It's been tough.
Over the past twelve months all of us have had to face our lives being turned upside down.
Whether it's in our work, our family, the pressure we are under or our sense of loss and being alone, there will have been times when each of us has leaned hard on our resources and wondered if we have enough strength to keep going. We have felt every negative emotion from fear and dismay to anger and frustration.
We have felt our powerlessness.
Our hearts ache for change or comfort.
We are tired.
But our present struggles are not the only ones people have lived through, they are probably not the worst and they are certainly not the first.
I have often looked back and wondered at how people got through things before. How must it be/have been to send your loved ones to war? What was it like to be a slave ripped from your village? or to live through the plague?
Going through hard times is nothing new.
At the start of one of his letters, the apostle Paul describes some pretty horrendous life experiences:
"We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure,
so that we despaired of life itself.
Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death."
2 Corinthians 1:8,9*
So what had he been through? From other passages we learn that he was shipwrecked - not once but three times, and spent time marooned on an island. He was a prisoner, and endured earthquakes, he experienced fierce opposition and had death threats - even having to escape for his life on several occasions. On top of all of the physical trials, he also carried a burden of work as his heart was heavy with concern for others who were struggling. He was concerned for the poor, but more for those who had no hope. He taught and sought to encourage and help people grow, to warn them from going in a wrong direction and build them up in their knowledge and love of Jesus. Paul certainly knew what it was to feel under pressure.
But what is so remarkable, is Paul's attitude to the struggles.
Paul doesn't shy away from them or pretend life is easier than it is.
Nor is he stoical with a stiff upper lip.
He isn't angry. He doesn't crumble under pressure,
or grumble and feel sorry for himself.
He stands firm because he is confident of God's help. He doesn't fear hardship or death because he knows that even if he were to die, his salvation would be secure.
Paul coped because of the real relationship he had with the Lord Jesus. He knew that Jesus had lived and died in his place to bring him peace with God, that his sins were forgiven, and he understood that nothing could change that. In facing the worst of all that this life could throw at him - the danger of death itself - Paul had nothing to fear.
"For 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."
Paul knew his safety and security did not depend on his own ability or strength, on his resilience or how well he handled life.
Paul's security was found in knowing that he was loved by God - with the immovable, unshakeable, unbreakable, sacrificial and eternal love that took Jesus to the cross.
Knowing that nothing can ever shake that love away from us should change our perspective when life is hard going for us too... shouldn't it?
The Bible offers us no promise that life will be easy - quite the opposite!
Before his death, Jesus prepared his disciples for what was to come. He warned them it would be hard, they would be scattered from their homes and even their lives were in danger, but that wasn't the whole story:
"the time is coming when anyone who kills you will think they are offering a service to God...
I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace.
In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
Even under the greatest of pressures, for the disciples and for us, Jesus wants us to have peace in him.
Nothing in the world can overwhelm
the one who has overcome the world!
Where our resources will, and do, run dry. Jesus offers us peace, security, strength and comfort in himself. No-one has suffered more than Jesus, who carried the weight of sin and death for us on the cross. History's worst has already happened - Jesus has died... but he overcame death itself! So the worst arrow that Satan can ever throw at us is a broken one.
But what does that look like for me in actual, real, normal life?
How do I know that there will be peace when I need it most,
or that I will be given the strength I need?
Of course we can look at Paul's account of his experience as evidence, but we can (and we should) also look to the experiences of others too.
There's a verse in the book of Revelation which shows how God's people are victorious in Satan's final defeat:
"For the accuser of our brothers and sisters...
has been hurled down.
They triumphed over him
by the blood of the Lamb
and by the word of their testimony"
We are saved by the blood of Jesus (the sacrificial lamb) and as we speak of that experience to others. As we testify to what he has done for us we show his power to one another - and that puts Satan in retreat.
When we hear how each other has faced struggle or suffering and yet known God's strength and power through it all it thrills our hearts. We are drawn towards him, and are given fresh hope. Just think about the last time you heard someone testify of God's help - didn't it warm your heart to hear it? We need to speak and share these things and not keep them to ourselves so that we bring honour and glory to God for all that he has done, and encourage others to trust him too.
Paul understood that. Look back at where we started, and how those verses continue:
"...But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead.
He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us again.
On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us, as you help us by your prayers. Then many will give thanks on our behalf for the gracious favour granted us in answer to the prayers of many."
2 Corinthians 1:9-11*
In other words, he and his companions were under great pressure and feared for their lives, but through it all God had a purpose...
God taught them to rely on him
it gave them hope that God would help them again
it enabled others to help them, through prayer
and brought praise and thanks to God
I wonder how we will reflect on this pandemic in the years to come. Maybe we will testify to others that through it all...
God taught us to rely on him
it gave us hope that he will help us again
it enabled others to help us through prayer
and brought praise and thanks to God
What have you learned through your own experience of walking with God?
Who might you encourage today?
*all Bible references from (c) 2011 New International Version