Somewhere in the past, I got the impression that suffering was bad. I won’t lay the blame anywhere particular because, frankly, I don’t really remember. Still, what I do remember are these.
I remember my late father discussing with me the consideration of other people’s opinions and using those opinions as a gauge for whether I was doing the right thing or not. I can guarantee that he didn’t mean for me to end up being a people-pleaser, but such is the warp of our sin-ravaged, imperfect memories and hearings. I remember hymns like “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” and various sermons on the blessings of God, the blessings of following God, the glories of Heaven, etc. Somewhere in the midst of all these messages, I got the idea that life should be peachy-easy. Furthermore, I grew up in the Socialist State of California which seems to also provided subliminal advertising for this concept.
With all of that said, I don’t think I was all that different from many in how I avoided trials and suffering like cancer. They were boils and dangers which I did not want, nor should I endure. The problem with that is it conflicts with the truth. After all, “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials” (James 1:2) is no simple passage to overlook. I remember, as a teen, wondering, “What? Consider it joy? How the heck? What kind of whacked out psycho do you have to be to consider pain, heartbreak, disaster, terror to be JOYFUL?????” Seriously, it’s upside down…or is it?
In my walk with God, I find that He particularly enjoys the reality of paradoxes. So, maybe this idea of rejoicing in the midst of a trial is upside-down, from a perspective. Consider that most of what God has revealed is upside-down from how the world would present things. Examples: to be the greatest, you must serve the most; the last shall be first; esteem others as greater than yourself. These are all common themes in Jesus teachings, thus a revelation of God’s character (since Jesus was God). So, it is likely that even though it seems upside down, it really is right side up.
With all that in mind, let’s look at Jeremiah 18. While I am not going to show you every verse, I highly encourage you to read the whole chapter. In Jeremiah 18:3-12:
“Then I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was, making something on the wheel. But the vessel that he was making of clay was spoiled in the hand of the potter; so he remade it into another vessel, as it pleased the potter to make.
Then the word of the Lord came to me saying, ‘Can I not, O house of Israel, deal with you as this potter does?’ declares the Lord. ‘Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in My hand, O house of Israel. At one moment I might speak concerning a nation or concerning a kingdom to uproot, to pull down, or to destroy it; if that nation against which I have spoken turns from its evil, I will relent concerning the calamity I planned to bring on it. Or at another moment I might speak concerning a nation or concerning a kingdom to build up or to plant it; if it does evil in My sight by not obeying My voice, then I will think better of the good with which I had promised to bless it. So now then, speak to the men of Judah and against the inhabitants of Jerusalem saying, “Thus says the Lord, ‘Behold, I am fashioning calamity against you and devising a plan against you. Oh turn back, each of you from his evil way, and reform your ways and your deeds.’” But they will say, “It’s hopeless! For we are going to follow our own plans, and each of us will act according to the stubbornness of his evil heart.”’”
Did you catch that? God is saying He is going to bring the hardships. Wait, wait, wait…isn’t God all good and jolly and peaches-and-cream? LOL! In a manner of speaking, no! God is all good! This I will not even debate here. He is good! And, I reckon, He is jolly plenty of the time, but He is also Righteous, Just, and True. And most of all, He’s a parent!
(Specifically, God reveals Himself as our Father, which carries with it some important connotations that I won’t cover here. However, since God is rather asexual, I’m not going to get into the debate of father/mother or otherwise. Further, since most here have had their share of either a bad father or a bad mother, I’m dispensing with the label for the time being.)
So, what am I getting at? Well, think of it from the perspective of a tutor or parental situation. If when you’ve been trying to teach someone something, you have to start with some basics, right? It might even be more appropriate to think of it from a military standpoint. (We’re all different, so God will use what is most native to us, even if we don’t recognize that ourselves.) In the case of the military, one must be broken, in a sense. The soldier must be taught to trust his commander and his fellow soldiers without a second thought. Distrust must be the secondary thought, not the primary, as it is with most people.
In a similar way, as parents, we must train our children to trust us and to follow our command immediately. After all, if they cannot follow our command to stop as it relates to almost dropping something, then we leave them vulnerable to being hurt when we or others yell stop to keep them from being hit by a car! It is these connective tissues in life that, I think, show us glimpses of the Divine Image in ourselves. God, like a parent, seeks to save us from the oncoming car and His cries to us must be heeded immediately just the same, be it an oncoming vehicle or simply to keep us from spilling our water.
So, what does this have to do with trials or even tribulations? Much, in every way! As Paul puts it, trials/tribulations are the opportunity for us to “work out [our] own salvation” (Philippians 2:12). They are an opportunity for us to learn obedience in a way that we otherwise would not.
An analogy I’m fond of is that trials are the work-outs for the Believer. And they do work us out! They make us use Scripture to combat doubt, disbelief, pride, and plain evil. This is why Paul explains that “we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.” (Romans 5:3b-5) Trials are the opportunity for us to grow, to tone our faith and not become flabby Christians.
If you’ve ever gone through a fitness plan or other workout, you understand that what you consume has a massive impact on how fit you can be and what you are able to accomplish at the gym. Too many carbs and you’ll burn out, maybe get some muscle, but ultimately gain weight. Too much fat and you’ll burn out and definitely gain weight, with almost no muscle. Too much protein and your body can become clogged with the excess, causing you more problems. But in the proper balance, these foods provide wonderful power! Still, with no use of that power, the body fades and weight gain is inevitable. With proper fitness, the body becomes strong, capable of handling more tasks and tougher activities than ever before. The body becomes capable of responding faster and with more force to all manner of situations inside and outside of the body. The effect of fitness is incredible.
And this concept translates further into the question of temptation and trials that seem more than we can bear. Paul exhorts us that, “No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it.” (1 Corinthians 10:13) Fitness is nothing new. Most anyone in the world can perform some level of fitness. So it is with temptation; it’s nothing new! But here is the cool part; God will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able.
When I was in my weight loss program, I had the honor of being trained by a personal friend, a man whom I greatly respected (partly because of his physical fitness). He knew what I could take (or close thereto). More accurately, X knew what I could NOT take. But there were plenty of times when I was lifting or pushing myself in fitness that I would begin to wane, thinking I couldn’t hold or make it through the set. I clearly remember X’s voice holler, “Come on! One more! One MORE!” I’d hear the command, and my entire body would respond with an extra bit of force as my will and body aligned to conform to my trainer’s will. I didn’t think I could handle it, but my trainer was wiser! Moreover, X knew that if he did not push me, I wouldn’t get any further than where I was, and I would likely become worse. If we never push beyond what we “feel” capable of, our bodies will typically begin to deteriorate, leaving us less capable than ever before.
In the same way, God is our ultimate Trainer. He stands there as we begin to cry, “I can’t do it!” He hollers at us, “Come on! One more! One MORE!” However, the outcome is sort-of dependent on us. Will we align our brains with our bodies and conform to our Trainer’s will? Or will we stifle our brain, weaken our body, and resist His will? If we can muster the extra strength to push once more, we will find a renewed strength that was waiting for such a moment as this. The real outcome of such training is dependent on God, but we must submit ourselves before Him.
In that same thought of submission, if we get full of ourselves, thinking we can take on more than He has asked, we will push too far and hurt ourselves. We must consistently listen to the Trainer to know when to push and when to stop. It is this process of pushing and submitting that builds our Spiritual muscles, “perseverance”. Over time, the weight sets go up, we get tougher, leaner, and we grow stronger muscles which will result in “proven character”.
The more I read the Bible, the more I find a tight connection between the rules of this world and the rules of the Spiritual world. I dare not consider them the same or believe that this world could exist apart from the Spiritual, but the incredible similarities between physical fitness and Spiritual fitness are, to me, striking!
More potent than even that is the relationship that God builds with us through trials. I will never forget my friend X, who is now in Heaven, because of the love he put into my training. When another hurdle had been overcome, X was there to rejoice with me. And as each pound came off, I knew that X was proud to see me become what he knew I could be! Even in the same way, God knows us better than X could ever know me (even if he’d been my own kin). He knows what we can be put through, what He has planned “for those who love Him” and what we are capable of when He gets us through whatever hurdle is ahead. The relationship we build with Him during these times when we must trust Him, lean on Him, and put our full effort into focusing on Him to make it through a day, that relationship is unparalleled, except, perhaps, by a husband and wife who travail together to achieve that goal together!
And for any of you who are reading this without a relationship with my Lord, the Almighty. He is not sitting idly by in your life either! He is pushing you, less from within “the gym” and more from outside it. He is placing obstacles in your life to get your attention, longing to spend the time training you, knowing what you are capable of if you’ll only train under Him and build that relationship. And like physical training, you don’t have to do it! But you will find that your life is not what it could be, even if it’s awesome in your own eyes. And, one day, you’ll find yourself faced with eternity; choose today whether you desire to have Jesus as your Trainer and Advocate.
I leave this post with one of my favorite contemporary songs today. Sung by the group Kutless, it is an honest statement of faith that, paraphrased, says, “Regardless of what I see, I will believe the truth!” Our eyes and emotions can deceive us, but if we spend time and know the One who saves us, we are never lost! He will always lead us!
– Matt 19:26 –