1 Question To Ask Yourself When Trials Come

Woman sitting in grass thinking of trials

My country girlfriend braved Chicago traffic last week. Because her husband’s cancer is still there, still growing. He’s barely 40 and his first brain surgery was ten years ago, before their youngest could even walk.

So off they drove to the big city to determine if he qualified for an experimental new treatment. But 48 hours after the consult, they got the call. He did not. A previous chemo disqualified him from this new drug.

When the Pillow of Providence Feels Hard

Our times are in his hand. I wrote about that sweet verse in Psalm 31 two posts ago. Believing this in one thing. Resting on it is quite another.

Resting on the soft pillow of providence can happen at night, but it doesn’t happen overnight.

I still don’t always, but day by day, through Spirit power, I am training myself to not just trust, but to rest in God’s providential hand. I’m slowly learning to ask myself this one good question, “What good and wise thing is the God who loves me doing in what doesn’t seem good and wise?”

“What good and wise thing is the God who loves me doing in what doesn’t seem good and wise?”

PAUL TRIPP

I won’t always know the answer. But it builds my faith to ask.

My Trials Are Because He Remembers

Paul Tripp’s devotions have a way of convicting and encouraging me in one fell swoop. This one from NEW MORNING MERCIES nails my little faith and helps me replace it with bigger trust when I face trials.

From day one, God has clearly communicated his zeal to us. It is his purpose that, by the means of rescuing, forgiving, transforming grace, we would be brought into relationship with him, and in the context of that relationship, be fully molded into the image of his Son. He has never promised us that he will deliver to us our personal definition of the good life. Rather he has promised that he will use all the tools at his disposal to complete the work of redemption that he has begun in our hearts and lives. He has not been unfaithful. He has kept every one of his promises He will do what he said. 

Our problem is that we tend to be unfaithful to his holy agenda and get kidnapped by our plans for us and our dreams for our lives. The trials in our lives exist not because he has forgotten us, but because he remembers us and is changing us by his grace. When you remember that, you can have joy in the middle of what is uncomfortable. 

This truth helps me retrain my brain to reframe my discomfort and pain. It helped my friend and her husband do the same: the white-knuckle drive to Chicago, the medical tests, and the rejection to the clinical trial. She texted, “We thank God for guiding us. He is with us. Even in this ‘no’.” He is changing us by his grace.

Truth is, it’s only when we remember this that our little, light and momentary trials bring joy. Because God loves us and wants us to endure and mature and be changed. Because he is good.

Sometimes he guides his children with “no’s.” But he always follows them with goodness and mercy.

Consider it a great joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you experience various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance.

But endurance must do its complete work, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing.

James 1:2-

Your Struggle is Good, His Grace is Strong

Woman with Cross Fit Exercise bar on her shoulders

One of my writing goals is to normalize struggle. Another is to energize grace.

Struggle Is Good

What I mean by the first is this: I want my readers and friends to know that struggling with bad stuff is good. That struggle with sin is both normal and good.

In fact, I expect and solemnly hope that there’s some fight in me until the day I die. Because my sin is ever before me and I know too well my proneness to pride and impatience, to gluttony and envy– to name a few.

And because there is a “mean, violent streak” in every vibrant Christian life. In one of those sermons I keep going back to, John Piper explains that this violence is never against other people. Rather,

It’s a violence against all the impulses in us that would be violent to other people. A violence against all the impulses in our own selves that would make peace with our own sin and settle in with a peacetime mentality. It’s a violence against all lust in ourselves, and enslaving desires for food or… alcohol or pornography or money or the praise of men and the approval of others or power or fame…

Christianity is not a settle-in-and-live-at-peace-with-this-world-the-way-it-is kind of religion. If by the Spirit you kill the deeds of your own body, you will live. Christianity is war — on our own sinful impulses.

If you’ve read JoyPrO for any length of time these two goals won’t surprise you in the least. I’ve written about how comfort is overrated and faith is a muscle that must strain to grow and even why, for a time, I kissed ice cream good-bye.

For Strong-in-the-Lord Superconquerors

Recently I spent some time exploring what Paul meant in Romans 8:37 when he called us “more than conquerors.” Because to be a conqueror is one thing, but to be a “superconquerors”- well, in this tempted and tried flesh of mine, that is, to quote from The Princess Bride, nearly “inconceivable.”

The word in Greek that is translated “more than conquerors” in Romans 8:37 is only used once in the whole Bible. It’s one compound Greek word that takes two- super conquerors– or three of ours- more than conquerors– to express.

Albert Barnes explains what this strong man term means.

That is, they have not power to subdue us; to alienate our love and confidence; to make us lose our faith. We are the victors, not they. Our faith is not destroyed, our love is not diminished, our hope is not blasted.

But it is not simple victory; … it is more than simple triumph; it augments our faith, increases our strength, expands our love to Christ.

Think of it this way: borne by faith, the weight of trials and temptations are transformed from burdens slumping our backs to CrossFit bars squaring our shoulders. Same weight, different results.

This is more than simple triumph.

But Not Without Struggle

In, “The Law of Antagonism,” Oswald Chambers explains that super-conqueror status doesn’t come without struggle.

Life without war is impossible either in nature or in grace. The basis of physical, mental, moral, and spiritual life is antagonism. This is the open fact of life.

Health…is maintained only by sufficient vitality on the inside against things on the outside…Things which keep me going when I am alive, disintegrate me when I am dead. If I have enough fighting power, I produce the balance of health.

The same is true of the mental life. If I want to maintain a vigorous mental life, I have to fight, and in that way the mental balance called thought is produced. Morally it is the same… No man is virtuous because he cannot help it; virtue is acquired.

And spiritually it is the same. Jesus said — “In the world ye shall have tribulation,” i.e., everything that is not spiritual makes for my undoing, but — “be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”

I have to learn to score off the things that come against me, and in that way produce the balance of holiness; then it becomes a delight to meet opposition.

No man, or woman, is spiritually strong because he cannot help it. Strength is acquired. Strength only comes through struggle.

Why It Matters

You must know beyond the shadow of a doubt that struggle is normal, healthy, and good for you, Christian. This knowledge matters immensely because too many Christians think something is wrong with them- or worse, that God does not love them- when they’re tempted – and fall- again and again. That if they were “really a Christian,” struggle and temptation would be done.

It matters because, honestly, if you see struggle with as the exception rather than the rule for the saint, “as if something strange were happening to you,” it will weaken you. I’ve seen too many friends give up, give in and quit.

I don’t know where that idea comes from, but it is definitely not from God’s Word. The Bible says the opposite. Over and over, we read that the Christian life is effortful and vigorous and full of struggle.

Hebrews 12:14 says, “Strive . . . for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.” Romans 8:13, “By the Spirit put to death the deeds of the body.” And Luke 13:24, “Strive to enter through the narrow door.”

We must know this or the next time we crave the other sleeve of cookies, or another glass of wine or feel the urge to look at something we shouldn’t or the say words we’ll wish we wouldn’t have- because if we’re not prepared for the struggle, we’ll probably succumb.

And over time, giving in is demoralizing. Seeing the empty jar or empty sleeve or reliving the words that wounded or that image on the screen can sap the life right out of you.

Struggling (With Help) Makes You Strong

But when you know that struggle is normal and, in fact, the exact means God has chosen to grow you up and make you strong, well, then, you’ll be more likely to rise to the challenge and less likely to give in to temptation.

You’ll be more likely to plug in to a very great and precious promise to escape the temptation (see 2 Peter 1:3-4). You’ll be more likely to send out an SOS to your comrades in arms. That is what should be normal.

Texting a friend to say: Please pray that I’ll be self-controlled and satisfied in God and listen well at the party tonight. I know I’ll be tempted to overeat.

Or messaging your prayer warriors at 12:45 am to ask, What promise can I cling to right now when fear is freezing me out? I can’t latch onto a single truth to break in on my catastrophizing dreams.

Or calling a sister to say, Can we please talk NOW? I am feeling paralyzed by anxiety and I need help.

We’re Needed and Needy (Both)

Those are real. Those came through from faithful struggling saints last week. Real people. And God’s grace was strong to meet their needs.

But remember that God uses means. He uses us- his needed and needy children- to strengthen his other needed and needy children.

So why does knowing that struggle is normal matter so much? That, in fact, if you didn’t struggle against besetting sins, that would be a problem.

It matters because if you don’t know that trials will come, you might be overcome. You might end up like seed sown on rocky ground, that sprang up fast but wilted away as soon as tribulation came (Mark 4:12). Do not be surprised, Peter wrote, when fiery trials come to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.

No, struggle is not strange. It’s normal.

And Grace Is Strong

Be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus.” That’s what Paul told Timothy. Since God designed the good fight of faith to be normal till the day we die, it makes sense that he gives more grace. “Grace,” John Piper says, “is not just the gift of restfulness, but the power of God to enable us to work for holiness.”

Grace is strong. Good struggle and strong grace go hand in hand. Do you see that?

Grace, I think, is less a safety net for hang-loose living, than the stabilizing bar that helps us cross the wire.

Biblical grace is also more than the gift of the kids sleeping in on a rainy days and picking strawberries on sunny days and the power that keeps illness away. Grace is that- unmerited favor. But it’s so much more. It’s power.

God’s undeserved favor also comes in the form of strength to call out for help, and power to fight. To take up the struggle like a strongman hoists a barbell.

This also is grace.

Daily Struggle + Strong Grace = Freedom

Freedom is not so much a destination that we reach as it is a daily choice that we make by our actions. Matt Fradd, author of The Porn Myth, said that in an interview with Janet Parshall.

The freedom Fradd mentioned doesn’t only apply to the porn problem. It applies to struggles with other temptations. Fradd says,

We need to think of struggle as a daily battle. Whether it’s losing our temper or eating too much, succumbing to anxious thoughts or shutting off our screens, it’s not realistic to simply say, I’m done. I’ll never do that again. Rather than thinking of it as an all or nothing battle, we should think of it as a daily battle. Rather than think of this as one and done, we need to think of it as a daily decision to live free.

Struggle is a daily battle- many daily decisions- to live free. And the struggle is made possible only by God’s strong grace. Strong enough to help you bear up under every single struggle you face. And not just somehow, but victoriously.

Having a free will, John Piper says, means doing what you want to do and not regretting it in a thousand years.

Such freedom, I think, will only come as we see struggle as good and embrace God’s strong grace.

But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me did not prove vain; but I labored even more than all of them, yet not I, but the grace of God with me.

-Apostle Paul, 1 Corinthians 15:10

When through fiery trials our pathway shall lie, my grace all sufficient shall be your supply.

-John Rippon, “How Firm A Foundation

A Measure of Love: On Christmas Eve (at 1 AM) in the Morning

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Whom God loves, he loves to the end:

And not to their end, and to their death

But to his end.

And his end is that he might love them more.

John Donne

Mom! Oh mom, oh mom, oh mom, oh mom, my 13 year-old moaned. My stomach hurts so much. Mama, please come. 

I wished he’d called for Papa instead. Because Mama was nestled and snuggled in bed. The heat was set low and she didn’t want to go.

After a week of short nights, this, I’d hoped, would be her night for a long winter’s nap.

Love Rolls Out of Bed

Mom, please come, he cried again.

I rolled over. It was 1:04. I’d been with him at 9 and 10 and checked in again with meds at 11. Then to bed and sugarplums.

Coming, I called with a sigh.

“So this is Christmas,” I thought as I lay in the dark, groping about for glasses and socks.

I forced myself out of my snuggly, warm bed and shivering, stumbled my way toward the groans. Then halfway down the hall, it hit me.

That this IS Christmas. That this might actually be closer to the “real meaning of Christmas” than cozy and comfy and Silent Night by candlelight.

That, really, Christmas is more like leaving the warmth to show love in the cold.

This is love come down.

Love Came Down At Christmas

The creed says, “For us and for our salvation he came down.” Paul put it like this to the Philippians,

Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself to death, even death on a cross.

I left my warm bed to care for my sick, pitiful child. The Son left the glories of heaven at his Father’s side- the bosom of the Father some translations say- to care for his sin-sick children.

Choosing discomfort to serve another: this is one measure of love.

A Measure of Love

Comfort is overrated. And when it comes to love comfort might not rate at all. In fact, our own discomfort might be a much more accurate indicator of our love for others.

When I weigh my love on this measure, I’m not very loving. Honestly, if Sam’s moans had not been so loud, I might have ignored them. Because I’m a master of excuses for staying in my comfort zones: I deserve this sleep. Jim can go. I warned this son about all that soda and candy and cake.

But God loves us too much to leave us as we are. He calls us to deny ourselves and prefer others and gives us the grace to do it. Christ gives us victory over our selfish, comfort-loving hearts.

We’re more than conquerors through him who loved us and more than conquerors don’t stay stuck in comfort zones. They step into discomfort for love’s sake.

They move into cold driveways and hard conversations.

Discomfort For Love’s Sake

Mom, will you come out and play PIG with me? Please? 

That from the 11 year-old who invited me out for a game of PIG in the driveway. Who called me out of the a cozy house on a 29° day.

Sure Gabe, I’ll come. This time, love won.

It happened again when love pushed me to talk to a relative to whom talking didn’t come naturally.

So Mike, how is it going with work?  I asked. It wasn’t easy, but it was good.

By the measure of choosing others’ “interests” over my comfort, my love is low. The fact that these events are memorable at all shows how vast the room for my love to grow.

Think how you would like to become a slug.

Puritan Anthony Burgess marveled too, at “discomfort” the Incarnation must have been for the Son.

He that was in the bosom of His Father- an expressing showing the intimate, close and secret delight and love He had from the Father. How unspeakable is it that He should deprive Himself of the sense of it? To put himself, as it were out of heaven and into hell? This is deeper love than ever we can imagine or conceive: no wonder the apostle calls it “the unsearchable riches of grace.” 

This is deeper love than we mere mortals who dread to get out of bed in the cold middle of the night can imagine. The Son left the warmth of the heavenly Father for our sakes.

For our sake, Love left heaven for sick, cold earth. This is unsearchably rich grace.

C.S. Lewis made the comparison, too, in more graphic terms than Burgess.

The Eternal Being, who knows everything and who created the whole universe, became not only a man but (before that) a baby, and before that a foetus inside a Woman’s body. If you want to get the hang of it, think how you would like to become a slug or a crab. 

Yes, real love is humble and comes down and goes out into the cold. Out of warm beds and warm homes and comfortable conversation zones.

How Love Came Down

Love came out of heaven’s bright glory and was wrapped in swaddling cloths and laid in a manger, because there was no place…in the inn. 

My Bible footnote on Luke 2:7 says that Christ could have been born in a stable or cave, but that “mangers were often outdoors, so it’s possible that Jesus was born in the open air.”

Open air or stable or cave- they all sound uncomfortable and cold.

But that is how Love came down.

In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 

1 John 4:9-11

Like You Wrote It? When You’re Not Living The Dream

Like You Wrote It?

It didn’t sit right.

That America’s funny, wholesome family man- The Cosby Show was one of 3 sitcoms mom let us watch- would say something like that didn’t fit. It sounded smug, arrogant, proud.

I won’t comment on Bill Cosby’s fall from grace and imprisonment, except to say, It’s all so sad.

But Cosby’s comment does make more sense now.

These are not the exact words I heard on the TV interview two decades ago, but these are attributable, and they’re close. When asked about married life, Cosby said with that big easy grin of his,

We are living it now just like we wrote it.

It hit me wrong. Because even then, fresh out of grad school, newly married in my early 20’s, with a house and a job and good  friends, I may have been living somebody’s dream, but I knew I wasn’t living mine

My story had already taken some twists and turns I couldn’t have imagined, much less written 20 years ago. Let’s just say, I didn’t think I’d be playing these roles, with the “cast”  now. I’m not (mostly) living my dreams. This isn’t how I wrote the story.

Which is really no matter.

Playing The Part

Because, my life is not really my show.

C.S. Lewis explained like this: We do not know the play. We do not even know whether we are in Act I or Act V. We do not know who are the major and who the minor characters. The Author knows. We are led to expect that the Author will have something to say to each of us on the part that each of us has played.

The playing it well is what matters infinitely.

God wrote us each into this story, where He wanted us. He’s the Author of our salvation (Hebrews 12:2) and  the Director of our hearts (2 Thessalonians 3:5). And He casts each of us in his grand play to the praise of his glory (1 Corinthians 7:17).

And when we are on our set stages- and in our waiting stages- playing our roles with joy and thanks, we make Him look great.

Testify to Grace

Paul said something 2,000 years ago that ties all this story-play-dream stuff together for me.

In Acts 20 Paul shares some sobering last words with some old friends, church leaders from Ephesus. He explain that he will go to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to him there.

In other words, Paul didn’t know what turns his story will take. No worries, though, because not knowing the story didn’t stop him from playing his part well. Heres’s how he summed up that part (Acts 20:24):

But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. 

Is that the aim of our lives too?

Different Stories, Same Aim

Our stories are so different. But, John Piper explains, in Christ,

We do all have the same essential goal: to magnify the glory and the greatness of the grace of God in Jesus Christ. This is the racecourse all Christians are running. The turns and the terrain are different. The aim is the same.

This means we embrace the fact that we do not write our own stories. We don’t know the next page, let alone the next chapter. The way there is unknown.

Our stories twist and turn,

[A]round the corner called future and disappears into the unknown. Therefore, the unwasted life is always lived one step from the unknown. This is what faith is for. “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going” (Hebrews 11:8). That’s what faith does.

I don’t want to waste my life. Which means I need to rest content with the unknown next chapters and with parts I wouldn’t have scripted this way.

Not Living the Dream is Still Alright With Me

So, no. I wouldn’t have written myself in this way- not into this marriage or this job, not these boys, this house, or this blog. (Well, I guess I do write the blog. But it wasn’t my dream. My friend Traci spurred it on.)

But I do know this story I’m in, with both its surprise twists and its storylines that feel more static than I’d write, was scripted by God. 

And- oft in sorrow, oft in woe– often way too slowly both for the characters around me and for me- I’m learning that it’s not so much what part I play but how I play that part that matters.

Oh, sure, sometimes I let my hungry eyes drift to what seem like others’ storybook lives and dream up different parts for me. But my aim is to play my part well, which is to testify to the grace of God.

And the great thing is, I don’t have to have to be living like I wrote it, living the dream, to do that.

In fact, God’s grace might just look that much greater when the testimony to it comes from one whose story is not just like he wrote it.

I know, O LORD, that the way of man is not in himself, that it is not in man who walks to direct his steps.

Jeremiah 10:23