taking the words of Jesus seriously

When we embrace hard places and hard people in our lives, we can create amazing things together—risks worth taking.

Hard Places, Hard People

Some people and places are just plain hard—there’s no question about it. There are some situations and combinations of people and place that everyone—those on the outside and those on the inside—would agree are hard. But in many situations with hard places and hard people, what makes them hard is that they are different from what we’re used to. We perceive them as hard not because they are inherently so but because they make us uncomfortable. They’re hard because we don’t understand the way they talk, look, or behave. They’re hard because we can’t see that we have much, if anything, in common with them—worldview, values, likes, and dislikes.

But those people might have a completely different perspective. The place where they live—the place we find to be so hard—might be everything they want in a city. And they might be so comfortable with their own neighbors—the people we find so hard—that they can’t imagine having to move away and find community elsewhere. Even Babylon may have been like this—I expect that many Babylonians loved their city, their neighborhood, and the families that lived nearby.

Throughout this book, we’ll use the account of God’s people in Babylon and other biblical examples as starting points for a conversation about how God might intend for us to live in harmony and shalom in the toughest situations we encounter. You’ve either been or now find yourself in a hard place and dealing with hard people, or maybe those trials are still ahead of you. Either way, we all find ourselves in a world of broken relationships (as the news daily reminds us) and it is followers of Christ—his appointed ministers of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:18-20)—who have the required tools, motivation, and Spirit of love that can accomplish the redemption of the hard things around us today…

God may call us to go to Nineveh—a place we’d call hard. And God will speak to us there. We must not forget that those we consider the “Ninevites” in our lives are people, too. If we forget, we can wind up harming people in the name of our God. This is mission gone awry. Our Lord has plans for us to be bearers of good news in such spaces. But on the flip side, there is good news when we’re marginalized and treated unjustly: there is a God of justice and peace for all people, who calls us to embrace all people. This God of justice will stand for us, and he loves us deeply and wants to know each of us.

What are the hard places in your life—those places you would rather not go out of fear or sometimes arrogance? The neighborhood you won’t live in, or the church you won’t go to? Is there a job you won’t consider because it’s not prestigious enough? To state it plainly, sometimes we think we are better than the people in these places. We don’t see those people as fully human. We may also be just plain afraid. We think our lives may be in danger if we go to a certain side of town or travel to a different country. In our hard places, our faith is challenged and our desire for comfort is threatened. Sometimes the hard place is exactly where we need to be. Hard places push our buttons and bring out the prejudices that we aren’t willing to face when we’re in our own space. Hard places push us to trust God and see him and others from a different perspective. God uses those places to enable us to know and love more deeply and to bring us closer to one another and to him. We see throughout Scripture folks being called to hard places, so we ourselves should expect to be called as well.

Your hard place might be the city (or state or country) where you live and work. It might be a neighborhood your work takes you to every once in awhile, the office environment you’ve landed in, or your school or university setting. It might be a hospital or other institution where you find yourself waking up every morning. Your hard place might even be a jail or a prison. Regardless of where you are and why you’re there, God is there as well. He has you in his care and has a mission for you there. The Dutch Reformed pastor and theologian Abraham Kuyper once declared, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not cry, ‘Mine!’” [1] And as the Psalmist says it,

Where can I go from your Spirit?

Where can I flee from your presence?

If I go up to the heavens, you are there;

if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.

If I rise on the wings of the dawn,

if I settle on the far side of the sea,

even there your hand will guide me,

your right hand will hold me fast.

If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me

and the light become night around me, ”

even the darkness will not be dark to you;

the night will shine like the day,

for darkness is as light to you. (Psalm 139:7-12)

For much of American culture, there is a continual drive to improve our circumstances and to merely tolerate the place we find ourselves in until we can move on to a better job, a better home, a better church, a better neighborhood, a better state. Sometimes God does have a move in our future—a different place where he has kingdom work for us to do. But we need to live fully in the places where we already are and to which he has already led us, no matter how hard those places might be.

It’s so difficult for us to embrace the call to go to hard places. We don’t like moving out of our zones of comfort and influence. We only move forward when we feel it’s safe. We have created a safe gospel that hinders the progress of peace and justice in the world. My friends, we are not called to safe. We never have been and we never will be. The Scriptures don’t support safe—they support listening to the direction of God in our lives and moving forward into that reality. We can’t reach hard people if we are avoiding the hard places. So the call isn’t for safety; the call is for people of peace to reach out and embrace others in an effort to create change.

Sometimes we just have to go to the deep end and dive in. God will be present there if that’s where he calls us. God can handle the struggle of the deep; our shallowness is what’s really killing us. Diving in calls for an awful lot of trust in God and others and can be terrifying for many. But the current state in which we find ourselves across race and culture is already horrific. What would it look like to put a little more trust in the Creator?

[1] Abraham Kuyper, The Free University of Amsterdam inaugural address, October 20, 1880. Quoted in Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader, ed. James D. Bratt (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 488.

Taken from Embrace by Leroy Barber. Copyright (c) 2016 by Leroy Barber. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515-1426. www.ivpress.com

About The Author


Leroy Barber has dedicated more than 25 years to eradicating poverty, confronting homelessness, restoring local neighborhoods, healing racism, and living what Dr. King called “the beloved community” in a variety of organizations and churches. Currently he is the Co-Founder and Executive Director of The Voices Project and College Pastor at Kilns College, as well as Executive Director of Holla. Rev. Barber is on the boards of, The Simple Way, Missio Alliance, The Evangelical Environmental Network (EEN), and the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA). He is the author of three books included the recently released Red, Brown, Yellow, Black and White: Who’s More Precious In His Sight?

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