Hard Things Are Hard

sunflowers_2167723_400One morning, a long time ago, I called a friend with whom I had not spoken in awhile. He happened to be at home. In fact, he was at home in bed, quite sick. My friend had one of those high-pressure jobs, the kind of job where almost any decision he made would inevitably affect the lives of others. He had just finished making some of those very hard decisions, and the stress of it all had made him physically sick. We talked awhile about all of that. Then my ailing friend spoke a phrase into the phone that found its way into the center of my life. Summing up the whole story of his heavy burden, my friend said this:

Hard things are hard. Sometimes life is just plain hard. You can’t escape it or get around it; you just have to live through it. Hard things are hard.

My weary friend unintentionally uttered the absolute truth in that sickbed sentence. After all, hard things are hard. You cannot escape life’s hard things. There are no detours around them or shortcuts over them. All the power of positive thinking you can muster will not take the hard edge off hard things. All the “silver lining in every cloud” clichés you can recite will not make that which is truly hard into something soft or easy. My friend was right. Hard things are hard. From where do hard things come? And what do we do with them when they come to us?

From where do the hard things come? Well, some of the hard things are our own doing. Some of the hard things are our own creations. We make wrong choices, and those wrong choices carry with them their own inevitable, inherent consequences and results. We really do reap what we sow, not because God needs to get back at us, but because our deeds carry their own results. Some of our hardest hard things are simply the inevitable results of our own sin. When we try to be something other than what God created and redeemed us to be, then our wrong choice, our sin, carries with it its own inherent, inevitable results.

So many of the hardest hard things in our lives are the inevitable results of our own wrong choices. If we choose to abuse our bodies, we then live with the hard reality of diminished strength and broken health. If we choose to break our vows of marital faithfulness, we then live with the hard reality of fractured trust and a fragmented life. If we choose to live day after day after day without ever pulling aside from the noise of life to talk to God, listen to God, and to put ourselves where God can have a chance with us, then we will live with the hard reality that there is simply no quiet peace, no clear direction, and no sustaining courage at the center of our soul.

Some of the hardest hard things in our lives are simply our own doing. The pain, the embarrassment, and the alienation that result from our sinful choices constitute some of the hardest hard things in our lives. Hard things are hard, and sometimes the hard things are of our own making—but not always. Not all the hard things can be traced to some sinful choice that we have made. Sometimes, the hardest hard things that come into our lives are things over which we have absolutely no control. Someone else makes a choice, and we get caught in the ripples, or trapped in the shadow, or drowned in the wake of their decision.

Those secondhand hard things are all around us. A madman on the other side of the world decides to oppress his corner of the globe, and a five-year-old boy watches his daddy board a ship for Saudi Arabia. Hard things are hard. A person with a twisted mind decides to do violence to another human being, and a stunned family carries with them for the rest of their lives the memory of a lost loved one and a scar that never fully fades. Hard things are hard. Someone decides to tell a vicious lie about a rival or an opponent, and a sterling reputation is turned black and blue by the subtle bruise of a rumor. Hard things are hard.

Hard things are hard, and sometimes life’s hardest hard things land in the laps of life’s most innocent bystanders. Hard things are hard. Some of life’s hard things are our own doing; we can trace them to our own sin. But some of life’s hard things are the far-flying shrapnel of someone else’s tragic choice, the far-reaching ripples of which engulf our lives in uninvited pain. And, then, some of life’s hard things cannot be traced to anybody’s sin—ours or anybody else’s. They just come. And when they come, those hard things are hard.

We can spend our lives trying to decipher the unresolvable mystery of human suffering. We can wrestle with the common question of “why do bad things happen to good people?” We can scan the scriptures with a magnifying glass, seeking guarantees of good health and exemption from trouble. (I have done all of the above!) But the truth is, we live in a world where bad things happen. We live in a world where there are germs, and diseases, and evils. The scriptures simply do not offer us the promise of insulation from pain, isolation from trouble, or exemption from hard things. Hard things are hard. And some of them come, not from a traceable origin, but as part of the mystery of life lived in a world where bad things can, and do, happen.

Some of those hard threads in the fabric of life are little, narrow, hard threads that stay for a day and quickly fade away. Some of those hard threads in the fabric of life are big, wide, hard threads that come to stay and never fade away. Big or little, long or short, though, hard things are always hard. They make you stop at the operating room doors. You listen to your three-year-old crying for you on the way to the tonsillectomy. Hard things are hard. That troubled paleness on the physician’s face turns out to be the prelude to some devastating words about the results from last week’s tests. Hard things are hard.

The boss says you cannot delay the transfer any longer. Move your family to the new city next month, or find another job. Hard things are hard. You realize that you cannot postpone the layoffs any longer, and you happen to be the person at the top. Hard things are hard. You know the layoffs are coming, and you happen to be the person at the bottom. Hard things are hard.

They call you in the middle of the day to say he fell from the monkey bars and you should meet them at the doctor. It is just ten stitches, but hard things are still hard. They call you in the middle of the night to say she finally gave up the struggle. She was eighty-four and ready to go, but hard things are still hard. The treatments burn his mouth, the nursing home hurts her pride, the doctors say “no hope” about your case, the nurses say “no change” about your husband, the judge says “no parole” about your child . . . and hard things are hard.

So, what do you do? What do you do when hard things are being their hard selves in your life? Perhaps we should matriculate in the classroom of Jeremiah and Paul for an education in how to handle hard things. After all, Jeremiah and Paul majored in hard things. Hard things were really hard for Jeremiah and Paul. They would have unanimously endorsed my friend’s assessment that hard things are hard. Jeremiah and Paul lived with hard things, not by pretending they were easy, but by telling their story and embracing their hope.

When Jeremiah and Paul told their story, they made quite a duet. Listen to Jeremiah as he cries out to God about his hard things: “Why is my pain perpetual, and my wound incurable?” And then, like an echo across a canyon, Paul cries back from the other side of the Bible and says, “We do not want you to be ignorant of the affliction we experienced in Asia, for we were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself.”

Paul and Jeremiah knew where to start when hard things were hard. They started by telling their story. Jeremiah told his story to God, and Paul told his story to his friends. They did not varnish it, dilute it, or pretend that it was easy. They did not try to camouflage their pain in the masquerade costume of evasive denial. They opened their mouths and told their story.

That is exactly where we must begin. You and I must learn the lesson that Jeremiah and Paul would teach us. Tell your story. If hard things are hard, then tell your story as honestly as Jeremiah and Paul told theirs: “O Lord, why is my wound incurable? Why is my pain perpetual? I am so utterly, unbearably crushed that I am in despair!”

If Jeremiah and Paul could go that far with their story, then you can go that far with yours. God has been around for awhile. You are not going to offend God with your story. You are not going to tell God anything that God has not already heard. Do as Jeremiah did, and tell God your whole story. Do as Paul did, and share your story with some trusted someone who will hear you and understand. When hard things are hard, start where Jeremiah and Paul began: tell your story.

That is where you start, but that is not where you stop. When hard things are hard, you begin by telling your story, but you continue by embracing your hope. After Paul told his painful story, he embraced his sustaining hope. Hear his words again:

We were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself, why, we felt that we had received the sentence of death; but that was to make us rely, not on ourselves, but on God who raises the dead: God delivered us, He will deliver us, and on Him we have set our hope that He will deliver us again.

When hard things were hard in Paul’s life, he opened his mouth to tell his story, and he opened his life to embrace the hope that God will do as well in the future as God has done in the past. This is our great hope.

Nothing has ever been more senseless, more evil, or more hard than the crucifixion of Jesus. But God took that darkest of hard things and turned it into the front edge of the greatest of good things. God raised Jesus from the dead. This is God’s world. In God’s world, the hardest, darkest, worst thing is never the last thing. The God who raised Jesus from the grave will do as well in the future as God has done in the past. Embrace the hope!

When hard things are hard, we begin by telling our story. We continue by embracing our hope. If we will tell our story with honesty and embrace our hope with trust, then we just might be able to do two more things. If, when hard things are hard, we will tell our story and embrace our hope, then we just might even be able to wring whatever good can be wrung from the hardest of hard things and then, having wrung the good out of the bad, walk on with hope into whatever is left of life.

Not long ago, I heard John Claypool tell an unforgettable story about a beautiful plum tree that stood for years in his grandfather’s yard. The tree was the prize of the farm. It was the pride of his granddaddy’s eye. One day a tornado swept across the southern Kentucky community where the Claypool family lived. The storm twisted that plum tree from its roots and left it lifeless on its side.

After the tornado had blown over, the neighbors began venturing out of their homes to survey the damage. By and by, a few of the neighborhood men gathered in the Claypool’s yard. They stood in a silent circle, gazing down at that once-beautiful plum tree, now ruined beyond repair. Finally, one of the men asked John Claypool’s grandfather, “What are you going to do with that tree?” After a long pause, the old man replied, “I’m going to pick the fruit and burn the rest.”

“I’m going to pick the fruit and burn the rest.” That means I am going to wring the good from this sad event and then get on with life. That really is the only honest response to life’s wounds, storms, losses, and pains: pick the fruit and burn what is left. When hard things are hard, if we will tell our story and embrace our hope, then we just might be able to pick the fruit from the hard thing, burn the rest, and get on with life.

Pick the fruit: take from the awful experience whatever new sensitivities to others you may have learned. Pick the fruit: take from the dreadful disappointment whatever new insights into life you might have gained. Pick the fruit: take from the painful loss whatever new discoveries you might have made about the sustaining presence of God. Pick the fruit, and then burn the rest. Hard things are hard. Hard things will find their way into my life and yours. When they come, what will we do? We will tell our story. We will embrace our hope. Who knows, we might even be able to pick the fruit, burn the rest, and walk on with hope into whatever is left of life with the God who raised Jesus Christ from the grave! This is our hope! Amen.

This post originally appeared as Chapter 3 of Don’t Cry Past Sunday.

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