For the next couple of weeks, I thought we would take a close look at what has been called the “Achilles’ Heel” of Christianity. What is our “Achilles’ Heel,” you might ask? It is the question of pain and suffering. The Barna Group, founded in 1984, is a marketing research firm focused on the intersection of faith and culture. They conduct surveys designed to monitor religious trends and take the spiritual pulse of the country. In various ways, they … as well as many, many other individuals, intellectuals, and organizations or institutions over the ages … have explored and attempted to explain and make sense of the issue of pain and suffering … of trials and tribulations. In a 2010 survey, the Barna Group asked the question: “If you could ask God one question, what would you ask?” By far the number one response was … [pause] … no surprise … “Why is there pain and suffering in the world?” If I were to take a survey now, how many of you would want to ask God that same question?
Today we are going to be taking a look at “what” suffering and trials are from a Biblical perspective. Next week we’ll take a look at the Bible’s understanding of “why” suffering and hardship happen. That will be followed by an examination of “how” the Bible says we should respond to hardship, and my final sermon on the topic of hardship will be to examine God’s “purposes” for our problems.
So … are you ready to grab the issue of hardship and suffering by the Achille’s heel? This a big topic and there is a lot to explore … more than I could ever cover in a four-part series. So, if there are any questions that you might have about pain or suffering or trials that I don’t discuss or there are somethings about this topic that you would like to explore in greater detail, we can talk about it over a cup of coffee or you can shoot me an email at email@example.com or you can call me, okay?
Let’s start out discussing a few definitions so that we are all on the same page, amen? Our English word “trial” comes from the French word “trier” … which means “to try” … t-r-y. To “try” something … ‘t-r-y’ … means to “test” it … and the way that you “test” something is to see how much ‘pressure’ an object, situation, or person can take before they or it explode or fall apart.
We have all felt the ‘pressure’ of being ‘tested,’ haven’t we? Some of you may be feeling the pressures of life right now, amen? Whether you are aware of it or not, the pressure is always there. Usually we are only aware of it when it reaches beyond a certain point. Sometimes the pressure can become so great that we can feel like an ant about to be crushed under someone’s thumb. Here’s the good news … if you are here this morning, then you clearly made it through your crisis alive. It may have felt like it was going to destroy you but the fact that you are still here proves that it did not crush you like the proverbial ant under God’s thumb. And if God got you through your last crisis alive, there’s no reason to doubt that God can and will get you through the crisis that you’re going through now or any other crisis that you will no doubt have to face in the future, amen?
In his book, “When Life is Hard,” James MacDonald defines a “trial” as a “painful circumstance allowed by God to change my conduct and my character” (2010. Chicago: Moody Pub.). Listen carefully. A trial is a painful circumstance allowed by God to change my conduct and my character. My “conduct” is what I do … my “conduct” is how I behave when the pressure’s on. My “character” is who I am. As Jesus pointed out, my “conduct” springs out of my “character.” “The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good, and the evil person out of evil treasure produces evil,” Jesus explained to His followers, “for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45). God uses pressure to change how I behave, how I react to pressure, by using that pressure to re-shape and change me at the deepest levels of my heart and mind.
At this point, it is critical that I make a distinction between a “trial” and a “consequence.” It is very easy to mistake the consequences of our actions for a test or a trial when in reality they are really two different things that require two different responses. A “consequence” is the result of an action or decision that I have made. A “trial,” on the other hand, is not the result or consequence of my actions or my behavior. The way to deal with our consequences is to repent … to change the behavior. Change the behavior, change the consequences. The way to deal with trials is to learn from them. Got that? We change our consequences by changing our behavior … we face our trials and we learn from them.
Please take out your “owner’s Manuel” and turn to Hebrews 12 to see what the Bible has to teach us about going through trials. [Pause.] The best place to start is at the beginning, amen? And in this case, that’s verses 5: “And you have forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as children – ‘My child, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, or lose heart when you are punished by Him.”
“My child.” It is a term of endearment but it also reminds us that we are like children who must learn how to handle the trials and ordeals of life … whether we’re five years old and learning to tie our shoes and struggling to learn our ABCs or 80 years old and dealing with the issues that come with aging. What kind of parent would passively stand aside and watch as their child runs out on to a busy street or runs wild through a busy parking lot? We run after them, we grab them by the hand, we get down in their face, and we let them have it, don’t we? Hoping to make an impression that will protect them and serve them well in the future, amen? The child may interpret our reaction as anger. They may take it as a punishment. What they may not understand at that age is that we do it to protect them, to ‘discipline’ them because we love them and we care very deeply about them. Our Father loves and care for us, His children, more deeply than we do our own children … which, for me is hard to imagine, given how much I love my daughter … but that’s the truth.
God doesn’t just sit up in Heaven and passively sit upon His throne and leave us to fend ourselves or watch us destroy ourselves. “God is treating you as children,” says verse 7, “for what child is there whom a parent does not discipline? If you do not have that discipline in which all children share, then you are illegitimate and not His children. Moreover, we had human parents to discipline us, and we respected them” (Hebrews 12:7-9). In other words, if God doesn’t discipline us then it’s a sign He doesn’t love us or care about us … kind of like a father or mother in a blended family who shows favoritism to their own children but ignores or neglects the children from their spouse’s previous marriage because they are not their own. People who don’t care about their children don’t take of them, they don’t teach them, they don’t prepare them to handle life. In other words, how can you say that you love your children but ignore them and do nothing for them?
Tennis wasn’t a very popular sport then I was in high school. I tried to teach myself how to play … which was bound to fail. How can I teach myself to play tennis when I don’t know how to play tennis, amen? How is a child supposed to learn about life when they know nothing about life, amen? I joined the tennis team in high school in the hopes of learning how to play. Unfortunately, the teacher that they assigned us to be our coach knew absolutely nothing about tennis. Apparently, he took the “job” just to earn a few extra bucks. He sat on a stool in one corner of the tennis courts and watched the lacrosse team play … never looked at us, never showed us how to do anything, no physical training, no drills … nothing. We just chased tennis balls for an hour or two, went into the locker room, and got made fun of … and occasionally shoved around … by the lacrosse team. As a result, we lost every single match we played for the whole four years I was on the team.
It’s sad to see what’s going on today. Instead of the parents ‘disciplining’ or teaching their children, we see children making their own decisions and the parents helplessly giving in to their demands, thinking that this is the way that you show love. We’ve grown afraid of the word “discipline” … seeing it as something harsh … even brutal. We’ve taken the admonition to “spare the rod and spoil the child” in Proverbs 13:24 to mean that we should take the rod and literally beat some common sense in to our children instead of using the rod like a yard stick or a measuring tape as a way of measuring our children’s progress. In the Bible, the word “discipline” means to “provide instruction with the intent of forming proper habits of behavior.”
Verse 5 says that we have forgotten the “exhortation” … the “encouragement” … that comes from being disciplined. Discipline “encourages” us … it puts “heart” in us … because it gives us confidence. Verse 5 goes on to quote Proverbs 3:11-12, which instructs us not to “regard lightly the discipline of the Lord.” In other words, don’t be casual, flippant, sarcastic, indifferent, or indignant when God is putting pressure on you. He does so to mold and shape and develop our character. Do not lose heart when we are being punished or ‘chastised’ by Him. Do not have contempt for or despise the work that God is doing in us and for us because He’s trying to teach us something. He is trying to develop our character and make us stronger … make us better people … better witnesses … better Christians. We all have our ways of letting God know that we don’t appreciate what He’s doing in our lives, don’t we?
Years ago, Ray Pritchard, president of Keep Believing Ministries and a regular co-host on "Today's Issues" on the American Family Network, met with the Jim Warren, longtime host of Prime Time America on the Moody Broadcasting Network for some advice on how to handle some issues he was struggling with. Jim Warren told his friend: “Ray, when hard times come be a student, not a victim.” Good advice for us today who are living in a “victim culture” where we have become experts at playing the blame game. I like the way that Pastor Ray explains the contrast between a “student” and a “victim.” A victim says, “Why did this happen to me?” A student asks, “I don’t care why it happened. What I want to know is what is God trying to teach me?” A victim is so busy and wrapped up in feeling sorry for themselves that they have no time for others. A student has no time to wallow in self-pity or feeling sorry for themselves because they are focused on seeking God’s will and too busy doing God’s work and helping others. A victim simultaneously blames God and others for their problems while demanding that others and God solve or remove their problems, while a student relies on God to get them through their troubles so that they can grow closer to God and serve God better.
Verse 6 says that the “Lord disciplines those whom He loves, and chastises every child whom He accepts.” On the surface, that might sound a bit wonky but it really speaks to a profound spiritual truth. James MacDonald, explains it like this: “Far from abandoning us when we’re going through difficult trials, God moves toward us. Far from folding His arms, God is rolling up His sleeves. He’s getting ready to do something in your life that you haven’t been previously willing to let Him do … in fact, trials are poof of [His] love. The goal of all your pain is restoration to a deeper sense of His love ... a love that is willing to take you through a valley to get you to a hilltop. No pseudo solutions or quick fixes with God. He is going for change in you at the deepest and most lasting level.” I love that last line: “He is going for change in you at the deepest and most lasting level” (MacDonald, 2010, p. 131).
Trials are tests … not accidents. Whatever trial or difficulty you are going through today has been tailor-made for you by a loving heavenly Father. He appoints tough times for our good and His glory and He is never cruel in His correction. Think about this: Everything that comes to you has already passed through the hands of God and has received His stamp of approval. It may seem like God is punishing us, but He is actually attempting to teach us and to help us to grow stronger. Joni Eareckson Tada, confined to a wheelchair for most of her life, observed that “suffering is messier than I once thought” but “God, like a father, doesn’t just give advice … He gives Himself.”
Let’s jump down to verse 9. “Moreover, we had human parents to discipline us, and we respected them. Should we not be even more willing to be subject to the Father of spirits and live?” The word that the Bible uses for “subject” can also be translated to mean “submit.” It’s a military word that is used to describe a soldier who is standing at attention … alert, prepared and ready to respond the second his or her commander gives them an order. Our willingness to submit or subject ourselves to God is directly proportional to the amount of faith and trust that we have in God. We trust that He sees the big picture … the whole picture. We trust that He has a plan … even if we don’t fully understand what His plan is. And we trust that He has done and will do everything that He can to help us accomplish His mission.
We really only have two choices, don’t we? We can shake our fist at God and refuse to follow orders … or we can drop to our knees in surrender. We can either go through all this pain and grief with God … or we can choose to tough it out and go it alone. We can run from Him or we can run to Him. We can blame God or we can cling to God, amen? Verse 9 says that our choice should be pretty clear … we should submit to God’s will. When we subject ourselves to God’s purposes and plans for our lives, God changes us. He changes our character, which then changes our conduct.
Like our human parents, who set up rules and guidelines and disciplined us because they loved us, verse 10 says that God “disciplines us for our good.” The Greek word that the writer uses for “good” is a financial term that means “profit” … which describes God’s work in us as an investment that will eventually produce a dividend. In Romans 5, Paul says that “we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope” (v. 3-4). He goes on to say in chapter 8: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose” (v. 28). We hear that connection between trial, character, and conduct again, don’t we?
C.S. Lewis wrote: “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to us in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: It is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world” (https://everydaypower.com/c-s-lewis-quotes). Psalm 119 puts it this way: “Before I was humbled I went astray, but now I keep Your word. You are good and do good; teach me Your statutes” (v. 66-68).
At the end of verse 10, it says that God disciplines us “in order that we may share His holiness.” Listen carefully to what’s being said here. We don’t share in God’s holiness … we share His holiness … we become holy as He is holy. The word “holy” means to become whole … w-h-o-l-e … as in completely and totally dedicated to God. Trials bring us closer to God. Every trial that we go through increases our faith and trust in God. The way to happiness, says verse 10, is through holiness … by totally subjecting ourselves to the Father of spirits as described in verse9. Holiness is a state of complete God-centeredness … a complete surrender … a complete trust … a complete faith … a complete dependence on God. Our “good” … our “profit” … our “dividend” for surrendering to God, for trusting God, for our dependence upon God during our times of trial is holiness … to become complete and whole … to become holy like God, who is complete and whole. Job knew a lot about going through trials and he also trusted that God had a purpose or a goal for what he was going through even though he couldn’t see it or understand it at the time. “But He knows the way that I take,” says Job, “when He has tested me I will come forth as gold” (Job 23:10).
Verse 11 says that our trials are only temporary. “Now, discipline always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” How many of you have more pain than pleasure in your life right now? God’s Word says to hold on because this shall pass and peace is waiting for you on the other side of your trial or trials. A.W. Tozer explained it this way: “Seldom does God use a person greatly who has not been hurt deeply.” In his book, “If God is Good,” author Randy Alcorn wrote: “The faith that can’t be shaken is the faith that has been shaken” (2009. Colorado Springs: Multnomah Books; p. 26). So true. A faith that can’t be shaken is a faith that has been shaken.
The question isn’t whether we will be tested or not … that’s inevitable. What is questionable is how we respond to it. Verse 11 says that our trial will “yield the peaceful fruit of righteousness” to whom? “… to those who have been trained by it.” The Greek word for “train” literally means to “exercise” like an athlete who trains and works out at the gym everyday to increase his or her strength and skills and performance. Just like verse 10 says that our trials can make us holy, what verse 11 is saying is that the only way that we can experience this yield or harvest of peaceful righteousness is if we cooperate with God.
How many of you have ever been involved in a sport that had a coach? They yell, they holler, they get in your face … they make you exercise … they make you go through drills … always pushing you to go a bit further, to try a bit harder … to keep pushing you beyond what you think you are capable of … which leads to growth and makes you a better athlete. Verse 11 is saying that God is trying to do that same thing in our lives. He uses trials to encourage us, to motivate us, to push us beyond the limits of what we believe we are capable of … and as a result, we become stronger, more confident … not only in ourselves but more importantly in God. How can we expect to enjoy the peaceful fruit of righteousness if we’re not willing to listen to our coach and put in the work, amen? To what extent are you willing to let God use the trials of life to change you … to improve you … so that you can produce a harvest of right living and right thinking and right acting?
The storms of life can come fast and furious and quick. They can stretch out over months, years, or even decades. The trials of life can be tiny and irritating or they can be titanic and impossible to endure. Trials can be physical, relational, financial, emotional, or circumstantial. As one guy put it: “I don’t mind obstacles as long as they don’t get in my way.” The fact is, trials are just a part of life … for everyone … for non-Christian and Christian alike. Nobody is exempt. Nobody gets a trouble-free ride out of this life … not even Christians. As the Apostle Peter warns us, “do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you” (1st Peter 4:12). Trials are just a part of living in a fallen, broken world. Some Christians … especially those who are new to the faith … labor under the misconception that the Christian life should be one devoid of challenges or difficulties. The hard truth … one that Jesus made very clear to His Disciples … is that following Christ and living a Christian life is a difficult one … filled with many challenges. When you put your faith in Christ, you will experience pressure and you will be tried and you will encounter obstacles and difficulty. But you will also have God … who will not only give you the strength to persevere … to press on … to overcome … but will also use those trials and challenges to mold you, to make you more righteous, more holy. Look at what the writer of Hebrews tells us that our predecessors went through in Chapter 11. They experienced incredible difficulties and relentless persecution. Author Randy Alcorn makes this undeniably true observation: “A faith that leaves us unprepared for suffering is a false faith that deserves to be lost. If you base your faith on a lack of affliction, your faith lives on the brink of extinction and will fall apart because of a frightening diagnosis or a shattering phone call. Token faith,” he says, “will not survive suffering, nor should it. Believing God exists,” he concludes, “is not the same as trusting the God who exists” (2009. If God is Good. Colorado Springs: Multnomah Books; p. 94). A South American sayings puts it much more succinctly: “To live without suffering is to die without glory.”
What is your response to the tests and trials … to the difficulties and the challenges … in your life? I beg you … don’t give up and become passive or become bitter and hardened. God is no stranger to your pain. Sometimes we forget that Jesus was crucified … that He paid the price for our sins in an extremely cruel and painful way. Over the course of this series, it is my hope and my prayer that we gain a new … a deeper … understanding and … yes ... appreciation … for the ways and means that God uses to test us and try us … to strengthen us, to draw us closer to Him, to prove to us that He is our strength.
At the beginning of Chapter 12, just before the part we studied today, the writer of Hebrews reminds us that Christ faced the ultimate test on the cross and passed it on our behalf. “[Let] us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken His seat at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:1b-2).
He went through everything that we have to go through. He had to run the race that God had laid out for Him in the same way that we have to run the race that God has laid out for us. Faced with the grisly future of the cross, Jesus prayed that His Father would give Him the strength, the character, to go to the cross and fulfill the plans and purposes that God had for us. And on the other side of His ordeal on the cross was a pleasant time where He is seated next to His Father in Heaven. His reward was a harvest of the peaceful fruit of righteousness … not for Him but for us. “Consider Him who endured such hostility against Himself,” says verse 3, “so that you may not grow weary or lose heart.”
I thought that I would close with some excellent insights and truths that Randy Alcorn shares with his readers in his book, “If God is Good”:
• The cross is God’s answer to the question: “Why doesn’t God do something about evil?”
• In His haunting cry, “Why have You forsaken me?,” Christ identifies with our despair.
• God allowed Jesus to suffer temporarily so that He could prevent our eternal suffering.
• If God can use the horror of Christ’s crucifixion for good, then surely He can use our suffering for good, amen?
• When we feel upset with God and are tempted to blame Him, we should look at the outstretched arms of Jesus on the cross and focus on His wounds … not ours.
• Whenever you feel tempted to ask God, “Why did You do this TO me?” we should look at the cross and ask: “Why did You do that FOR me?”