When the Going Gets Tough

When faced with an option between two paths, one paved with more difficulty than the other, the choice is usually simple: take the easier path.

But, the choices aren’t always straightforward.

And what’s more, the reflex that favors comfort over conflict is not always what we see modeled by the faithful in Scripture. Sometimes, the difficulty is actually why they choose what they choose. Are they gluttons for punishment? Not at all. The faithful chose the path paved with problems because there’s a calling higher than personal comfort; it’s the will and work of God through his people.

Choosing Hardship Over Comfort

One prominent example is Christ’s agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus says that his soul is sorrowful even to death (Matt. 26:38). Pouring his heavy heart out to his Father, he famously prays, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” (v. 39). Jesus trembled before the fully fermented cup of divine wrath. This is suffering, as we can only imagine. Any sane human would prefer being spared from this. But Christ is the most rational man who ever lived. As well as holy and wise. So why did he embrace the cup of suffering? Because there was a calling higher than avoiding difficulty. He valued the will of God higher than his comfort. The work of God—his advancing kingdom—is a higher priority than preventing conflict. Praise God that Jesus Christ had a category for sacrificing his comfort to submit to God’s will. Do we?

There’s a higher calling than preserving comfort.

Another example is found in the initial missionary journey of Paul. In Acts 14, Paul and Barnabas arrive in Iconium. Right away, they get to work, hitting up the synagogue to preach Christ to those who’d listen. By God’s grace, “a great number of both Jews and Greeks believed” (v.1). There’s a fruitful ministry beginning in Iconium. But, as is often the pattern in Acts, we find opposition close to reception. Some of the unbelievers got to work attacking both the message and the messengers of the gospel (v.2). So what do they do? Pack it up and call it a day? Move on? After all, these gospel opponents are making things difficult. They’re mocking Paul and poisoning the gospel prospects. What would you do? In verse 3, we read, “So they remained for a long time, speaking boldly for the Lord….” They stayed for a long time. What?! Why?! The word “so” here could be rendered, therefore. In other words, they remained for a long time because of what happened. They stayed because there were believers there and because there was opposition there. If personal comfort were the compass for their ministry, they would’ve left. But it wasn’t the compass. They were orientated by the core conviction that God called them to advance the gospel. Like Jesus, they were committed to God’s will over personal comfort.

There are two particular implications I’d like to mention here. The first relates to Church members and the second to pastors.

Implications for Church Members

It’s no secret that many people have migrated to other places to live in the last couple of years. We’ve seen many people move out of the “blue” states and settle in the US’s traditionally “red” states. Some reasons for the shift include being fed up with government overreach, increasingly secular worldviews, opposition to religion, the fast-paced moral revolution, or the cost of living. I won’t quibble about any of these things being valid concerns. My concern is how the mission plays in people’s decision-making and the consequence of these moves.

Christians are to be primarily concerned about the glory of God. We see this worked out in many ways, but its primary artery is through the local church proclaiming the gospel. What happens to these secular areas when all of the Christians leave? Who will remain to proclaim the gospel?

Many people see difficulty as the reason to leave, but often, it’s actually why you should consider staying.

As an example, I serve in Boston. Our area is as secular as it is irreligious. With an evangelical population hovering around 2%, New England consistently ranks at the top of the list of the least bible-minded states in the US. When you combine the factors of the transient nature of a metropolitan area with very few Christians and then add in the newer trend of relocation, you have a recipe for trouble in many of these underserved churches.

Most of the difficulties Christians face in America today are minor compared to the type of stuff that the Apostles chose to endure in places like Iconium. I’m not saying that people shouldn’t move—people are free to make their own choices. I am saying that the will and work of God—the mission of the church—must be considered when making these decisions. I’m afraid too many overlook the hardship embedded in the Christian mission to lay hold of the American dream (whatever that is). Many people see difficulty as the reason to leave, but often, it’s actually why you should consider staying.

Implications for Pastors

I’m sympathetic to pastors enduring challenging seasons. I know that many are as underappreciated as they are underpaid. But I also know we are often prone to tap out too quickly when things get hard. And if we don’t officially tap out and either quit or go to another church, we may check out by disconnecting from the flock.

Rarely do either of these (tapping out or checking out) happen when things are going well. No, it’s the difficulty that does it. There are a few punches below the belt or a rabbit punch here and there, and suddenly, we’re ready to be done. After all, this isn’t the way it’s supposed to be. It shouldn’t be this hard.

But is this right? Look at our Lord. Look at the Apostles. The difficulty is like a vice that tightens upon them and shows us what they’re made of. We see they love the will and work of God because it’s hard. The easier path is before them, but they chose the mission of God over personal comfort.

There are legitimate reasons to move on. But here, I’m cautioning against that being the reflex because things are hard. We can convince ourselves all day that we deserve better. This is not much of a challenge. There is no rebuttal cueing up from within. But it’s more accurate to say, “Jesus deserved better. And I never actually got what I really deserve.” Many pastors see hardship as the reason to leave, but often, it’s actually why they should consider staying

Injecting Mission into Decision-Making

Decision-making is not black and white. There are many variables to consider that require careful and prayerful consideration. And Christians should be gracious and charitable with one another when we might not see matters of wisdom the same way. So please don’t misread me saying we must stay in hard situations to be faithful. But I think we need to be challenged in our decision-making that disproportionately trends toward what appears to be more comfortable and palatable. We must have a category to endure–even choosing this path–to glorify God by advancing the gospel through the church.