Should the Christian Life be Easy?



"We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God." Acts 14:22

Jesus came, not just to give eternal life to those who believe in him, but to give us a life here on earth that is fuller, more abundant (John 10:10). I believe our life on earth as Christians should be, and is, a life that is full of hope, joy, peace, love, richness and fulfillment. In this confusing world, there is great assurance in knowing that our life is founded on the eternal truths of God. There is also great assurance in knowing that, with God's aid, we can be overcomers, more than conquerors (1 John 5:4-5; Romans 8:37). (Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are to the New International Version, and any emphasis has been added.)

But this does not mean that the Christian life is easy. It means that it is possible and it is worth the effort.

Jesus told us, "In the world you will have trouble" ("tribulations" KJV). Then he added, "But take heart! I have overcome the world" (John 16:33) He told us to expect persecution. (Matthew 5:11-12, 44; 10:23, 13:21; Mark 10:30; John 15:20). He told us that the world would hate us (John 15:18-19).

He also told us to count the cost of following him (Luke 14:25-33). He said anyone who would be his disciple must "carry his cross and follow me" (v. 27). "Any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple" (v. 33).

In the first century A.D. being a Christian was not easy. Christians were often persecuted. Many were put in the arena to be eaten by wild beasts; some were killed in various other ways, often quite painfully. Of the 12 original disciples, ten, it is generally believed, died as martyrs. Only John, who endured much, died a natural death. Paul's life was not easy. He was flogged five times, beaten with rods three times, stoned and left for dead, shipwrecked three times, attacked by robbers (2 Corinthians 11:23-29); he is believed to have been executed as a martyr. He wrote, "We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed" (2 Corinthians 4:8-9). Peter wrote, "Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial that you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you" (1 Peter 4:12).

Today, Christians suffer severe persecution in Communist countries, in many Muslim countries, and elsewhere. Many Chinese pastors have spent 20 or 25 years in jail, and are constantly threatened with reimprisonment. In Indonesia, Nigeria, India and other countries, large numbers of Christians have been assaulted and killed by Muslims or Hindus. In Sudan, many Christians (especially young girls) have been enslaved, many have been killed, and there are reports that some have been crucified. It is said that more Christians have died for their faith in the 20th century, than in all the rest of the history of Christianity. We in the West cannot assume that we will be immune from such persecution.

What is the situation in those parts of the world where the Christian church is not enduring persecution?

There are some who seem to think that, once someone accepts Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior, their problems are over and life becomes much easier. Sometimes, and to a limited degree, this may be true. There have been cases where someone, immediately upon receiving Jesus Christ, was instantly freed of an addiction to drugs, alcohol, or tobacco, or freed from some other stubborn problem. All things are possible for God. But this is not common, and even in the cases where it occurs it does not necessarily mean that all of a person's problems are dealt with.

Usually, however, those who come to Jesus Christ find that they continue to have the same problems to deal with. But they now have some powerful resources to help them deal with them, so that what before may have seemed impossible now becomes possible.

In some ways, indeed, life often seems to become more difficult after we come to accept Jesus Christ. Later in this paper I shall consider why that is so.

Jesus never promised us that life as a Christian would be easy. He promised that it would be possible and that it would be rewarding.

It is remarkable how often Scripture uses words of effort and striving to describe the Christian life. We are told to "run with perseverance the race marked out for us" (Hebrews 12:1). It is by "persevering" that we bear fruit (Luke 8:15). We are told to "make every effort" (see, for example, Hebrews 12:14; Luke 13:24). "Forceful men lay hold of" the kingdom of God (Matthew 11:12). Men "should always pray and not give up" (Luke 18:1). It is the one who "overcomes" who wins a reward (Revelation 2:7). Paul said, "straining towards what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me" (Philippians 3:13-14). He wrote to Timothy, "Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith" (1 Timothy 6:11-12). This does not sound like an easy life. But it can be joyous one.

Let us look at some of the reasons why the Christian life can be difficult.

1. We live in a flawed world.

When God created the heavens and the earth he saw that they were good. But then man (in the persons of Adam and Eve) exercised wrongly the free will that God had given him. Man chose to disobey God and to do things his way rather than God's way. The result was that sin, pain, suffering and death came into the world. There will be a time in which there will be "no more death or mourning or crying or pain" (Revelation 21:4). But that time has not yet come.

Meanwhile, God usually does not take the trouble away; he helps us deal with it. "God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear..." (Psalm 46:1-2). Rather than take away the trouble, he enables us to keep going when we are in the trouble. When we are in the valley of the shadow of death, he is with us (Psalm 23:4). "Though I walk in the midst of trouble, you preserve my life" (Psalm 138:7). God has said, "When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze" (Isaiah 43:2). God did not save the three young Hebrew men from being thrown into the fiery furnace; but he was there with them and protected them from harm (Daniel 3:16-30).

The Psalms are full of passages in which the Psalmist is discouraged, weighed down, in trouble, in pain, almost in despair. "Why are you cast down, Oh my soul" (Psalm 42:5 KJV). "Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord" (Psalm 130:1). In every case, he finds strength in God.

I believe God allows us to go through difficulties partly so that we will rely on him and not on our own strength. "Trust in the Lord with all your heart" (Proverbs 3:5). "Be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power" (Ephesians 6:10). God told Joshua, "Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go" (Joshua 1:9). Paul wrote, of his trials in the province of Asia (now part of Turkey), "We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death. 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. On him we have set our hope" (2 Corinthians 1:8-10).

I believe God also allows it because our character is strengthened in adversity.

2. God uses adversity to build our character.

Receiving Jesus Christ is the start of a process. God wants to change our character. One of the most important passages in Scripture is Romans 12:2: "Be transformed by the renewing of your mind." The goal of this transformation is nothing less than to become like God in character (see 2 Corinthians 3:18). We are to "put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness" (Ephesians 4:24), the "new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator" (Colossians 3:10). We can "participate in the divine nature" (2 Peter 1:4). We cannot expect to achieve such a tremendous goal without effort and struggle.

The process by which God produces a changed character is not easy. It has been described in various ways. It may be compared to a sculptor, who chips away at wood or stone with hard instruments until he achieves the result he seeks. It may be compared to a jeweler who cuts and polishes until he has a beautiful gem, or to a very hot refiner's fire which brings the impurities in molten metal to the surface so that they can be removed. Jesus compared it to a vinedresser, who prunes sharply so that the vines will bear more fruit (John 15:2). Some have compared it to the intense heat and pressure by which coal is turned into a diamond. Whatever the image, the process can be painful.

The Greek word translated "transformed" is metamorphoo. It speaks of a total transformation like that of a caterpillar into a butterfly. As I understand it, in the chrysalis the caterpillar, including even its internal organs, is dissolved and a new creature emerges. It is almost like a death and rebirth. Scripture uses this kind of imagery. It tells us to "put off your old self" and "put on the new self" (Ephesians 4:22-23; Colossians 3:9), to "put to death what belongs to your earthly nature" (Colossians 3:5). Paul wrote, "I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me" (Galatians 2:20). We cannot expect that dying to the old self will be easy.

Sometimes we can see this process as God acting directly to discipline and train us. "Those whom I love, I rebuke and discipline" (Revelation 3:19; see Proverbs 3:11-12). "God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it" (Hebrews 12:10-11).

At other times we can see it as God allowing adversity and using it to build our character. "Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you encounter trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything" (James 1:2-4). Paul wrote, "We also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us" (Romans 5:3-5; see also 1 Peter 1:6-7).

We can often see the process by which God works. If we need to learn patience, God may allow situations that test our patience. If we lack faith, God may allow situations that we cannot handle in our own strength so that we have to depend on him. If we need to learn love, God may bring into our lives people who are difficult to love. If we want to be victorious, we will have to fight battles. Many more examples could be given. God uses testing and difficulty to develop strength and maturity in his people. The process is seldom easy or pleasant, but the result is worth it.

3. The inner battle.

When we receive Jesus as our Lord and Savior, the Holy Spirit takes up residence inside us. Then a struggle begins. There is an inevitable conflict between the Holy Spirit, who inhabits our spirit, and what Scripture calls our flesh. Our flesh is much more than our sexual desires .It includes such things as bitterness, unforgiveness, apathy, self-centeredness, pride, and much else. It is everything that needs to be, and does not want to be, changed. The flesh does not give up easily. Scripture calls this conflict warfare. It is an inner battle which is not over until the spirit has won. We must fight this battle. If we try to cover it over or ignore it, we will be among those who say "peace, peace" when there is no peace (Jeremiah 8:11).

Peter tells us to "abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul" (1 Peter 2:11). Paul writes, "Live by the Spirit and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want" (Galatians 5:16-18; see Romans 8:5-14). "For in my inner being I delight in God's law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members" (Romans 7:22-23). I believe Paul spoke of this internal warfare again when he told us that "we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with... have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ" (2 Corinthians 10:3-5). I believe Paul is here talking primarily about inner mental strongholds (mindsets and fixed conceptions), about pretensions that set themselves up in our minds against the knowledge of God, and about our thoughts. He is talking about what goes on in our minds, which is where the inner struggle is concentrated.

This inner struggle starts when we accept Jesus Christ. Until then there was little struggle. Our flesh was in control. But once the Holy Spirit enters our spirit a struggle begins. The struggle can be long-continued, arduous and painful. Only when it is resolved can we find the true peace of God. In this sense, our life after coming to Jesus Christ can seem more difficult than it was before.

4. Spiritual warfare.

Our struggle is not just with our own flesh. There is an enemy who seeks to destroy our faith, render us ineffective or shut us down. He constantly probes to find our weak points and uses them for his purposes. Peter writes, "Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him standing firm in the faith, because you know that your brothers throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of sufferings" (1 Peter 5:8-9). Paul writes, "Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world, and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the whole armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then" (Ephesians 6:12-14). Note that Paul does not say "if" the day of evil comes, but "when". It will come!

Before we accepted Jesus Christ, the devil and his evil spirits had us pretty much where they wanted us and left us pretty much alone. When we accepted Jesus, a spiritual battle began. As we grow in maturity and responsibility the battle becomes more intense. The enemy of our soul does not give up easily, and the greater a threat we become to him the more intensely he will fight. Fortunately, we do not have to struggle just in our own power. We are "strong in the Lord and in his mighty power" (Ephesians 6:10), and it is in his power that we resist the devil. James writes, "Submit yourselves, then, to God; resist the devil, and he will flee from you" (James 4:7). Only as we are submitted to God and moving in his power can we prevail. But in God's power we are "more than conquerors" (Romans 8:37). If we obey God, "the God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet" (Romans 16:20).

5. Conclusion.

The Christian life is not always easy. Sometimes it is very difficult. Few things that are worthwhile are easy. Paul, who was a rising up-and-comer in the Jewish faith, gave it all up for Jesus, and never expressed a moment's regret. He wrote, "whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish (KJV "dung") that I may gain Christ" (Philippians 3:7-8).

At one point many of Jesus' disciples left him because of a "hard teaching" that he gave. Jesus asked Peter if he and the rest of the twelve would leave him also. Peter replied, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life" (John 6:68). When things become a bit difficult I think of this passage. "Lord, where else can I go?" Whatever the difficulties of the Christian life, I cannot imagine leaving it for a life without Christ.

[Note. This paper draws on several other papers I have written. Those interested in pursuing some of these matters in more detail may wish to look at my papers on "Pain and Suffering" and "Be Transformed by the Renewing of Your Mind". ]