The church of Jesus Christ has never been in a good place.
It has forever lived in a hostile environment. It was born in the dragon’s lair where the hot breath of the beast is always felt. Its infancy was bloody; antagonists surrounded it and adversaries attacked it, and nothing has changed in two millennia. The world hates the church because it hates its Founder, Jesus Christ. The world and the church are on opposite courses. They represent two different kingdoms, two diverse realms. So, the church has always existed in a hard place.
But hardness is not necessarily bad for the people of God. By the amount of adversity God allows His church to endure, it must have some positive effect. The church’s finest hours seem to be when she stands bravely in stark contrast to the wicked world while feeling the fury of the beast against her. It is then the people of God, though tried by fire, have sung their best song. They have shown a watching world the beauty of their King, who also suffered the Serpent’s bruise.
The western church’s difficulty is not the heavy hand of persecution but the easy hand of prosperity. It is when we court the politician’s favor, the academia’s admiration, and the media’s approval that we suffer both morally and spiritually. We are like Samson in Delilah’s tent; we are flirting with captivity and begging to have our eyes put out. This is the hardest place for any church. When it wants success and stature in a world that is destined for destruction, it can’t end well for either church or world.
How many churches have become comfortable in its environment?
How many are comfortable with the world? Ease in Zion is not a good sign. Comfort always precedes collapse. But it’s when the church is in the hard place that it advances and the gates of hell cannot prevail.
It has always been that way. God’s people are not strangers to pressure or peril. When the children of Israel stood before the Red Sea, they experienced a hard place. With a vengeful Pharaoh and his well-equipped army in battle formation behind the former slaves, it looked hopeless. But the man of God lifted his rod and the Lord performed a miracle of deliverance by creating a highway through the sea.
Gideon suffered a 450-to-1 deficit. The enemies of Israel were the undefeatable Midianites. They had a 135,000-manned military, while Gideon didn’t have an army. It was more like a small battalion of 300 men. And their weapons were unconventional. Each man had a lit torch, a pitcher, and a trumpet. That was their entire weaponry. But as it played out, they needed no swords because God brought confusion upon the Midianites who turned on themselves and slaughtered each other until hardly a man was left standing.
King Jehoshaphat experienced something similar, only his army sang their way to victory, and God turned an ambush into a bonanza of loot. When the dust settled, the enemy army lay dead before Jehoshaphat and his praise team; all they had to do was pick up the treasure trove. The plunder was so much; it took them three days to collect it all.
Surely, my reader, you know the stories, each one a tale of impossibilities.
A brother sold by his jealous brothers to foreigners and winded up ruling over the foreigners. A shepherd boy against a warrior giant, three young men who wouldn’t bend or bow, but also wouldn’t burn when thrown into the fiery furnace. A praying old man thrown into a lions’ den slept comfortably among the ferocious felines, while the king who threw him into that hard place tossed and turned all night, unable to sleep in his palatial bed. Yes, all of these and more were in hard places, places no one, including the men and women who were there, would have chosen to visit or occupy. But in the hard place, God wrought deliverance and made them all unlikely heroes of the faith.
But not all the stories end up with a “slam-bang finish.” Some hard places end with tears, pain, and suffering. Some end in death, but that doesn’t mean the hard places were a defeat. When Jesus stood before His enemies all alone, there was no miraculous deliverance. He may have been able to call for twelve legions of angels, but He didn’t. He chose Calvary. The cross was His weapon, but it brought no deliverance from death; it became the instrument of His death.
In the most confusing twist of plots and storylines, the God-Man died an unjust death, the just for the unjust, the innocent for the guilty, the righteous for the unrighteous.
Jesus did not come down from the cross by divine power. He came down by two men pulling the nails out of His lifeless body, removing Him from the cross timbers and burying Him in a tomb.
For Jesus’ weak and cowardly followers there could be no harder place. Their Messiah dead and gone. Their sorrow compounded by the guilt of forsaking Him in His hour of need. How bitter was this place of hardness! But out of the jaws of defeat God secured His victory. The weakness of God was still more powerful than all of hell’s might. Satan bruised His heel, but nipping at someone’s heels puts your head in a vulnerable position. Jesus crushed His enemy’s head, and the blow was fatal. And in so doing, God proved that the hard place does not have to end in miraculous deliverance for Him to bring about His good purposes. He doesn’t need to display His power to win; He can win by demonstrating weakness, humility, and infirmity. Over and over this has been the weaponry of God: allowing His church to suffer hardship and through weakness win.
Martyred in the Ecuadorian jungle in January 1956, no one could imagine what the sacrifice of five young men would produce.
The men, Jim Elliot, Nate Saint, Ed McCully, Peter Fleming, and Roger Youderian were endeavoring to take the Gospel to the Waodani people, whose tribal rivals called them “Aucas,” meaning savages. Why did they have to die? Why did their blood stain the river beach and their speared bodies get cast into the river’s current? Days later only four of them were found and then buried in a common grave on the spot where they died. Why such a waste of youth and missionary zeal? What a hard place for the wives and children of the martyred.
But the mystery of the hard place once again proved that God’s weakness is stronger than anyone or anything. Within days, volunteers came forward to resume the outreach to the Waodani. As news of the tragedy spread throughout the western world, thousands of young people were emboldened to respond to the call to foreign missions. Within two years, Elisabeth Elliot, the widow of Jim Elliot, along with their daughter, Valerie and Nate Saint’s sister, Rachel Saint, entered the Waodani encampment extending forgiveness to the very men who had killed their loved ones. They lived among them for years administering the Gospel and medical care.
The Indians saw the love of God lived out before their eyes; the Gospel came alive to them. They heard and saw the Gospel and conviction had its perfect work. Many of them were converted, and today the church of the Waodani prospers in Ecuador.
Yes, the church thrives in the hard place.
But many who profess the name of Jesus find themselves responding very differently to adversity. You see, the hard place is a gift from God to bring us to the end of ourselves. It is His love that leads us to the position of desperation to free us from the self-reliance that so often keeps us from trusting Him. Desperation is designed to lead us to dependency. That is God’s purpose, but Satan perverts the hard place in the mind of the Christian. Instead of desperation leading to dependency, it leads to despondency. And despondency leads to unbelief, a distrust of God and His hard places.
Everyone faces difficult times. Hard times are no respecter of persons. But it is the severe places in life that proves who you really trust. They expose what we truly rely upon. The principle of sin still remains in the Christian and, if allowed, it will work in us a self-reliance that is both stubborn and tough to detect. It is the hard place that drives self-reliance out of hiding and makes us see that it must be absolutely abandoned so we may totally trust in God.
If we are going to live a supernatural life, (the only kind of life a Christian is to live), we must believe God’s will is best and that the hard place is necessary for us. It is not a matter of learning to adapt to difficulty or adopting a tougher mindset. No, it is believing that your God is a Father who so loves you that He will never abandon you in your hour of need. You must have faith that He has brought you to the place of need to see your real need, not deliverance from the circumstantial problem, but deliverance from a self-will that determines a plan different from God’s agenda for you.
Your weakness is the vehicle He uses to win the day, not your strengths.
Too many Christians are trying to overcome by becoming better, better at faith, better at making wiser choices, better at being more sanctified. This is only asking for more trials by fire. The whole purpose of the hard place is not to show how strong a Christian you are, but how God’s weakness is greater than any power. It is to display through your inabilities that God is the One who brings us through. God is not looking for strong believers; He is looking for impotent instruments to demonstrate His great power. Some of us need our sanctification sanctified.
The church was born in the environment of adversity, and it is in that climate the lungs of the church are best suited to breathe. As the eagle is made to navigate the thinner air of the higher atmosphere, so is the church built to soar on the absence of human strength. It was made to fly in the power of God only. So, celebrate the hard place because it is there God manifests His glory. It the glory of God revealed that makes us rejoice. The less visible our human glory, the more of His glory will we see and so will others.