Hardship comes to us via every avenue of life, from beginning to end. Affliction is no more avoidable than air. And thankfully, Scripture has much to say about it. But one passage that has often redemptively grabbed me is from Lamentations 3.
“It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth. Let him sit alone in silence when it is laid on him; let him put his mouth in the dust—there may yet be hope.” (Lam 3:27-29). Now, the degree of hardship faced during the time of this verse exceeds what many of us will face. Even so, the verse illustrates a timeless principle on the topic of affliction: it is good for us young men (“young” could refer to under 40ish +/-) to experience a measure of hardship’s yoke.
But why? What is it about us young men such that affliction is particularly profitable? For the most part, it’s simply because we are young. We lack the full seasoning of sanctification. Our spiritual development is many stages from completion. The flesh has undergone less mortification. So, in God’s good sovereignty, affliction’s yoke in youth is a necessity which can move us along in the school of Christ. There’s nothing easy about it. But when our loving God grooms us with hardship, we young men can profit greatly. As a friend and mentor, Ray Mehringer, once said to me, “It’s the ‘ABC’s’ of Christianity: Adversity Builds Character.” And character building is the need of the hour for many of us young men.
By God’s grace, some are well-trained in hardship’s academy. For others of us, we may need to simply enter the school or re-take a few classes. For those like me who have often flunked in the school of struggle, here are a few reminders on the necessity of hardship, especially for us younger guys:
- Hardship reminds us that God is God.
As young men, we do not naturally gravitate towards respecting that God reigns solo on the throne of the universe. We are natural-born sovereignty contenders.
Further, as young guys, we sometimes glory in beholding what we’re capable of. Things like physical strength, energy, vigor, and the like; we suppose that they are something of cosmic value. Because they helped us bench more, play a sport well, experience a measure of success, that they carry sovereignty. We can accomplish things and get stuff done by our own strength.
Affliction is good, then, because it reminds us that our young-manness exercises no sovereign sway. God is God. And in his love for us, he may hand us hardship so that we cease secret self-admiration and bow low before our sovereign God.
- Hardship grows us in the concept of Christ’s lordship.
“Lord.” Generally, the word refers to one who lawfully owns other people as property, someone of supremacy, or one who possessed a right to individually rule over others. A lord was someone to whose requests you did not dare say, “No.” “Lord” is a word that has long-passed out of cultural style because submission is out of style because self-worship is in style. Like a stubborn donkey, our decadence can hardly handle the concept. We are far too awesome and important; we matter too much for lordship. Plus, with the internet and social media, everyone and their words radically boosts their matter-meter. If we look hard enough, everyone can find a place in which we can function as a little-lord. But it’s spiritual smoke and mirrors.
Christ is the Lord. The word appears about 700 times in the New Testament; far more than any other title. And the term, “Lord,” captures in large part our relationship with our loving God. It means that he possesses extraordinary and unrivaled supremacy: he will do things his way at all times in all places with all people. The lordship of Christ is perhaps the most necessary thing to know about Jesus. And hardship serves that knowledge.
Suffering is not a spiritual boot-camp given to us young men so that we can narcissistically prove ourselves. It is a spiritual endowment given to us so that we can submissively humble ourselves. As we embrace it, God grooms us in the concept of lordship.
- Hardship reminds us that we are extraordinarily frail in every way.
One of the things we enjoy most about our youth is our not-so-strong strength. We love what we can do. We love what we can do to be known.
Such impulses evidence that, in our brief existence, we may not have had enough encounters with our frailty and God’s power. However, even a brief consideration of God’s creation is convincing. For example, among trillions of other things, Jesus made this thing out in space called a “black hole.” A black hole is so strong that light moving at 186,000 miles per second is not fast or tough enough to evade its grasp. How fast does something have to be moving to evade your grasp?
Yet, if you’ve been stubborn like me, even the daily demonstrations of our weakness and God’s strength in creation are not convincing enough. We need something more. As our perfect Father, God will see to it that we decreasingly operate in a delusional state of personal potency.
He may ordain some physical weakness, sickness, or disease. Now, the presence of illness does not automatically mean God is disciplining us for some form of pride. But in either case, such great difficulties serve redemptive purposes to convince us of our frailty, which drives us to him. Young men need to know that they are frail.
- Hardship reminds us that we should not expect Eden-like circumstances in this life.
As I look back, I have many embarrassing moments in my ministry (and certainly more to come). Many of them bloomed from an unseasoned heart, ignorant that life outside of seminary is not edenic. Those first few years of things like ministry mistakes, people leaving the church, coming under slander and scorn; it was a shock to my infantile soul.
Other things like financial hardship, losing jobs, non-ideal housing and family circumstances, not getting to work your dream job, mistreatment at work and in the home; often young men suppose that these are bizarre things between Genesis 2 and Revelation 20. Yet they, and worse, are status quo.
So, one of the great ways we can position ourselves for a stable, fruitful life in Christ is to settle into the fact that life now is the photo-negative of heaven. Too often we unnecessarily compound our own discouragement because we make demands on this world that only heaven will meet.
So then, a measure of hardship reminds us of the ubiquitous thorns and thistles which we like to pretend are non-existent. By God’s grace, we can embrace things like little ministry fruit. That very well could be God’s best for us for where we are spiritually. It very well could be his mercy to withhold that which would lure our corrupt cravings for glory. If we experienced too much success, we could easily become glory thieves.
- Hardship reminds us that we are not great.
J.C. Ryle once wrote, “Pride never reigns anywhere so powerfully as in the heart of a young man.” We begin life with excessive-self-inflation syndrome. And in young men, many of us seem to have a bad case of it.
Even in Christian ministry, many of us quietly cling to the buzz of praise and recognition. It’s such a fun high. Some of us, for example, love social media because we can secretly bask in our pseudo-greatness, beholding the retweets, compliments, and flattery. We can make people believe that we are humble, yet still cyber crowd-surf behind the facade.
Young men, stop thinking you are great. You are not. Heaven laments the loathsome spectacle when any young man meditates on his own mythical greatness.
But in heaven’s mercy, affliction eradicates self-inflation syndrome. Hardship serves to pull us down from the proverbial crowd surfing. Because he loves us, God may pull the praise out from underneath us so that we fall flat on the floor. At that point, we have begun to assume a posture of worship. It’s as Thomas Watson once said: “When God lays men upon their backs, then they look up to heaven.”
- Hardship reminds us that our usefulness depends entirely on God’s mercy.
A bit of success in youth is a potential hazard. Temptation can whisper that our might made it happen. We begin to believe the praise. And we look at God’s glory with covetous eyes.
It’s then that affliction can shake us out of the spiritual stupor. John Newton put it this way when he once said to a young pastor, “Many distressing exercises you will probably meet with upon the best supposition to preserve in you a due sense of your own unworthiness and to convince you that your ability, your acceptance, and your usefulness depends upon a power beyond your own.”
God may raise gifted preachers or writers or athletes or engineers or doctors from dirt. In fact, he does it all the time. Clay pots are not indispensable. “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Cor 4:7).
- Hardship renders us more useful for God.
God has such great purposes for us. He loves us so much that he will settle for nothing less than conforming us daily to the image of the greatest Person in the universe: the Lord Jesus Christ.
But young men often suppose they are quite OK the way they are. So, we are slow to change. We are both blind and resistant to our woeful inadequacy before God to live a life for his glory. And many, if not most, of us possess little usefulness to God until we are older and have weathered many storms.
Other seasoned saints have observed this far before us:
Thomas Watson: “God’s smiting his people is like the musician’s striking upon the violin, which makes it put forth melodious sound. How much good comes to the saints by affliction! When they are pounded they send forth their sweetest smell.”
Augustine: “Affliction is God’s flail to thresh off our husks; not to consume, but to refine.”
- Hardship fosters perseverance in our lives.
As young men, there is one thing which is a scarcity in us all: perseverance. That is not to say that young men will not persevere. Rather, by virtue of our youth, we have not demonstrated much perseverance.
Especially for us younger guys, by God’s grace, a measure of struggle serves us well by eradicating pride and entitlement and infusing perseverance and humility (Rom 5:3-4).
- Hardship deepens our love for God’s word.
Since youth usually means less experience with hardship, Bible verses on suffering sometimes remain two-dimensional to many of us young men. We read them, hear them preached, and observe seasoned saints cling to them. But in our spiritual infancy, they are still a bit out of our reach. We’ve yet to put them into practice. And it’s not entirely our fault. We’re just young and inexperienced.
So, affliction charters us into biblical territory which we’ve seen and heard, but yet to thoroughly navigate.
Places like Psalm 119 become frequently visited territory:
“This is my comfort in my affliction, that your promise gives me life” (Ps 119:50).
“Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep your word” (Ps 119:67).
“It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes” (Ps 119:71).
Oftentimes we erroneously say, “He makes the Bible come alive to us.” But the Bible is living (Heb 4:12). Hardship profits us because it makes us come alive to the Bible.
- Hardship deepens us in God’s great sustaining grace.
It’s embarrassing to admit, but I have personally been frightened at verses like, “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim 3:12), and, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness” (Jas 1:2-3). But my fears of those verses reveal a deeper immaturity: I know little about God’s great sustaining grace for his children in trials. Really, it’s a sinful fear of God.
But as he holds our hand through various valleys, we learn an extraordinary lesson. Our weakness doesn’t change much. But, our understanding of his sustaining grace does. The fear of the unknown morphs to a trust in the Known. We learn that our suffering and weakness are not detrimental, but fundamental, to our intimacy with and usefulness for Christ.
We never have a “bring it on” attitude towards affliction. Rather, it is more of, “God, I would never choose this for myself, but as a young guy, I know that this is your good, fatherly care for me. And by your competent, intimate care alone, I will walk through this.”
We learn the priceless truth: “’My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (2 Cor 12:9).
Many more benefits come from God’s good hand in hardship. We could talk about, for example, how suffering weans us off the world and its vanity, increases our compassion for others in affliction, sets our compass more towards heaven and an eternal perspective, makes us more malleable and calm in the face of other hardship, and reminds us of the far greater sufferings of Christ in propitiating the wrath of God in our place.
Hardship is so helpful for us young men because it convinces us of our radical ordinariness. From the soil of ordinariness blooms a pure worship of, and usefulness for, our extraordinary Savior, Jesus Christ. Therefore, let us bow under the glorious youth-yoke that we might be more fully shaped into his image for the good pleasure of our Father.