Acts 14:21-22, After they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying, “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.”
Sometimes in life we stray away from our goals, possibly because we have simply drifted away from our mission. Maybe we are astray because we are afraid to continue to travel the path we know we really should be walking. Both Paul and Barnabas are in Derbe and they backtrack on a number of cities on their way to Syrian Antioch where missionary life had begun. They intentionally took the long route. Why would they go back through Lystra where Paul had been stoned and left for dead? Why would they go back through Iconium where they had narrowly escaped being stoned? Why go through Pisidian Antioch where they faced being persecuted and expelled? Acts 14:22 explains the reason for risking so much – they went to strengthen the disciples and encourage their faith. They had preached a message of commitment and were living proof that faith has a price, and it can be very steep. They wanted to show those early Christians that while they had been challenged, they were still living the sermons they preached.
They preached a message of faithful hardship which is a real paradox to many Christians today. In a world filled with victimization mentalities and health and welfare ministries, they taught of sacrifice and hardship. They taught about selflessness and generosity toward Jesus, and to their fellow man. The idea of unavoidable trouble may not be what strengthens people, and so we expect Gospel messages more akin to softer aspects of faith and Christian life. The value of hardship is found in the decisions we make when we handle these various pressures. We can decide to move away from a life of more sacrifice and expense, to one of ease and comfort. On the other hand, we can also decide to work toward the greater good. The avoidance of fear can be more exhausting than actually facing those same fears. We can grow our faith when we move away from fear and begin dealing with whatever it is we are so specifically concerned about. When hardship is accepted, it can be an actual relief.
If hardship in the lives of Christians was so rare, I think those of us who face them would be very discouraged about that point.
Hardship can be the result of our own direct sin, or simply because we live in a corrupt world. In the case of our own sin, we can begin our relationship with Christ and have a new life through His sacrifice. (Mark 16:16; Matthew 28:16-20) If we are already Christians then we can seek the forgiveness of God through confession and prayer. (Acts 8:9-25) Sometimes, our trouble has nothing to do our own actions. Even here our faith can grow by facing this trouble as we might be able to. If we are led to some false doctrine of prosperity, we will find tremendous discouragement, confusion and the position of still being lost spiritually. We cannot address personal sins if we are not truly aware of their origin. God blesses us richly, but life here on earth will never be completely healthy, problem free and prosperous.
Problems in life are not necessarily a sign of immaturity or faithlessness. We should determine the reason for our struggles, and deal with them on a real and factual basis. Just know that we will go through many hardships on the road to being faithful. (Matthew 7:13-14) Who knows the great blessing to ourselves, or others, when we do what we should, instead of simply what is most convenient?