The Broader Significance of Trouble
Everywhere I look, God is sifting his people. This conviction has been growing upon me for some time. I have seen this in my own life and family, as well as throughout our congregation. Taking a slightly broader view yields the same conclusion: parents struggling with their children, children with their parents; husbands and wives being refined; serious economic pressures felt by most; some ancient corners of Christ’s vineyard being overrun and persecuted by the wicked; the vexation of watching the wicked seeming to succeed with their foul schemes to gobble up and control everything.
I do not necessarily think that this is anything about which to be dramatic. God tests the righteous. This is normal. It is normal for him to chasten us for our sins, for our Savior to be a refining fire and “thoroughly purge his threshing floor.” It is normal for the Lord to rebuke our sins and smash our idols. If he cleansed the older temple, which was only a type of the true, will he not faithfully cleanse his living temple, his church? No matter what we see with our eyes, he will “present his church to himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle, or any such thing” (Eph. 5:27). Though he alone knows what this glorious presentation will fully entail, we know for certain that it involves our purification.
What is far more dramatic than the sifting itself is the fact that we seem to be growing more sensitive to this part of our Savior’s work. This in itself is amazing, for we are very sluggish and usually senseless to his dealings with us. And what is worse, we sometimes attribute his sifting to the devil, or simply bad circumstances, or how much trouble other people cause us. Most often, though, we are simply mindless and heartless, passing through life with our shoulders stooping and our hearts heavy, wondering when these hard times will pass, bearing our troubles the best we can. If we would but recognize his hand in the squawking children, the cold spouse, and the implacable boss, how much more joyful we would be, even anticipating that he is working, refining, and preparing us to be his dwelling place.
Though I feel myself the lowest learner in Christ’s school, there is something else going on in these pressures that, if understood and believed, would greatly encourage us. Think of your most pressing area of struggle. One reason that the Lord brings various trials into our lives is that this is where he wants us to make a stand for righteousness. There is a sin in this area that he wants you to resist and learn his power in your weakness; some spark of his glorious faithfulness he wants to reveal. God’s kingdom is not like earthly kingdoms: flashes in the pan; waiting for the next big thing; watching the supposed mighty ones to do something grand to make everything better. His kingdom grows like leaven, a small seed, and it grows within us. Not one of us sees the big picture or is the principle player in the drama of redemption. Yet, each one of us has a part to play. God has spread out the eternally significant into a multitude of smaller and seemingly mundane areas of conflict and struggle.
Think of what steadfastness in your particular struggle will mean, your resistance to the temptation that is always nipping at your heels. You are part of the body of Christ. The health of the body increases with your faithfulness. Its beauty shines more lustrously as you grow in purity. Its holiness deepens as you patiently love your spouse, meekly discipline your children, and diligently fulfill your calling. Because these things are routine, they seem unimportant. Your struggle in them will not likely place you at the top of everyone’s prayer list. But as you seek the grace of Jesus Christ, resist sin, and live in peace and righteousness with those around you, the body of Christ is growing. The day draws closer when Jesus Christ will perfect and present his Bride to himself, to love and cherish her forever, and to present his glory in her to the wondering eyes of men and angels. Your individual struggles and afflictions, therefore, if endured in faith and hope, are very significant. They are contributing to a greater work than we can yet see: an eternal weight of glory.
Recently, I dropped a table leaf on my big toe. The nail split, and I knew immediately that I would eventually lose it. The old nail decayed, until finally it dropped off. A new nail is growing in its place. It is yet ugly to look at, but it is getting healthier, thicker each day. I have not noticed my other toes turning toward the injured one, all their focus upon the wounded one; or my hands clapping when they see the new nail growing. Still, unseen to me, the remainder of my body is contributing to the healing of the nail.
This is a very simple analogy, I know, but is this not the way the apostle told us to view ourselves and one another within the body? Some of our bodily members are small and insignificant. We do not think about them unless something happens to them. Others are more important, and an injury to them affects the whole body. Great or small, however, they contribute to the overall health of the body. Think, then, of that sin you are not resisting and crying to the Lord for mercy to overcome. Think of habits and tendencies in your life that disrupt the peace and joy of those around you. Is the health and holiness of Christ’s body, and therefore of his very glory and plans to purify his church, being stymied, at least temporarily, by your refusal to seek healing from him? Think of your unwillingness to work on marriage or parenting issues, or your finances, or your fuller participation in the local body. Their impact goes far beyond your individual life and family. The entire body of Christ suffers weakness of even one member.
In time of upheaval and apparent crisis, everyone looks for something dramatic to happen, to change things so that life can return to normal. Normal is not God’s will: at least not normal as we define it. Holiness is his will. The health and holiness of the church is his will. The purity of each of its members, with each member doing its part and sharing his grace with the whole: this is his will (Eph. 4:16). My nail did not heal by walking away from my toe. It held more closely to it, until the new nail underneath was ready to take its place. We shall not “get better” individually by withdrawing into our corners and nursing our wounds in private.
We response to this is often along these lines: others do not understand me; they actually compound my pain. This is beside the point. Perhaps the Lord wants your pain to be greater before it diminishes. What brings healing to us in the body of Christ, moreover, is not that other believers have all the answers, or are as sensitive as they should be, or know how to say the right things. The reason we must draw nearer to the body of Christ in hard times is because he is there. He is only there. He is not on a mountain for you to make the ascent alone. He is not in the cave for you to go there and weep bitterly in the darkness. He is present in his body: as weak as she is, as lame and impure as she often is. He has condescended to make his church his dwelling place. Are we holier than he? Wiser? If we stay away from one another, or if we refuse to seek healing for our many sins, pride has gotten the best of us. We have made more of our problems than we make of his power and promises. And it is no wonder that we grow more and more miserable, with dark thoughts and suspicions clouding our ability to be transparent with one another, for we have pulled back from the light, from Jesus and from his Bride.
Do not forget this, child of God. Our blessed Savior is working in and through his church. This is his great purpose in history: to purify and strengthen her beyond human expectation; to confound the supposed wise of this world; and to rebuke our pride. The climax of human history will be for the Savior of the body to present her to himself: pure, holy, glorious, and beautiful. This is the bigger picture, the dominating spectacle we must keep before us in our individual and family struggles. Victory here, you must think to yourself, or at least endurance and crying to God will bring glory to Christ and strength to his body. Faithfulness in your little corner of his vineyard, as one little member of his body, will bring increase to the whole. If Jesus Christ has joined me to his Beloved, you must say: “All my fountains are in you” (Ps. 87:7). I cannot be strong by myself; I am not strong for myself. My life is hid with Christ in God. His “fullness of grace” and “strength unto strength” are found only in the living streams that flow from God’s throne into his church and city. I shall get well, be happy and holy, and find my true life and joy only by holding fast to the Head, remaining steadfast in his body, and doing my part to build up his church with the grace God gives to me.