Where has life fishhooked you?

 

Yesterday, I headed out through the garage, on my way to do some work for a friend. As I walked through the garage, I couldn’t miss it. Some kind of wire-y, point-y, fishhook-y kind of think sticking out of a tire on my wife’s van. I pulled on it a bit, but it wasn’t budging.

Dang it!, I thought. Now I’m going to have to deal with this.

So I took it the tire place, and as the guy looked at it, we both had a chuckle: How did that get there? My response: It’s my wife’s van. Must be her great driving!

Since she wasn’t there, and it IS her van, I could say that. But really, who knows how that fishhook thing go in the side wall of her tire?

That’s how life is. We shouldn’t be surprised when life hooks us, but so often we are. Sometimes, the fault is ours. But sometimes, it’s not. I mean, really, fishhooks happen.

What’s your fishhook right now? Maybe it’s cancer, or heart disease. Maybe it’s someone you love who is facing these things. Or maybe they’re facing dementia, or another condition for which there is no cure.

Maybe it’s work that has stuck a hook in you. Or school. Or a relationship. Or an addiction — yours, or someone you love. But somewhere, somehow, if you’re paying attention, there’s at least one thing in your life that has got you hooked.

A counselor recently shared with me a simple truth, but one we so often fail to accept. He said, simply: Life is hard.

Now, most of us get that. We realize life is challenging. Even so, there’s a part of us that keeps expecting it to get better, simpler, easier. But here’s the thing: when you expect life to be easy, and it turns out it’s not (which always ends up being the case), then you’re not sure what to do. You’re left staring at the fishhook, asking, Now what?

In these moments, if you expect life to be easy, you’ll look around for an quick escape hatch. Or someone to blame. Or you’ll just internalize it and blame the universe, or your upbringing, or your spouse — or, if you’re really heady, you might blame God.

But if you accept the premise that life is hard, then, not only are you not surprised when life sticks it to you, you’re also one step closer to dealing with challenges when they come. But let’s be clear: not all approaches to a difficult life have the same outcome.

It occurs to me that, once we accept the premise that life is hard, there are at least 4 ways to face life’s challenges. You can say:

  1. Life is hard … so you numb it.
  2. Life is hard … so you strive to overcome it.
  3. Life is hard … so you avoid it.
  4. Life is hard … but you face it.

The first response deals with life’s difficulties, and promptly looks around for something to deaden the pain. Alcohol, or another drug. TV. Food. Shopping. Mindless web surfing. Mindful web surfing, in an effort to find some one, or some image, to distract the mind. Or any number of other ways to drown out the pain of the world. And today’s sedative can all too easily become tomorrow’s addiction. As the writer Thomas Keating puts it: “Addictions are the ultimate way of distracting oneself from the emotional pain one is unwilling to face.”

The second approach goes the opposite direction. It seeks to overcome the difficulties through personal strength and smarts. It sees the pain and hardship, and says, I got this. It is confident in my ability to overcome through all kinds of methods, both secular and spiritual. Maybe it’s the latest meditation technique or self-help guru. Maybe if I save enough money or work harder. Or maybe if I just believe enough and pray hard enough, my cancer will go away or my relationship will be restored. But all of these approaches have one thing in common: they are about me — trusting that if I just work or pray hard enough, things will get better.

Or how about approach #3? It’s the method that lives out this mantra: When the going gets tough, just go. Leave. Whatever you have to do, get away from the pain and the heartbreak. Don’t climb the mountain; run from it!

This happens when we have a literal pain in the neck, and instead of going to doctor, we just ignore it. But it also happens when we have a relational pain in the neck, and we avoid that, too. Instead of talking with that person, dealing with the issue, we avoid them — and it. I remember a minister of a very influential church telling me once that when he began his ministry, he avoided conflict. He hoped that if he ignored it, it would go away. He pretty quickly learned that avoidance is a pretty lousy approach.

So, if life is hard, and numbing it, or overcoming it, or avoiding it aren’t the answers, what is?

Facing it. Recognizing the challenges of life, this approach chooses not to back down, run away, or self-medicate. Instead, we face the hardships. But not alone, and certainly not in our strength. No, the healthiest life is the one who recognizes life’s challenges and difficulties, and looks them square in the face — and does so, trusting that God is faithful. Shalom (true peace and wholeness) is where we can recognize all the ways that life “fishhooks” us, and then bring those before a God who meets us in the midst of those challenges. Shalom, you see, isn’t the absense of conflict or brokenness; it is the active and deliberate decision to bring those to the God of all grace and mercy.

For we have a God who faced down the reality that life is difficult; that sin is real; that hurt and hate are too often the human condition. And Jesus saw all of that, and he did not avoid it, nor did he numb himself to its reality. Instead, at the cross, he faced it and he overcame it. And because he faced down sin and death, we don’t have to avoid them. And we don’t face them alone. And we certainly don’t have to overcome them ourselves. Instead, in Jesus, we become more then overcomers (Romans 8.37). All because we have a God who overcame, for us.

And recognizing that doesn’t diminish the reality of our challenges. It simply brings hope where we need it most. Right where life is hardest.

 

What Do You Do When Life Gets Bad?

Mandy loved music. She was a standout vocalist at her high school, and began attending Colorado State University to study music education. She loved music, she was good at it, and she was pursuing a career doing what she loved. Who could ask for more?

But then things took a turn. She began noticing that she couldn’t hear the teachers in her classes. Then she realized she was losing her ability to hear most of the piano notes. At her year-end freshmen recital, she had to watch the lips of others to keep in time with the song. After that recital, it was over. In the span of one school year, Mandy had gone deaf. She was subsequently dropped from the program, and she left school, figuring she would never sing again.

Mandy was angry. But her dad told her, You still have a gift; you still need to use it.

Her dad’s words sunk in, and Mandy found a way to get back into music. Using a phone app, she learned she can visually start at middle C, and then from there find her starting note — and learn a song  She returned to vocal music — but sings barefoot, so that she can feel the vibrations through the floor to stay in tempo.

Music isn’t as easy for Mandy as it once was. But I guarantee you — it’s more meaningful.

Your story isn’t the same as Mandy’s, and probably isn’t nearly as dramatic — but the reality is that all of us suffer. All of us struggle. We all have to face dashed dreams, and hurt we can’t help.

The question is not “if,” but how. Not “if” you will struggle, but when you struggle — how will you respond?

The question is also not “why,” either. We often can’t answer the “why” question. Instead, the question is: what will you do with the stuff life hands you that you don’t want? Do you learn from it? Do you face it head on? Do you wrestle with it?

A 19th century writer once asked a perennial question: “You desire to know the art of living, my friend?” His response? The art of living, he said, “is contained in one phrase: make use of suffering” (Henri-Frederic Amiel).

Learning to live, in part, is learning to face the challenges we cannot control, we do not want, and are hard to overcome. Suffering isn’t something we seek, but it finds us. And the question that it leaves us with: will we just suffer through it, or will we learn from it?

One thing is sure: life won’t be as easy on the other side of suffering. But, if we let it — if we learn from it; if we grow through it; if we let God’s grace sustain us every step of the way — life will be more meaningful.

Growing Up in Grace

What does it mean that Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and with people (Luke 2:52)?

To me, this means that while Jesus was born fully God and fully human, he wasn’t born fully formed. That is to say, even Jesus grew into who he was, and is. He was fully human, but he also had to grow into that humanity. He was born fully God, but he had to grow in his understanding of what it means to be the Son of God. Isn’t this what Hebrews 5:8-9 is talking about? “Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered, and once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him” (NIV).

It is hard for me to imagine Jesus learning anything. But what else could be the case – as he grew as a boy under Mary & Joseph’s care; as he listened in the synagogue; as he spent time with his Father in the wilderness? Even Jesus’ cry in the Garden before his arrest and crucifixion (“Father, take this cup from me”) is the transparent honesty of a man who is choosing to yield himself, moment-by-moment, to God’s eternal plan. 

If Jesus learned obedience through suffering, is it any less true for you and me? Should we expect to grow in wisdom and grace simply by letting life happen? A few verses after we read about Jesus’ obedience, Hebrews 5:14 says, “Solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.”

The word “mature” in this verse is related to the word “perfect” in Hebrews 5:8, where it is used to describe Jesus. It’s a word that also has the meaning of wholeness. The picture is this: Jesus grew into his calling; he learned what wholeness and perfection meant for him.

If it was true for him, is it any less for us? If Jesus learned through suffering, should we expect to grow and learn if life never gives us a cup that we don’t want to drink? As we approach the new year, the challenge for me — and you, too — is to discipline ourselves to learn from even the most difficult aspects of life. To grow into grace as we face up to the challenges in life. Jesus experienced this on a grand scale, and in so doing, he set an example for us. Maturity, wholeness, what we can call “a grown-up faith,” comes through continually learning what it means to follow Jesus. When things are good, yes; but especially when they are not.