In Ecclesiastes, Solomon explains that he set out to experience everything he could think of, to see what life was like. He wanted to discover where true meaning could be found and what would make him happy (1:13, 17; 2:1). But even with all his wisdom, when he tried to apply it to his human life and the physical world, he realized his quest was futile. He wrote in Ecclesiastes 2:17 Ecclesiastes 2:17Therefore I hated life; because the work that is worked under the sun is grievous to me: for all is vanity and vexation of spirit.
American King James Version×: “So I hated life, because what was done under the sun was grievous to me, for all is vanity and a striving after the wind” (English Standard Version throughout).
Sometimes it can be easy to get down on life. Bad things happen; relationships are messy; and even when goals are reached or things work out, they often don’t live up to what was anticipated. Plus, trying to do the right thing or be a good person can turn out to be a lot more complicated than it seems in the movies or childhood stories. Sometimes it’s easy to think, “Why doesn’t God just ease up a bit?” When Job was in despair from the trials in his life, he wrote, “What is man, that You make so much of him, and that You set Your heart on him, visit him every morning and test him every moment? How long will You not look away from me . . .” (Job 7:17-19 Job 7:17-19  What is man, that you should magnify him? and that you should set your heart on him?
 And that you should visit him every morning, and try him every moment?
 How long will you not depart from me, nor let me alone till I swallow down my spittle?
American King James Version×).
Even though we know that in the ultimate end things will work out, and we believe in the goodness of God, it can still be easy to get discouraged and worn down by the day-to-day difficulties of life. For those of us trying to live God’s way, life requires hard choices every day. When it comes to overcoming sin, addictions and bad habits, it is much easier to give in. To say yes to things like that, you only have to say yes once. But to say no, to truly say no, you have to keep saying no every day for the rest of your life. And not just every day—every hour, moment by moment sometimes. Saying no to the temptations of this world can be tedious and drawn out. It’s one thing to be strong for a little while, but over time it can wear a lot of strong people down. For serious addictions, the temptation might not ever go completely away; it’s often a lifelong journey and commitment (The Selfish Brain: Learning from Addiction, p. 334).
That’s the bad news. And if that’s all there was, we’d be in pretty dire straits. Why would a good God allow this to be the way the world works? Luckily, there’s more to the story. There’s a purpose behind why life is hard, and it has to do with the fact that there’s more to our existence than just our physical lives. Understanding a bit about how and why God allows our lives to be the way they are can be encouraging when those hard times come.
So here’s the good news:
1. Your brain was designed for change
Yes, personal transformation can be challenging and take a long time, but it’s not impossible. God created you with a mind not just capable of but made for changing, healing and developing in incredible ways.
In The Brain that Changes Itself, Norman Doidge shares stories that illuminate the “use it or lose it” principle of brain plasticity (the ability of the brain to rewire itself). He writes about the concept:
“The competitive nature of plasticity affects us all. There is an endless war of nerves going on inside each of our brains. If we stop exercising our mental skills, we do not just forget them: the brain map space for those skills is turned over to the skills we practice instead. If you ever ask yourself, ‘How often must I practice French, or guitar, or math to keep on top of it?’ you are asking a question about competitive plasticity. You are asking how frequently you must practice one activity to make sure its brain map space is not lost to another . . .
“Competitive plasticity also explains why our bad habits are so difficult to break or ‘unlearn.’ Most of us think of the brain as a container and learning as putting something in it. When we try to break a bad habit, we think the solution is to put something new into the container. But when we learn a bad habit, it takes over a brain map, and each time we repeat it, it claims more control of that map and prevents the use of that space for ‘good’ habits. That is why ‘unlearning’ is often a lot harder than learning, and why early childhood education is so important—it’s best to get it right early, before the ‘bad habit’ gets a competitive advantage” (p. 47).
So yes, the more you reinforce a bad habit, the harder it is to break. But on the other hand, your brain is constantly shifting and adjusting its map of connections according to what you are doing and focusing on and learning. Meaning that it’s not only possible to change, you are changing all the time whether you realize it or not. You have the power to take control over what is changing, which brain connections are being used and which are being lost.
Here are a few small ways to begin that process:
- Lay the groundwork for good habits by practicing being reliable. If you say you’re going to do something, do it, even if it doesn’t seem like that big of a deal.
- Learn a new skill, sport or hobby. Get used to the fuzzy, uncomfortable feeling of not knowing what you’re doing.
- Reward yourself for any success, no matter how small, in breaking out of an old habit. Celebrating success makes a positive association with change. Instead of constantly badgering yourself about failures to change, focus on your progress, even if it’s two steps forward and one step back.
- But of course there’s an even more important spiritual element to all of this. With the gift of the Holy Spirit working with you (and in you, once you’re baptized), there’s a whole next level of transformation possible.
2 Peter 1:3-4 2 Peter 1:3-4  According as his divine power has given to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him that has called us to glory and virtue:
 Whereby are given to us exceeding great and precious promises: that by these you might be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust.
American King James Version×says, “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us to His own glory and excellence, by which He has granted to us His precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.”
God designed our brains for change and desires for us to succeed in growing, overcoming and becoming like Him; that’s the goal of life. Christ’s sacrifice and God’s Holy Spirit are ultimately what make that possible, so we have the best help imaginable. And we have His promise that He will do whatever He can to help make the process a success (Philippians 1:6 Philippians 1:6Being confident of this very thing, that he which has begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ:
American King James Version×).
2. You’re not alone
It’s common for each of us to think, I’m the only one who struggles this much, the only one who could possibly have failed this many times at overcoming this sin or bad habit. But the truth is, we’re all pretty much in the same boat. We might struggle with different things and in different ways (and some of those are a lot more outwardly visible than others), but we all mess up, over and over again.
Understanding that we are all equal in our need for God’s forgiveness and grace is one of the truly great things about the Church (the Body of Christ). We are a family, and ideally a community that provides the support, encouragement, honesty and guidance that makes it possible for all of us to stay strong over the longterm, to not give up and to make more progress faster than we could if we were isolated. God created us as social beings, wanting relationships to be a priority, since His goal is for as many people as possible to be part of His spiritual family in His Kingdom.
Colossians 3:12-16 Colossians 3:12-16  Put on therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, long-suffering;
 Forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel against any: even as Christ forgave you, so also do you.
 And above all these things put on charity, which is the bond of perfection.
 And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to the which also you are called in one body; and be you thankful.
 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.
American King James Version×lays out how it looks to have a godly focus on relationships: “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the work of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.”
We are incredibly lucky to have an international community of people who are convicted and committed to the same mission and to each other.
We’re not perfect (see paragraph one of this section), but we are in it for the right reasons and for the long haul. Most people in the world today have very few meaningful relationships they can rely on. We are incredibly lucky to have an international community of people who are convicted and committed to the same mission and to each other. So take a chance on your brothers and sisters in Christ; see for yourself that you are not alone.
Here are a few small ways to begin that process:
- Open up about life with someone who has life wisdom to give (aka outside of your friend group); ask for help, or just start a conversation.
- Find a way to get involved. Being invested as a participant rather than a spectator often is a catalyst for deeper connections and relationships.
- Don’t let a bad experience get you down. We all have had bad days and awkward conversations. It can be scary, but keep trying and it will get easier.
3. We grow from hard things
This might not seem like great news, but it’s important to remember that God does see when things are hard for us; He feels for us. He doesn’t want to see anyone in pain or despair. But He also has the much bigger perspective of wanting above all for us to be in His spiritual family for eternity. And to prepare for that, He knows we need a process of longterm, hard-earned, slowly grown and confirmed character development. This is how He will know that we are fully committed and prepared to join Him as spirit beings. Plus, this process is what will enable us to be successful leaders and teachers, able to help others who weren’t called during their physical lives.
As 2 Peter 1:5-11 2 Peter 1:5-11  And beside this, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue; and to virtue knowledge;
 And to knowledge temperance; and to temperance patience; and to patience godliness;
 And to godliness brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness charity.
 For if these things be in you, and abound, they make you that you shall neither be barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.
 But he that lacks these things is blind, and cannot see afar off, and has forgotten that he was purged from his old sins.
 Why the rather, brothers, give diligence to make your calling and election sure: for if you do these things, you shall never fall:
 For so an entrance shall be ministered to you abundantly into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
American King James Version×says: “For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ . . . Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to make your calling and election sure, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall. For in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance in the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”
Keep at it! When you fail, try again, and know that your Church family and God are with you, cheering for your success.
Here are a few small ways to begin that process:
- Pray and ask God for more of His view of things, along with more self-awareness. Ask to love the things that God loves, and hate the things that He hates.
- Read stories or talk with people who have been through difficult experiences. Getting a glimpse of the resilience, perseverance and triumphant spirit of human beings helps put trials and failures into perspective.
- Find someone (parent, mentor, church leader) who can help hold you accountable, show you where you can improve and celebrate your progress with you.
Life gets everybody down now and then. But don’t let it keep you down. Remember that God is in control, and that life is hard for a reason. We’re all looking forward to a day when the difficulties and discouragements of this life are behind us.
Some take the book of Ecclesiastes to be overall negative or depressing, considering the vanity or pointlessness of human life. But in reality, “Ecclesiastes recommends enjoyment far more than it does mourning. Consider that Jesus Himself was a ‘man of sorrows and acquainted with grief’ (Isaiah 53:3 Isaiah 53:3He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
American King James Version×), yet He was also ‘anointed. . . with the oil of gladness more than [His] companions’ (Psalms 45:7 Psalms 45:7You love righteousness, and hate wickedness: therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness above your fellows.
American King James Version×; Hebrews 1:9 Hebrews 1:9You have loved righteousness, and hated iniquity; therefore God, even your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness above your fellows.
American King James Version×). Despite life’s sorrows, we must not despair but must continue to rejoice in the precious gifts of life God has given us” (Beyond Today Bible Commentary, p. 76).
So we can learn to appreciate and savor the good times. And, when bad times come, we can use them as a learning opportunity to take one step closer to a future better than any of us can imagine!