Challenge. Some of us love it and some of us avoid it like the plague. Some seek it out while others try to structure their lives to be as minimally challenging as possible. The thing is, no matter how we try to conduct our lives it is impossible to avoid challenge. Since the Garden of Eden mankind has been faced with challenge and it has since been woven into the very fabric of our lives.
Birth itself is a challenge. As the child is forced out of the dark, quiet, warm, comfortable, and nourishing environment of the womb, his body undergoes pressure as he descends through the birth canal, squeezing the fluid out of his lungs as he passes, till he is pulled out into the cold, bright, loud world. The coldness hits his face and his reflexes cause him to draw in as he breathes air for the very first time. Some think it is the sting of the air hitting his lungs that causes him to cry and continue taking in air as he learns to breathe the much thinner substance that air is rather than the fluid he was breathing in the womb. Even before his birth his body was challenging itself, growing, exercising, practicing, building bone and muscle, to prepare for life outside the womb. If it weren’t for these challenges, he would not survive life past birth.
For some every breath of life is a struggle, but for most of us the physical trial of survival is the least of the challenges we will face in our lifetime. We live in a fallen, sin-filled world. We have an enemy that is jealous of our position with God and desires to devour us so that he can deprive our Creator of the joy of relationship with us. For some souls he is successful. For those who have devoted their lives to God, he has failed. The very fact that we who love God and know Him exist irritates Satan, our enemy. Our presence in the world makes him angry. So, he is constantly throwing obstacles at us, doing whatever he can to either destroy us, or at least render us ineffective citizens of God’s Kingdom so that we cannot influence new converts to join ranks with God.
Some brothers and sisters in Christ live under repressive governments that constantly persecute them for their faith in God and their witness to those around them of what He has done for them. For so many of them, their lives burn all the more brightly for the suffering they face. Each confrontation with the enemy simply provides more fuel for the holy fire that burns in the depths of their beings and they shine brilliantly because of it. For those of us who live in the West, however, we have no concept of what such persecution is like. Because of the freedoms we so often take for granted, it is easy for us to grow fat and complacent in our Christian walks, seeking our own comfort with more passion than our pursuit of God’s Kingdom. We seem to forget that we are God’s and not our own. That is the commitment we made when we surrendered our lives to His service, yet we often live as though our Heavenly citizenship is of no real consequence to us. I, for one, am very guilty of this. I have been to countries with repressive regimes and have had a small taste of what the Christians there face on a daily basis. Yet so often I find myself getting caught up in what material things I don’t have. I often strive to acquire more and more. It is, after all, the “American Dream”, is it not? I must constantly remind myself that I am first and foremost a child of God and everything else lines up behind that. I have to also remind myself that everything I do is to be for God’s glory, whether it’s changing dirty diapers or inviting my neighbor to church. That means everything I face should be done so with joy, not griping and complaining.
I often wonder what life would be like if no man or woman had ever sinned. It almost seems like we need the challenges that come with living in a fallen world to transform us into the men and women God desires us to be. Things that were once perceived to be lost are cherished all the more when they're found once again. Good food tastes better when we know what bad food tastes like. A pleasant smell is refreshing after our noses have been accosted with something that stinks. Cool water is most fully appreciated when we are hot, tired, and thirsty. True beauty is best revealed when contrasted with ugliness. Light shines more brightly when surrounded by darkness. The happy times of life are better treasured when we know what sadness is like. Life becomes more vibrant when faced with the realities of suffering and death.
Western Christians need to learn to appreciate and accept the challenges we come across in our lives. We need them. We need the exercise. We do live in a fallen world and without challenges we will die spiritually. Without something to overcome, we cannot be overcomers. So, God allows those challenges in our lives. I am not saying that He causes sin and makes bad things happen to us. I am saying that He allows us to face challenges so that we can become stronger. In an ironic way, our spiritual kin that live with constant persecution have it easy. After all, they can see their enemy quite clearly. They are faced with that enemy everyday and have no need to ask, “Why?” They know why. It’s obvious to them. I have read of one such man that escaped a repressive regime and came to live in the United States. He had criticized American Christians for their lackadaisical attitudes and lifestyles. In apologizing and confessing to his friend to whom he had ranted his criticism he stated, “I was merely afraid. I did not know how dangerous freedom could be… It is more difficult to live the Christian life under freedom than under repression.” *
For us in the West our enemy is much more subtle and more often takes us by surprise. We find ourselves facing challenges when we are quite unprepared. God needs us to step up to the challenges of our lives and face them with joy. We don’t have to like them, but there is no point in complaining about them. They will come. If we employ the proper attitude and face the challenges head on, we will be overcomers, and we will move on to the next challenge. If we try to avoid the challenges and become bitter and complain about them, we will find ourselves caught in a cycle. We will keep facing the same challenge over and over in one form or another until we learn the lesson through it that God wants us to learn. (And oh, I have I experienced that hamster wheel!) Or, the worst scenario, we will become casualties in the constant battle of life. Let it never be said of me that I am stuck in a rut or have become a casualty to sin. No, I desire to proudly wear the title of “Overcomer”!
On closing, I want to quote Ruth Bell Graham. In her book, Legacy of a Pack Rat, she relates the story of Captain Jeremiah Denton’s arrival back in the US after being released from years of imprisonment in Vietnam on February 11, 1973. They first thing he stated to the American public was, “We are honored to have served our country under difficult circumstances…” Ruth Bell Graham then says the following:
Is that how the believer will feel when he stands one day before God? Liberated from the earth and its struggles, will we say, “We are honored to have served…under difficult circumstances?
God has entrusted to some of His servants the most difficult circumstances, and without explanations. We can go all the way back to Job, to Joseph in Egypt, Daniel in Babylon, the early martyrs, and on into the twentieth century where, we are told, there have been more martyrs in the Christian church than in the entire preceding two thousand years….
A young man recently released from an oppressive, atheistic regime was visiting a Christian family. “And what was it like, being persecuted for your faith?” his host asked.
“We thought it was the normal Christian life,” was the surprising, yet candid reply.
I think he was right. It is we Christians in the West who are living abnormally. Personally, I am grateful for the “abnormality.” But if it doesn’t last, we must not question, complain, or be bitter. Instead, let us accept each day as the Lord sends it, living obediently and faithfully, not fearing what may come, knowing that the glory ahead will obliterate the grim past, and praying we may be able to say to our Lord, “We are honored to have served…under difficult circumstances.” * (emphasis mine)
* As quoted in Ruth Bell Graham’s Legacy of a Pack Rat. Oliver Nelson Publishers, Nashville, TN. 1989.