“When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” We often summon that mindset when we face difficult or trying circumstances. It is a reminder not to be discouraged, to buck up and grit your teeth and just fight your way through. Sometimes, it works. Visit a fitness center and the sweating and grunting tell you that people are toughing it out to reach their fitness goals. Visit a dormitory in the middle of the night where students fight against sleep to cram for a test. Visit a kitchen table after the children have been put to bed where husband and wife have to make some tough decisions to make ends meet. Visit a hospital room, where a patient smiles and tells the nurse and her visitors that she’s feeling fine when inside she’s feeling a 10 on the pain scale. Sometimes, we can tough it out.
Other times, we can’t. Sometimes the situation is so dire that we can’t see any way to get through it. That same student, though he can fight off sleep, can’t fight off the uncertainty of not knowing if there will be a job waiting for him or the dread of graduating with a mountain of student debt. “When the going gets tough, the tough get going” doesn’t help. When you’re sitting at the kitchen table and the question isn’t about how to pay for vacation but whether you will be able to make the mortgage payment or whether you have to go back to work when you had planned to retire, you don’t really want to hear “just do your best and God will take care of the rest” – because your best isn’t good enough. We might be able to grit our teeth and tough it out through pain, but it’s hard to be tough when you’re facing cancer, surgery, or chronic disease. And so it’s not real helpful when a friend comes and says, “Everything will be ok. Things will get better. You can make it through.”
In situations like that, you realize that being tough doesn’t always work. That’s not your imagination. That’s God’s own truth – imprinted on your heart from the moment you were born. (Psalm 73:26) Deep down, every human knows that their best efforts, at some point, won’t be enough. Christians experience this truth every day. Our faith is never so strong that we don’t struggle with doubt. Our best intentions are riddled with selfishness. Our deepest love can’t help everyone we want to. Not to mention our two biggest problems: sin and death. No amount of toughness or effort can purge the sin from our records or keep us breathing one moment longer than God has determined. How do we not despair? Stop looking inside yourself for strength and answers, stop trying to tough it out. Remember that Easter has changed everything. Remember Jesus Christ.
Both the author and recipient of this letter were familiar with difficult situations and the temptation to despair. Paul was in prison in Rome for a second time. He was fairly certain that this time he wouldn’t be freed. The only way out of his prison cell would come at the end of a Roman sword. 2 Timothy would be Paul’s final letter. And that would be difficult for young pastor Timothy to take. Paul was his father in the faith, the man who had mentored and trained him, he was the one he looked to for guidance and encouragement – and now he would be gone. So what does Paul tell Timothy to do? Tough it out?
Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, descended from David. When the going gets tough, the tough…no, the weak, the sad, the powerless don’t get going – they look to Jesus Christ. In other words, Paul is telling Timothy: “When the going gets tough, don’t look inside – look to Jesus. Remember that in suffering and dying he took away the darkest part of your existence: your sin. And that by rising he defeated your greatest enemy: death. Remember that he set the example: the way of suffering, the way of the cross is the only one that leads to heaven. Remember that Jesus ascended to heaven in order to rule everything in this universe and there is no situation – no matter how tough – that he doesn’t have absolute control over. Remember that even though I will shortly die at the hands of the Roman emperor Nero, Jesus is really the one who directs your destiny. (Which, incidentally, we ought to keep in mind as we fret this election year.) Remember Jesus and remember that in all things God works for the good of those who love him.” (Romans 8:28)
This gospel, the gospel of Christ crucified and risen, Paul says, is my gospel. This was what Paul preached and taught. But, more than that, this gospel gave Paul strength and courage as he faced death. This is my gospel, for which I am suffering even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But God’s word is not chained. Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they too may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory. Even here, Paul doesn’t pretend that the situation isn’t dire, nor does he claim that as an apostle he has the inner manliness and fortitude to get through it on his own. No, he trusts that the same Jesus, the same good news that converted him from a Christian murderer to a Christian martyr would not die with him – would not be chained even by his death. Paul would endure anything and everything for the gospel – because he knew that it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes. (Romans 1:16)
When the going gets tough, remember Jesus Christ…and then, remember his faithful apostle. That’s a humbling exercise, isn’t it? We look at Paul and see how he sacrificed everything – his home, his health, his wealth and finally his life – for Christ and his gospel. And then I look at myself and how I am too often unwilling to give up a moment of “me-time”, how reluctant I am to give my treasure back to the one who gave it to me first, to sacrifice time and energy for the sake of the elect (those God has chosen to come to faith) – and I am humbled and ashamed. Maybe you feel the same way. But that’s not the main reason Paul directs us to think about his own life.
There are two lessons that come from remembering the examples of the saints who have gone before us. First, we’re not alone. Whenever we are tempted to think “woe is me,” pick up your Bible and see that God’s people have endured difficult, trying circumstances since the beginning of time. Open up to Hebrews 11 and 12 and you will see evidence that faith in Christ is a mighty, solid and, yes, a tough thing. But you will also see that those heroes of faith weren’t heroes because of their own strength or character, but because God was faithful to them and for them. See how no circumstance – no matter how difficult – could dim their faith that God would, in the end, deliver them from this world of sorrow to himself in heaven.
Secondly, and this is certainly the more difficult lesson to learn: it’s a lie of Satan that life in a sinful world can ever be free from trials and troubles and tough situations. Remember Jesus, the Son of God, who never deserved any pain or hardship because he never said or did anything sinful – and how the world crucified him. Remember the apostles, who dedicated their entire lives to proclaiming and preserving the Gospel of Christ and that the world killed them too. Most of us have never had to face the trials of famine or tyranny or war like many believers throughout history. We’ve never had to grab our families and a few possessions and run for our lives. We’ve never had to fear that if someone finds out we follow Christ that our families, homes, or lives will be in danger. But all of those have been and continue to be real threats to Christians around the world.
Yes, we have our own problems – financial, family, health, spiritual – and there will always be problems of one sort or another as long as we live. Don’t see problems as a reflection of how God feels toward you at any given moment – look to the Bible for that. Instead, see problems as a reflection of the sin that infects our world and our hearts. See problems at home, at work, anywhere as reminders of your need to repent. Satan has done a very good job of obscuring this, but the truth is that Jesus didn’t come to make life in this world easy or pleasant – he came to save us from this world of sin and sorrow. That is how the message of Easter gives us the strength to endure: in trial and trouble it points us to Christ, it shows us that the way out of trouble is not in our hands but in Christ’s, and the way he has chosen to save us is through death; death that leads to eternal life. If we’re resolved to die in order to go to heaven (like the saints were) – how can any other danger or circumstance rattle us? When the going gets tough, remember Jesus Christ and remember saints like his faithful apostle, Paul.
Finally, remember this trustworthy saying: (likely the words of an early Christian hymn) if we died with him, (which we did when we were baptized into his death) we will live with him; If we endure, (through repentance and faith) we will also reign with him. But there is also this warning: If we disown him, he will also disown us; if we are faithless, he will remain faithful, for he cannot disown himself. The sinful nature in us (not to mention countless heretical teachers) argue that God is too kind and loving to ever send anyone to hell. The rationale is this: we often back down on our threats, why should the Lord be any different? But God is faithful. If God were to prove untrue to both his promises and his threats, he would cease to be God. Yes, God is love (1 John 4:8), he is loving enough to warn us that whoever denies [Christ] before men (either by word or action) [Christ] will disown him before [his] Father in heaven. (Matthew 10:33) But he is also faithful to his promise: whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven. (Matthew 10:32)
For Paul, this trustworthy saying meant that he would not let any trial or hardship shake his faith in Christ. He would let the world and his enemies do whatever they wanted to him – even kill him – because he trusted that the One who died and rose again to life would never abandon him – and that they could destroy him, but they could never destroy the gospel. For us, this means that the gospel message is indeed the most important thing in life. It is not simply a Sunday morning attraction. It is what guides us through this dark world. It is what gives us the strength to endure tough situations. The Gospel reminds us that we should not expect that life in a sinful world (including the sinner living in each one of us) will ever be easy or trouble free. Instead, the Gospel promise is that Jesus will rescue us from this world. When the going gets tough, don’t get going. When the going gets tough, remember Jesus Christ, remember his resurrection, remember his faithful apostle, remember his trustworthy saying. Remember Jesus and trust that he will never forget you. Amen.