Counting Trials As All Joy
I have a confession to make. The past year or so has been one of the most difficult periods of my life. Like Job, I went from being very comfortable, to being very uncomfortable indeed. I was somewhat directionless back then, but it didn’t matter much because directionless was a luxury I thought I could afford. I had accoutrements and diversions to occupy my time, so lack of direction wasn’t a terribly big issue to me.
But when God takes away our toys and yanks us out of our comfort zone, leaving us painfully aware that we are naked, blind and poor, we quickly realize that lack of direction is not a luxury we can by any means afford.
Look at Lot. When Abraham gave Lot the choice of where to live, he pitched his tent toward the green fields of Sodom (Gen 13.10,12). Lot must have known of the godlessness of the Sodomites, but he was naturally attracted to the prosperity of their land. Their wealth brought them ease and idle time (Ezek 16.49), and that in turn fueled their unbridled imaginations (Jude 6-8). Before long the culture was careening downhill at breakneck speed.
Peter tells us that Lot was a righteous man (1Pe 2.7). The sins of the Sodomites grieved Lot, but still he stayed. It wasn’t until the Angel told him judgment was imminent that he left, and with only the clothes on his back.
This is the temptation of riches. On the surface they look great. But very often they carry a price that’s initially hidden from us.
In my case, nothing wrong was done. I became an investor and was so successful at it that I retired early from my regular business. Even when I had money I didn’t waste it or flaunt it. I only did buy some things, such as my motorcycle. No big deal. I also gave charitably. To this day I can’t find any fault with the way I handled the money.
But there was a very subtle seduction going on that I was only dimly aware of. My comfort took the edge off my seeking God. I still prayed without ceasing, but I had become content with not getting answers. I was essentially just going through the motions, using prayer as a security blanket, rather than as an expression of a vital relationship with the living God. Prayer is supposed to be a living conversation with the Source of all wisdom, power and love, and the normal state of the Christian is to receive answers to prayer. If that’s not happening, something is wrong.
Here’s where we need to keep the material promises of God in perspective. God is eager to bless us. His father heart would sooner cause us to prosper than to allow sorrow to touch us. But with his own perfect perspective, God has higher priorities than ours. We are not merely saved so that we can enter his Kingdom; we are saved so that his Kingdom can enter us.
Our being saved is not just a matter of forensic justification. God places his Spirit in us not just to seal us and to lead us, but also to change us. His intention is that we go from faith to (higher!) faith and from glory to (higher!) glory. He wants us progressively, and ultimately totally, conformed to the image of his dear Son.
And that’s one big reason why we, with our abiding sin nature, must endure suffering (the other reason being intercession for others). Suffering reminds us oh so insistently that life is not about our purposes, but rather, God’s. Suffering places a humble awareness of God’s holiness in us and cleanses us of our desire to sin.
Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, – 1Pe 4:1
When we encounter a severe trial, the natural thing to do is pray to get out of it as quickly as possible. But God answers our prayers not according to what is most comfortable for us, but according to what is spiritually best for us. Many times the way out of our messes is not the shortest route, but a longer route that changes us for the better. This will be the way that purges us of wrong attitudes and lack of faith.
This is why James tells us:
Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds,
for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.
And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. – Jam 1:2-4
Notice that there are trials of various kinds. It doesn’t matter what the exact nature of your trial is, or how you fell into it. It could be your own fault you’re in a mess, or someone else could have entrapped you, or it could be some of both. In all cases we are told to rejoice that we are being tested. That’s easy to say, but when the test comes on us our spirit must ascend to the throne of our being in order to accomplish this. (Heb 4.12)
Then notice that God wants to use the trial to make us perfect and complete. God is looking for character change, and trials are his prime way of achieving that end. We have a clue about God’s fatherly attitude in Proverbs:
Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you strike him with a rod, he will not die. – Pro 23:13
Finally, notice that for God’s will to be accomplished, we must cooperate with his plan. We are to let endurance have its full effect on us. Considering God’s sovereignty and power, this may sound strange, but God’s blessings are not automatic, because he limits himself out of respect for our will. Therefore our active participation in his plan is necessary for his perfect will to be done. This is why Jesus was set to remove the lampstand from the church in Ephesus that had lost its first love, unless they repented (Rev 2). How that ended was not up to Jesus, it was up to the Ephesians. Lack of cooperation with God’s purposes is why so many believers fail to be fruitful.
The good news is that the gifts and calling of God are without repentance. If we have missed God, we can rededicate ourselves to him without delay and seek his leading. We can move out of complacency and into fruitful, abundant living. We are not condemned to stay lost, confused and barren. The Good Shepherd comes after us to save his lost sheep, and he frequently uses painful trials to draw us back to him. And as we see the bitterness behind the riches of this world, hearing our name upon his lips becomes sweeter and sweeter (Hos 2.14). When the trial is over and we are fully reconciled again, we will say with David, “let the bones you have broken rejoice!” The pain and the discipline will have been worth it, just as long as we can walk with him.
So that is my confession. As I was on my walk today, feeling the pain of my situation, not knowing the way, I saw that the way out was the way through, and that was the Way himself, Jesus. He wants us to see our trials as his invitation, offered in love, for us to emerge from old, lifeless, insignificant living and instead to walk in the fulness of the Spirit. Do we dare to count our trials as all joy, even before we exit them? Do we really have faith?
The desperate father of an afflicted boy in the Gospels answered Jesus that question, “I believe! Help thou my unbelief!” (Mk 9.24). What a puzzling, paradoxical statement that is to the natural mind, but spiritually it rings perfectly true. Jesus honored the man’s faith.
We need to answer Jesus the same way. In our trials we need to exercise what faith we have, that he is the sovereign God whose love will indeed save us. And then our obedience will perfect us, and in due season will deliver us from all evil.
“But he knows the way that I take; when he has tried me, I shall come out as gold. – Job 23:10
And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. – 1Pe 5:10
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