God Must Be Praised in Fiery Trials
1 Peter 1:6-7
August 15, 2004
On April 5, 1943, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was arrested and imprisoned by the Gestapo for his resistance to the Nazi regime in Germany. For several years he had spoken out against the Nazis, and eventually it caught up with him. As he saw his country sliding into the abyss, he felt that he could not remain silent. Two years later, only a few weeks from the end of World War II, he found himself in Buchenwald Concentration Camp, facing the death sentence. On Sunday, April 8, he led a service for other prisoners. Shortly after the final prayer, the door opened and two civilians entered. “Prisoner Bonhoeffer, come with us,” they said. Everyone knew what that meant—the gallows. Quickly the other men said goodbye to him. An English prisoner who survived the war describes the moment: “He took me aside [and said], ‘This is the end; but for me it is the beginning of life.’” The next day he was hanged at Flossenburg Prison. The SS doctor who witnessed his death called him brave and composed and devout to the very end. “Through the half-open door I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer still in his prison clothes, kneeling in fervent prayer to the Lord his God. The devotion and evident conviction of being heard that I saw in the prayer of this intensely captivating man moved me to the depths.”
“This is the end; but for me it is the beginning of life.” What makes a man facing certain death talk like that? Where do you find faith like that? Surely such a man has discovered the “living hope” that goes beyond the grave. How else do you explain it?
Why God Sends Trials
British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge, who became a Christian before his death, said late in life, “Contrary to what might be expected, I look back on experiences that at the time seemed especially desolating and painful with particular satisfaction. Indeed, everything I have learned, everything that has truly enhanced and enlightened my existence, has been through affliction and not through happiness.”
Every thoughtful person has wondered why God sends trials to his children. You don’t live very long before that question stares you in the face. It might be a critical illness, death of a loved one, loss of a job, the breakup of a marriage, trouble with your children, a season of depression, financial difficulties, or a time of intense persecution from others because of your faith. Those things happen to all of us sooner or later. If you’ve never pondered why God allows such things, you ought to.
When we turn to the Bible, we find many perspectives that help us understand why trials come to God’s children. I Peter 1:6-7 offers an important perspective that we need to know. It doesn’t answer every question we could ask about trials, trouble, and the sufferings of this life. No single text could answer every question. But it does provide a crucial framework for seeing the hand of God at work in the worst moments of life.
Before we jump into the text, let’s notice two key words. The first is the word “trials” at the end of verse 6. The Greek word is peirasmos, a word that appears often in the New Testament. It can mean “test,” or “trial,” or even “temptation.” Depending on the context, it can have a positive or negative connotation. When we face a test in school, we either pass or fail. The same is true of the tests of life. God sends those tests so that what is in the heart will be revealed for all to see. The same event may be both a test and a temptation. That is, it may be sent by God to test us, and Satan may use it as an occasion for temptation. It all depends on how we respond.
When trouble comes …
We may turn to God in prayer, or we may become bitter.
We may become quiet and thoughtful, or we may begin to complain.
We may become tender and compassionate, or we may become harsh and cruel.
We may learn new trust in God, or we may rebel against him.
We may take courage, or we may give in to fear.
We may draw close to God, or we may turn away from him.
The same event in all cases—but vastly different results. It all depends on how we respond.
The second word comes from the first phrase of verse 6: “In this you greatly rejoice.” Take the root word joy and consider it for a moment. What is joy? It’s a difficult word to define. We know that joy and happiness are two different things. Happiness depends on circumstances, and comes and goes depending on the emotions of the moment. But joy is deeper and more profound because it comes from God. Last night as I pondered the matter, this thought came to me: Joy comes from “satisfaction with God.” When we are satisfied with God, we will have joy even in the hardest moments of life. G. K. Chesterton called joy “the gigantic secret of the Christian life.” Joy, he said, is always at the center for the Christian; trials are at the periphery of life. I put these ideas together this way: Joy is the ability to face reality—the good and bad, the happy and the sad, the positive and the negative, the best and the worst—because we are satisfied with God.
Seen in that light, this is no contradiction between joy and trials. They belong together.
Our text teaches us four important truths about the trials of life.
I. Our Trials are Brief
Peter begins by assuring his readers that their trials would only last “a little while.” Of course, that “little while” seems to last forever when we are in the furnace. Early Sunday morning when I asked a man how things were going, he shook his head and said, “Things are falling apart.” I told him that he should listen closely to my sermon because I was preaching on how our trials are brief. He chuckled and said, “They don’t seem brief to me.” We all understand that. When you sit by the bedside of a loved one in the hospital, time seems to slow to a crawl. When your marriage crumbles or your children are in trouble or you lose your job and can’t pay your bills, the trial seems to go on forever. In what sense can Peter say that our trials are brief? The answer is, everything in this life is brief when compared to eternity. It’s all a matter of perspective. If I say I know a man who can hold his breath a long time, I mean he can hold it for two or three minutes. That’s a long time for breath-holding. But if you say, “Pastor Ray, you’ve been at Calvary a long time,” you mean that I’ve been here for 15 years. That’s a long time for a pastor to be at one church. Our trials may last for weeks or months or years, sometimes they last for decades, but seen against the endless ages of eternity, even the worst trials here are brief by comparison. Our problem is a kind of spiritual nearsightedness that views this world as the “real” world and counts eternity as nothing by comparison. God never asks us to deny the harsh reality of our trials. He asks only that we take his perspective on our suffering.
A wise pastor friend of mine wrote recently to say that his responsibility is not just to help people live well but to help them live with the great expectancy of heaven. “It is to prepare them to die well, even with excitement toward heaven and not regret.” He went on to speak of a man who died while a pacemaker was being installed because the doctor clipped an artery without knowing it. The man had been in good health, but suddenly his life was over. It all changed with one prick of a wire. My friend said that he thinks about this more often now because he is 50, and he is seeing friends his age (and younger) begin to die. When we are young, death seems rather theoretical, and even when it happens, it seems remote from our own experience. But time has a way of changing our thinking. He spoke of a nine-year-old boy in his congregation with a cancerous tumor in his brain. Chemo didn’t work, and he faces radiation soon. His vision is going quickly. “Every time I see him or think of him, I realize my ministry to him, unless the Lord intervenes, is to help him die with joy and anticipation of Christ. And it is to help the parents understand that his life cut short is not loss but gain.” My friend speaks words that come from the heart of God. Life is short for all of us compared to eternity. And in the worst of our trials, we can rejoice because we know they will not, they cannot, last forever.
II. Our Trials are Necessary
Note how Peter puts it: “You may have had to suffer.” Literally, the Greek reads, “If necessary for a little while.” Peter could not be sure how long they would suffer, but he knows that the suffering itself is necessary. Whether long or short, hard times come to every believer. Those hard times come in many varieties. (When I said that on Sunday morning, a voice from the back of the sanctuary said, “Amen!”) And they come over and over again. And those hard times come to every believer. No Christian is exempt from trials. Some have more, others less, but all share in the “many trials” Peter mentions. Those trials are necessary to help us grow spiritually. That’s why Martin Luther called adversity “the very best book in my library.” And George Whitefield declared, “God puts burs in our bed to keep us watchful and awake.” Perhaps that is why you could not sleep last night. Those trials are proof that we belong to the Lord. John Duncan put it this way: “If we have not got a cross, alas! We may conclude that we have not Christ, for it is the first of his gifts.”
III. Our Trials are Purifying
We have arrived at the heart of Peter’s message. Trials come “come so that your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may be proved genuine” (v. 7). Note the little phrase “so that” in the text. Circle it, underline it, highlight it. No phrase is more hopeful or more needed. The words “so that” tell us that our trials have a purpose. They don’t just happen by chance or by some random act of fate. There are no accidents for the children of God. Everything happens for a reason. Even though we may not see the reason, our faith can survive if we know that a reason really does exist.
Peter goes on to explain that God sends trials in order to test and purify our faith. The phrase “proved genuine” translates the Greek word dokimos, which means to test something in order to prove that it will not fail. Let me illustrate. When Chevrolet tests Ford pickup trucks, they do it to prove that Ford trucks won’t pass the test. But when Chevrolet tests its own trucks, they do it to prove that their trucks will pass the same test. That’s the Greek word used here. God puts our faith to the test by allowing hard times to come, not to destroy us but to demonstrate that our faith is genuine. Note the contrast between faith and pure gold. Did you know that it takes four tons of gold ore to produce one ounce of pure gold? During the refining process, the gold ore is heated in a giant furnace until it liquefies; the dross or waste material is skimmed off, leaving only the pure gold at the bottom. In ancient times goldsmiths knew they had pure gold when they could look at the gold and see their reflection. That’s what God intends through our trials. He puts us in the furnace to burn off the greed, the impatience, the unkindness, the anger, the bitterness, the hatred, the lust, and the selfishness. For most of us, that’s a lifetime process. But in the end, the image of Jesus is formed in us. I have seen that happen over and over again in the lives of suffering saints. “Joe, you look like Jesus to me.” “Sandra, I can see Jesus in your face.”
God wants to prove your faith is genuine, and trials provide the most reliable proof. We may all mouth certain phrases that make us sound spiritual when things are going well, but how we respond when life tumbles in around us tells the real story of what we truly believe. God “proves” our faith to us, to our loved ones, and to a watching world. Outside the four walls of the church are millions of people who watch the way we live. They may not understand what we believe, but they watch us from a distance to see how we respond when hard times come. And even if they don’t understand it all, they are profoundly moved by a believer whose faith remains strong in the time of trouble. They know our faith is real, and that draws them one step closer to Jesus.
This is how it works:
You lost your money, but gained devoted faith.
You lost your health, but gained patient faith.
You lost your job, but gained resilient faith.
You lost your loved ones, but gained grieving faith.
You lost your friends, but gained courageous faith.
Thus does God bring triumph out of our trials, and from the pit of despair, he lifts us to the pinnacle of faith. Hard times make strong saints. There is no other way.
IV. Our Trials are Eternally Significant
Our text suggests one final truth about our trials. God sends trials to prove our faith is genuine so that it “may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed” (v. 7). Normally when we read words like praise, glory and honor, we associate them with Jesus Christ himself. But Peter says we are the ones who gain praise, glory and honor. That is, the Lord himself bestows upon us praise and glory and honor. Or more properly, because of our faithfulness during our trials in this life, we will share in the praise, glory and honor that belongs to our Lord. What a thought that is. What an incredible scene in heaven, when the faithful saints of God are crowned with glory, praise and honor, by our Lord himself. I imagine Jesus saying, “Father, this is Mario. He suffered for my sake on the earth, and he never denied my name. He is one of my faithful ones.” As those words are spoken, a vast cheer rolls across the universe from the assembled multitudes. And so it will go as one by one those who suffered so much in this life, those who endured ridicule, hatred and martyrdom are revealed and rewarded for their faithfulness. And those who suffered illness with joy, who lost their possessions but not their faith, who walked a hard road on the earth but never gave up, are recognized and honored by the Lord.
When Jesus finally appears, we will find out what our trials have accomplished. Things that seemed useless and unfair will be seen as instruments of God’s grace. Things we thought were hard and even cruel, we will discover were tempered by God’s mercy.
And we will all say,
“He was nearest when I thought him farthest away.”
“He was faithful when I had no faith to believe.”
“He used my trials to develop my faith.”
“He used my faith to encourage others.”
We don’t see those things very clearly now, but in that day, all will be made plain. And as we look back across the pathway of life, we will see that nothing was wasted. God knew what he was doing all along.
Three Final Thoughts
Before we wrap up this message, here are three concluding thoughts about the troubles of life that we all face sooner or later.
A. Trouble is something we should all take for granted.
After what our Lord endured 2,000 years ago, how can we ever say, “I can’t believe this is happening to me?” Better to face the trials of life with wide-eyed realism, understanding that suffering is the first course in God’s curriculum in the School of Spiritual Growth.
B. Trouble is meant to draw us closer to the Lord, not push us further away.
Strange as it may seem, our troubles are a sign of God’s love, for if he did not love us, he would not discipline us (see Hebrews 12:4-11). Some of you may say, “If that’s the case, then God must love me a lot.” I am certain that he does, and your trials and your tears, and the confusion you experience, do not invalidate his love for you. C. S. Lewis remarked that God whispers to us in our pleasure but shouts to us in our pain. He called pain “God’s megaphone” to rouse a sleeping world. Many times God speaks to us through our pain because we won’t listen to him any other way.
C. Trouble is meant to be used and not wasted.
Our hard times are not easy and sometimes they are not good at all, but God can use them for our good and for his glory. He intends to “prove” our faith genuine by the way we respond to our trials. Think of it this way:
Before our trials, our faith is unproved.
After our trials, our faith is improved.
A faith God approves brings him great glory. Here is good news for all of us.
God is not looking for educated people.
God is not looking for rich people.
God is not looking for talented people.
God is not looking for beautiful people.
God is looking for faithful disciples who having passed through the fiery trials, are stamped for all the world to see, “Approved by God.”
As I write these words, I know that some of you are going through incredibly difficult things at this very moment. What is God saying to you?
1) It will not last forever.
2) It is necessary for your spiritual growth.
3) It is sent to help you, not to hurt you.
And if you find yourself in the furnace right now, be of good cheer. It is your Father’s kindness that has put you there. On Sunday a man told me that he is being “barbecued” by what he is going through. But he did not seem angry at all. He knows that the pain is helping him grow and become a new man by God’s grace. Nothing of value will be taken while you are in the furnace. The only things taken from you will be those things you didn’t need anyway.
Joy and Trials
And so I come back to the two words I mentioned at the beginning: Joy and Trials. Now we can see clearly how these two always work together.
The Christian position is not:
Joy, then trials, or
Trials, then joy, or
Joy or trials.
It is always joy and trials, at the same time, working together, mixed together, so that we have joy in our trials, joy beside our trials, joy within our trials, and sometimes even joy in spite of our trials. Thus could David say in Psalm 34:8, after mentioning his fears and his troubles, “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” Indeed, his mercies endure forever, but most of us only discover that truth in the furnace. Like the three Hebrew children of Daniel 3, when we are cast into the furnace, suddenly we discover “the fourth man” is there with us. Jesus comes to us in our time of direst need, and just when we need him most, he is there.
So this is my final word to you. This is what we must say:
Whatever it takes, Lord, do your work in me.
Whatever it takes to purify my heart, do your work in me.
Whatever it takes to build my faith, do your work in me.
Whatever it takes to make me like Jesus, do your work in me.
If that means doing some “furnace time,” do your work in me.
If that means fiery trials today and more tomorrow, do your work in me.
Lord, I want my life to be approved by you, so do your work in me.
This is God’s call to all of us. Embrace the cross God is calling you to bear. Stop fighting with God. Stop complaining. Stop blaming others. And open your heart to exceeding great joy. Some of us have never discovered this kind of joy because we fight God at the point of our trials. But joy and trials come together in God’s plan. There is no exceeding great joy without the suffering that goes with it. Don’t fear great rejoicing. Humble yourself under the mighty hand of God, do not resist his work in your life, and he will lift you up. Let God do his work in you, and you will know joy unspeakable and full of glory. Amen.