Faith in the Midst of the Fiery Trial
Question: I am in the midst of a fiery trial that is so severe I feel myself very close to falling. The situation is so impossible that any words of encouragement you could offer would be most welcome.
Response: I do know what it is like to be in a place where it is out of my own hands to be able to affect the situation. At such times, I try to remember to rely on the Lord to get me through, confident that He will. Ultimately, nothing matters except what we are doing for Christ. And we are Christ's - His flesh and blood. We belong to Him totally, and we have to be willing to be used of Him and by Him in whatever way He sees fit to use us. I have plans. You have plans. I like to think that my plans are "the best way" for things to work out, for me to maximize the effectiveness of the ministry to which I feel I have been called and to do so in the most efficient way. God, however, often has different plans than we do.
Not to say that for those of us who have tried to arrange our lives for growth and service to Him have done something wrong. It's just that God tests us to demonstrate to everyone - ourselves included - the level of faith, the level of commitment we really have to Him. Job couldn't figure out what he had done wrong. He hadn't done anything wrong. He just didn't see the big picture, because it was impossible for him to see - with his eyes of flesh. Passing tests of that incredibly difficult nature takes seeing things with the eyes of faith, even when all our earthly senses tell us not to trust God. We have to learn to trust Him in spite of what we see.
God is taking us by the hand like little children, His own precious little children, and He is leading us to places it is good for us to go. We may not want to go the dentist to be drilled or the doctor to be shot, and, as little children, we may not understand why this is necessary. But we learn to trust the love and goodness of our parents. Where this analogy breaks down, of course, is that little children really don't have much choice in the matter. We believers in Jesus Christ have the option to fail these tests. The world tells us we're nuts to trust God when everything is falling apart, when we are getting beat up for no apparent reason, when it is abundantly clear that there is no hope whatsoever - we are cooked, and that is that.
But God laughs at the impossibilities of the world. He made the world in an instant through our Lord Jesus Christ, and He has the power to change everything and anything instantly, to make that which is as not, and to bring back that which is no more. God can raise the dead. He raised our Lord. He has promised to raise us. The very worst the world can threaten us with is death - and we profess to believe that we have already gained victory over death in Jesus Christ. If that is true - and it most certainly is - why then are we so prone to fearing things that are not nearly as bad as death? In my observation and experience, it is ever because we allow ourselves to get wrapped up in the details of the "show" we are running. We are indeed responsible to "run a good show", to organize and execute a responsible life, and, human beings that we are, we tend to want to make it run as smoothly as possible. Even when we have separated ourselves from the lusts of the world, this focus on life from our narrow point of view is something of which we have to beware - and believe me when I say that I am preaching to myself as much as to you.
From what I can glean from scripture, there are not too many great believers who were allowed to "get comfortable" for large stretches of time. I think of how much Paul suffered. The cataloging of that suffering just in 2nd Corinthians seems far beyond human capacity to endure (see especially chapters 6, and 11-12), let alone to endure with a smile and a confident faith. Still, it is just such perseverance to which we have been called. I do not invite testing, and certainly would pray to have taken away from me the tests that seem to last forever and seem to present impossible situations and seem to be really beyond what I can bear. But when we read in 1st Corinthians 11:13 that we will not be tested beyond what we can bear, that doesn't mean that the testing, the suffering, the length of the trial will not SEEM unbearable. That is really the whole point. Perfect faith, flawless faith (like Daniel's), rock-solid faith (like Abraham's), resilient faith (like Peter's), deep faith (like Paul's), humble faith (like Moses'), patient faith (like Job's), faith that wrestles with God to the end, ever strengthening the grip and refusing to let go no matter what (like Jacob's), this kind of mature faith has to learn to believe the opposite of everything the fear and doubt of the sin nature says, and have confidence in God's deliverance even though everyone in the world, and every experience we have ever had says we are wrong to have this confidence in this particular case. It is tests of that level which separate the mature believers of faith from the mere spiritual children.
Abraham had many tests. He waited his whole life for the son of promise, then was faced with having to personally put him to death in a horrible way. How could this turn out good? But he believed God, and God worked it out in a way Abraham could never have anticipated. By this point in his life, Abraham had passed so many impossibility tests that all he needed to know was what God wanted him to do. He trusted God to do the rest, and His name is enshrined in the Word of God forever as the one who "trusted God" so that it was reckoned to him for righteousness (Gen.15:6).
The more impossible the test, the greater the compliment - and the greater the need for the believer to let go of everything except God. Nothing is impossible for Him, and we are not in this fix we are in without His knowledge or without His help (cf. Ps.121). He planned all this, and did so for a reason. We have to be careful not to over-focus on our own understanding of the situation (cf. Prov.3:5). We need to remember that He is hearing our prayers, that He does have our deliverance ready at hand, and that however He chooses to work it out is for the best in every way (Rom.8:28). Honestly, if God appeared to us in the midst of a terrible trial and said to us "I am planning to glorify Myself and My Son through you by taking your life tonight", would we not reply "Amen, Lord! Do as You will with your servant, only may your Name be truly glorified!"? So if God is not taking us home but leaving us here, whatever He calls upon us to endure, whatever He calls upon us to suffer, the more severe it is, the closer we are coming to truly sharing the sufferings of Christ, and the more elite the company we are running in.
There is strain abroad in contemporary U.S. Christianity that seems to assume that being a good Christian means you are going to receive a "good life" - by which we mean no pain, no trouble, good feeling, plenty of material blessing, etc. But in scripture, it is usually the wicked who are at ease (Ps.73). The truly righteous are more often persecuted, more often suffering, outcasts and pariahs on the earth, just like Paul, just like our Lord. Could not God have given Paul wonderful health instead of the "thorn in the flesh" (2Cor.12:1-10)? Could not He have made Paul materially rich, rather than putting the greatest apostle in a position of having to work for a living while he was conducting possibly the greatest ministry in the history of the world (with the single exception being that of our Lord)? Of course He could. But there were good, divine reasons why Paul suffered privation, abuse, and ill health. What a witness to the world it is, and to the evil one, when people like Paul and Abraham make it so abundantly clear that they are following God not because of what God is doing for them, but because they love Him, love Him so much that they are willing to suffer and endure anything and everything, even to the loss of their own lives or the sacrifice of everything most dear.
Such great believers truly have found their eternal lives by being willing to lose their pathetic temporal ones. "Take what he has", Satan said of Job, "and he'll curse You". But Job said "The Lord gives and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the Name of the Lord!" "Smite his flesh, and he'll curse You", the devil said. But even so Job held fast to his integrity. He trusted God ... and only wavered when his "friends" began to apply the exact false paradigm I talked about above: "God wants us to have good lives; something so bad is happening to you, so maybe you are a bad sinner". The corollary to that false paradigm is also near and dear to the devil's heart: "maybe your trust in God is misplaced", he whispers in our ear whenever we are under serious pressure. But we know this is a lie. What a rebuke to all the forces of evil and to all the purveyors of that lie it is when believers stand fast in the most severe testing with solid faith and nothing but praise for God on their lips! These are the "works" James talks about in chapter two, wonderful testimonials to the power and faithfulness of God and to the character of those few who have determined to trust Him against all odds, no matter what.
Trusting God absolutely is, of course, easy in principle, hard in practice. Again, the contemporary U.S. Christian model says it's easy to be a Christian, but Christ told us to count the cost first (Lk.14:28), and that the road was a hard one (Matt.7:13-14). Paul reminds us that the road to the Kingdom is fraught with trial and suffering (Acts 14:22). Being Christian destines us for suffering (1Thes.3:3). It does seem that overwhelming suffering and seemingly insurmountable testing is rare in our day - to the extent that this is true, it is it doubtless because in the lukewarm era in which we live such testing would usually be completely pointless and would not result in God's glory (see the link: in CT 2A "Lukewarm Laodicea"). There is no point in refining slag - only gold is worth bringing to a greater and greater level of purity (Ps.68:8-12; 1Pet.1:6-7).
This is really a tragedy too, because we live on the very precipice of the abyss of the end times. To enter the fast-approaching Tribulation without thorough preparation of the heart, without a thorough refining of the faith, without a deep knowledge of the Word, and an unflinching commitment to Jesus Christ that has already been tested in the fire, is really a dangerous prospect. No wonder then that the Tribulation will be the time of the greatest falling away of believers from the faith that has ever transpired in world history (see "The Great Apostasy" in part 3A of the Coming Tribulation series). We cannot see all the reasons why we are tested when and how we are, but we absolutely have to develop the mind-set of really trusting God and being willing to take anything and everything that comes our way for His glory - and with the right attitude. It is helpful to remember that we are being watched by angels, being evaluated by God, and that we will be amply rewarded for every test we pass with eternal rewards, the least of which will outshine the most this world could ever offer, and do so for all eternity (see the link: in CT 6 "The Judgment of the Church"). We absolutely must get our focus off of the here and now and remember that for true believers, there are only three days: 1) yesterday Jesus bought us with His body and with His blood and redeemed us from death and hell though we didn't deserve it and saved us by grace through faith ("forgive us our sins"); 2) today we are in Jesus and He is in us and we are here for Him and Him alone, not for ourselves ("give us today our bread for today"); the only issue today is How our master wants us to serve Him today, to glorify Him this day, be it in blessing or in suffering or in both; if He wants to show us off to the adversary, we should rejoice that He trusts us with such tests; if we have respite, we should make use of it to deepen our knowledge of His truth and help others do the same; if He wants to end our lives this day, it is better by far to be with Him (Phil.1:20-23)!; 3) tomorrow we will be with Him forever ("deliver us"); on that wonderful day of days of ultimate deliverance, there will be no more sorrow, suffering, or tears (Rev.7:17; 21:4); there will only be joy for all the tests we passed, great and small, and an account to be rendered to our Lord for our failures.
In 1st Corinthians 10:13, where it says we won't be tested past the breaking point (but very well may be up to the breaking point), the final sentence is often mistranslated. For it does not say that God will provide a way of escape, but the way out. In the context of Exodus chapter 14 which Paul is using as an analogy here, this is clearly a reference to the Israelites on the edge of the Red Sea. Situation IMPOSSIBLE! Bearing down on them from behind is the most fearsome army of that day, an "armored" column heading at them full speed. In front of them is a wide and impassible sea. OF COURSE they were dead! But Moses trusted what God had said - He would create "the way out". No human being could believe this would happen or could happen - except for someone with a Moses-like faith. Indeed, people, even many Christians, still have trouble today believing this parting of the Red Sea actually happened! But it did, just after Moses said "Stand still and watch the deliverance of the Lord!" God did give them a way out, and He did destroy their enemies utterly. God turned the situation completely on its head, and did so in an instant, and did so at the last possible minute. God may very well choose to allow us to be thrown into the fiery furnace. If He does, we have to have the same attitude that Daniel's three friends had: "... the God we serve is able to save us ... but [even] if He does not, we [still] will not serve your gods ..." (Dan.3:17-18).
God's grace is a wonderful and a simple thing really: grace is favor, grace is a gift, grace is everything God feels for us, does for us, gives to us. Grace is God's attitude and action towards us, His beloved children. That God's grace, favor, attitude, actions, plan, intervention, deliverance is sufficient for any trial or test or suffering we shall ever encounter is a given for those of us who know and trust our God. The only thing that is not a given is how we will react under the pressure. What does scripture say? "Let patience do its perfecting work" (Jas.1:4), for "tribulation produces perseverance" (Rom.5:3-4), and "your faith, when proven genuine in the crucible of life, will result in praise, glory and honor for you at the revelation of Jesus Christ" (1Pet.1:7).
I am continuing to pray for you and your family (and appreciate your prayers very much). God will open the sea for us, even if it is at a time and in a way that we cannot anticipate at present. The really important thing is to try and be confident of and joyful about that deliverance even before our eyes can see it. You may also find the following links of some comfort:
Also, the Peter Series is specifically focused upon the problem of coping with personal tribulation of the sort with which you are suffering (see the link).
In Him for whom nothing is impossible, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.