“Life is difficult. Once we truly know that life is difficult—once we truly understand and accept it—then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters” (M. Scott Peck, The Road Less Traveled).
“The reason we are going through the things we are is that God wants to know whether he can make us good bread with which to feed others. The stuff of our lives, not simply of our talk, is to be the nutrient of those who know us.” (Oswald Chambers)
I recently nailed up a reproduction of Thomas Cole’s The Voyage of Life in our eating nook, a small recess located at the end of our kitchen. Cole was an English-born American artist, who was born in 1801 and died in 1848. He was known for painting majestic landscapes and historical events. First conceived in 1836, The Voyage of Life consists of four allegorical paintings: Childhood, Youth, Manhood, and Old Age—each one tracing the life journey of an archetypal of man along the “River of Life,” a metaphorical depiction of the human condition that is intertwined with new life, ambition, suffering and death.
When eating a meal or reading a book, I find myself gazing up at the four paintings. And as I study each one, my eyes always seem to stay fixedly on the third artwork called “Manhood.” The man is depicted in extreme tempestuous conditions—dark stormy clouds blotting out the entire sky; wild winds and torrential rains assailing the man’s tiny boat; the raging river pitching and reeling his battered craft toward monstrous rocks, with an upsurge of white waters crashing against the jagged boulders. The man is desperate, anxious, afraid. His only recourse is prayer because he realizes that there is no controlling the terrifying elements that are waging war against him. The man is undeniably pleading for God’s mercy and saving grace.
In all respects, on different occasions and in various circumstances, this man is me today. In this season of my life, I have faced my own stormy and wild black clouds that seemed to blot out the entire sky, where there was no hope in sight; the winds hurled against me with turbulent rains from above, which made me fearful that there would be no end to the storms, and the turbulent waters propelled me toward monstrous jagged rocks, forcing me to peer into my own mortality and transient life. But through my storms, regardless of their severity, I’ve learned that the power lies within me, anchored in God’s grace and mercy, to independently choose how to respond to life’s afflictions and hardships. Without question, when facing a life hardship, it’s an opportunity to look beyond the circumstances to search for meaning and purpose within the jagged edges of affliction. In doing so, I grew stronger in my humanity and increased in undeserving faith and perseverance.
We have a choice in how we respond to life’s challenges
Like the archetypal man in Cole’s The Voyage of Life, each one of us must accept the harsh adversities of life and the undeniable fact that we’re a part of the human condition, and thus we’re called upon to press on down the “River of Life,” no matter if it is calm or stormy. Even though we are a part of the human condition, equal beneficiaries of the essentials of human existence—i.e., birth, aspirations, sickness, etc.—we hold the freedom of choice on how we stand up to face life’s hardships.
First published in 1946, Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy, is a written account of Victor Frankl’s experience as a prisoner in a concentration camp in Auschwitz during World War II. From his ordeal as a Jewish captive under the oppressive German guards, he learned that an individual could determine his own meaning of life, during anytime and anywhere—even in a Nazi concentration camp. He contends that “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances” (Frankl, 1959).
Likewise, P.M. Forni, a professor at John Hopkins University, affirms the same point of view as Frankl’s. “Since our ability to control the external world is limited, unwelcome events happen to us all the time. What you can control is how you respond to those events—that is to say, how you think about them. Responding positively to something negative is one of the greatest gifts of the human condition” (Forni, 2011).
And once we accept and act upon this belief that we do hold the freedom in our individual response toward life’s afflictions—through God’s gracious and merciful strength—only then the storm’s jagged edges become less difficult to endure.
Accepting your responsibility in hardships
In the midst of our afflictions, if we hold onto the “victim” mindset…in the end…we become the problem rather than the unfavorable circumstance that started in the first place. Within our freedom to choose how we face life’s storms; we are obligated to accept the responsibility for our choices and attitude. Presbyterian pastor and theologian, Timothy Keller, unapologetically claimed that the “main problem in [our] life is not what’s happened to [us], not what people have done to [us]; [our] main problem is the way [we’ve] responded to that” (Keller, 2011). Moreover, it is our responsibility to allow hardships to shape us.
“We are not responsible for the circumstances we are in, but we are responsible for the way we allow those circumstances to affect us; we can either allow them to get on top of us, or we can allow them to transform us into what God wants us to be” (Chambers, Conformed to His Image n.d.).
While I would like to cast blame elsewhere, I agree with Keller’s premise: if the freedom of choice is truly ours to hold, regardless of the circumstances, then we’re impelled to accept the nature and temperament of our response. Even when the unfavorable circumstance is facing death itself, we have a choice on how to face our own mortality.
A particularly good friend and mentor of mine passed away in 2015, following a seven-month fight against pancreatic cancer. During my last visit with him before he passed away, he displayed such a peaceful and hopeful temperament, despite being laid up in bed in pain and discomfort. He even prayed for me – for me! – in a soft and fading whisper. And being a caring friend and devoted mentor, he encouraged me to continually study God’s Word in the Bible and remain steadfast in my faith. Of all people who had every reason to complain and be angry, during our last visit together he chose to encourage and uplift me.
Like the time of seasons (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8), there will be storms of life that bring sorrow and tears. And even though we must make a choice on how we face and accept responsibility during those difficult times, if we continue to search wholeheartedly, we will be able to find among the debris of sorrow and tears incomparable comfort and peace.
God comforts us during hardships
“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles…” (2 Corinthians 1:3, New International Version).
In Paul’s second epistle to the Church in Corinth, a large ancient Roman city located south of Isthmus connecting mainland Greece with Peloponnese, he writes about God’s comfort for the Corinthians during their times of trouble. The Greek word for “comfort” is made up, in fact, of two words: para (alongside) and kaleo (to call). In its truest form, comfort means to answer someone’s plea and walk beside them, to guide and uplift.
During times of my cancer treatment, I experienced a veritable presence of God’s comfort, which kept me fighting day continuously. Even with the possibility that cancer could have taken me, I felt His comfort—a beautiful paradox of depressing sadness and exuberant joy found in the struggles of fighting cancer. In 2014, I wrote about God’s comfort in the following passage from one of my blogs:
“Though I am near the end of this difficult passage, I must always remember the source of my strength. For not only of you—my wife...my family...my friends—I must boast of Him, my strength, and my comforter. Through my infirmities, weaknesses, and sufferings, I sincerely pray you saw Him, walking beside me, and at times carrying me. This is where my faith comes from.”
Notwithstanding the debris of sorrow and tears, we can find incomparable comfort and peace through each member of the Trinity: The Father’s endless compassion and comfort (2 Corinthians 1:3), the Son giving eternal encouragement and hope (2 Thessalonians 2:16), while the Counselor advocating on our behalf (John 14:16).
Life’s storms strengthen us to be a comfort for others
“…We can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God” (2 Corinthians 1:4, New International Version).
When a person’s faith is tested, they grow in strength and endurance; in fact, their “true” self is revealed. They have learned to embrace their struggles and grow. Like a tornado ripping through a home, tearing apart its walls and structures, one would think that the jagged edges of an affliction might do the same to a person’s life. On the contrary, the storm itself creates a deeper well of wisdom and knowledge of the one afflicted. They are not torn down, but instead, they become a comforter and nourishment for others facing similar afflictions.
“That which does not kill us make us stronger,” composed by Freidrich Nietzsche, is one of the most long-standing maxims that most Americans know today. The essence of this statement captures the core of our hope when facing a trial—the longing to traverse to the other side unscathed. But for many of us, going through any affliction guarantees that there will be some type of scar, either emotional or physical. In spite of the scars, we will experience increased strength and temperament and endurance in our nature … if we allow it, however.
And while we may gain increased strength and temperament and endurance in our nature, we can also gain a deeper awareness of who we are after going through an affliction. We realize that we do have what it takes after fighting through a significant affliction in our life. In fact, for those who decide to face a life hardship head on, I can guarantee at the end you will know more about your true self than before. Chambers describes a man who has gone through life’s trials to be a genuine benefit to others.
“The way to find yourself is in the fires of sorrow. Why it should be so is another matter, but that it is so is true in the Scriptures and in human experience. You always know the man who has been through the fires of sorrow and received himself, you are certain you can go to him in trouble and find that he has ample leisure for you. If a man has not been through the fires of sorrow, he is apt to be contemptuous, he has no time for you. If you receive yourself in the fires of sorrow, God will make you nourishment for other people” (Chambers, Receiving One’s Self In The Fires Of Sorrow, n.d.)
When facing a life hardship, it’s an opportunity, in my opinion, to look beyond the circumstances to search for meaning and purpose within the jagged edges of affliction. In doing so, you can grow stronger and become a comforter for others who are experiencing similar hardships. And remember, you can find comfort and peace in God and the Trinity.