A Christian View of Difficult Times

Life is not easy. When times become difficult it is easy to conclude that God must have turned away or is punishing us for our sin. Since that is how we feel, imagine how the recipients of the letter to the Hebrews felt. They were facing persecution. The Roman government was in the early stages of trying to wipe out Christians. It must have been really tempting to either despair (concluding that God had turned against you) or give up (to do whatever the state told you to do).

Hebrews gives us another way of looking at hard times. It tells us that we are not seeing the whole picture. God allows the difficult times in our lives to help us to grow deep. He uses Proverbs 3:11-12 to make his point.

And have you forgotten the encouraging words God spoke to you as his children? He said,

“My child, don’t make light of the Lord’s discipline,

and don’t give up when he corrects you.

For the Lord disciplines those he loves,

and he punishes each one he accepts as his child.”

Three times in these three verses we are told that the believer is a child of God. In other words, God loves us. He does not want to hurt us but to help us. Children sometimes think their parents are mean or oppressive. But in truth, parents are doing what love requires.

This is why the Bible warns us not to make light of the “encouraging words” about the Lord’s discipline. It reminds us that God is at work in ways we do not understand. We may not always understand the ways of God’s love but we should never doubt it or dismiss it.

I’m grateful to Tim Keller for helping me to see that the author draws three different pictures or analogies in these verses: the parent, the trainer, and the doctor. These three pictures will help us to see the hand of God in difficult times.

The Analogy of a Parent

As you endure this divine discipline, remember that God is treating you as his own children. Who ever heard of a child who is never disciplined by its father? If God doesn’t discipline you as he does all of his children, it means that you are illegitimate and are not really his children at all. Since we respected our earthly fathers who disciplined us, shouldn’t we submit even more to the discipline of the Father of our spirits, and live forever?

10 For our earthly fathers disciplined us for a few years, doing the best they knew how. But God’s discipline is always good for us, so that we might share in his holiness.

The argument here is that a good parent knows they must discipline their child. Hebrews reminds us that you only discipline your own children, not the children that belong to others.

I remember one occasion when I was told that my children were doing something I knew was dangerous. I shot out the door to put a stop to the dangerous behavior. When I confronted the children the only children I could discipline were my own. I had to entrust the neighbor children to their parents.

It is the same way with the Lord. He only disciplines those who are part of His family. He will judge others but He will not train and discipline them because they do not belong to Him (in one sense).

Every parent knows they must discipline their children. Parents who don’t want to cross the will of their children make life difficult for everyone who has to deal with that child (including themselves). A child without discipline is one who is spoiled; one who thinks the only thing that matters is what they want; they give no consideration for others except for what those others can do for them.

A good parent knows that we have to train the will of a child. Keller says it better than I can,

My job as a father is to bring a controlled amount of benign well-meaning pain out of love and desire to see my child grow. It is to bring some small amounts of pain into his life now, so he will avoid much greater pain later. That’s my job. In other words, if my child lies, I know immediately that if that becomes a habit of the heart, that child will end up broken, institutionalized eventually, and unable to deal with life, if all he does is lie every time there’s a problem.

So what do I have to do? I have to bring into his life a certain amount of pain now. Some deprivation. “Go to your room. You can’t go to the party,” This is something I have to do carefully because if it’s too much, he’ll be embittered, and if it’s too little, he’ll shrug it off. If it’s too much, he’ll faint and he’ll be in despair, but if it’s too little, he’ll take it lightly and not learn a thing from it. Oh, what wisdom it takes! And oh, what balance it takes![1]

The Holy Spirit draws a contrast however between earthly Fathers and our Heavenly Father.

10 For our earthly fathers disciplined us for a few years, doing the best they knew how. But God’s discipline is always good for us, so that we might share in his holiness.

Fathers don’t always manage discipline well. We don’t always discipline out of love and a desire to help our children grow. In all honesty, sometimes we act out of punishment or anger. Almost every parent (every person) knows what it is like to be harsh rather than loving; to strike out rather than discipline. This is why it is so important for us to learn to act rather than react. In other words, parents need to learn to think and to gain control of themselves before they seek to correct or discipline. However, we all know this is easier said than done.

The point is that God’s discipline does not suffer from the inconsistencies that are often such a part of our own lives. God’s motives are ALWAYS good. He is ALWAYS disciplining us for our good.

  • He may be showing us our flaws so we can address them (in the times of crisis we find out what we are really like; our true self comes out.)
  • He may be turning us away from dangerous behaviors (sometimes we need to see the painful consequences of something before we will turn away)
  • He may be helping us to understand what is truly important in life (think about how your perspective on life changes when you have come through a difficult period)
  • He may be training us for future ministry helping us to learn coping skills we are going to need.
  • He may be deepening our roots so we will be able to stand in the trials He knows are yet ahead.

The Lord NEVER makes a mistake. John Newton who wrote the song “Amazing Grace” said, “Everything is necessary that He sends. Nothing can be necessary that He withholds.” Stop and hear that again, “Everything is necessary that He sends (there is a purpose behind the difficulty); Nothing can be necessary that He withholds (because He loves us and provides what we need).” God promises to provide everything that we need. If He hasn’t provided it, we don’t need it. God doesn’t miss a thing. When hard times come into our lives we should pay attention rather than grumble.

The Analogy of the Trainer

11 No discipline is enjoyable while it is happening—it’s painful! But afterward there will be a peaceful harvest of right living for those who are trained in this way.

The word for trained is the word “gymnasium”. It points us to the idea of exercise. I have never been a great fan of exercise. However, as I have gotten older I have learned something: Our bodies don’t stay fit automatically. We need to train.

What does it mean to train? It means to push our bodies. To make our muscles do what they don’t want to do. We put them under resistance so they have to push back and in the process we grow stronger.

If you worked with a trainer you would find that the program the trainer designed for you would be different from the person next to you. The trainer tailors the program to where you are. For example, a trainer wouldn’t get me ready for a marathon by saying, “OK Bruce, go out and run 10 miles today.” No, he would start by saying, “OK Bruce, let’s start by seeing you run to the end of the block without having to stop and rest.” My trainer would not ask me to bench press 300 pounds, he might start by seeing if I could bench press 50 pounds (I’m pretty sure I can). The trainer has to find just the right balance so he doesn’t hurt us yet still put our body under enough pressure that it has to strain a little (thus growing in strength).

This is something we need to understand. When we become a child of God, the Lord isn’t interested in watching us sit on the couch, eat potato chips, and cheer for our favorite team. He loves us too much to watch us erode in our strength, character, and ability. He is not our waiter . . . He is our trainer. His job is to help us grow and develop in the faith. The way He does this is by allowing difficult circumstances to come into our lives.

Notice I used the word “allow”. God isn’t in the business of afflicting His children. Once in a while that happens in extreme cases. However, He also does not often shield us from the harsh realities of life. He uses those realities as part of our training regimen.

Think about it again as a parent. You don’t want your children to get sick. You want to shield them from germs. However, you may actually take them into a Doctor’s office and pay money to have a Doctor inject a virus into your child. We call it a vaccine. We allow our children to face these viruses because we know they will help defend them from sicknesses that are much worse and possibly fatal.

The hardships of life are God’s gymnasium. This is where we learn to walk by faith and hold tight to truth.

The Analogy of a Therapist

12 So take a new grip with your tired hands and strengthen your weak knees. 13 Mark out a straight path for your feet so that those who are weak and lame will not fall but become strong.

One of the great dangers after surgery is the desire to stay in bed because of the pain. Let’s say you get a knee replacement. After the surgery you are sore. Your physical therapist walks into your room and says, “OK, now we are going to take a little walk”. You say, “No, WE are not going anywhere. I am in pain.”

The therapist says, “The only way to overcome the pain is to get up and walk.” You ask for a new Therapist!

We all know what the therapist says is true. Those first steps are going to be painful. You may break out into a sweat. However, if you stay in bed the muscles are going to atrophy; they will get weaker and weaker. If you don’t push them . . . they will not grow strong enough to carry you ever again. If you let fear of pain control your life, you will continue to grow weaker and weaker.

The parallel to our walk with Christ I hope is easy to see. If we always choose what is safe (without pain or risk) we will never grow in faith. So, the Lord, like the therapist, puts us into situations when we need to get out of our comfort zone and take a few steps. He will challenge us to get stronger.

What sometimes happens though is: we face a difficult circumstance; we get some criticism and we withdraw instead of working to grow stronger. We find it hard to get out of bed in the morning so we keep hitting the snooze button, and miss any chance to read God’s Word and pray. How much better to work to train to get out of bed when the alarm goes off and choose to grow in your relationship with the Lord.

We try to share our faith or even just invite someone to worship or to a concert. They resist our invitation so we give up. How much better to continue to work to find ways to build a bridge with that person?

Things aren’t going too well in life so we want to hide from others so we don’t have to acknowledge the pain to others (or to ourselves). How much better to grow in this time by humbling yourself and ask others for prayer? It is so important during these times to choose to honor the Lord even though we don’t understand what He is doing or why He is doing it.

Our challenge is to stop focusing on the circumstances and begin to look for what can be learned from those circumstances.

God is a loving father so there is a purpose in the hardships he allows. He is a skilled Trainer so there is order to the hardships and trials. He has the wisdom of the therapist and so we know that the hardships are meant to make us stronger and to make us well.


Everything we do requires some measure of discipline to excel

  • Playing a musical instrument
  • Becoming a craftsman of any sort
  • Education
  • Athletics
  • Our job
  • Financial management
  • Relationships

And as we have seen this morning, we need discipline to develop in our walk with God.

Our text reminds us that no one thinks discipline is pleasant at the time. You never hear a child say, “Please spank me” or “Can I please go to the Doctor and get a shot!”. You don’t hear teenagers say, “I want to be grounded” or “Please take away the keys to the car”. You don’t hear adults saying, “Dock my pay” or “Please give me a ticket, officer.” During any time of exercise the temptation will be strong to quit because you are getting tired. Discipline is necessary but it is not pleasant. However, the results of discipline ARE pleasant.

So we need to regroup. We need to take a step back from the trials and pains of life and instead of whining about them, we need to look at what we are learning or what God may be teaching. There will be times when we look and don’t see anything. Nothing makes sense. It all seems random. It hurts.

In these times we need to trust what we know: God is good. God is loving. God is wise. God does not make mistakes. We need to remind ourselves that we are His children. We belong to Him and He has promised to bring us safely home.

The Hebrews were facing some hard times. Some would pay with their lives to follow Jesus. Some would be beaten. Some would be fired. Some would be exiled to new places. There was nothing easy about it.

All around the world there are people who are enduring for the sake of Christ. Though governments threaten; though friends are murdered before their eyes because of their faith, these people continue to ‘fix their eyes on Jesus’. They remember that He is the author and perfector of their faith. He is the One who saved them. He is the One who IS life. He is the One who prepares a place for us.

Verse 13 says,

13 Mark out a straight path for your feet so that those who are weak and lame will not fall but become strong.

 We must not forget that people are watching. They want to know if our faith is real or if it is only a façade. They find that out by watching what we do in the times of trial. Do we trust, or do we run? Do we turn to Him or deny Him?

Our neighbors are watching. Our children are watching. The world is watching. Enduring discipline is not easy. But we should be highly motivated to be faithful because so very much is at stake.

[1] Timothy J. Keller, The Timothy Keller Sermon Archive (New York City: Redeemer Presbyterian Church, 2013).

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