There are seasons in our lives when even existing feels like hard work. I have recently been through a period in which I felt bombarded from all sides: in relationships, in my health and in the health of those closest to me. I had moments when I had to fight to keep my head above the swirling waters of despair that were trying to suck me down.
As someone with a tendency to be negative (I have experienced depression a number of times), I really had to wrestle with God and remember some of the things He's taught me.
Here are a few of the main things. I hope that at least some will be helpful if you are experiencing a difficult time at the moment – or can be stored up for those moments when you are.
1) Accept that difficulties are inevitable
Some of us have been fed the line that life is sweet all the time once we accept Jesus into our lives. It is true that we can know a peace that 'transcends all understanding' (Philippians 4:7) but nowhere in the Bible are we promised an easy ride. In fact Jesus quite clearly said: that 'In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world' (John 16:33).
I know it isn't nice when we are going through the mill to be told to suck it up and expect such hardship – and yet it is important that we remember that aren't entitled to anything else. When we forget that we can be prone to self-pity, which is so unhelpful.
2) Be honest
You need to let friends and family know how hard you are finding things, in order for them to reach out and help you. But I would say the place to start is by being honest with God. A quick look through the psalms reveals how the psalmists were not shy about telling God how they felt! God wants us to pour out our feelings to Him. There is something cathartic about doing so too, as it draws us closer to Him.
That's the important thing about this: we need to stay connected God. We won't always get answers to our questions, but we do get reassurance that God is with us throughout the valley moments as well as those mountain highs.
3) Don't plead with God to rush you through this period
When we pour out our feelings of desperation to God we oftend end up asking Him to set us free from difficulty. But if we do that we are living just for the future, not the moment. I'm not saying we should be embracing everything that is thrown at us without question, but the attitude with which we approach hard seasons makes such a difference. How often do we say that God can use us despite our circumstances, when the truth is He will use us through them? His is a very different perspective to ours and there may well be bigger reasons for what we are facing than we can see or understand.
4) Allow others into your life
I know that when I'm experiencing difficulties I have a tendency to want to dive back under the duvet. Having to face people is really hard. Hiding away is so much easier... but so much worse for our souls.
Being a leader and a pastor's wife I can find that my life is somewhat on show and the temptation can be to put on a brave face and pretend that life is fine, quickly asking the person I'm with about their life so I can get on to helping them rather than opening up.
We need to be on the look out for one another, ready to be a shoulder to cry on or offer practical help when someone else is struggling. However we also need to get vulnerable enough that people see the real us and realise that we could do with support ourselves. There can be that tendency to moan that no one is reaching out to us – and yet we haven't told anyone what is going on and let on that we are struggling at all!
A word to those trying to reach out: we won't always know the right thing to say, and sometimes the person is in such a place of hurt that their natural response is to lash out. Rather than giving up on a close friend who doesn't respond well to your efforts to begin with, keep persevering and showing them that you love them. (Of course you shouldn't accept abusive behaviour – I'm talking here about a really close friend who is in so much pain they aren't sure how to deal with your attempts to help them.) There is so much worth in just sitting in silence together during those times when words seem inadequate.
5) Accept that you won't always know the reasons why
I have struggled with this question a lot. With a mother who has been ill for most of my life and is now in constant pain and very frail, I have railed at God asking why He's allowed her to have such a life of suffering. And yet I know that the 'why' question is futile. In the moments when I'm desperately wanting the answer I remind myself of what the psalmists do: pour out all the desperation and then turn their gaze upon God. Job can teach us so much about this too. He was a character that didn't deserve the suffering that he and his family experienced at all. And he did face up to God demanding answers. God's response to Him is incredibly humbling, and when Job did meet God face to face and God spoke to him he gave up the need to know why: 'Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know' (Job 42:3).
I do know that one of the answers people are given for the reason for suffering is Romans 5:3-5: 'Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.'
I understand that, and have learned a great deal over my lifetime about how God refines my character during hardship. But there are moments when being told to look at that passage seems like a pat answer; we need something deeper. And yet Job's story teaches me that, while this is one of the biggest issues in my life, learning to surrender the need to know why is one of the most important things I will ever do. It shows I am trusting my heavenly Father, even when I don't understand what is going on...