This Christmas season we have been talking about fear and how to overcome it by looking at the Christmas Story and how Mary, Joseph, and the Shepherds dealt with and overcame fear.  It was an awesome conversation.  I always enjoy this time of year and walking through the Christmas story is always so powerful as we celebrate the Birth of our Savior!  But with all that 2020 has brought to the table, talking about overcoming fear felt like the right conversation at the right time, because 2020 has given us plenty of fears and adversity to overcome.  I think it’s safe to say for most of us 2020 has brought more fear, tension, and challenges to the table than any other year we have faced…but I have some good news!  We have made it!  We are finally, and mercifully landing the plane in 2020, which will go down as the first year ever that can be used as an adjective to describe tough times in your life or a way to describe a terribly surprising situation that pops up in life!  People for years to come will be saying, “Wow, that sounds tough, you really got 2020’ed there!” I don’t know about you, but I’m ready to turn the page and just try again in 2021!  We are all thinking that way right?  We are ready to say goodbye to 2020 and never…NEVER look back!

Well, this leads us into our discussion today and I will start with a question that may be a little challenging to receive.  Are you ready for it?

Could we be better for all that we walked through in 2020?  Can we grow and learn and be stronger for all the challenges that this dumpster fire of a year has brought to the table?

Listen, I know that for some of you that was a difficult question to receive because this year has brought so much pain and adversity to our lives.  But I think we need to talk about it.  I also know that for most of us we get to the end of a difficult year like this and we just want to make our New Year Resolutions, set some new goals, and start over in 2021!  Believe me, I feel that way too.  But it’s really important to take a look back and learn and grow from all we walk through.  For so many of us when we look back over this year, we can see many plans, many hopes, and many dreams that didn’t take place.  I can tell you personally that is something I have walked through with my family and with our church family.  My daughter didn’t get all the senior year fun that takes place in a typical year.  My sons missed their track seasons, my youngest daughter lost her soccer season…they all missed the social interactions and times with friends in school (whether they would admit that or not, they missed school!)  My parents were taking our entire family to St. Thomas on an Island vacation out of the country, and for my family that was a big deal!  We don’t do big trips like that and my wife and kids were really excited…but it all went away.  I sit in my office every day here at the church with a wipe board on the wall, that had some amazing events and ideas for what we could do to continue to help people far from God find Him here in 2020, and none of it happened.  I don’t know why but I haven’t been able to wipe that board off yet, so much potential, but none of it came together.

All of those tough things are happening as we navigate national shutdowns, job loss, illness, and even death.  For many of us in our small towns in America the virus stuff seemed really far away in the spring and the summer and we couldn’t understand why we were not able to do all the things that we wanted to do.  It left many frustrated and depressed.  Then you add the Political stuff, and all the other tensions we felt, along with that feeling that we couldn’t plan more than a day in advance all year!  I mean it felt like there was something new to figure out and navigate every day and it left many of us really struggling this year.

I also think for some of us, if we can be honest with ourselves, when we look back over 2020, we didn’t respond all that well at times to all the things that were being thrown at us.  There are a lot of studies right now showing that people worked less, ate more, drank more, binged watched more TV shows than ever before in isolation, and sadly have disconnected from God and from their church communities at an alarming rate.  Which gives us even more to talk about because those actions or lack of actions that we made during this brutal year we call 2020 are a response to life and adversity.  We may not see it that way, but those actions are a response to adversity.  So let me ask you another question that no one wants to hear when they are in pain, or frustrated or dealing with adversity and challenges in their lives.

What if these 2020 moments were in our lives for a reason?  What if these challenges were not roadblocks to keep us from moving forward but actual opportunities to grow?

I can tell you when I’m struggling, or in pain…the last thing I want to hear is that God may use these moments for good or that everything happens for a reason.  I never want to hear it, but what if it’s true?  I mean our Scriptures our clear, God our Heavenly Father wants us to grow up.  I mean listen to Jesus’ words here in His famous Sermon on The Mount!

Matthew 5:48 “In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.” MSG

We can move all through Scripture and see that Our Heavenly Father’s goal for us, is that we grow up into the people that He has created and designed us to be, here’s a few more just for fun.

Ephesians 4:15 Instead, we will speak the truth in love, growing in every way more and more like Christ, who is the head of his body, the church. NLT

2 Peter 3:18 Grow in grace and understanding of our Master and Savior, Jesus Christ. MSG

I could keep going with different examples of Scripture that help us see that we, God’s children are to grow up into Spiritual Adulthood.  This is a big deal…but shouldn’t we get a pass on that in 2020?  I mean the Bible couldn’t mean that I’m to grow through times of Global Pandemics, and Nationwide shutdowns, and sickness, and political volatility, and times of financial challenges and so many questions about the future.  I mean I’m all for growing up but it’s really tough to do in times like these…wouldn’t you agree?  Can we just say it?  Can we really grow as people through these tough times?  Through all the adversity, pain, fear, and confusion that we are walking in on a daily basis?  Well, you may not want to hear this, but the answer is a resounding YES.  I’m not sure there is a better teacher than experience.  Some of us just need to feel it, we can’t take your word for it!  I will tell you personally and sometimes unfortunately pain has been the best teacher in my life.   This is what we are diving into today, and I know it’s a challenging conversation but it is really weighing on my heart to press in on this idea that we can grow and be better for the tough times that we walk through.

So now I’m going to do it, we are going to turn to James now and read the verse that no one likes to hear while walking through trials in their lives…

James 1:2 Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. 4 Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. NIV

I know this is the last thing we want to hear while dealing with the challenges of life.  And I will tell you that I don’t always find pure joy in my pain and the challenges life throws at me, but this is a big deal…once again Scripture is telling us something about growing in adversity.  Check out the same Scripture this time in the NLT…

James 1:2 Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. 3 For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. 4 So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing. NLT

I really like that “consider it an opportunity…” we will be coming back to that later in this talk but once again we are seeing that we can become mature and complete not lacking anything as we walk through difficulty and challenges and see them as opportunities to grow closer to God and into the people He created us to be, mature and complete…not lacking anything!

So, if you are hanging in there with me to this point you may be thinking to yourselves; “How?  Sam, how do I grow when life is so hard?  Is it even possible to grow up like Scripture says through these challenges in life?”  The short answer is yes.  But it starts with some intentionality on our part.  When we are walking through trials in our lives, our instincts often are to be frustrated, and to pull away from life and sometimes God.  We get angry as we watch our best laid plans crumble right in front of us.  We know what life should look like in our human minds…and when it doesn’t go the way we would like it’s hard to not get depressed or angry and leaves us tempted to just quit.  I would challenge you to think through any concept or purpose that God may have for you in the spot you feel stuck in right now.  I know that may sound a bit insensitive to your pain but ask yourself some important questions…push through the pain, and frustration and ask these questions, all of which help us maybe see that God may have a greater purpose in mind.  This is so important and while we don’t like hearing it we must understand what God’s purpose is for these moments in our lives.  Are you ready for the questions?

Could God be trying to get my attention through the tough times I’m walking in?  This is an important question and one I think we really needed to ask ourselves in the tough moments.  Just as an example of how this mindset could help us, let’s just say there is something crazy happening like a Nationwide shut down to try and slow the spread of a virus that is sweeping the world.  I don’t know if that would ever happen but if it did, we should ask ourselves this question.  It may help us, you know, if this situation ever arose in our lives.  It is interesting.  One of the number one reasons that people tell us that they don’t spend time with God is the fact that they are too busy…they just don’t have the time.  Well this year, through the Nationwide shut down, we had the time, but many people pulled away from God, rather than realizing the time they may have been given to draw closer to Him.  We must ask ourselves, in the painful moments of life, could God be trying to get our attention.  What if 2020 gave us the gift of time, something we always tell everyone we never have?

Could the challenge that I’m facing be God trying to help me see just how much I need Him?  We humans are very confident in our own strength and ability to push through things, we would call that pride, and it is something we all need squeezed out of us so that we grow into this understanding of just how much we need God in our lives.  Paul often spoke of this thorn in his flesh. Did you ever read his words on that?

2 Corinthians 12:7 …So to keep me from becoming proud, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger from Satan to torment me and keep me from becoming proud.8 Three different times I begged the Lord to take it away. 9 Each time he said, “My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.” So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me. 10 That’s why I take pleasure in my weaknesses, and in the insults, hardships, persecutions, and troubles that I suffer for Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong. NLT

That thorn in his flesh kept Paul humble and was his constant reminder of just how much he needed God in his life.  His trials and adversity reminded him of his need of God.  He understood where true strength comes from as he leaned on God in his weakness…and so should we.

As we walk through difficulty in our lives we can continue to try to push through things in our own strength or we can take the moment to understand that God uses these moments to help us grasp just how much we need Him.  What did we see Paul say there in verse 10?

2 Corinthians 12:10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. NIV

There it is again, someone else delighting in hardships and persecution and difficulty and weakness!  Trials and challenges squeeze out our pride, these difficult moments help us remember we are weak but God is strong!

Could I be walking through this not just to be drawn closer to my love for God but also to better love others?  We know that our ultimate goal as Christians is to do two things.  It’s to love God and to love others.  Jesus told us it’s the most important thing we can do.

Matthew 22:37 Jesus said, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence.’ 38 This is the most important, the first on any list. 39 But there is a second to set alongside it: ‘Love others as well as you love yourself.’ 40 These two commands are pegs; everything in God’s Law and the Prophets hangs from them.” MSG

So, we have already asked some questions of ourselves that can lead us to that first peg of loving God and being drawn to Him through these difficult times.  Crushing our pride and leading us towards a greater dependence on Him.  But another part of growing up is understanding that we aren’t the only people on the planet!  We are to love God AND to love others…and I want you to think about this.  When you walk through pain and challenges and adversity it can absolutely help us to love others well.  Think about it, as you walk through challenges and pain it helps you understand and have patience for people as they walk through similar things doesn’t it?  You can place yourself in their shoes.  This is what a disciple of Christ does every day as they walk through life wanting others to experience the joy and hope and love and healing and forgiveness that they are experiencing through Jesus!  Walking through tough times can give us a level of empathy and compassion that probably doesn’t happen if we aren’t walking through stuff too.

So how are you doing so far?  I’m stopping to ask you that right now because these next two thoughts or questions that you need to ask can be a little more challenging…as if this whole talk hasn’t been so far but I want you to breathe and think through this with me…here’s the next one.

Could God be allowing me to deal with these trials and tribulations in life because He loves me?  Are you doing ok with that one?  I want you to understand something, God isn’t enjoying your pain.  He is a loving father and wants you to have all the comfort and protection that you need, just as any father wants for their child…but a father also knows at some level their children must walk through things in life, and while it hurts me as a dad to watch my children struggle, I know they need to push through and grow in those tough moments…and that is just me as a dad having walked through things my children need to walk through!  God knows the whole story that is unfolding for us and He also knows the purposes He has created for us all to walk in.  God loves us enough to allow things to happen that may not necessarily line up with our plans for life, but always line up with His.  I truly believe at times He has to protect us from ourselves.  I don’t know how that registers in your brain today but I know my life at times needs to reroute from a plan that made so much sense to me…and when it was rerouted, it felt more like a derailment than loving guidance…but what if God loves me so much that I have to walk through what I’m walking through to protect, and guide me towards the person He wants me to be?

Could God know exactly what it takes for me to live out my God given purpose?  I don’t know about you, but I know what I think life should look like!  I know what my family should look like.  I know what our churches should look like.  I know what my relationships with others should look like…but what is interesting is how often none of those things look like what I want them to look like.  What is interesting is when I slow myself down and really think about it, they always look like what God wants them to look like.  That fact doesn’t make things easier or more comfortable, but they are happening for a reason.  His reasons.  Listen to what Paul says here in Romans 8…

Romans 8:28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.  NIV

In all things God works for the good of those who love Him and have been called to His purpose!  So, included in “all things” would be the good, and warm, and comfortable times in life…but also included in the “all things” would be tests, challenges, and the painful moments too.  All of which God is using for good in those who love Him, moving us towards our God given purpose!  What a powerful thought.  I wonder if you can get there and buy into that thought as you walk through tough times?

Listen, it’s been a really frustrating stretch of time for us here in 2020.  It is tough to watch last year’s goals and dreams just fall flat or get crushed by all that came at us this year but we have to get to a place where we understand that God is in control and pushing and fighting for control of things we simply do not control is a really exhausting and never ending exercise.  You can’t control what you don’t control.  This year the verse that has calmed me down in some of my more overwhelming moments is found in Psalms.  I have come back to this time and time again this year.

Psalms 115:3 Our God is in the heavens, and he does as he wishes. NLT

When I get too overwhelmed or frustrated or angry or depressed as things seem to fall apart or simply don’t look like what I want them to look like I try to come back to that verse and take a few deep breaths.  Our God is in the heavens, and He does as He wishes…it helps me remember I’m not running the show He is, and none of this is sneaking up on Him!

So as we land the plane here in 2020, I do think it’s important that we take some time to reflect and learn and grow.  I know it was a total dumpster fire, but we can learn and be better for it.  Life is hard, and we walk through so many challenges and so much pain…those hurts and the tensions you feel are so real…but in all of it we press on, we grow, we learn, and are better for all of it.  When (not if but when) you are walking through those painful moments you need to think some things through.  Your instincts will be to pull away from the pain, but my challenge for you is not to run from it, but to turn into it.  No one likes the tough stuff, but we must think it all through.  In the middle of the trials ask yourself.

What is God’s goal for this in my life? What could God be teaching me in this moment?

Am I fighting this, or am I able to surrender my life to God and trust Him in the middle of the mess I’m in?  If you can’t trust him and surrender your life to God, you need to process that and ask yourself why.

Am I able to find rest in the middle of this mess or am I exhausted?  Not being able to rest is a big-time sign that God is not in control of your life, you are…your exhaustion is telling you that you aren’t trusting Him.

Listen, Our Heavenly Father wants us (His Children) to grow and Scripture is so clear, that adversity helps us grow.  These challenges can deepen our faith in God.

1 Peter 1:6 So be truly glad. There is wonderful joy ahead, even though you have to endure many trials for a little while. 7 These trials will show that your faith is genuine. It is being tested as fire tests and purifies gold—though your faith is far more precious than mere gold. So when your faith remains strong through many trials, it will bring you much praise and glory and honor on the day when Jesus Christ is revealed to the whole world. NLT

These challenges can also change us from the inside out because of God pouring His love in us.

Romans 5:3 Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; 4 perseverance, character; and character, hope. 5 And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us. NIV

I know, I know, we have thrown a lot of Scripture at you today.  As I put this talk together, I realize it’s some really good but really challenging Scripture to receive as we walk through difficult times…but here’s what we know about life.  Tough times are coming, and we can be better for them.  Scripture is so clear that we can grow through the challenges of life and that we should be growing through them!  But I want to make one thing very clear.  Your mindset and perspective go a long way into you being able to learn and grow through life’s challenges.  I told you earlier I wanted to come back to James’ words in the NLT because there is a phrasing there that we really need to grab hold of…

James 1:2 Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. 3 For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. 4 So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing. NLT

That word opportunity” really stands out to me and it leads to a mindset that we must have if we want to grow through these challenging times.  We need to view the trials of life as opportunities.  Can you view adversity in your life that way?  I think for most of us we see it as a roadblock rather than an opportunity.  It’s the thing in our way that won’t allow things to go the way we want…but what if we began to view these moments as challenges to be overcome rather than barriers from what we want.  So, as we close this conversation down just a few more questions to help you really personalize this because it’s so important for our growth and development in our Faith.

  • What is your mindset on this?  Do you view the trials and challenges of life as opportunities? 
  • As you look back over the dumpster fire that was 2020 how did you respond to all that came at you?
  • Where are you feeling the most stress/fear/pain in life right now?  Could this be an area where God is trying to do a work in you?
  • What is keeping you from fully trusting and surrendering your life to God? 
  • What would it mean or take for you to give your life over to God today?

I always love New Year’s Day!  It’s a day of hope and new beginnings.  But as we eat our pork and sauerkraut and make our New Year Resolutions for 2021, I think it’s important to take a look back.  Yes we will close that chapter and move on but it’s important to learn and grow from all that came of 2020 and maybe as we move in to 2021 we can be better, more grateful, and more dependent on Our Lord and Savior for all that took place in 2020 because maybe just maybe these were opportunities to help us grow.  Maybe just maybe none of it snuck up on God…and maybe, just maybe it could all be helping us grow into the people God always created us to be.

Happy New Year!