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When Life Is Hard – Review

June 8, 2011

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Refined by God

Greg Laurie, in his Foreword to the book, notes that according to the Barna Group the number one question people want to ask God is, “Why is there pain and suffering in the world?” James MacDonald skillfully, relevantly, and biblically tackles this gnawing question in When Life Is Hard. MacDonaldshares a refreshingly candid and challenging message that teaches Christians not only why God allows suffering, but also what God wants us to do with our suffering.

Equally important, he speaks personally—out of his own spiritual struggle to face suffering face-to-face with God. In his Introduction, Pastor MacDonald shares a litany of personal, family, and ministry tragedies that seem Job-like in proportion. For MacDonald, the Psalmist’s cry became his own, “My tears have been my food day and night, while they say to me all day long, ‘Where is your God?’” (Psalm 42:3). In response, MacDonald preached a series of six sermons that became When Life Is Hard. Perhaps this personal struggle to grapple with God is the reason why this is the rare book derived from a sermon series that is well worth reading.

Truth for Life

No one reading a book about suffering, even a book reviewer, does so simply as an academic exercise. Knowing this, Dr. MacDonald implants several ways for readers to download God’s truth into the center of their souls:

  • Glimpses of Gold: Meditations at the beginning of each chapter upon Job 23:10, “But he knows the way that I take; when he has tried me, I shall come out as gold.”
  • From God’s Heart to Mine: Verses at the end of each chapter to memorize, apply, and take personally.
  • Mining for Gold: Each chapter includes a set of personal questions designed to help the reader to implement biblical principles.
  • Come Forth as Gold: The final chapter has an unusual format—a series of brief meditations that summarize the sixteen key lessons covered throughout When Life Is Hard.

Pastor MacDonald begins at the beginning—what are trials and why does God allow them? His answer is foundational and scriptural: trials are painful circumstances allowed by God to change my conduct and my character. Exegeting Hebrews 12:5-11, MacDonald demonstrates that trials are God’s parental perfecting love. The Lord disciplines the one He loves. Right from the start, readers learn the lesson that in trials God is not getting back at them, He is getting them back to Himself.

In chapter two, MacDonald wisely encourages his readers to candidly ask the “Why?” question. He also challenges readers to be prepared to accept God’s answer, using James 1:2-8 as his text. That answer is the core of the book—God allows trials to deepen our faith and transform our character. MacDonald personalizes this by asking readers to ask God, “Why has this come into my life now? What do you want to teach me?”

What to Do After the Hug

Throughout chapters three, four, and five, MacDonald urges readers to reject the “self-help Jesus” who “came to build your self-esteem and maximize your human potential by Friday.” Some readers, accustomed to this Western worldview of Christ may be taken aback and may wonder, “Where’s the empathy in When Life Is Hard?” The empathy comes in the personal illustrations of pain and in the obvious passion for people in pain. However, MacDonald doesn’t want to leave people simply with a written hug. He wants to teach people what the Bible says to do after the hug.

Believing that God’s Word is sufficient for all life issues, Pastor MacDonald shares a myriad of practical principles drawn directly from Scripture. These are not trite behavioralistic “to do steps.” Instead, they are core heart issues played out in our relationships with God and others. They are other-centered and God-focused applications such as “Grace Your Relationships,” “Give Away Your Gifts,” and “Glorify God.”

As only James MacDonald could say it, “Some Christians treat God’s desire to get holiness into their lives like He’s giving them cod liver oil.” That captures When Life Is Hard in one picturesque sentence.

God spanks us because He loves us. He loves us too much to allow us to get too comfy. Pain enters. Others hug us—rightfully so. And after the hug we get on with the business of becoming more like Christ. We make a conscious choice to count/consider our trials as joy—the joy of being formed and fashioned into the image of Christ.

Principles to Live By

Don’t miss chapter six. MacDonald arranges sixteen principles from the four passages he has focused on (1 Peter 4, James 1, Hebrews 12, and 2 Corinthians 12). They are worth the proverbial “price of the book.” In one-to-two brief pages, he outlines each principle and then suggests profound, practical, and personal applications. A reader could spend a lifetime in this chapter alone.

Having published about grief and presenting seminars related to grief and growth in Christ, I was gripped again by the greatness of God’s grace—a grace that does not wink at sin, but rather crucifies sin. When life is hard, cling to the cross of Christ and the Christ of the cross. Enter into the mortification process that our loving heavenly Father ordains so that the salvation won by Christ is applied deeply in our daily lives. That’s the refreshingly candid and challenging message of When Life Is Hard.