Christina Fox received her Master’s Degree in Counseling from Palm Beach Atlantic University. She writes for a number of Christian ministries and publications including Desiring God and The Gospel Coalition. She is the author of A Heart Set Free: A Journey Through the Psalms of Lament and Closer Than a Sister: How Union with Christ helps Friendships to Flourish. You can find her at www.christinafox.com, @christinarfox and www.Facebook.com/
I've been in this world long enough—I won't say how long—but despite my years of experience here, I am still surprised when things are hard. I still feel thrown off when life is difficult and things don't go smoothly. As though I didn't see it coming.
You know what I'm talking about. Like one of those Mondays where everything seems to go wrong. The alarm fails to go off. The kids are slow to get ready and end up late to school. At some point during the day, the car battery dies, you can't find your wallet, and the school calls to tell you to come and pick up a very sick child. You open the mail box to find an unexpected bill you know you can't pay. Days like that seem to compound themselves, adding one irritation upon another. Maybe throw in a broken dishwasher or plumbing issue to the mix and your Monday turns into a no good, terrible, very bad day.
On days like that, I grow increasingly frustrated and find myself mumbling, "Why does everything have to be so hard?"
I ask that even though I know the answer.
Or do I really?
I do know that this is a fallen and broken world. I am a sinner and live among sinners in a land groaning from the impact of sin that has permeated every square inch. So I really should not be surprised by frustrating events in my day. After all, things do not work as they should in a fallen world. Objects break down. People get sick. Accidents happen. Not only that, but everyone else has hard days and in our sin, we take it out on one another. We are also limited by our humanity and our weaknesses. Whether it's a tendency to run late, be disorganized, or forgetful, or simply just being tired out, these weaknesses exacerbate and contribute to the challenges of our days. In some ways, our frustrations in the midst of hard days reveal a longing to return to the way life was before the Fall.
Many of us might look at the comedy of errors in our day, shake our head, and become science nerds for a moment saying, "It's just Murphy's Law." You know, the one commonly known as "if anything can go wrong, it will." Sometimes we look at hard and challenging days as just that, a compounding of bad things happening all at once. We see them as random and purposeless. They become disruptions and obstacles to overcome. Things we have to push out of our way to get where we are really going.
But for believers, hard days are more than that. They are not random. They don't happen just because we "woke up on the wrong side of the bed" or because it's a Monday or any other colloquialism we want to claim. Hard days are Divinely placed opportunities for us to learn and grow in our faith.
And this is the part I often fail to remember or realize in the midst of my hard days, but it is crucial to how I respond: God is sovereign over all things. He controls every event, every circumstance, every irritation, every moment— even determining when a piece of hair falls from our head. So when hard days come, it's not because God has stepped away and taken a break from his work of Providence. Rather, he has orchestrated the series of events and we have an opportunity to learn more about ourselves, about God, and ultimately, to be changed by it.
How is that?
It's in those hard days where we are pressed and pushed and prodded beyond what we think we can do that we learn who we really are and how much we need God's grace. We see areas of sin in our life we might not have noticed before and have an opportunity to repent and turn from it. We might come face to face with idols we worship—the things we turn to for hope and life, things like control, comfort, and success. Hard days become opportunities for us to accept the Spirit's conviction and turn to Christ for grace, forgiveness, and help.
It's also in those difficult moments where we experience God's grace in profound ways, where we are strengthened by the Spirit, and enabled to do more than we ever thought. It's in those trying times where we see the real fruit of obedience, trust, and reliance upon God. Those hard days become opportunities for us to stretch our spiritual muscles and live out what God has taught us and called us to do.
Above all, God uses hard days—whether they are days consisting of small but irritating inconveniences or long drawn out days of hardship—to change us into the likeness of Christ. That's the ultimate goal: our holiness. God is not concerned about us living comfortable, carefree lives in the present. He is about making us holy and preparing us the future to come—eternity with him. More often than not, that means facing hard work in the midst of a hard day. But we're not the only one at work; the Spirit tirelessly labors in us and uses every moment of our lives to strip us of sin and remake us into the image of our Savior.
Hard days should not surprise us because we know who rules and reigns over all things. So when hard days do come, we need to turn to the One who placed that day before us. We need to yield to the opportunity to glorify God in how we respond. As we do, we can rejoice, because we know that one day, we will be perfected in glory, made like Christ, and be with him forever where hard days are no more.
I spent much of December (okay, I admit it, November too) watching Christmas movies on Hallmark. True, they aren't the makings of huge box office hits. I know just what to expect when I watched them. And perhaps that's why I enjoy them. They are clean, happy, and safe.
But one thing I always notice in movies of that genre is that inevitably when a woman is torn about whether to pursue a relationship with a man, her friend (or mother) will ask, "What does your heart tell you?"
The Heart of Man
We use the word "heart" in many different ways. Of course we use it to refer to our physical heart, the one that pumps blood throughout our body and keeps us alive. In movies, it often refers to how someone feels about something, versus what someone thinks. But the Bible uses the word "heart" a bit differently.
In the Bible, "heart" is the center of oneself. It is the core of who a person is. It refers to who we are, our identity, the real us. This inner self includes our thoughts, our desires, our feelings, our personality, our motives and intentions, and the choices we make. It is what drives us. “As in water face reflects face, so the heart of man reflects the man” (Proverbs 27:19).
As God's created beings, made in his image and for his glory, we are called to love God with all our hearts (Deuteronomy 6:5). But because of the Fall, our hearts are not as they should be. We are born with sinful hearts. Our thoughts, desires, intentions, and choices are not focused on God; rather, we live for ourselves. We pursue our own longings and desires apart from God.
The Bible teaches that we need new hearts in order to know God and obey him, "And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules" (Ezekiel 36: 26-27). This was fulfilled through the work of Christ on our behalf (Ephesians 2). We are made new through what Christ has done and the ministry of the Spirit who labors in our hearts to transform us.
Though our hearts have been cleansed and made new, we still battle against sin. We still live in a sin stained world where temptations abound, where the presence of sin lingers within us, where the evil one still prowls, and where the world hates God. All of these forces influence us. Though the war for our heart has been won, skirmishes still remain. We live the rest of our lives fighting against these influences.
What this means is, though we have a new heart, we have to guard it and keep it.
Guard the Heart
In Proverbs 4, we are cautioned, "keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life" (Proverbs 4:23). Because the heart is the core of who we are, because out of our heart flows our thoughts, words, and actions (Luke 6:45), we have to be watchful and vigilant to keep our heart. What does that mean?
We must be aware of what is going on in our heart. There is no passivity in the Christian life. Every action we take, every word we speak, every goal we pursue, every response we make all comes out of the overflow of our heart. This means we must be aware of the contents of our heart. What are our thoughts, desires, and motivations? What are we dwelling on in the quiet moments of our day? What do we long for most of all? Developing such insight is important to guarding our heart.
We must preserve our heart as the sole residence for Christ. Christ is the Lord and Master of our heart. We can't allow anything else to barge in and make our heart its home. We have to do whatever it takes to keep it for Christ. The sinful default of our heart is to seek out other lords and masters to worship rather than God. We look for life in other people, things, circumstances, and experiences rather than in Christ. This means we have to be alert for idols in our heart. Such idols can include success, relationships, money, influence, health and beauty, and more. We have to root them out and replace them with greater love and affection for Christ.
We must keep our hearts healthy: We take care of our physical heart by proper diet, rest, and exercise. We do the same with our spiritual heart. We must feed it a healthy diet of God's word, wherein we find wisdom for life. God's word gives shape to our thoughts, emotions, desires, and intentions. The Spirit uses God's word to convict our heart's of sin, to draw us to repentance, and to apply the gospel of grace. This involves regular reading, studying, and meditating on his word. It involves participating in worship each Lord's Day where we hear God's word preached and taught. We also keep our hearts healthy by abiding in Christ through prayer, seeking his grace and wisdom in our lives. Prayer reminds us that we are dependent upon him. It helps us yield our hearts to his will and ways. Our hearts are also strengthened when we participate in church community life—through fellowship, discipleship, singing praises together, praying with and for one another, serving each other, and encouraging one another in the gospel.
We must ready ourselves for battle to protect our heart: In this life, we remain at war and in wartime we must always be on guard. The Bible teaches us what we must do to ready ourselves for war: "Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places" (Ephesians 6:11-12). Such armor includes the belt of truth, breastplate of righteousness, shoes of the gospel of peace, shield of faith, helmet of salvation, and sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
Know that God won't let go of us: We must be vigilant and watchful and intentional to keep our heart but there are times when we are weakened by our sin, the world around us, and the spiritual forces at work against us. In those times, we have remember and trust God's promise to keep us for eternity. Though we are to work hard to guard our hearts, God is ultimately the one who preserves us and keep us. "And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ" (Philippians 1:6). Though we might stumble in our duties, God will not let anyone or anything keep us from him (Romans 8:35-39). Rest your heart in this truth today.
A new year is always a time of reflection and remembering what took place in the prior year. We often think about what we learned and hopefully how we want to grow and change from what we've learned. For me, last year held a season of fear. You may remember I dealt with a health problem. I had a growth on my thyroid that the doctor's thought might be cancerous but were not able to determine from the biopsy. At the end of July, I had thyroid surgery to remove the growth (and half my thyroid).
The entire situation was disconcerting, worrisome, and at times, frightening. Certainly, all the medical procedures were no fun. But also the thought of cancer was frightening. It was a fresh reminder of my age, stage of life, and of the way time continues to sift through my hands.
There is much to fear in this fallen world. Sickness, natural disasters, violence, job loss, relational conflict, just to name a few. The unknown future can be frightening. Such fear paralyzes. It's like a heavy cloud that envelopes us, suffocating, and blinding us to everything else.
Situations like mine, and perhaps like the one you are in right now, require extra grace. Grace to know that God is with you and will not leave you. Grace to believe and trust in his goodness. Grace to rest in God's sovereign care.
So that was my prayer during that season: for God to give me grace. I needed him to guide me in the unknown. I prayed that I would see his hand at work—that I would trace his grace, gathering it together like a strand of lights to light my way.
God was faithful.
I found friends and family who prayed for me and told me so.
I discovered kind doctors and nurses who spoke with confidence and reassurance.
I felt peace when I least expected it.
God provided even the smallest details like friends to watch my kids while we were at the hospital.
Not only did I see his grace in my circumstances, I also remembered his love and faithfulness to me in the past. I had experienced many fearful events and unknowns in my life and God has never failed me. He has been a rock and fortress time and time again. In all the little challenges and the big trials of life, God has repeatedly proven himself faithful. And in my greatest need of all, forgiveness of sin, he gave his own son. Because he gave me Jesus, how could I think he would fail to be faithful in anything else?
Psalm 46 and Fear
As you know, I love the Psalms. One psalm I've always paused at in reading is Psalm 46. "God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling."
For someone who is often weakened by fear, it's hard to imagine not having any fear in the face of something terrible. The important thing to notice is that the psalmist doesn't say, "even when the very worst happens, if you have strong faith and believe really hard, you won't have any fear." Rather, the psalmist says that because God is our refuge and strength and help in trouble, we will not fear.
The psalmist also remembered who God is in his power and holiness: "There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved; God will help her when morning dawns. The nations rage, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts. The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress." God's presence keeps his church safe. This passage reminds me of Paul's assuring words that nothing can separate us from the love of God for us in Christ (Romans 8:38-39).
The psalmist then remembered what God has done in the past: "Come, behold the works of the LORD, how he has brought desolations on the earth. He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow and shatters the spear; he burns the chariots with fire."
Because God is faithful and gracious, because he is our Rock and Refuge, because of who he is and what he has done, the psalm concludes: "Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!” The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah."
Soon after my surgery, I learned that I did not have cancer. (In case you were wondering). But I know that life in this fallen world will include more unknowns and more fears. But the psalmist reminds me that God is with his people. He is our help. He is our refuge. Even when the world seems flipped upside down and even when the worst happens, God rules and reigns. He is faithful. The God of Jacob is a covenant keeping God; we belong to him.
God's grace is always present in our fears.