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10:  “God’s School of Hard Knocks”

How many of you out there would say you have lived a charmed life – that your whole life has been easy, that everything you hoped for has happened just as you planned, that you have never experienced any disappointments or heartaches or reversals?  Anyone?  Of course not.  I didn’t really expect that would describe anyone here this morning.  That’s because, even when life is good, it’s never easy, is it?  The truth is that life is pretty tough!

Even the most blessed among us have had hardships and setbacks in life.  We all have endured troubles and challenges and griefs.  There are those (here this morning / sitting in the pews) who know exactly what I am talking about – who are struggling with their health, or their finances, or are trying to hold their marriage or family together, or have had to helplessly stand by and watch a loved one die.  We all have known what it feels like to believe we’ve been cursed rather than charmed, condemned to one misfortune after another, piling burden upon burden, until we are convinced we will collapse under the strain.  We even have an expression for someone who has had to endure one difficulty after another and has managed to survive:  We say they have graduated from “the school of hard knocks.”   Yes, I think we can all agree that life is hard.

And when we experience the “hard knocks” life throws at us, we sometimes conclude that, not only is life not easy, it also doesn’t seem fair.  Unless you are a saint, you will have to admit that sometimes you have thought that God was out to get you – that he either is up in heaven doling out tragedies in order to punish us for our sins, or that he sends us troubles so he can sadistically sit back and enjoy watching us suffer.  Now, fess up – I know I’m not the only one who has ever felt that way, at least on occasion!  You know you have felt that way!   You may even feel that way right now. 

So, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to us that, when life seems unbearable, we can become angry at God, shaking our fist in his face, and shouting, “Why me?”  Or worse, we can become cynical, turning our back on God and losing our faith all together.  Both reactions are based on our assumption that God is somehow responsible for the hard knocks we encounter in life.

But I believe that most of the time when you and I experience hard knocks in life, it isn’t some kind of punishment of our sins.  I tend to believe that God is not so much concerned with doling out suffering as he is with helping you and me to grow as a result of the suffering we inevitably will endure in life.  God isn’t our enemy, he is our advocate.  God isn’t our divine prosecutor, he is our divine tutor.  God doesn’t cause the “hard knocks” we experience in life, but he can USE those “hard knocks” as tools to help us grow into more mature people of faith, to draw us closer to him so that we can learn to serve him better.  At least, that’s been my experience.  And I think it has been the experience of God’s People all throughout history.

The people of Israel certainly have had to endure more than their share of “hard knocks” in their history – probably more than any other nation.  From their initial generations, even right up to the present hour, the Jewish people have had to endure one misfortune after another.  Even from their earliest origins we see how hard and unfair life was for them.  God pledged to their ancestors that he would give them a Promised Land, but then denied them possession of it.  Instead, they spent 400 years in Egypt, eventually as slaves.  And when God finally acted through Moses to liberate them from Pharaoh, were they free?  Not really.  They were condemned to spend 40 years of hardship wandering through a desert, until the entire generation of those who had experienced the Exodus from Egypt had succumbed to plagues, disease, warfare, or old age.  Only those born in the wilderness would be allowed to finally enter the Promised Land, a land they would have to fight for if they wanted to live there.  Yes, if any people ever experienced a life of hard knocks – if anyone could ever say that life is unfair –  it was the Jews!

If they were God’s chosen people, then why did they have to suffer so?  God had promised them a land flowing with milk and honey, and acted miraculously to liberate them from slavery in Egypt, only to condemn them to 40 years of hardship and anguish in the wilderness.  What kind of God would do that to his own people?  God promises you and me that we will be blessed if we follow him, and then condemns us to hardship and anguish in our lives.  What kind of God would allow you and me to suffer the way we do?  Tough question.

Well, you and I are not the first people to struggle with that question.  For centuries, the Jews tried to make sense of those awful years of wandering, either by blaming God, or by blaming themselves.  They assumed that those dreadful years in the wilderness were the result of God’s wrath, just as you and I tend to assume that our hardships come from God’s wrath.

Like us, many of them concluded that God is an angry and vengeful God, who sees the faithlessness of his people as such an affront to his holiness that he seeks revenge to punish them for their sins.  The Prophet Ezekiel (20:13) declares this notion of God’s judgment with these harsh words:  “Yet the people of Israel rebelled against me in the desert. They did not follow my decrees but rejected my laws . . .  I (will) pour out my wrath on them and destroy them in the desert.”  No wonder many of the Jews concluded that God brings hardship on us in order to punish us! 

But there were others, including the author of our text from Deuteronomy, who reflected on the wilderness experience and came to a very different conclusion.  As they saw it, God wasn’t so much chastising Israel as he was using the experiences of hardship to train her so she might become worthy to be called his chosen people. 

The wilderness wanderings were not for the peoples’ punishment, but for their rehabilitation.  As I said a moment ago, God doesn’t cause the “hard knocks” we experience in life, but he can USE those “hard knocks” as tools to help us grow into more mature people of faith, to draw us closer to him so that we can learn to serve him better.

You see, Israel had been called by God to become “a light to the nations,” an example to the world of what it means to be a godly people.  If that is so, then they had an awful lot to learn.  Do you think that those rag-tag rebellious people that left slavery in Egypt were ready to be “a light to the nations?”  They didn’t even know who God was, how could they help lead others to him?  God needed to give Israel a crash course in what it means to be his faithful people.  And the lessons learned would not be easy ones – but they were necessary.  Only when they had graduated from God’s “School of Hard Knocks” would the Israelites be prepared to enter the Promised Land and be the People of God they were called to be.

So, what did they have to learn before they could call themselves God’s People?  What tests did they have to pass, before they could graduate from “God’s School of Hard Knocks?”  The same tests you and I must pass, if we are to ever reach our Promised Land: 

First, there was  The Test of Humility

Our scripture text from Deuteronomy says, “The Lord your God led you these forty years in the wilderness” . . . Why? . . . “to humble you.”  Humility is the gift we receive when we surrender our pride.  Pride puffs us up, and gives us the illusion that we know better than God.  It is the core element of sin.  But more seriously, it stands in the way of our relationship with God.  The Israelites had to be stripped of their pride before they could be of any use to God.  Adversity breaks our pride and breeds humility.

On President John Kennedy’s desk in the Oval Office stood a small plaque bearing this inscription:  “O God, Thy sea is so great and my boat is so small.” 

Humility reminds us that, without God, we are nothing.  Until we pass the test of humility, we do not deserve to call ourselves the people of God, because we are too full of ourselves.  So the first text is the test of humility.

The second test to pass is The Test of Faithfulness

According to that same verse, there was a second purpose for the 40 years of wandering: not only to humble them, but also “to prove (them), to know what was in (their) mind and heart, whether (they) would keep (God’s) commandments or not.”

The People of Israel always had trouble with this one.  If you will recall, the 10 Commandments had barely been etched in stone before the people broke several of them by worshiping a golden calf.  Over and over throughout their history, the Jewish people proved how difficult it is to remain faithful and true to the commands of God – not that you and I do much better. 

In our text from James, we are reminded that God still “tests our faith” to prove our fidelity to him.  It would take God 40 years to train a whole new generation what it means to be faithful before they could become a role model of a godly nation for all the world to see.  Why do we think it would be any easier for us to pass the test of faithfulness?

The third test is The Test of Trust

In Proverbs 3:5 we find the crib notes to help us pass this test:  “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight.  In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your path.”

To make sure the people of Israel learned this lesson, the Lord led them into a place where they had no other alternative but to trust him.  They could not produce their own food or make their own clothes.  Certainly, they were unable to win their battles by themselves.  They had no law or foundation on which to establish a nation.  In this desolate setting God taught Israel that he alone was sufficient.  If Israel was to be God’s people, they had to learn to trust God completely.  And it is only when we cannot rely on our own strength, that we discover that God’s strength is all we really need. 

Humility, Faith, and Trust:

The final exam is  The Test of Trainability

You know, when you study the scriptures, it’s always important to look at various translations, because sometimes one translation sheds light on the others.   If you look up Deuteronomy 8:5 in most of the translations that are widely used, you would miss this final exam completely, but I believe it is probably the most important of the four, because without it, the other three are not achievable at all.

Most translations of verse 5 say either, “as a man punishes his son . . .  so God punishes you,” or “as a man chastises his son . . . so God chastises you.”  Unfortunately, those translations, if not technically incorrect, are at least incomplete and misleading.  The word used there in the original language can mean “punish” but it more broadly means, “to train, to discipline, or to instruct.”  The choice of translations dramatically alters, not only the meaning of this verse, but also our understanding of the character of God himself.

I think this text is confirming what I have been saying about how God uses the “hard knocks” of life – that God never intended the 40 years of wandering to be a punishment, but instead to be a training ground” a “School of Hard Knocks” that would refine and perfect the Israelites into a righteous and godly people, worthy to serve him.  And he uses the trials and tribulations we face every day for the same purpose!

I think Sir Rabindranath Tagore understood how God works in our lives when he gave this analogy:  “I have on my table a violin sting.  It is free.  I twist one end of it and it responds.  It is free.  But it is not free to do what a violin string is supposed to do – to produce music.  So I take it, fix it in my violin, and tighten it until it is taut.  Only then is it free to be a violin string.”

That is what I mean by trainability.  At the beginning of their wilderness sojourn, the Israelites may have been free (like the loose violin string), but they were not yet free to be who God had called them be.  They need to be trained, disciplined and instructed.  Like dross that can only be removed by subjecting metal to intense heat, so God uses our hardships to purify the metal of our lives.  In the wilderness School of Hard Knocks, God was acting to train and discipline his people so they could become what the were created to be. 

That’s why throughout their history, the Jewish people have looked back on those 40 years of struggle with nostalgia – because even though those years were filled with hardship and adversity, they were the formative years of their history, the time when their faith was firmly established and their relationship with God was cemented.  In short, this most difficult period of their history is seen as the time they were, in reality, the most blessed – because their hardships brought them into a deeper relationship with God.

And isn’t that your experience, too?  When you think back over your life, especially those periods of your life when you grew dramatically in your relationship with God, what was going on in your life?

If you’re like most people, it was when you were going through some crisis that threatened to undo you:  illness, family or marital troubles, financial reversals, the death of a loved one – when your life was the hardest – that is when your relationship with God grew the most.  Isn’t that so?

I know from personal experience that this is true.  In 2010, I was diagnosed with prostate cancer.  After further tests, it became clear that the cancer had already spread to neighboring tissue around the prostate, and so I was scheduled for surgery.  The surgeon removed my prostate and the neighboring tissue, and the hope was that he had removed all the cancer cells, and I would be cured.  Unfortunately, 18 months later, my PSA level began to rise, and I underwent 39 sessions of radiation, again with the hope for a cure.  Then in 2014, my PSA began to rise once more, and I was put on Eligard shots to suppress my testosterone in the hopes that this would prevent the cancer cells from reproducing.  I praise God that, by January 2016, my PSA returned to undetectable, and it has remained undetectable ever since!

It’s too soon to call me “cured,” and even now I am tested regularly (in fact, I am waiting of the results of blood work right now).  Even with good reports, I will be dealing with prostate cancer for the rest of my life.  I expect to be healthy and active for many years to come. But I am aware that my cancer could return at any time, and that my life may be shorter than it would have been, had I not had this disease.

In many ways, the past twelve years has been my time of wandering in the wilderness.  It has been my “School of Hard Knocks,” and I have been trying to learn the lessons that God wants to teach me.  I’m learning humility, that God is in charge and I am not;  which has caused me to reaffirm my faith – as I search the scriptures for words of assurance and reminders of God’s grace at work in my life;  as a result, I learned to trust God, surrendering to his will for my life, whatever that turns out to be … to be able to say with Paul (Philippians 1:20-21) “Christ will be exalted now as always in my body, whether by life or by death.  For to me, living is Christ, and dying is gain.”  But most of all, I have learned that, to really grow close to God, to become all that God has called me to be, I must remain teachable.  For only when I am willing to learn from the hard knocks of life, can I ever hope to reach the joy of the Promised Land.

My sisters and brothers, are you wandering in the wilderness today?  Do you find yourself being tested  by difficulties and hardships in life?  Don’t despair.  Instead, embrace your trials and tribulations as opportunities to increase your humility, your faith, your trust, and your teachability, so that God can shape you into the kind of person fit for the Promised Land.

Did God cause my cancer?  No.  But, is God using my cancer to draw me ever closer to him?  ABSOLUTELY!  I hope to graduate with honors from “The School of Hard Knocks.”  You can, too!

Remember the good counsel of James: “Dear brothers and sisters, whenever troubles come your way, let it be an opportunity for joy.  For when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow.  So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be strong in character and ready for anything.”

So how about you?  How are you doing at passing the tests in God’s School of Hard Knocks?

© 2022 John B. Gill, III