Defining Trials

July 4, 2010 | Brian Bill

About two weeks ago I received a phone call from someone who was in great distress.  After recounting the details of what had happened, the following question was uttered in a loud, yet broken voice: “Pastor Brian, does God hate me?”  

The topic we’re tackling this month is the most commonly asked question of God and it’s been referred to as the “Achilles Heel” of Christianity.  George Barna conducted a national survey a few years ago in which he polled adults: “If you could ask God one question, what would you ask?”  The top response was this, “Why is there pain and suffering in the world?”  In our new series that we’re calling, “When Life is Hard” we’re going to take a look at what God’s Word says about how best to make sense out of suffering, whether we ask it in a philosophical or theological sense, or whether our questions are agonizingly emotional and personal, as some of ours are.

The Truth About Trials

As we lay a foundation for our study, let’s settle on a definition.  The word “trial” means to be “under the thumb” of pressure.  Many of you know from experience what that feels like.  Some of you are going through some unrelenting pressure right now that keeps you awake at night and makes you feel wiped out during the day.  In the New Testament the word trial means to prove by testing.  In other words, a trial demonstrates the genuineness of your faith in Christ and refines the quality of your spiritual life.  

God is committed to reshaping my character

I like this defintion: “A trial is a painful circumstance allowed by God to change my conduct and my character.”  I like this because it shows that God is always interested in working out His glory and my ultimate good, no matter what kind of garbage I’m going through.  Trials are all about God adjusting my conduct, which is what I do.  And, at a deeper level, God is committed to reshaping my character, which is who I am.

The storms of life can come fast and furious or they can stretch over months, years, or even decades.  Trials can be tiny and irritating or they can be titanic and impossible to endure.  Trials can involve the physical, the relational, financial, emotional or circumstantial.  Several biblical terms are used almost interchangeably: suffering, hardship, tribulation, chastising and discipline. 

It reminds me of the guy who said that he doesn’t mind obstacles as long as they don’t get in his way but trials are the common lot of every Christian.  

No one is exempt; no one gets a trouble-free ride to heaven. Jesus put it this way in Matthew 24:9: “Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me.”  1 Peter 4:12: “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you.”  Suffering is a mark of discipleship, something that is guaranteed for the follower of Christ.

The Christian life is not a quick fix.  New Christians are sometimes confused when they think that everything should go perfectly, that there should be no more difficulties.  Some believers may even wonder if they’re at fault, that maybe if they just had more faith, the hard times would go away.  When you put your faith in Christ you will experience pressures and persecution.  

Acts 14:22 puts it succinctly: “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.”  A South American saying hits it on the head: “To live without suffering is to die without glory.”  

Let’s remind ourselves that we are not the first Christians who have ever lived and that our faithful predecessors had incredible problems and experienced relentless persecution (see Hebrews 11).  Turn back to the opening verse of Hebrews 12.  Here we’re reminded that those who came before us are actually cheering us on to persevere, to keep going, to run the race with endurance: “…we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses.”

Alcorn makes a very provocative, yet undeniably true, statement: “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 will not survive suffering, nor should it.  Believing God exists is not the same as trusting the God who exists.”

Trials we embrace and learn from, consequences we repent and turn from.

Before we go further, let’s hit the pause button and make a really important distinction.  When going through a storm, it’s important to ask this question, “Is this a trial or is this a consequence?”  Sometimes what we think is a trial is in reality a consequence for our own actions.  The way to respond to a bad consequence is repentance.  If you did wrong, you need to make it right with God through repentance and with the people your sin injured through restitution.  A trial is completely different because your actions didn’t cause it.  Remember, since God allows adversity in our life in order to change our conduct and character, then we must look for ways to learn from the trial.  Trials we embrace and learn from, consequences we repent and turn from.

Here’s what I want us to remember today.  We could call it the Big Idea or the Main Point or the Sermon Summary: Trials are designed to teach us so that our conduct and our character changes.  Please turn in your Bibles to Hebrews 12 where we’re going to learn a few lessons this morning.  

1. Take your suffering seriously because it validates your relationship with God. 

Let’s pick it up with verses 5-7: “And you have forgotten that word of encouragement that addresses you as sons: ‘My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.’  Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons.  For what son is not disciplined by his father?”  The word “discipline” is used four different times in these verses and refers to God’s involvement in the hardest part of your life.  The word itself means: “to provide instruction with the intent of forming proper habits of behavior.”

When God moves toward you to make some changes in your conduct and character, do not be casual about what He’s doing.  Don’t be flippant or sarcastic or indifferent or indignant.  The phrase, “do not make light” means to not have contempt for, or despise.  We all have our ways of letting God know that we don’t appreciate what He’s doing in our lives, don’t we?

The word used for “discipline” in Hebrews 12 is translated “teaching” in Titus 2:11-12.  And so we say again: Trials are designed to teach us so that our conduct and our character changes.  Notice in verse 5 that the readers have “forgotten.”  We do that all the time, don’t we?  What is it that they’ve forgotten?  The answer is surprising: “the word of encouragement.”  What’s that?  We’ll, it’s actually a quote from Proverbs 3:11-12, which is the most frequently quoted Old Testament passage in the New Testament.  

The word “encouragement” means to call one alongside to help or give aid. We experienced something like this when a truck driver stopped on I-80 when we were in Wyoming with a flat tire.  It meant the world that he pulled over and then walked back to where we were to see if we needed help.  This is difficult to believe but we can find encouragement when the Lord disciplines us and rebukes us and punishes us because this shows that we are sons and daughters of the Heavenly Father: “God is treating you as sons.  For what son is not disciplined by his father?” 

Years ago Ray Pritchard met with Jim Warren, who used to host PrimeTime America.  Jim gave him this timeless advice: “Ray, when hard times come; be a student, not a victim.”  That is outstanding advice because we live in a “victim culture” where we have become experts at playing the blame game.  I like the way Pastor Ray draws a contrast between the two.  A victim says, “Why did this happen to me?”  A student says, “I don’t care why it happened.  I want to learn what God is trying to teach me.”  A victim feels so sorry for himself that he has no time for others.  A student focuses on helping others so that he has no time to feel sorry for himself.  A victim begs God to remove the problems of life so that he might be happy.  A student has learned through the problems of life that God alone is the source of all true happiness.

2. Going through a difficult time doesn’t mean that God hates us; difficulties demonstrate that He loves us. 

We’re going to have to pause and ponder this for a bit.  Check out verse 6“Because the Lord disciplines those He loves…”  Listen to this insight: “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 proof of 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.”

Biblically speaking, trials are appointments, not accidents.  That means that 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.  Listen carefully.  Everything that comes to you has already passed through the hands of God and has received His stamp of approval.  To us, it seems like God is punishing us, but actually He’s attempting to teach us and to free us.  

I love Lamentations 3:33: “He does not willingly bring affliction or grief to the children of men.”  Even though it may feel like God is far away and distant from you in your distress, the truth of the matter is that He not only sees your suffering; He’s concerned about you.  We hear His heart in Exodus 3:7: “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt.  I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering.”  

Joni Eareckson Tada, a quadriplegic who now has breast cancer, recently reflected on forty years in a wheel chair: “I’ve learned that suffering is messier than I once thought.”  But she also writes these words: “God, like a father, doesn’t just give advice.  He gives himself.”

3. No matter how bad the storms are, it’s imperative to submit to God. 

Look at the end of verse 9: “How much more should we submit to the Father of our spirits and live!”  To submit means to “place under in an orderly fashion.”  It was also used of soldiers who lined up in military fashion ready to hear the orders of their commander.  I can shake my fist at God or I can drop to me knees in surrender.  

4. What God allows is ultimately good for us. 

Look at the middle of verse 10: “…but God disciplines us for our good.” This is also translated as “for our profit” like a dividend or wages.  Pain can be perfect for some of us because of what comes from it.  It was C.S. Lewis who said, “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.”  Like the best dentist, He is drilling out decay in our lives.  And some of us need a lot of cavities filled.

Three verses come to mind in this regard.  Genesis 50:20: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” Romans 5:3-4: “Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.”  Romans 8:28: “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.”  We sang about this earlier. 

Don’t waste your pain because through it, and even in it, God is weaving His way and His will to accomplish His purposes.  Check out Psalm 119:67, 71: “Before I was afflicted I went astray,

but now I obey your word…It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees.”  I want to share a hard truth with you but before I do remember this: hard truths are the only way out of a hard place.  Are you ready to hear it?  This trial that you’re going through right now could be the best thing that’s ever happened to you.  He uses setbacks to move us forward.

5. Hard times can be the catalyst for holiness.

We see this in the last part of verse 10: “…that we may share in his holiness.”  Some of us shy away from holiness because we think we’d rather be happy.  But actually, the way to happiness is through holiness.  Holiness is the complete state of God-centeredness and God-likeness.  God’s endgame in whatever stress or trial or pain you’re going through is your holiness.  He may use the bad things you are experiencing to teach you something that He can’t get through to you in any other way.  Check out Job 23:10: “But he knows the way that I take; when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold.”  Friend, God sees your suffering and this verse tells us that our trials will not last forever.  God may have to break us in order to make us.

Someone has said, “In this country there is much complaint with little suffering; in some countries there is much suffering with little complaint.”  It’s amazing that when believers going through trials in other countries are asked for their prayer requests, they do not ask God for immediate rescue from their suffering.  Instead, they ask for boldness, grace to forgive, open doors, wisdom for government authorities, growth of church leaders, and unity in the church.

This is a good lesson for me.  When I’m going through something tough, I often pray that God would just take it away but I need to remember that pain is not pointless.  While it’s good to pray in faith that God would deliver us from difficulty, I want to learn to pray that God would teach me what He wants me to learn through the trial, especially if it’s something that He has designed just for me to experience.  Randy Alcorn writes: “The faith that can’t be shaken is the faith that has been shaken.”

6. Pain is momentary and peace comes later. 

This is spelled out in verse 11: “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful.  Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace…”  How many of you have more pain than pleasure in your life right now?  Hold on, because peace is coming.  It was A.W. Tozer who said, “Seldom does God use a person greatly who has not been hurt deeply.”  I quote from a friend again: “If I listen more to God I would have more peace than when I try to do everything on my own.”  Friends, if we’re faithful and patient, there’s fruit coming because trials are designed to be transformational.  God promises a safe landing, not smooth sailing.

7. My response is my responsibility.

I get this from the last part of verse 11: “…for those who have been trained by it.”  This word “training” can also be translated as “exercise” and was used of athletes striving strenuously in a gym on a daily basis.  Trials can train us for a harvest of righteousness and peace but its conditional based on whether or not I am cooperating with what God is doing.  I must allow myself to be trained by them.  I must look for the purpose in my pain.  I must guard against bitterness. 

Here’s a question.  To what extent are you willing to be trained by the trials you are going through right now?  I need to personalize this because I live with chronic pain and many times I don’t want to be trained by the trial – I just want to feel better and I get down when I don’t.  But, my response is my responsibility, isn’t it?  Remember this: Your particular trial doesn’t matter as much as how you respond to it.  Often we focus intently on the details of our difficulties as if our problem was the most important thing in the world.  It may seem so at the time, but it’s not really.  God is much more concerned with how we respond than with the trial itself.   Someone has said, “God will take care of what you go through; you take care of how you go through it.”

I heard about the story of a teenager who didn’t want to be seen in public with her mother, because her mother’s arms were terribly disfigured.  One day when her mom took her shopping and reached out her hand, a store clerk looked horrified.  Later, crying, the girl told her mother how embarrassed she was.  Understandably hurt, the mother waited an hour before going to her daughter’s room to tell her, for the first time, what had happened. 

“When you were a baby, I woke up to a burning house.  Your room was an inferno. Flames were everywhere.  I could have gotten out the front door, but I decided I’d rather die with you than leave you to die alone.  I ran through the fire and wrapped my arms around you.  Then I went back through the flames, my arms on fire.  When I got outside on the lawn, the pain was agonizing, but when I looked at you, all I could do was rejoice that the flames hadn’t touched you.” Stunned, the girl looked at her mom through new eyes.  

Weeping in shame and gratitude, she kissed her mother’s marred hands and arms.  As we transition to communion, it’s my prayer that we will see the problem of pain and suffering through new eyes, knowing that we have a Savior who has wrapped His arms around us.

Trials are designed to teach us so that our conduct and our character changes. What’s your response to the bad things that happen in your life?  Don’t give up and become passive or become bitter and hardened.  God is no stranger to your pain.  The great news of the Bible is that God is a suffering God.  Jesus Christ died a horrible death on a rough cross to provide you with the ultimate solution for suffering and death.  

Truths To Take Hold Of

Randy Alcorn lists some excellent truths to hold on to that all center on the cross (pages 206-219).

  • The Cross is God’s answer to the question, “Why don’t you do something about evil?”
  • In His haunting cry, “Why have you forsaken me?” Christ identifies with our despair.
  • God allowed Jesus’ temporary suffering so He could prevent our eternal suffering.
  • Christ’s atonement guarantees the final end of evil and suffering.
  • If God can use the horror of Christ’s crucifixion for good, then surely He can use our suffering for good.
  • When we feel upset with God and tempted to blame Him, we should look at the outstretched arms of Jesus and focus on His wounds, not ours.
  • Whenever you feel tempted to ask God, “Why did you do this to me?” look at the Cross and ask, “Why did you do that for me?”

John Stott tells a story about how at the end of time, billions of people were scattered on a great plain before God’s throne.  Most shrank back from the brilliant light before them.  But some groups near the front talked heatedly – not with cringing shame, but with angry words.

“Can God judge us? How can he know about suffering?” snapped one Jewish woman.  She ripped open a sleeve to reveal a tattooed number from a Nazi concentration camp. “We endured terror… beatings…torture…death!”

Far out across the plain there were hundreds of such groups.  A pregnant teenager cried out, a minority wondered why there is so much racism, someone from Hiroshima, people born deformed and others who were murdered.  They all expressed their complaints against God for the evil and suffering He had permitted.  What did God know of weeping, hunger and hatred?  God leads a sheltered life in Heaven, they said.  In the center of the plain they consulted with each other and elected leaders to argue on their behalf.  At last they were ready to present their case.  It was rather clever.

Before God could be qualified to be their judge, he must endure what they had endured.  Their decision was that God should be sentenced to live on earth.  Then they pronounced a sentence: “Let him be born a Jew.  Let the legitimacy of his birth be doubted.  Give him a work so difficult that even his family will think him out of his mind when he tries to do it.  Let him be betrayed by his closest friends.  Let him face false charges, be tried by a prejudiced jury and convicted by a cowardly judge.  Let him be tortured.  Let him see what it means to be alone.  Then let him die. Let him die so that there can be no doubt that he died.  Let there be a great host of witnesses to verify it.”

As each leader announced his portion of the sentence, loud murmurs of approval went up from the throng of people assembled.  And when the last had finished lashing out, there was a long silence.  No one uttered another word.  No one moved and a weight fell on each face.  For suddenly all knew that God had already served his sentence.

Sometimes we forget that Christ was crucified for us, that He served our sin sentence so that we could be forgiven.  That’s why it’s so important that celebrate communion on a regular basis because it reminds us of redemption.  As way to focus our attention, I want to go back to the first part of Hebrews 12 and then I want to pick up the verses we studied together so we can see how our ability to handle suffering is linked with how much the Savior went through for us.  As the men prepare to serve, I want to invite you to close your eyes and listen as I read these weighty words…

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.  Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.  Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.  In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.  

“And you have forgotten that word of encouragement that addresses you as sons: ‘My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.’ Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons.  For what son is not disciplined by his father?  If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons.  Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it.  How much more should we submit to the Father of our spirits and live!  Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness.  No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful.  Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.”

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?