When You Meet Trials
Suffering is a prickly issue for many Christians. Often, people struggling with emotional grief, physical hurt, psychological trauma, and more have been brought to ask, why? With these questions, have come a plethora of answers; some seeking to comfort their subjects--even if it means degrading God's sovereignty, while others attempt a biblically grounded response--and potentially dismissing the pain of the situation. Both answers are well intended yet lacking the responsibility "to speak the truth in love" (Eph. 4:15). It is the Christian's obligation to care for the broken-hearted and rejoice in the truth. One without the other is a disaster--either becoming a noisy gong (1 Cor. 13:1) or a house that lacks a firm foundation (Matt. 7:24-27). The answer to suffering and trials in the Christian life must be handled with care and in submission to God's word. The scriptures are not vacant of response, nor are they heavy-handed. Instead, they meet the believer with peace like a river offering stability and hope in troubling times.
The question of suffering can be answered in a threefold approach. First, there is the issue of a Christian worldview. A biblical presupposition for interpreting the world is necessary to understand trials. If there is no framework to make sense of a person's experience or to explain how God is involved in a person's trials, no support or hope can be offered. Second, to understand that tribulations are not in vain but to produce something in and through the Christian is integral to finding security and hope. In a biblical framework, trials play a unique role in a believer's fidelity to Jesus Christ. Lastly, believers can experience Christ in the most glorious and joyful of ways while suffering. This appears counterintuitive, but it is Jesus Christ who demonstrates his greatest love and glory at the Cross to be replicated by Christians (Luke 9:21-23). For believers, the greatest intimacy with Christ is to be experienced through trials.
The Biblical Worldview of Trials
Making sense of tribulations apart from a Christian perspective is like placing a knife in an infant's hand; while the knife is resourceful to an adult, it is potentially fatal in the hands of a child.
The biblical response to suffering is full and robust. Yet, it requires a biblical worldview to understand its place in the Christian life. Making sense of tribulations apart from a Christian perspective is like placing a knife in an infant's hand; while the knife is resourceful to an adult, it is potentially fatal in the hands of a child. In the same way, trials have the ability to grow a Chrisitan, but without a biblical worldview, their effects may be spiritually or literally fatal.
To understand suffering through a biblical lens, the ends and objectives of God's creation and order must be understood. For if humanities' satisfaction, happiness, and comfortability are the goals of God's world, God is either not omnipotent (all-powerful) or omnibenevolent (all-good), as the scriptures and human experience testify, none of these objectives are consistent with the created world. Therefore, identifying God's chief end is imperative to understanding trials in the Christian life. The apostle John points believers in this direction by writing, "Worthy are you, our Lord and God to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created" (Rev. 4:11). What makes God worthy of glory? The creation of "all things". His created order is then primarily intended to reflect his glory. Paul supports God's glory being the ends of all things as he discusses God's sovereignty over salvation and condemnation of souls, he asks, "What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels for mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory..." (Rom. 9:22-23)? In the most significant of works; redemption and damnation, God's agenda is fixed on his glory. He is working the salvation of souls to be made much of. In God's creation and rescuing of mankind, while not disconnected from man's good, he is ultimately set on himself being praised. God's chief concern in these passages and others (Exod. 9:14-16; Ps. 19:1-3; Isa. 43:7; Rom. 11:36) is to exalt himself among the world. God's foremost end is his glory.
Recognizing God's glory as the objective of God's created order helps Christians to understand their suffering in God's plan. Christians do not agonize in vain, but for the greatest ideal, the exaltation of God. For the fame of his name, God works through the most trying of circumstances. Jesus highlights this in his words to Mary and Martha upon hearing that Lazarus is ill, "This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it" (Jn. 11:4). In the face of death, the worst of pain, Jesus points to the purpose of suffering, his own glory. The Lord answers the same way when Paul pleads for the Lord to remove the thorn from his flesh, he says, "My grace is sufficient for your, for my power is made perfect in weakness" (2 Cor. 12:9a). The reason the Lord will not take Paul's pain away is the Lord's power is at work through his pain, which leads Paul to praise him, saying, "I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me (2 Cor. 12:9b). Paul's suffering under the hand of God leads him to praise God. For Paul, it is through trials and tribulations that God is glorified. Therefore, in the Christian life, suffering is not an end within itself but an instrument to singing God's praises. Under a biblical worldview, trials and tribulations find their place in God's greatest of pursuits, his glory.
Christian suffering is not bondage but liberation for the transformtion of Christlikeness.
The Product of Trials
Once a Christian understanding of the world is adopted, a believer can recognize that their trials are not arbitrary. Instead, they play a unique role in bringing glory to God. Yet, the question is raised, how does something as awful as suffering make much of God? The answer can be fleshed out in what trials produce in a believer's life and how that brings fruition to a complimentary objective. Coinciding, yet not usurping, God's fame is man's objective to be sanctified, the process of becoming holy. Paul supports this, as he writes, "For this is the will of God, even your sanctification" (1 Thess. 4:3). In Ephesians, he says, "For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works" (Eph. 2:10). Most significant, in discussing God's order of salvation he announces the purpose is "to be conformed to the image of his [God's] Son" (Rom. 8:28). According to these texts, the goal of mankind is to become more like Christ by walking in obedience to God. Along with the glory of God, the sanctification of mankind is a primary goal of humanity. The two agendas operate simultaneously. As Christians grow more into the likeness of Christ, the more God will be glorified.
Understanding that Christlikeness brings glory to God secures a fruitful position for trials in the Christian life. James writes, "the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing" (Jam.1:3-4). Testing provokes endurance leading to greater obedience, which brings perfection and completeness to a believer. It is in these times that their dross is refined by fire to conform them to Christ. When a believer is in the middle of suffering, they can know they are being brought closer into Christ's likeness. Their hurts, pains, and sufferings are not trivial. Instead, they are leading them to know and resemble Jesus. As John Newton once wrote, "These inward trials I employ, From self and pride to set thee free, And break thy schemes of earthly joy, That thou may’st find thy all in Me." Christian suffering is not bondage but liberation for the transformation of Christlikeness. Even more, it directly praises God, as Peter writes, "you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith...may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ" (1 Pet. 1:6-7). Bringing together God's glorification and man's sanctification, Peter sees believers going through trials as a magnificent means of worshipping God. Christian suffering is then liberation from self to conform believers into Christ for the glory of God.
Just as the cross did for Jesus, believers sufferings point them to their future hope in the new heavens and new earth
The Christ of Trials
No matter the purpose of Christian suffering, comfort is not always found. But the Bible does not stop at telling its readers that their suffering is not arbitrary, rather it comforts them with someone who is with them. The author of Hebrews tells his audience, "we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin" (Heb. 4:15). This truth warms believer's souls to know they are not alone in their struggle. Christ has gone where they are and knows what they are going through. The God of the Bible is not abstract or absolutely exalted, instead, he bends low in the form of human flesh to bear our struggles and temptations. Furthermore, he knows suffering to the greatest of costs, Paul writes, "he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross" (Phil. 2:8). Jesus Christ knew no extent to his humility and compassion for humanity. He sympathized with the world to the greatest degree, to the point of death, a cursed death (Deut. 21:23). No person has experienced the grief of Jesus, no humiliation amounts to his despair, and no agony in all of life compares with what the Son of Man endured as he was forsaken by the world and his Father. Any soul who is looking for compassion and empathy in suffering, need not look any further than the savior of the world crying out, "'Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?' that is, 'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?'" (Matt. 27:46)
Christ's sufferings offer great comfort to Christians in despair while also offering wonderful joy. The author of Hebrews records, "who for the joy that was set before him [Jesus] endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God" (Heb. 12:2). Jesus Christ knew his suffering was not in vain, instead, it would bring about the salvation of his people and reign of his kingdom. He had the great joy of going to the cross because he understood it to be where God would be glorified. Similarly, Christians have hope beyond suffering and the privilege to praise God through trials. Just as the cross did for Jesus, believers sufferings point them to their future hope in the new heavens and new earth where "He [God] will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things, have passed away" (Rev. 21:4). Until this day, "let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come" (Heb. 13:14-15)