Life isn’t easy, says Steve Chalke, our trouble is that we think it should be
‘When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions,’ reads the famous line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. We all encounter times when life feels like a long, desperate, futile struggle; times when we find ourselves running on empty. We feel overwhelmed by what seems like nothing more than a pointless effort to fulfil endless responsibilities and commitments with no motivation left except a sense of duty.
Our mistake, however, is to think that it should be different, that life should be plain sailing, with nothing more than an occasional patch of choppy sea to navigate. We somehow convince ourselves that everyone else is on an even keel and that it is only us who are being picked on and singled out for rough treatment. We too easily conclude that we are the only ones who are experiencing trouble at the helm. But the truth of life is far messier and complicated than that.
A young boy wants a horse. The boy is given a horse for his fourteenth birthday. The apprentice says, “How wonderful.” The teacher says, “We’ll see.” The boy falls off his horse and breaks his leg. The apprentice says, “How terrible.” The teacher says, “We’ll see.” A war breaks out but the boy does not have to go to fight because his leg is broken. The apprentice says, “How wonderful.” The teacher says, “We’ll see…”
“Life is difficult,” wrote M Scott Peck in his famous book The Road Less Travelled. “This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths… Most do not fully see this truth that life is difficult. Instead they moan more or less incessantly, noisily or subtly, about the enormity of their problems, their burdens, and their difficulties as if life were generally easy, as if life should be easy. They voice their belief, noisily or subtly, that their difficulties represent a unique kind of affliction that should not be and that has somehow been specially visited upon them, or else upon their families, their tribe, their class, their nation, their race or even their species, and not upon others. I know about this moaning because I have done my share.”
So make no mistake. When our experience doesn’t measure up to our expectations, most commonly, the problem isn’t our experience – the problem is our expectations. As the great theologian Jürgen Moltmann concluded in his book The open church: invitation to a Messianic lifestyle, “The more passionately we love life, the more intensively we experience the joy of life. The more passionately we love life, the more we also experience the pain of life.”
Ironically, it is in these crushing pain filled moments, that God – along with everyone else – can seem strangely distant. If life is a journey, it often feels like a solitary trek up a very dark, steep hill. It is in this context that Paul, writing to the followers of Christ in the city of Rome (not the most comfortable place to be known as a Christian at the time) encourages his friends:
“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?…I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:35, 38–39).
Paul is a realist. Therefore, his encouragement for the Romans, and indeed for every apprentice of Christ, is not that hardship, setback and disappointment will not come our way or that because we are Christians we will somehow avoid trouble and always feel the closeness of God. In fact, Paul knows that the opposite is often true. So instead, while he clearly assumes that trouble, hardship, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, sword and death not only can but do happen, he reminds us of what he has learnt through the troubles he has faced – that even these cannot separate us from the love of Christ.
Paul is not running away from reality. He knows that life is a demanding journey. He recognises that its landscape includes easily as many dark valleys as it does mountaintop highs and that much of the journey is simply about having the raw courage to keep going. If M Scott Peck teaches us that life is difficult, Paul’s point is still deeper. Choosing to live intentionally following the way of Christ only increases life’s challenge. He understands that there is a further dimension to the struggle of every apprentice of Christ. Though Christ walks the journey of life with each of us, he also calls each of us to walk with him. Jesus had a particular way of talking about this. “If anyone would come after me,’ he said, “he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). And, to emphasise the importance of the point, in Luke 14:27 he adds: “Anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”
This is the task of every apprentice of Christ – during times of struggle – to keep struggling. There are times for each one of us when it seems as if hope itself has been snuffed out. It is in these moments that we are called to keep walking.
The honest prayer of Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk and one of the most acclaimed writers on spirituality of the twentieth century, reads this way:
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does, in fact, please you. And I hope that I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always, though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.