The Surprising Joy of Trials
‘Beloved,’ says 1 Peter 4:12, ‘don’t be astonished at the fiery trial which has come upon you, to test you, as though a strange thing happened to you.’ In other words, painfully difficult times are a normal part of the successful Christian’s life.
This is so contrary to our wishful thinking that not only do many of us fail to grasp this biblical truth, many honorable, sincere Christians get things so confused as to end up believing the exact opposite; imagining that things turning oppressive mean either that God has let us down or that we must have let God down.
Of course, none of us is infallible. It is spiritually healthy to check with our Lord every so often that we have not somehow slipped from God’s best, but merely being hit by what people would call catastrophes is by no means an indicator that we have veered off course. Indeed, such times are usually our opportunity to win eternal glory.
Our flesh might crave a soft, indulgent life but we are called to higher things. We have not yet retired and gone to heaven. For as long as this sin-stained planet needs us, Jesus’ promise remains: “In the world you have oppression [or, as other versions put it ‘suffering,’ ‘distress,’ ‘affliction,’ ‘tribulation,’ ‘trouble,’ ‘trials and sorrows’] (John 16:33).
Yes, Jesus has defeated evil. For us, like our beaten, ridiculed Savior (indeed, because of him) there will be an ecstatically happy ending that will totally and endlessly outshine every dark time encountered on the way. Nevertheless, the Almighty, in his love and mercy has delayed the full enforcement of Christ’s victory (Christ’s return) because it will necessitate the eternal destruction of everyone who has not accepted Christ’s salvation (2 Peter 3:9-10,15). Until that cataclysmic day, God’s rescue plan hinges on us remaining on a planet that is so hostile to God’s goodness, patience and mercy that it even tortured to death the perfect, all-powerful Son of God.
Further on in this web series we will see from Scripture that being on the planet where we are desperately needed exposes us not merely to possible persecution but to many other types of suffering.
Should you want a cozy existence, I have no idea what to suggest, since even the most indulgent earthly life – or any alternative to serving Christ – so abysmally fails to deliver that it ends in inconceivable horror. All I can guarantee with divine authority is that if you want a pain-free time on earth, you definitely will not find it by devoting your life to Christ. For the greatest adventure, being stretched to reach your highest potential and an earthly life that ends up achieving so much that you will end up praising God for it for all eternity, serving Christ is the only way. That, however, is as incompatible with a soft life as it is impossible to become a hero or elite athlete by living a life of ease.
God’s love for us is so intense and personal that our suffering is like a knife in his own heart. That stupendous love, however, extends to those who, like we once were, are currently in rebellion against him. Like a mini-version of Christ’s sufferings, mind-boggling good – both for us and for this needy world – will flow from our temporary trials, but to keep this in perspective, here’s what I’ve placed in several webpages:
As an oyster, instead of ejecting a detested irritant, transforms it into an exquisite pearl, the infinitely good Lord takes acts he despises and, in staggering patience and breath-taking genius, fashions them into love-filled masterpieces of divine beauty. We end up so awestruck by the finished masterpiece that it is hard to realize that the initial elements were not acts of God but satanically-inspired manifestations of ugliness that crushed God’s heart and repulsed him. We must recognize the process, lest in our confusion we defame our Lord by supposing he instigated things that were utterly contrary to the perfection of his love and goodness. On the other extreme, evil is so obvious early on, that one can mistakenly suppose the good Lord is nowhere to be found. Faith in God’s goodness is the one thing that will save us from the danger of seeing only the obvious and being thrown by circumstances.
Let’s never forget that our Almighty Lord is the God of miracles; the God who through Paul delivered a slave woman from demons and yet didn’t intervene when he was beaten and imprisoned for that very act (Acts 16:16-24). [Put another way: the Almighty did not deny Paul and Silas the immense honor what will last for all eternity (Acts 5:40-41; 2 Corinthians 4:17; Matthew 5:11-12; 1 Peter 4:13) of suffering for the One who suffered for them. Their praises as they bled in stocks in prison, not only witnessed to every prisoner (Acts 16:24-25) but has touched every reader since.] This is the God who then sent an earthquake to unshackle Paul and Silas and set all the prisoners free (Acts 16:26) and yet had the apostles remain in prison until they led the jailor and his family to the Lord (Acts 16:27-33) and until the authorities not only released them but personally apologized (Acts 16:36-39).
He’s the God who not only released Paul from prison on that occasion but who twice in Acts (and who knows how many times since) sent an angel to miraculously break Christians out of prison (Acts 5:19; Acts 12:7-11). Instead of God doing this on another occasion, however, Paul – the one through whom “God worked special miracles . . . so that even handkerchiefs or aprons were carried away from his body to the sick, and the evil spirits went out,” (Acts 19:11-12) – was divinely allowed to languish in prison while he wrote precious parts of Scripture and witnessed to guards and palace officials (Philippians 1:12-14). This is the same God who kept Joseph locked up, for what must have seemed forever, on the most humiliating trumped up charges (Genesis 39:17-20), until finally not just moving Pharaoh to release him but to instantly make him a ruler in Pharaoh’s court (Genesis 41:14, 39-44).
A friend of mine had an experience in which she saw a door in heaven and was asked to go through it. She managed to do so but it was hard because the entrance was crammed with thousands upon thousands of people milling. She asked the Lord why so many people were outside the door and he replied that many come to him and receive salvation but few truly enter into his kingdom and experience all the wonderful things he has for them. Instead, they teeter between the two kingdoms. He explained that these people thought they had to die before experiencing the wonders of his kingdom, even though he had already died in their place. This is despite Christ’s very prayer being that it would be on this earth as it is in heaven.
I would be appalled if I were ever to discover that I have been needlessly missing out on any of the power and blessings available in the here and now. But neither do I want to be so mesmerized by New Testament miracles that I end up foolishly disillusioned with the God of the New Testament if my suffering approaches a fraction of that of the Apostle who wrote much of the New Testament.
Though it is so hard to stretch our narrow minds wide enough, let’s embrace all of Scripture until convinced that our God is the God who worked miracle after miracle after miracle for the faith heroes in Hebrews 11 and the God of the faith heroes in that same chapter who “. . . were tortured, not accepting their deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection. Others were tried by mocking and scourging, yes, moreover by bonds and imprisonment. They were stoned. They were sawn apart. They were tempted. They were slain with the sword. They went around in sheep skins and in goat skins; being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated . . wandering in deserts, mountains, caves, and the holes of the earth. These all, having had testimony given to them through their faith, didn’t receive the promise” (Hebrews 11:35-39).
The Bible is not some ancient history book about how God used to act before he lost his power; nor is it an account of how he acts in the lives of rare individuals; it is a book about your God; the God who loves you and believes in you and is keen to use his omnipotence in and through you as he has with others. He is the eternal Lord “who always leads us in triumph” (2 Corinthians 2:14) but whose ways are so ingenious that it takes eyes of faith to perceive that triumph prior to it becoming obvious where he is leading us.
Let’s not for a moment think God acted predictability in the Bible and another way outside of it. The Word of God is no slick brochure crafted to lure ordinary people with stories that apply only to the elite. Neither does it gloss over hardships encountered in the perplexing rough and tumble of everyday life resulting from living with a superior being. God’s ways are just as mysterious in the divinely authorized account as they are in your own life.
The more intelligent a decision, the more factors that are considered when determining the best course of action. The Lord of the universe, the God of infinite love and intelligence, perceives so many more things that need weighing up than we could ever imagine. Like children thinking their parents cruel for giving them vegetables instead of an endless supply of candy and ice cream, there are many elements in divine wisdom that elude our appreciation. Believe it or not: none of us would want a God whose ways are so crude and inept that they conform to what our puny intellect deems to be best.
The New and the Old
Jesus said a good Bible teacher is like ‘a householder, who brings out of his treasure new and old things’ (Matthew 13:52). I believe he was referring to what we would call the New and Old Testaments. Nevertheless, in this series of webpages about trials I feel the need to mix both new and old parts of my writings to maximize your comfort and empower you to see how thoroughly the Bible teaches that we can expect hard times.
If the following is new to you it is too important for me to omit. If you have already discovered it in my other writings, you are likely to benefit from re-reading it but feel free to move on to new material in When Christians Suffer Hard Times. That’s the next page in this series and the link also appears at the end of this page.
Let’s begin with a couple of quotes relevant to what we have just been considering about divine wisdom.
Basking In Infinite Love
Embraced by divine love, your life will be tinged with mystery but aglow with glory.
Tucked in the heart of Scripture sleeps a tiny psalm of precious truth (Psalm 131). The singer confessed that as a mother denies her baby access to her milk when it’s time for her darling to be weaned, so God sometimes denies us things we crave. Yet as a weaned infant lies warm and secure in its mother’s bosom, our soul can nestle into God, not knowing why we have been denied that which we have clamored for, but content to draw love and comfort from the Father’s heart.
As the heavens soar far above us, high and unreachable, so is God’s wisdom (Isaiah 55:8-9; Psalm 139:6; 147:5; Romans 11:33-34; Job 11:7-9). Our tiny minds may understand the Father’s ways no more than a babe understands its mother, yet still we can rest in Him, bathed in the certainty that when the omnipotent, omniscient Lord lets the inexplicable touch a child of His, it is a manifestation of unfathomable love. In the hands of the One who wouldn’t so much as break a damaged reed or snuff a smoking wick, you are safe (Matthew 12:20).
There is nothing fickle about God. He is perfect in all his ways. And timing is an integral part of perfection.
Like vine branches, we are not continually laden with fruit. That would be unnatural (Ecclesiastes 3:1). For a significant portion of its life, a grapevine is nothing but a dry, twisted stick; fruitless, useless for shade, worthless as timber; to all appearances fit only to be ripped from the ground and reduced to ashes. Yet those barren times are as vital in the life of the vine, as the seasons of fruit.
If spring could tip-toe past nature without stirring it from its winter slumber; if the sun could slip through the sky without dispelling the night; if rain could fall to the ground without bringing life to the desert – only then should you fear dry times, dark times, lean times. Though you feel as useless as a fur coat in a heat-wave, the time will come when your warmth is treasured. For everything there is a season.
God established the pattern millenniums ago: Sarah knew nothing but barrenness for ninety distressing years, yet became the ancestress of multiplied millions.
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.
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 where he went’ (Hebrews 11:8). ‘I go bound in the Spirit to Jerusalem,’ said Paul, ‘not knowing what will happen to me there’ (Acts 20:22). 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 epic 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.
Depressed Christian Achievers
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 the nineteenth 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 as small as a mustard seed . . .’ came the reply (Luke 17:5-6, NIV).
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!
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. As 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 later 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, Lord? Will you forget me 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 to the Lord, because he has been good to 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.
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.
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, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the waters. . . ,’ and then stepping out of the boat (Matthew 14:28-29). It’s that same fisherman saying, ‘Master, we worked all night, and took nothing; but 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.
For much more help, comfort, encouragement and insight concerning trials, see the next page in this series: When Christians Suffer Hard Times.
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Bible Versions Used
King James Version
King James Version