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When Life is Hard
By James MacDonald, Jim Vincent
Moody PublishersCopyright © 2010 James MacDonald
All rights reserved.
What Are TRIALS?
I enjoyed athletics from my youngest days and played competitive basketball into my late thirties. Other than bumps, bruises, and sprains, I can't remember health problems of any kind. In my forties, yearly visits to Mayo Clinic were simply routine. At the end of my regular checkup in the fall of 2008 the doctor added these words:
"Your PSA (prostate-specific antigen) count has gone up again."
A review of the past four years revealed a pattern that finally got someone's attention. My count had gone from 1.3 to 1.8 to 2.2, then 2.7 and now was 3.1. Counts do fluctuate in men my age, but healthy men tend to have very low PSA counts. The regularity of this pattern had seemed significant to me, and I remember wishing the doctor had made a bigger deal about these counts earlier. But I also knew that PSA counts aren't always related to cancer, but can indicate other, less ominous health issues like enlarged prostate.
My doctor was now saying, "This is a problem, we've got to check it out further."
That meant scheduling a prostate biopsy. The experience was somewhere between a punch in the face and dental work without Novocain. Having a robotic pincer shoot through the wall of the large intestine to collect dozens of tiny specimens of the prostate produces an experience of core-pain unlike any other. I kept hoping that the level of discomfort I was going through was an indication of the accuracy of the test.
Days later, I was taking a taxi home from the airport when I remembered I hadn't called to get the results from my test. Just another matter on my to-do list, I thought as I called the urologist.
I reached him by phone, and with few preliminaries he said, "You've got cancer."
Such a small statement with such large effects—life-altering. In retrospect, I think many of us actually live expecting "the other shoe to fall" at some point. We realize at some level that we are not exempt from potential disaster, and we tend not to wonder if but when and how our number is going to come up. Those of us who know we are on the fallen world merry-go-round know that we won't get through life without some turns in the difficulty spotlight. But when the switch is thrown and the blinding light of a diagnosis like cancer hits us, the next moments are surreal.
There I was, alone (the taxi driver didn't need to hear my announcement), speechless (I immediately found myself thinking, Can this be happening to me?), and dumbfounded (What do I do now?).
When I arrived at home, I was still alone. The kids were away and Kathy was visiting family in Canada. The other realities in my life clamored forattention. I had to prepare a message and be ready to deliver it. I concentrated on that immediate task. But I don't remember the topic of that sermon.
After church, I met with my kids who were in town and brought them up to date. It was hard to tell them, but I felt I needed to keep them informed. We prayed together, and I listened to my children trying to put their shock and trust into words before God. Kathy arrived shortly and I told her—I had not wanted to share news like that over the phone if I could help it. Then I got on Skype and talked to my daughter Abby, who was away at college, and let her know what was happening in her dad's life. Those were difficult moments for both of us.
Once my immediate family had the information, the news began to ripple through the congregation. Suddenly, twelve thousand of my best friends were responding, calling, and praying. Their desire to care for me was both comforting and yet also an added burden.
I began to look at treatment options (mentioned in the introduction). I learned the cure rate with radiation treatments is almost the same as the cure rate with surgical intervention, without surgery's significant risks. I looked into various kinds of radiation and eventually chose proton-radiation therapy. This is cutting-edge technology that is still not widely available (which explains our journey to California). By God's grace our insurance covered this method of treatment and the next phase of dealing with this challenge began.
As a subtext (and perhaps a central lesson) in this episode, all these events happened in the weeks leading up to a planned trip to Israel. This was to be Kathy's and my first time in the Holy Land. The medical people advised me that the treatments for cancer could certainly wait long enough to enjoy a true trip of a lifetime.
Our intimate group of 170 friends walked and worshiped together in the places where Jesus spent most of His time. I was reminded over and over that God's plans were far greater than my immediate problems. That week in Israel allowed me to get in touch with Jesus' power to heal and sense His presence in an intimate way that built my faith for the months to come.
I discovered I had cancer in October. By the end of December, arrangements had been made for treatments in California. The study and sermons that led to this book began to take shape and an opportunity opened for me to preach in Pastor Greg Laurie's church near my treatment facility. If these lessons seem fresh, they are. I'm learning them and confirming them day by day in my own life.
As we lay a foundation for our study, let's establish some facts that you've just got to know about trials.
In the New Testament, the Greek word trial means to prove by testing; an event that demonstrates the genuineness of your faith in Christ and refines the quality of your spiritual life. So let's agree on this definition:
A trial is a painful circumstance allowed by God to change my conduct and my character.
My conduct—that's what I do. And then to a deeper level, my character—that's who I am.
Trials are about what God is adjusting in the actions I choose, and what God is doing to the character that helps me choose those actions. Several biblical terms for trials are actually interchangeable: suffering, hardship, tribulation, chastising, and discipline. Trials are hard times!
These hard times vary both in intensity and duration. Tribulation can take you by storm, fast and furious. Or a trial can stretch over months or years or, in some instances, decades. It can be small and irritating or huge and shattering.
The one thing we know for sure about trials is that everyone experiences them.
In fact, if you're one of God's children, you're going through a trial right now. Some size. Some shape. It is the most difficult aspect of your life: Is it physical? Is it relational? Is it economic? Is it emotional? Is it circumstantial?
A FATHER'S DISCIPLINE
Hebrews 12 is a great place to start answering our question "What are trials?" Read our Scripture passage on the first page of this chapter—better yet, open to this passage in your own copy of God's Word and track the flow of thought. Later you can write what you're learning in the margin of your Bible or write in the margins or the appropriate lessons in "Go for the Gold" (chapter 6) so you can return to these life lessons again and again.
Pick it up at verse 5b: "My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves.... It is for discipline that you have to endure.... For what son is there whom his father does not discipline?" (vv. 5b–7, italics added).
Sometimes when you're studying a passage, you think to yourself, I'm not sure what it's about. No room for doubt here. The subject is discipline, a term that describes God's involvement in the hardest part of your life.
WHAT IS THE DISCIPLINE OF THE LORD?
The word used for discipline in Hebrews 12 is translated teaching in Titus 2:11, 12a, where it says, "For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, teaching us" (NKJV). When our eyes are opened to the glorious truth that is found in Jesus, it is to teach us some stuff.
Discipline is training. It's instructing, like what parents do with their children.
DOES GOD SPANK HIS CHILDREN?
A couple years ago a TV network news program did a five-night feature on evangelicals. I just had to watch and find out what they think about me and my friends. Well, as you might guess, they totally didn't get us. On Thursday night, they did a feature on "the role of corporal punishment in childrearing." Right—spanking. So they got this "expert" on childrearing that said, "Nothing good could ever come from causing a child pain."
Now I'm aware and sensitive to the horrors of child abuse, but step awayfrom the excess and the evil and consider that statement in its rawest form: "Nothing good could ever come from pain" Really? Nothing? Like the birth of a child, or the renewal of a forest after a fire, or the signal that something is badly wrong in my health and needs to be attended to?
No good from pain? What about the salvation of mankind?
Fact: Pain is often a central part of God's purpose in this world. God allows and even causes pain in our lives. It's one of the tools He uses regularly to get stubborn sheep to greener pasture.
I'm fond of saying that "God's love is not a pampering love; God's love is a perfecting love." God doesn't say, "Here, Billy. Have some more cupcakes. Take the one with the extra icing." That's not God. Your grandma, maybe, but not God.
Are you saying that God spanks His children? Ah, yes, He does. The "expert" on the news program back-pedaled and said God only disciplined His children in the Old Testament. Well, welcome to Hebrews 12—"whom the Lord loves He disciplines" (v. 6 NASB).
For real! God spanks His children. He lifts the paddle and applies it with force in the hopes that the pain will bring us to an awareness of His deeper purposes. When He saved us, He started the process that He will continue till the day we die. Salvation is just the beginning. The only reason you're still here is because God is working on you. When His work's done, it's heaven for you, baby.
HAVE YOU FORGOTTEN?
Hebrews 12:5 asks a funny question: "Have you forgotten the exhortation ...?" In other words, "Have you drawn a blank?" "Where have you been?" If you look in your Bible, you see that part of the verse is indented, signaling that this is a quote from the Old Testament; Proverbs 3:11, 12 to be exact. Interestingly, this is the most frequently quoted Old Testament passage in the New Testament. Nothing else even comes close. Over and over New Testament authors quote this portion of Proverbs 3. No wonder then that the author of Hebrews asked, "Have you forgotten?" The writer is asking, "How could you not know this? This is critical information that cannot be neglected."
And here's the instruction: "My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord" (v. 5b). Don't think lightly of what God is doing. Go ahead and do some heavy thinking. A contrasting word is used nearby in Hebrews 12:2 in the familiar verse, "Looking to Jesus ... who ... endured the cross, despising the shame." The word despising is an antonym in the original language for the word translated here as regard lightly. Jesus despised the shame of the cross—He didn't regard it lightly. We can certainly be tempted toward shame in our trials, but we have Jesus' example to help us endure.
When God moves toward you to make some changes in your conduct and character, do not be casual or indifferent about His approach. Don't be sarcastic or blasé, As if it really mattered, or I'm getting kind of weary of this, or I don't think God really knows my limits, or the manifold number of nonsensical ways we communicate to God that we don't appreciate what He's doing in our lives. He's God! He's a Committee of One. He doesn't check with anybody and He knows what He's doing.
Don't take His work in your life lightly. Don't be flippant or casual or indifferent when trials come your way. If they are not already here, they are coming.
As an experienced pastor, I've seen the full scope of human hardship. No matter which part of those painful hardships is yours this moment, you cannot despise or regard lightly what the Lord is doing.
"Nor be weary when reproved by Him." The word reproved sometimes means to convict. The tone is intense, even harsh. When the goal is character transformation, God doesn't move toward you with kid gloves. He's coming in hard. He's taking it strong to the hole. You don't have to guess that He's around. Being reproved by Him is an intense thing; but we are not to be wearied by it as though nothing good was ahead. Over and over the Bible connects weariness and losing heart. When we are exhorted not to be weary, it is as if to say, "Don't get down about this. God has a plan, so keep looking up and expecting something good to come from this." When God comes toward you with something hard, that makes life hard, don't get down and give up, because "the Lord disciplines the one He loves."
Have you ever bounced a check? It's not a great day when that happens. You didn't have the money to cover the purchase to begin with and when the bank sends the check back, it has a fine attached! Good luck collecting on that. It's a circular problem, since one notice just follows another.
First of all, it's embarrassing because you didn't have the resources you thought you did.
It's frustrating because they tack on those extra NSF (not sufficient funds) charges.
It's difficult because you've got to work it out with the bank and work it out with the merchant. The whole thing is a huge hassle.
A trial is like a bounced check. You feel stuck with a problem that you don't have the resources to solve. The temptation is to rant to God: "Do you see me over here, God? Do you see that I don't have what it takes to get through this? Are You paying attention? I'm about to bounce a lot of checks here. I don't have the resources. I don't have it emotionally. You're rattling my faith, God. Don't leave me in this mess."
Those expressions of desperation you feel so awful about are in fact the exact truth that God has been trying to bring to your attention. You flat out don't have the resources. He wants you to come to the place where you get before Him in a deeper way and tell Him what's He's known to be true all along: you are in way over your head.
God is taking you to a new level of dependence, and He knows what He's doing.
WHY DOES THE LORD DISCIPLINE HIS CHILDREN?
Why does the Lord discipline me? Verse 6 says, "For the Lord disciplines the one he loves." Well, there you go. He disciplines you because He loves you.
You might be tempted to think, Well, if You loved me, God, you wouldn't leave me over here with empty pockets and bounced checks.
Let's get a better concept of love before we go on. Far from abandoning us when we're going through difficult trials, God moves toward us. Far from folding His arms; God is rolling up His sleeves. He's getting ready to do something in your life that you haven't previously been willing to let Him do. And He moves toward you. Isn't that good news? God is moving toward you. In fact, trials are proof of love. That's the point our Scripture is trying to teach us.
Never forget this: The motivation for God's action in allowing your life to become so hard is love. He loves you. His eyes are upon you. His attention is toward you. All of His thoughts are about you. The goal of all your pain is your restoration to a deeper sense of His love. But keep in mind that this is biblical love—a love that is willing to take you through a valley to get you to a hilltop. No pseudo solutions or quick fixes with God. He is going for change in you at the deepest and most lasting level.
I was blessed to have great parents. But they'd be the first to admit they weren't perfect. One time when I was eleven years old, my brothers and I were playing basketball at a schoolyard, maybe a quarter of a mile away from the house. Suddenly one of those summer storms came up and KA-BOOM!—huge thunder and lightning, and the rain poured down. Now, to an eleven-year-old, this was all swweeeeet. Basketball in the rain. But our dad was home alone, terrified for us. I get it now. Look at it outside. My boys—where are they!?
So first he was fearful, but not for long. Quickly fear turned to anger, and all I remember is before we ever got in the front door, he already had his belt off. I've teased with him about this, and how over the top he was, but now that I am a dad, I totally get it.
Excerpted from When Life is Hard by James MacDonald, Jim Vincent. Copyright © 2010 James MacDonald. Excerpted by permission of Moody Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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