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12. Cherish Your Challenges

We've all experienced those times when we wonder what on earth we're doing. Bobbing along quite nicely, we suddenly turn an unexpected bend in the road or encounter a bolt from the blue, and our whole world feels totally discombobulated.

I was in my mid-30s and mother to a two-year-old. Our lives had been turned upside-down, and we found ourselves in a new home and on our own. More accurately, I was on my own. A baby for company is no company at all when you realise that you have only yourself to rely upon. Punctuated by pockets of joy, the previous few years had largely been a dark time of loss and regret. That first night after I had moved our few possessions to our new home, I sat in my old armchair in a state of shock. I couldn't quite believe what I'd done. How was this my life? How on earth had my life led to this very moment? Me, a separated-from-my-husband single parent? And right then I experienced both freedom and fear in equal measure.

There was absolutely no doubt that God had carried me here. In the distress, in the grieving, God had kept me safe, provided me with a new home, shown me a way through. I was so grateful. Was it easy? Heck, no. If you've read my previous posts, you'll know that I'm cranially-challenged, uncoordinated, prone to bouts of gullibility, dabbling with regret, and generally just a hugely flawed woman trying to do her best. God didn't have the best material to work with.

I've mentioned before my wise owl of a friend, Louise. Everyone needs a Louise in their life. If you don't have one, go and find one of your own––mine's been taken! My Louise once said that, as a family (that is, my parents and siblings unit), we had a knack of 'leaping from one happy crisis to another.' She's right, of course. She usually is. That's the thing with wise owls: they're right smarty-pants.

It's a popular point-of-view that we bring troubles on ourselves and that, of course, is true to a certain extent. Some of our difficulties are down to our poor choices. It is quite plain that my ongoing struggle to pour myself into my skinny jeans is largely due to my love of fresh squashy bread topped with fruity strawberry jam. (And yes, a few sprinkles of genetic predisposition on the top for good measure.)

Another belief is that God rains down strife to punish us; that he somehow looms over us like some colossal spectre, waiting for us to mess up so that he can fling pain and hardship at us like gigantic hailstones. I'm just not convinced this is how the God of Love operates.

Now, can I blame God for my love of bread and jam? Well, yes, most likely, since he made me. But can I blame God for my choice to eat lots of bread and jam? Sadly not. That part is up to me. So God made me who I am, but he doesn't dictate every choice I make. (Ultimately, it seems that I'm going to have to part ways with the skinny jeans or the bread and jam. Tricky choice.)

My point is this: life is full of challenges. We are people, and that brings its own set of difficulties to everyone who claims to be human. (There is no doubt that my cats have a much easier time of it than I do. As I write, they are comatose on a fluffy blanket, and there they will stay for most of the day. Lucky beggars.)

Rick Warren describes this side of humanness this way:

Life is a series of problem-solving opportunities. The problems you face will either defeat you or develop you, depending on how you respond to them.

Challenges are not sent to destroy you. They are meant to promote, increase and strengthen you. Absolutely everyone faces challenges in life. It’s a matter of how you learn to overcome them and use them to your advantage.

The persecution of the early church caused many followers to flee from Jerusalem. But rather than dissipating the church, the message of the Gospel spread into other nations just as had been prophesied. The challenge, rather than resulting in failure, strengthened the zeal of those early followers to deliver their message wherever they found themselves. Without the challenge, the message may have remained in Jerusalem, and that would have left us non-Jewish people in a right mess.

So let's consider how God actually uses the challenges for our benefit.

God Uses Problems To Direct You

Sometimes, just sometimes, God needs to get our attention by lighting a firecracker under us to get us moving. No one wants a singed bottom, but it's true that often our problems point us in a new direction and cause us to change. Sometimes we need to walk a painful pathway to find a new way.

God Uses Problems To Inspect You

Just the other day, I read that people have been likened to teabags... Imagine a jar full of assorted teabags, no labels, just a bunch of teabags all crammed together. (For those of you organisers, you're slowly rocking and silently twitching in a corner at this suggestion, I know.) So how would you tell them apart? Sure, you could sniff them, or check out the shape and size and make an intelligent guess. But the only real way to know what's inside those teabags is to drop them in hot water and see what comes out. And so it is with us humans! God sometimes chooses to test our faith by using problems to see what they reveal about us. Difficulties often test our faith, and we come out stronger on the other side. (James 1:2-4 TPT)

God Uses Problems To Correct You

Some lessons we learn only through pain and failure. My Toby is a visual and kinaesthetic learner. He's someone who needs to see how it's done and learn for himself what to do... or what not to do. Like all good parents, I told him that radiators are hot. I mean, I didn't want him to get burned, right? But after the third time of telling, I stopped. I let him touch the radiator. And guess what. He got burned. And he didn't touch that radiator ever again. (Please don't panic or call Child Protection. It wasn't like he blistered or anything––just an 'ouchie' that put him off radiators for a lifetime. Oh crikey, now I'm wondering if he's traumatised and I never realised... I'll have to check... ) It wouldn't have mattered how many times I calmly warned him that radiators are hot, he would still have had to find out for himself. Sometimes we only learn the value of something––money, health, reputation, a relationship––by losing it. Sometimes we need to get burned to learn a lesson.

God Uses Problems To Protect You

Have you ever considered that a problem can be a blessing in disguise? Sometimes the problem that comes our way protects us from being harmed by something more serious. Just weeks after I had given birth to Toby, I was issued a redundancy notice from a not-for-profit organisation I'd worked with for almost five years. Whilst I was upset at the loss of the job and angry at being treated that way, it saved me from continuing to work for a company that sapped all my energy and stole the best bits of me at a time when I needed to focus on being a new parent.

God Uses Problems To Perfect You

When you respond to them correctly, problems are character builders. You might be gutted to know this, but God's not in the business of comfort. His focus is not keeping you feeling warm and fuzzy and comfy where you are; rather, he's all about seeing your character grow. Let's be honest: the only two things you'll be taking with you into eternity are your relationship with God and your character.

Cherish your challenges

This is one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned. When my life looked castaway a million miles from the Island of Happy, many people agreed that it seemed so unfair that I had to experience so many difficulties. I wished that I would wake up one day and the problems would just disappear. But the more I longed for a magic wand, the tenser my challenges felt. Now I understand that sometimes the shortest way is to walk through the fire and stay open. Don’t close your eyes. Look around and see what the challenges are meant to teach you.

All of my past difficulties have contributed towards who I am today, and whether you like me or not, I know I'm a better person for having walked through the fire. Some people might say that so many challenges have created way too much character! Sobeit. Without a shadow of a doubt, challenges leave you changed.

To lead an authentic life, we need to take on new challenges that stretch us and give us more opportunities to be ourselves. It is not that in being authentic we don't feel the same fear; but more that we are simply more willing to face that fear.

So finally, challenges make you discover things about yourself that you never really knew. Whilst we might not always welcome them, let's learn to embrace the challenges because we know they're actually for our good.

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