Pierce Taylor Hibbs
I’m almost 35. That’s an important age for me. It was at 35 that my late father learned he had a brain tumor that would one day claim his life. He ended up living another 12 years. But I think about that moment often, that cold conversation when he learned—with a wife and four little kids—that death was stepping on his shoe heels.
Though our world is filled with beauty, though grace flows through our veins and sings around us like the song birds, suffering is always close at hand. It’s mingled with the air we breathe. It clings to the morning light and rises after nightfall. There are the big things. Brain tumors. Spinal cancer. Bicycle accidents. Coronavirus. Kidney failure. Divorce. Betrayal. Job loss. And then there are the little things. Vertigo. Lack of motivation. Toothaches—which C. S. Lewis noted can cause us to question God’s existence. In both cases, with the big and the little, we feel pushed into hard things.
Why do hard things happen? It’s an ancient question. And the frustrating thing for most of us is that we know, deep down, that there are only two types of answers to that question: the general and the specific. We long for the latter, but we often only get the former. But maybe we don’t give the general answer, an answer that rings out like a bell from the halls of Scripture, enough of a hearing. Maybe the general answer is a door, and we can open it and start walking through to something profound.
The General Answer
The general answer might come as a surprise to some of us, because it’s not, “God has a wonderful plan for your life.” That’s true, of course, as Romans 8:28 reminds us. But it’s not quite the answer to the question, Why do hard things happen? The answer to that question is because you need to be shaped. Shaped to what, exactly? Shaped to the image of Christ.
But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’s sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. (2 Cor. 4:7–11)
You might substitute “hard things” for “death.” We are “always carrying in the body hard things,” “always being given over to hard things for Jesus’s sake.” Why? Here’s the wild part, the paradoxical answer of Scripture: because that’s how you receive the life of Jesus. That’s right: death and hard things are paths to the resurrection life of Jesus Christ. You don’t gain access to the life of Christ through pleasure and joy. You experience those things in this life, certainly. And so do I. Those are wonderful blessings. But that’s not where the resurrection life of Jesus comes from—a life echoing in our present days from the halls of eternity. The potent, invincible, pulsing life of God comes to us through the paths of suffering, through the paths of hard things.
This is exactly why Paul says that he wants to suffer. “That I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Phil. 3:10–11). Paul wants to share in Christ’s sufferings, in the hard things of Christ. Doesn’t that sound insane?! It should. It’s otherworldly.
And that was the plan from the beginning. Sharing in Christ’s suffering and then receiving life through him—that’s what it means to be shaped to Christ. And before God even uttered creation into existence, in those deep and echoing halls of eternity, “those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.” Foreknew. Predestined. These are words that come before beginnings. Before you and I even had a chance to suck oxygen into our lungs, we were destined for shaping.
The General and the Specific, the Why and the How
I know, it’s not the most popular message, is it? It’s not the specific answer to our why question, which is what we want. We want to fill in the blank with concretes. “Donald Ray Hibbs died from a brain tumor at 47 because _______.” That blank is very hard to fill in with specifics because the world is too complex, and God is up to more than we could ever fathom. There’s not a specific answer to the why question that we can even wrap our minds around. We can speculate, and God might give us glimpses into his purposes, but only glimpses.
It’s the general answer of Scripture, the call to be shaped to Christ, that always fills in that blank. And then God calls us, through the Spirit, to look to his word through prayer in order to answer the how questions. How is this going to make me more like Jesus? How am I going to grow closer to Christ in his suffering?
Hoping for Hard Things to Happen?
I know that some people will be taken back by this truth. They’ll be discomforted by the idea that suffering is actually something we’re called to, not something that randomly hits us like shrapnel from the bombs of a broken world. Suffering is never accidental. It’s always intentional. It’s always between the great hands of a gracious God—no matter how much our tears and anguish may tell us to think otherwise.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, hard things are going to happen. They’re going to keep happening. As long as we’re alive, we’re going to hit hard things. Wouldn’t it be better to see them as opportunities for Christ-conformity? Wouldn’t it be freeing to claim that the hardest things are going to end up somehow being the best things? Wouldn’t it be amazing to know—not think or hope, but know—that every hard thing we face, from the death of your dad to the ache of a cavity, has the potential to make us more like Jesus, more like the Son of God?
I guess that’s why I hope hard things happen. I don’t hope for hard things in themselves. That would be sick. No one hopes for horrors. But I do hope that they happen, because the happening will always include shaping to Christ, a deeper communion with him, and the receiving of his resurrection life. When hard things happen, I’m going to look more like Jesus. I’m going to be shaped. Pressed. Molded. And so will you.
Pierce Taylor Hibbs (MAR, ThM Westminster Theological Seminary) is the author of several books, including Struck Down but Not Destroyed and Still, Silent, and Strong. His latest book is called Finding Hope in Hard Things. To learn more about the author and stay up-to-date on new publications, go to piercetaylorhibbs.com.