The Joy of Trials
The Bible is the biggest eye-opener. It shocks us by revealing that reality is spectacularly different to our superficial impressions. It declares that trials, though by their very nature highly unpleasant, are reasons for rejoicing, not sorrow. I used to think the Bible was saying, ‘Rejoice, even though trials are tragedies.’ Finally, I began taking more notice of the context and discovered that it is actually saying something stunningly different. It is not saying, ‘Rejoice, despite the trials,’ but ‘Rejoice, because of the trials.’ It is saying, ‘Trials are a spiritual windfall. Throw a party when hard times come because they are like being given an exciting promotion at work, only exceedingly better. They increase your spiritual status, your contribution to the Kingdom, and your spiritual pay packet. By developing your character, tough times increase both your eternal reward and your ability to achieve things of lasting significance.|
The God of the Bible does not beg us to seek miracles but to seek wisdom. His yearning is not to use us as lab rats to work miracles on and show off his power. On the contrary, he longs to dignify us for all eternity by imparting his wisdom to us.
The great illusion is that Christians enduring hard times seem to be hard done by. The astounding reality is that these people are actually receiving a priceless bonus. It is as staggering as hacking through someone’s chest, grabbing the flesh of his heart and claiming the victim is being blessed. An ignorant person would never believe it. Only someone who realized that the person is undergoing life-saving heart surgery would understand that the apparent cruelty is indeed a great blessing. Likewise, we are usually too ignorant and too focused on life this side of the grave to understand spiritual blessings.
Your greatest contribution might flow from your greatest weakness. If you find my writing useful, it’s because I have felt useless. It’s the spear through my heart that binds me to the pain in yours. It’s years plagued with questions that have unearthed answers. Had something dulled my pain, no one would be reading my writings.
Great men like Whitefield and the Wesleys suffered enormously in their struggle to find salvation. Whitefield’s spiritual need was so all-consuming that his fastings almost killed him. John and Charles were inconsolable until at long last they found salvation. Spurgeon suffered so greatly in his quest for salvation that he wrote, ‘I had rather pass through seven years of the most languishing sickness, than I would ever again pass through the terrible discovery of the evil of sin.’ Not surprisingly, their subsequent ministries eclipsed that of almost all Christians who have been spared such anguish of soul.
John Bunyan’s spiritual torment was horrific. With a severity that few of us could even conceive, year after year he was repeatedly overwhelmed by a consciousness of sin, hopelessness and the seemingly certain prospect of an eternity in Hell. Then followed long years of harsh imprisonment, intensified even when not in prison by the very real threat of execution or deportation. No wonder Pilgrim’s Progress is such an outstandingly powerful book. Much of it was virtually autobiographical.
Mark Virkler’s torment was his inability to hear God’s voice. In vain he sought the help of those who regularly heard from God. They could not even understand his problem. For them, it’s as easy as prayer. Year after year, Mark wrestled in the agony of silence. Why would a Father who longs to communicate with his treasured children, allow him to suffer so cruelly? Because, unlike those for whom hearing comes easily, Mark now has answers which have swept thousands to ‘the other side of silence’.
Traumas qualify us for ministry like nothing else can.
After losing his sight, Dr. William Moon prayed a prayer that was powerfully answered: ‘Lord, help me use this talent of blindness in your service . . .’
Barbara Johnson has touched incalculable numbers of people for the glory of Christ, because of the numbing horror of being robbed of two sons through death, losing a third to a gay lifestyle, and her husband being critically injured.
Who would have heard of Corrie ten Boom or Richard Wurmbrand if they had not suffered in prison camps?
Rather than test your patience by citing hundreds more examples, let me conclude by stating the obvious: for vast numbers of Christians, the spiritual impact of their lives seems directly proportional to their past agony. Situations they would have most wanted to avoid – times when death seemed preferable – empowered their lives like no other experience.
Consider this example of unanswered prayer, uttered in intense passion by the most righteous, powerful, faith-filled person ever to walk this planet:
Hebrews 5:7 During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.
How thoughtfully did you read that? The Holy, Eternal Son of God passionately prayed “to the one who could save him from death” and yet, despite being “heard,” he died an agonizing death in humiliation and apparent defeat.
If by answered prayer we mean being given what we want when we want it, it is a biblical fact that not every prayer will be answered, no matter how Spirit-filled and faith-filled we are.
Moses, Elijah and Job were men of superior integrity, devotion and faith. Jonah was a prophet of God. They not only wished they were dead, they asked God – some even pleaded with him – to kill them (1 Kings 19:4; Numbers 11:14; Job 6:8-9; 7:15; Jonah 4:3,8,9). None of these prayers was answered.
As I have commented elsewhere:
Paul was adamant that this “thorn” was anti-God; “a messenger of Satan” that tormented him. Despite the mighty apostle’s immense faith and spiritual authority, however, God cared too much for Paul’s spiritual well-being to answer his repeated prayers for the attack to end. God’s “grace” – the spiritual empowering to endure, divinely seeded within Paul – was enough.
The Lord revealed that the quick delivery most modern-day Christians expect, could have spiritually ruined Paul because of the greater danger lurking in the shadows – pride.
Over and over Scripture tells us to rejoice in trials. This is not so that we can act macho but because trials really are something to rejoice about. Trials do us good, developing character and spiritual benefits that will last forever. They equip us for ministry. They equip us for eternity. Like Paul, however, when we’re in the midst of them we want out. There are times when God loves us too much to answer those escapist prayers. God has our long-term good at heart, not some short term high that fizzles.
Try reading this Scripture in a new light:
This is nothing remotely like a promise that God would make strong temptation melt away for his beloved. Instead, it is a promise that we would be able to “stand up under it.” The King James Version uses the expression “able to bear it.” The point is that if the divinely-provided “way out” (or “way to escape,” as the old version puts it) was for the temptation to go away, there would be nothing to “bear.”
Too many Christians wrongly suppose that if temptation continues to rage after prayer, there must be something wrong. The divine game-plan has never been to prevent us from being hit repeatedly by fierce temptation but to empower us to endure it. The promise is not that God will mollycoddle us, treating us as embarrassing weaklings who would shame him the moment things get tough, but that God will secrete within us everything that we need to heroically survive the onslaught – and by so doing be acclaimed forever as spiritual champions.
Even in the Old Testament, God’s people were called to fight the enemy, keep themselves holy and in no way compromise and yet, for at least two divinely brilliant reasons, God chose not to give them quick deliverances but to keep them battling their enemies year after year:
Exodus 23:29 But I will not drive them out in a single year, because the land would become desolate and the wild animals too numerous for you.
Judges 3:1-2 These are the nations the LORD left to test all those Israelites who had not experienced any of the wars in Canaan (he did this only to teach warfare to the descendants of the Israelites who had not had previous battle experience)
Judges 3:1-2 These are the nations the LORD left to test all those Israelites who had not experienced any of the wars in Canaan (he did this only to teach warfare to the descendants of the Israelites who had not had previous battle experience)
As Peter affirmed, no matter how intimate your relationship with the all-powerful Lord is, you should “not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you” (1 Peter 4:12).
Consider the spiritual heroes portrayed in the faith gallery in Hebrew 11. Many of us lock on to the first half of the gallery – those who by faith received miracles – and overlook the second half, who through faith received the power to endure torment and martyrdom when God saw a better way than to grant miraculous avoidance.
Hebrews 11:35-38 [By faith] Others were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned; [they were put to the test;] they were sawn in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and ill-treated – the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.
Even of the first half of the faith gallery, Scripture says none received in their lifetime what had been promised:
Hebrews 11:39 These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised.
And consider Abraham: for year after year, decade after decade, his prayer for a child went unanswered. He had no idea what was going on, but it turned out that each year his prayers went unanswered Abraham was achieving eternal glory as a man of faith, the spiritual father of all who have faith. Likewise, Job ministers so powerfully through the centuries right down to today because both his prayer for healing and his prayer for death met icy silence. There are times when unanswered prayer is the only path to such glory.
Faith, says Scripture, is more precious than gold, and yet faith can only grow by prayers going unanswered for what seems an eternity. Yes, the answer finally comes, but faith grows by stretching. It’s usually in those dreary days of unanswered prayer that faith grows best.
God knows how to give good things to his children.
Matthew 7:7-11 Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.
That sounds as if we will get anything we ask for, but read on:
Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!
That still sounds like we will get anything we ask for, but consider the implications of Jesus’ teaching that God is the perfect Father.
If a child asks for bread, he won’t be given a stone. Nevertheless, a child will sometimes be given vegetables that to him seem as tasteless and as useless as a stone. The child might complain as bitterly as if he were actually given a stone. Nevertheless, his cries for candy and ice-cream will sometimes go unheeded because wise parents know how to give good things to their children.
Likewise, if a child asks for a fish, he will not be given a snake. If, however, a little child foolishly asks for a cobra or scorpion to play with, he will not be given one. Again the child will feel unfairly treated but no matter how much he pleads, the child will not be given anything harmful. Likewise, in order to remain the perfect Father that he is, God must refuse our request when in our ignorance we ask for things that to us seem good, but ultimately are not in our best interest.
Little children focus on their immediate pleasure, whereas wise, loving parents look out for their children’s longer term good. This is the source of many a complaint from children who mistakenly think their parents are being harsh and stingy. As we grow up we come to realize the benefits of focusing on our longer term good, and we become grateful that our parents did not let us have all the things that we now recognize as being unwise or even dangerous. Yet even as mature adults, we often focus on a ridiculously short time-frame, relative to eternity. Like the perfect Parent he is, God gives the very best to his children, even at the expense of incurring their wrath if they foolishly misjudge what is best for them.
“You have not because you ask not,” (adapted from the King James Version of James 4:2) sounds like an exciting invitation to receive whatever we desire, but before falling into the very trap James is seeking to expose, let’s look at the context:
James 4:2-3 . . . You do not have, because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.
So they did, in fact, ask but their prayers went unanswered because they asked for the wrong things and with the wrong motives. The Holy Lord wants to nurture righteousness and selflessness in his children; not use his power to foolishly feed an addiction to lust, greed and materialism.
Near the beginning of his epistle, James said we cannot expect answered prayer if we waver in faith (James 1:5-8). He was referring, however, to asking for something highly spiritual – godly wisdom (James 1:5; 3:13,17). Trying to entice God to answer prayers to foster our selfishness, however, is such a lost cause that rather than suggest more faith, James denounces the practice.
He continues his tirade against praying for wrong things or with wrong motives:
James 4:4 You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.
The next verse initially seems strange:
James 4:5 Or do you think Scripture says without reason that the spirit he caused to live in us envies intensely?
This is reminiscent of what Paul says:
Romans 1:28-29 Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. (Emphasis mine).
James is saying that we are all subject to an intense urge to envy. How true that is! Our natural tendency is to slide into the pit of regretting what we don’t have, rather than rejoicing in what we have. Give Joe Average a hundred million dollars and he’d be over the moon with excitement about how rich and blessed he is. Then give ten billion dollars to hundreds of people around him and it will not be long before, regardless of his millions, he is feeling deprived.
(There is an alternative interpretation of James 4:5 but it leads to the same understanding of what “resist the devil” refers to.)
Despite our natural predisposition to be driven by envy, however, James immediately continues to explain that through Christ we can live in victory over this insidious temptation:
James 4:6-7 But he gives us more grace. . . . Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.
Had you realized that the famous Scripture, “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you,” though applicable to other situations, was actually referring primarily to resisting the temptation to envy (verse 5) and overcoming the temptation to pray “with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures” (verse 3)?
Few of us pause long enough to realize that this famous quote is referring to resisting the devil’s enticement to use prayer to try to manipulate God into giving us things that end up not being in our best interests spiritually. The attraction of devilish practices such as witchcraft is that they seem to offer supernatural help in feeding selfish desires. The devil does not display our Heavenly Father’s reluctance to grant us things that end up hurting and enslaving us.
Christians are typically well aware that lack of faith often hinders Jesus’ longing to miraculously meet our physical needs:
Matthew 13:58 And he did not do many miracles there because of their lack of faith.
The equally serious, but seldom recognized, hindrance to God pampering us with material possessions, however, is the human tendency to push aside the true God and instead worship money, pleasure and/or ease, and ruin our lives by making them our god.
We see the divine dilemma exposed when Jesus fed the multitude. This was no treat to titillate the taste buds. The situation was so serious that some were in danger of fainting on the long walk home (Mark 8:3).
Moved by compassion, he who denied himself bread in the wilderness miraculously provided for these people but – as God’s longing to meet our physical needs often does – it backfired.
John 6:26-27,34-35,49-51,66 Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, you are looking for me, not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. . . . “
In contrast to some preachers, Jesus withdrew, rather than let people seek God for the wrong reasons and he ended up making it so hard for them that those with materialistic motives left him.
We, too, are in danger of degrading God by worshipping him as a Cash Cow instead of honoring him as the Holy One whose passion is righteousness and selflessness.
Too many of us break God’s heart by putting him in a no-win situation: if God lovingly refuses to indulge our greed we resent him; if he gives us what we clamor for, we destroy ourselves by becoming infatuated with the temporal rather than the eternal.
1 John 5:14 This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. (Emphasis mine.)
And God’s will is filled with love and wisdom far beyond ours.
Life will remain primarily a mystery and a frustration until you understand the heart and goals of the God who is ultimately in control of everything that touches your life.
God loves you because he loves you. He loves you, not for what you can do for him, but for what he can do for you.
The mind-boggling intensity of God’s love is as close and as crucial as the oxygen you breathe. Despite this, we tend to drift into regarding the infinite love of God as if it had the practical relevance of the countless grains of sand in a desert we have never seen. Let’s bring our thinking down from the clouds to hard reality. The fact of divine love makes the happiness of Almighty God forever dependent upon your happiness. If you hurt, God hurts.
You are of infinite worth to the One who gave his all that you might spend eternity with him.
When pondering God’s plans for us, we tend to zero in on our role in God’s labor force. But although the Almighty has every right to treat you as his worker, the God of love chooses to be not your Boss, but your loving Father. And as the best imaginable Parent, the Lord is devoted to your welfare. Foremost to him is your fulfillment and development. The Lord has ministry plans for you, but they are for your sake, not for his gain (God, after all, is totally self-sufficient). And any tasks he lovingly allocates are just a fraction of his overall dreams for you.
Anything God asks you to do is because it is in your very best interest. God’s blueprint for your life focuses on your endless happiness and fulfillment. This is not to be confused with short term ease and bliss that ultimately wears thin and crumbles. Like little children who think happiness means having no rules and an endless supply of candy, we still have a lot of growing up to do before we understand what is truly in our best interest. Much of what we presently clamor for we will eventually discover is not what we really want after all. In contrast, the infinite knowledge and intelligence of God focuses on things we will be eternally thrilled about. That often puts our priorities at odds with God’s priorities, even though both he and us seek our happiness.
When looking down from heaven, everything on earth is viewed upside down. But heaven’s perspective is the right one.
Luke 16:15 He said to them, “ . . . What is highly valued among men is detestable in God’s sight.”
We find Jesus’ teaching perplexing because he was forever turning things right side up. He taught, for instance, that among the worst things that could happen to you on earth is that you are rewarded (Matthew 6:1-5,16) or that people speak well of you (Luke 6:26). He said you’re blessed when you mourn, or are poor, or are persecuted. The first shall be last, the greatest shall be the least and it’s more blessed to give than to receive. Another example of us seeing things the wrong way is when someone finally discovers that the busier we are, the longer – not the less – we need to be in prayer.
When you are in heaven looking back over your past life, what will you regard as the most exciting aspects of earthly life? All earth’s pleasures will be totally eclipsed by heaven’s pleasures, so the pleasures of your past will no longer impress you. Relationships and fellowship enjoyed on earth will also be completely outdone by heaven’s perfect communication and love. With the wisdom of hindsight we will all agree that the most wonderful thing about our stay on earth was the trials. That sounds ridiculous, even though we know Scripture affirms that so much good results from hard times that it urges us to rejoice whenever trials hit us Let’s explore this mystery.
There were two passions driving the great apostle Paul, which it would do us good to have within us. One of his longings – to know Christ (Philippians 3:10) – will, for all of us, reach thrilling pinnacles in heaven. The other – to share in Christ’s sufferings (Romans 8:17; Philippians 3:10; Colossians 1:24; 1 Peter 4:13) – we will be deprived of in heaven. We will only be able to wistfully look back to past opportunities. In glory, when at last our eyes are opened to just how much our Lord has done for us and how wonderful he really is, it will at last get through our thick heads why the disciples rejoiced over the privilege of being flogged and humiliated for Jesus (Acts 5:40-41). What we will lament in Paradise is that the opportunity to express the depth of our love by suffering for Christ has passed us by. And we will nostalgically miss the trials. Here’s why:
Although we will have many thrilling things to do in heaven, we’ll be rather like former football champions who have retired and gone into sport administration. Life will be easier. There will be no more injuries, no more tedious, grueling training sessions, no more agonizing over mistakes made on the field, but the opportunity to gain more glory and become a greater hero will have forever passed.
So life is exciting. And the greatest thrills it offers are the pain and dangers and challenges. Forget about a soft life. Leave that to your heavenly retirement. Now’s your time for glory. You’re a champion in the making; someone increasingly bearing the likeness of God himself; someone the Almighty will forever smile upon with Fatherly pride.
Daze of our Lives
God’s saints accomplish great things while staggering around in dazed bewilderment. ‘By faith,’ says Scripture, ‘Abraham, . . . went out, not knowing whither he went.’ ‘I go bound in the Spirit to Jerusalem,’ said Paul, ‘not knowing the things that shall befall me there.’ The disciples were frequently stunned or mystified by Christ’s words and behavior. The psalmists were forever asking, ‘Why?’ (e.g. Psalm 10:1; 22:1; 42:9; 43:2; 44:23; 74:1; 88:14). And in the midst of his suffering, Job didn’t have a clue what was going on.
The curtains are often drawn in God’s waiting room. It’s exciting to gaze ahead, but faith grows best in the dark. Life in the sunshine is so exhilarating that we seldom notice our faith beginning to droop. It’s when things are dim, that spiritual life mushrooms.
Dark mysteries bring great blessings. At the close of the year that saw the death of his newborn son and then the death of his wife and then assaults on his own health, Hudson Taylor wrote, ‘This was the most sorrowful and most blessed year of my life.’ When it’s sunny we want to run off and play. It’s when it’s darkest that we hold Father’s hand the tightest.
In the gloom, qualities like faith, grit, and dedication, are stretched to limits we have never before reached. Yet life seems so oppressive we are oblivious to our triumphs.
In pristine conditions eyes of faith can see forever. When storms close in, it is a mammoth task for those same eyes to even slightly pierce the swirling murk. It is the conditions, not you, that have deteriorated. Contrary to every feeling, you are not regressing.
Though offered with the best intentions, much sentimental waffle is sometimes uttered about returning to one’s ‘first love’, as if the starry-eyed euphoria of new Christians is greater than the mature depths of your average older Christian. Poppycock! Most spiritual honeymooners are radiant primarily because they think they have entered a blissful world of near-perfect Christians, instant answers to selfish prayers and a life forever free from pain, heartache and trials. Theirs is most likely mere puppy love, relative to the ardor moving you to tough it out.
Never confuse devotion with emotion. Though I’m all for emotional exuberance, the Bible measures love, not in tingles per second, but in putting one’s life on the line (1 John 3:16-18). It’s pain endured in the valley, not gooey feelings in the afterglow of mountaintop ecstasy, that validates love. By all means, passionately seek the face of God, but don’t assume that emotional deadness – a normal phase of anyone’s spiritual life – implies spiritual deadness. We march by faith, not by warm fuzzies.
An athlete, in the midst of a record-breaking run, has never in his life been so fit and strong. Yet his pain-racked body may have never felt so weak. Likewise, in the midst of a spiritual trial, it is not uncommon to be stronger and yet feel weaker than ever before. And to fellow Christians you might seem hopeless. An ultra-marathon champion staggering up the final hill looks pathetic. A child could do better. Anyone not understanding what this man has gone through would shrink from him in disgust. Only someone with all the facts would be awed by his stamina as he stumbles on.
Consider Scott and his team, who struggled to the South Pole only to discover their honor of being the first to reach the Pole was lost forever. Amundsen had beaten them by about a month. To add to the futility, they endured further blizzards, illness, frostbite and starvation only to perish; the last three dying just a few miles from safety. Yet today their miserable defeat ending with death in frozen isolation, witnessed by not a living soul, is hailed as one of the greatest ever epics of human exploration and endurance.
Every fiber of my being is convinced that their glory is just a shadow of what you can achieve. Though you suffer in isolation and apparent futility, with the depths of your trial known to no one on earth, your name could be blazed in heaven’s lights, honored forever by heaven’s throngs for your epic struggle with illness, bereavement, or whatever. The day is coming when what is endured in secret will be shouted from the housetops. Look at Job: bewildered, maligned, misunderstood; battling not some heroic foe but essentially common things – a financial reversal, bereavement, illness; – not cheered on by screaming fans, just booed by some one-time friends. If even on this crazy planet Job is honored today, I can’t imagine the acclaim awaiting you when all is revealed. Your battle with life’s miseries can be as daring as David’s encounter with Goliath. Don’t worry that others don’t understand this at present. One day they will. And that day will never end.
You’ve hit so many brick walls, it’s no wonder your nose is out of joint. Life seems hopeless. Every day it feels you’ve slumped another notch. To maintain even a glimmer of faith in such darkness is a spectacular victory. It may take everything you’ve got just to hold on. But do it. You are pumping spiritual iron.
If your blossom is dying, it’s so that the fruit can grow. Remember the cripple at the temple gate: he hoped for alms and got legs (Acts 3:1-3). Creator God loves surprises. And he loves you.
Earth sees us flattened on the wrestling ring canvas in faith’s fight. Heaven sees us forming on the canvas of the Great Artist.
Half-completed works of art look ugly. All that matters, however, is the finished masterpiece. Forget appearances. Yield to the Artist. The result will be breath-taking.
William Carey’s relentless succession of achievements in the face of oppression suggests he was no more deterred by tragedies than a locomotive by butterflies. I was stunned to learn that this amazing missionary pioneer sometimes suffered what one biographer called ‘sheer black depression’.
C. H. Spurgeon, revered as last century’s greatest Baptist preacher, was so plagued by discouragement, depression, fatigue and illness that he tendered his resignation thirty-two times in thirty-nine years. Interestingly, he gradually discovered that such lows always seemed to precede new times of empowering for ministry.
A modern preacher, world-famous for his emphasis on possibility thinking, sat dejected on a building site and pronounced the death-sentence on his pet project. ‘You can’t give up,’ gasped his advisers, ‘the whole world is looking at you!’
‘If only I could have a good old-fashioned heart attack and fail with dignity,’ was his pathetic reply.
Such grim anecdotes charge me with hope. If past heroes and modern champions of positive thinking can have such bouts, I need not let the Accuser belittle me just because I am appallingly negative at times. For twenty-four-year-old David Brainerd, thrilling experiences in God’s presence were regularly interspersed with deep bouts of melancholy in which he despaired of ever achieving anything in God’s service. Three years later, an unprecedented outpouring of the Spirit upon American Indians erupted after his preaching. This move coincided with a time when the clammy clouds of dejection were so thick that he was seriously contemplating ending his missionary endeavors.
A. B. Simpson – that highly respected missionary statesman, exceptional preacher, and founder of the Christian and Missionary Alliance – was yet another great achiever who ‘was always susceptible to periods of despair.’ Though his highs soared to supernatural visions, they did not prevent his lows.
I don’t make excuses. Having the disposition of a professional prune taster is nothing to boast about. Depression usually marks lost faith in the One with whom I have entrusted my future. It dishonors the One who floods my life with endless love and manipulates for good everything that touches me. When I’m low, however, the last thing I need is despondency about my despondency. Though we slide on a downer, that does not make us losers. A horde of spiritual giants have been on the slide before us and lived to excel.
Take heart from the man exalted as Scripture’s prime example of faith (Romans 4; Galatians 3:6-9; Hebrew 11:8-19; James 2:21-23). In an early chapter of Genesis, God tells Abraham on two separate occasions that he will give him the land and descendants (Genesis 12:2,7). Just four verses later we find Abraham humiliating Sarah, denying that she is his wife. In cowardly deceit, he stands dumbly by as Pharaoh marries Sarah and takes her into his harem (Genesis 12:10-16). Next chapter, God yet again details the promise of land and descendants (Genesis 13:14-17). Nevertheless, two chapters on, we find Abraham expecting to die childless. For a fourth time God insists he will give Abraham descendants. At last the old fossil believes. The Lord, thrilled with Abraham’s refound faith, repeats his vow to give him the land. In disbelief, Abraham asks for a sign (Genesis 15:2-8). With divine patience God dramatically shows the mighty man of faith not only his future descendants, but what will happen to them. In the next chapter we find our faith model throwing away any hope of a miracle from God. He resorts to dubious natural means to forcibly accomplish what God seems unwilling to do. He bypasses his wife and turns to her maid for a baby (Genesis 16:1-3). Years later, the Lord yet again reaffirms his promise to Abraham and declares that Sarah would conceive. Abraham laughs. He is sure his wife has more potential as an Egyptian mummy than as a Hebrew one. ‘She’s too old. Just bless Ishmael,’ is the crux of his reply (Genesis 17:17-18). Yet the Lord persists. One more time our hero gropes for that slippery fish called faith. Before long, he is again passing off Sarah as his sister, showing more faith in his powers of deception than in God’s integrity. This time it is King Abimelech who almost has a go at impregnating Sarah (Genesis 20:2-3). Just weeks later, (assuming Genesis 18:10 to 21:2 are in chronological order) she conceived Abraham’s baby.
Faith is not a non-stop flight above reality; it’s a fight. What distinguishes people of faith is not how rarely they hit the dirt, but how often they get up again. To be perpetually positive is impossible. The mere attempt embroils us in prayer battles and Abrahamic effort. The enemy often flees to his corner, only to prepare for the next round. You might even have climbed out of the ring, but the reward for getting back in exceeds anything anyone could offer.
‘Lord, increase our faith,’ pleaded the disciples.
‘If you have faith the size of a mustard seed . . .’ came the reply (Luke 17:5-6).
Perhaps our greatest need is not huge faith, but to fully use our small faith. Perhaps we miss out because we devalue our faith, not using it to the fullest because we wrongly imagine that tiny faith is too insignificant to move the hand of God. If faith is more valuable than gold, (1 Peter 1:7) the merest speck is too precious to despise. Do not let feelings of inadequacy strangle your faith. Just keep pressing on. Past greats achieved much with floundering faith. So can you.
Like everyone, my faith levels fluctuate. Usually I am aware that a few moments dwelling on faith-building truths or squashing negative thoughts would boost my faith a little, but I foolishly let myself remain at a lower faith level than I know I am capable of. I have failed to take faith as seriously as Scripture does. If it is as valuable as Scripture affirms, then only a fool would pass up an opportunity to slightly increase it. If our Lord valued faith at a dollar, then a one percent increase is not worth bothering about. What can you do with a cent? If common faith is of immense value, however, everything changes. On a million dollars, one percent is $10,000 – well worth a little effort!
Among the lessons to be learnt through Abraham becoming a father is not that we should do nothing and leave it all to God. Had this been Abraham’s attitude, the miracle would never have happened. The key lay not in doing nothing, but in doing the right thing – trying yet again to fill a barren womb.
We can be so paranoid about conceiving an Ishmael, that we fail to produce an Isaac. To stop trying for a child through Sarah would have been just as devoid of faith as using her maid.
Faith is leaving the security of inactivity and deliberately exposing ourselves to the painful possibility of defeat. It is Jonathan and his armor-bearer going out to meet the enemy; not his comrades hiding in holes hoping for a miracle (1 Samuel 14:1-15). It’s Peter saying, ‘If that’s you, Lord, bid me come . . . ,’ and then stepping out of the boat (Matthew 14:28-29). It’s that same fisherman saying, ‘Lord, we’ve toiled all night and caught nothing. Nevertheless, at your word . . .’ (Luke 5:5). It is Paul, once again facing a hostile crowd. It is you, trying one more time.
Faith is fundamental to all Christian service (Mark 11:24; John 14:12; Galatians 3:2-3; Hebrews 4:2; 11:6; James 1:6-7; 1 John 5:4). Like a seedling, it should constantly grow (2 Corinthians 10:15; 2 Thessalonians 1:3). It is easier on ourselves if we start exercising faith now, in minor things, than to expect to pluck out of the air mountain-moving faith when it is critically needed in ministry.
A delay either quickens your faith to rise to the challenge, or it’s a dead wait.
How to Boost Faith
I can easily believe the atom-holding, earth-spinning, galaxy-sustaining, life-giving Source of everything wonderful can do whatever he likes. Even the devil believes it. My difficulty is believing that his special love for me makes him long to use that power on my behalf.
Few of us doubt that God can do amazing things. The weak link in our faith is believing that he would do such things for ordinary, inconsequential you and me. We suspect that in the Almighty’s eyes we are not sufficiently special to warrant such attention. Oh yes, ‘God loves everyone,’ but we have a hunch that by the time that love reaches us it has spread pretty thin. I’m just one of millions. Why would God want to focus his omnipotence on me?
If we could grasp the enormity of God’s love for us, our faith would sky-rocket. Pray for a revelation. (The necessity of divine revelation is highlighted by Paul’s prayer that the Ephesians ‘comprehend . . . and know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge’ (Ephesians 3:18-19).)
Awareness of how much we are loved is forever slipping from our consciousness. Partially in sight for a few days, it begins to fade again. The following suggestions might help.
When we let God down – even if we really foul things up – picture the proudest father the world has seen. The baby screams, dribbles and soils itself, yet Dad still glows with pride. God is like that.
When you feel a tiny blob in the seething mass of humanity, see the shepherd of a hundred sheep frantically searching for one. If he can be personally concerned for one, the omnipotent Shepherd of our souls can love all humanity and still be devoted to you. In the beautiful words of Isaiah, ‘As the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you’ (Isaiah 62:5).
When you feel you can do nothing right, picture a child, paintbrush in hand, gleaming with excitement. Enveloping her hand is the gentle hand of the world’s greatest artist. ‘And what shall we put in this corner?’ asks the man, as his skill and the girl’s imagination merge into one. See the artist’s smile and the child’s delight as together they create stunning beauty. Under God’s guiding hand, your possibilities are mind-boggling.
No matter how you feel, you are the focus of God’s attention; doted on as though you are the only friend God has. If ever a man wanted to shower his bride with love, or his son with gifts, God longs to lavish you with his extravagance. Expect great things from God. Anything less is an insult to your almighty Savior. With your Lord impossibilities are playthings.
Let faith mushroom by seizing the fact that the Omnipotent Lord is powerful enough to use you – over-riding your every inadequacy – and loving enough to want to. And believe that though he may lovingly delay your mission, his timing is perfect. Everything God touches is destined for glory. Even now, you are God’s ‘filthy rags to heavenly riches’ success story.
The Kingdom needs prayer warriors, not prayer worriers. No matter how much you cry, beg, and wish, you have not moved from superstition to authentic Christian prayer until you can thank God for the answer, knowing it is yours before you hold it in your hand. Faith is not thinking that God can; it is knowing that he will (Mark 11:24; James 1:5-8).
You will see it when you believe it.
Paul’s patience was at breaking point. Day after day, wherever they went, the demonized slave-girl kept shrieking that Paul and Silas were God’s servants. Then, in a moment of desperation, he did it. He expelled the demon. And his greatest fears froze to excruciating reality (Acts 16:16-24).
They were arrested, tortured and thrown in prison. Incarcerated like common criminals? No such luck. It was the maximum security block for them. Everything pointed to a painfully long stay.
Put ourselves in Paul’s stocks and our thoughts might be something like: ‘What an ant-brain! I walked right into Satan’s trap! Things were going so well – converts were being baptized, Lydia had opened her house to us – and like a twit I blew it! Now I’ve been flogged. Poor Silas is in agony. Both of us are in the slammer, no longer free to preach the Gospel. All because of me! If only I’d kept my cool . . .’
I’d have been as miserable as an elephant with sinusitis.
Yet instead of berating himself or being bullied by pain, the apostle sang praises. Almost instantly, tragedy yielded potent ministry. Not only was the Lord blessed and fellow prisoners touched, the jailer and all his family were converted. Praise turned misery into ministry.
Praise snaps locks. If a door to ministry slams, praise can burst open another.
If you think praise is hot air, you are right. It’s the hot air that makes faith balloon, lifting us to new heights in God, while warming the Father’s heart.
Praise is life-changing. I could extol it for pages, but singing its praises is often easier than singing praises. It takes enormous energy for a space vessel to blast off from earth on its way to another world. At it continues to leave earth’s gravitational pull, however, progress gets easier and easier until it is actually pulled along by the heavenly body it is headed for. With praise, too, it is the first part of the journey that is so demanding. The wonders of the rest of the voyage, however, makes the sometimes-huge initial effort so worthwhile.
The less we feel like praising, the more we need its power. I suspect Paul used a couple of tricks to break through despair into victorious praise.
Paul and Silas had so mingled worship with life’s humdrum that when things soured, their lips were still warm with his praises. There was no groping for a half-forgotten praise vocabulary; no brain-racking to find something praiseworthy in God. Praise was not a pill in their emergency kit; it was their way of life.
If one of their helps was habit, the second was song. When praise is a struggle, melody and beautiful words can bear us forward.
A third help was fellowship. They joined their praises. Where possible, do the same.
My next suggestion, like the others, is far from original. Multitudes have found that it works. Don’t try to start at the top; just find a few reasons to be grateful. Things could be worse. Thank God they’re not. Thank him that things have not always been as dire as they now seem. Lean heavily on tiny blessings. As they multiply in your head, they will provide a rich array of praise material.
You can even turn negative tendencies into an asset. We all need reminders to praise throughout the day. If your mind regularly clogs with negative thoughts, train yourself to use each recurrence of doubt or fear or gloom as a reminder to praise God. Each negative thought is packed with potential praise material. If, for instance, you are hounded by the thought that you are getting older, let it nudge you to thank God for the years he has given you. Praise him that your times are in his hands. Take comfort that at least someone is older than you – God – and revel in the knowledge that he will never fall for modern society’s infatuation with youth. Every time you feel old, rejoice that Jacob was in his nineties when he had his all-night wrestling match with an angel. [Joseph was 30 when he began serving Pharaoh (Genesis 41:46). When Jacob arrived in Egypt about nine years later (Genesis 41:48,53,54; 45:11), Jacob was 130 (Genesis 47:9). Jacob was therefore about 91 years older than Joseph, and the time between Joseph’s birth and Jacob’s wrestle was long enough for him to engage in an extensive animal breeding program (Genesis 30:25-28,31-32; 31:7-9).] Exalt the One who empowered eighty-five-year-old Caleb to conquer the enemies’ mountain strongholds, (Joshua 14:10-15; 15:13-15) gave Job his greatest blessings in his latter years, (Job 42:12) and bypassed millions to show the Christ child to elderly Anna (Luke 2:36-38).
Yet if being filled with the joy of the Lord were as easy as flicking a switch, there are still times when we would prefer to sulk. Forgetting that it is faith, not tears, that most moves our Lord, we secretly hope that if we are sufficiently miserable, he will have pity on us. That’s like trying to scale a mountain by digging a hole. Praise achieves things self-pity or self-recrimination could never do.
‘I will give you all my praise,’ I sang in a congregational song. Suddenly I realized I had lied. Every time I grumble I am praising the devil. Every complaint is an insult to God.
For balance, however, listen to Psalm 13. This dirge opens with, ‘How long will you forget me, Lord? Forever?’ With similar moans in the next few verses, the ancient blues singer continues his sob story. Then, just when we know where he is heading, he suddenly slams his song into reverse and declares, ‘I will sing unto the Lord, for he has dealt bountifully with me.’ The tail end of that little psalm looks as out of place as a fan of peacock feathers on the end of a pig. Yet no matter how odd it seems, psalm after psalm confirms that we can mingle praise with our pain. These inspired prayers prove that our Lord wants us to vent on him our grief and frustration. He wants honesty, not denial, and still he wants our praise.
Try hard enough and in every circumstance we can find reason to complain and reason to rejoice. To praise is to feast on the goodness of God. To complain is to languish in the squalor of self.
It’s your choice to rejoice
To praise is to party. It is cutting the cords to earthly burdens and heading for heaven’s joys. It infuriates the devil because it not only plucks us out of the misery he had meticulously planned, it lets us sneak into the victory celebration ahead of time. To praise is to cheat the devil, laugh in his face and step into God’s time machine.
Praise magnifies God. The alternative magnifies the problem. The last thing we need is a ‘small’ God and large problems! What will we choose to exalt: the mighty, eternal God, or the puny, temporary problem? Praise pricks bloated problems by empowering us to glimpse the enormity of God.
Build muscle on your faith by constantly praising God, delighting in his answer ahead of time. It takes the wait off your mind.
(For more along this theme, see Basking in Infinite Love and keep following the first main link at the end of the text on each page. As you click through, you will find some parts that I have quoted above but keep clicking through because among the already read pages you will find new pages. Please note the web address of the original page so that you can find your way back again.)
For still more about trials, see The Spiritual Value of Suffering Trials: Why Hard Times Bless Christians
Not to be sold. © Copyright, Grantley Morris. May be freely copied in whole or in part provided: it is not altered; this entire paragraph is included; readers are not charged and it is not used in a webpage. Many more compassionate, inspiring, sometimes hilarious writings available free online at www.net-burst.net Freely you have received, freely give. For use outside these limits, consult the author.
The Joy of Trials