December 22, 2016
Many would say 2016 was a year fraught with hardship and strife. As we close the year, it’s important to reflect an important summation of Jesus’ teaching: “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have trouble (tribulation). But take heart; I have overcome the world. – Jesus, John 16:33
Bottom line? Life tests us… our patience, our endurance, our temper, our fallibility and faith. And those tests come from a variety of angles:
- Sometimes, honestly, the trouble comes from our own sin.
- Sometimes it’s trial because of sin against us by others.
- Sometimes it’s simply the weight and ache of a broken and cursed earth.
At the end of the day we wrestle with a basic question: why?
I’ve heard well-meaning people, even pastors, suggests that the tests and trials don’t come from God. Up front it sounds like a comforting reassurance, but to deny God’s sovereign design, desire, and described testing is troublesome. It’s simply not biblical. As we head into a new year together, we should consider 10 important aspects to parse the trials we face, the temptations we suffer, and how – at the end of the day – it tempers us for something greater.
Hebrews 11:17 – By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son,
- Fact: God tests people. There are abundant biblical examples. Not every person is tested in the same way, but it’s definitely ways that test their faith.
Deuteronomy 13:3 – For the Lord your God is testing you, to know whether you love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.
- Again: God tests mankind, and here specifically in regard to their love, where they place their affections and trust.
Proverbs 17:3 – The crucible is for silver, and the furnace is for gold, and the Lord tests hearts.
- Here’s where it takes some much-needed shape: The test of life is efficacious. It is not merely to show our fallibility and need for God (though it indeed does that) it is for tempering and refining each of us, like the forge of sword or crown. A blade heated in the fire, hammered on the anvil, is being prepared to be an instrument of meaning and destiny.
Job 1:6-11 – Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan also came among them. The LORD said to Satan, “From where have you come?” Satan answered the LORD and said, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.” And the LORD said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil?” Then Satan answered the LORD and said, “Does Job fear God for no reason? Have you not put a hedge around him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. But stretch out your hand and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.”
- Here’s where things get muddy… but also reassuring. The devil also “tests” (tempts) mankind… seeking to prove God wrong and mar our faithfulness. Job doesn’t endure the subsequent trials because he’s sinned; quite the contrary, Job’s trials stem from his faithfulness! I know we’d like to think “I’m doing right, shouldn’t life go easy?” But that’s not the way this life works. Truthfully, this should give us encouragement when we face hardship; instead of fretting what we’ve “done to deserve this” maybe we’re enduring slings and arrows because of our faithfulness like Job.
James 1:13 – Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one.
- We must understand the difference and interaction between testing, tempering, and tempting.
1 Corinthians 10:12-13 – Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.
- We can NOT blame God for our failing or sin in light of trials (“If YOU hadn’t, I wouldn’t have…”) this is essentially blasphemy. Temptation to sin might come as we face trials and suffering, but he only brought the test to the table; we brought our sinful hearts. Godly endurance will temper us to be better instruments of his peace.
(note: this is NOT specifically God saying he’ll “never give us more than we can bear” in all aspects. Might a person get more than their mind can bear and have a nervous breakdown? More than their back or body can bear as it breaks under pressure? More than their bank account can bear so they lose everything? Indeed, it can be poor words of comfort for the person suffering mental illness, physical illness, or great loss. The verse above only explicitly refers to temptations to sin, so be on guard: a flippant use of “God won’t give us more than we can bear” can be offered in an unhelpful way. Our mind and our body may indeed be broken, crushed, and overwhelmed. There may be no escape from certain heavy rigors in this world: the escape we are told is available is to refrain from sinful responses as we endure it.)
Revelation 2:8-11 – “And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: ‘The words of the first and the last, who died and came to life. “‘I know your tribulation and your poverty…. Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death.’
- The reality is that we’re not promised “our best life now” devoid of suffering and pain: God allows and acknowledges suffering as part of life, providing the long view of encouragement against fear because of a future crown and the grace of God that removes the second death (hell).
1 Peter 1:3-9 – Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.
- Sometimes we expend needless energy wondering where our trials come from – God? Satan? The World? – when we can trust in the eternal fruit of testing described above, no matter the source or intent.
1 Peter 4:12-19 – Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you… Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.
- God sets a daunting, extremely high call for our expectations, disposition, and action. When trial comes I often act surprised – why is this happening to me? Why now? What is God doing? – which is the opposite of what God advises. I’m also told to rejoice, which is FAR from my natural disposition. The easiest part of this for me to focus on is that even when I’m facing hardship, I can focus as God suggests: keep doing good.
2 Corinthians 8:1-4 – We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord, begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints…”
- Are we up to the challenge? This is what I hope others will say about me… about US, when we are in the midst of a test. Will we still find ways to express joy? Will be be known for generosity, hospitality, and service even when our own chips are down?
This isn’t easy, sure: I look at all the stories I enjoy – fiction and historical – of men and women who were tempered in the forge of life and endured much for a climactic outcome. Those are some of the stories – and real people – I most admire… but those stories are usually fraught with hardship, obstacles and suffering along the way. When life – when God – says “James, it’s your turn” suddenly I’m against it. I think it’s an incredible “tale for the ages” so long as it’s other people… but I want my story to be trouble free. Ultimately, I can’t have it both ways.
When I look back at my life in hindsight, some of the hardships along my path have built me into the person I am today. I have comfort in God’s provision, satisfaction in my endurance, and appreciation for who I’ve become because of it… but that appreciation is always hindsight. When it’s right now, imminent and in front of me, my heart and mind confessedly chafe. I need the heart of Christ.
As a church this year we have been striving for new levels of faithfulness, unity, and generosity. Many of us have certainly being tested and shaken to see where we will stand or fall. Whether we suspect the roots of our issues are from wicked spiritual conspiracy, sinful adversaries, or simply the weight of this accursed earth, our source of reliance, sustenance, and way forward remains constant. Of course, if it IS from our own sin, we need to repent. Most importantly, God tells us not to fear: that’s a tall order. However, he does not disregard our very real grief. He sympathizes with our sufferings and is with us in our weaknesses.
We are not told to get over it: we are told we’ll get through it. Amen to that.