the thorns rather than reaping a harvest. We will not be able to remove every worrisome thing from our life and attempting to do so will become an endless exercise in futility. Whatever comes and calls for our attention, as Christians we are reminded to fix our eyes on Jesus.
Seeing Christ keeps us from complaining, it can keep us from giving up, and it keeps us from being led astray. In this life you will encounter challenges. The same was true for the one who left heaven to live among and save his people. He experienced the sweat of anguish—thorns pressed into his skin—and the pain of death on a cross. Because he suffered, we can trust him when we encounter thorns and we can look forward to a new reality where we will eat and live and work without pain. Press on. Work hard. Pull the thorns that you can and patiently endure the ones you can’t. In the midst of whatever or whoever comes your way, lock onto the one who for the joy set before him endured the cross, spurning its shame, and do not lose heart.