We all face circumstances and seasons of life that stretch our faith and press the limits of what we can handle. We have no promise from Scripture that we will avoid trouble. Instead, Jesus promises trouble to his followers (John 15:18-20; 1 John 3:13; 2 Timothy 2:12). The pressures of life can sometimes be so overwhelming that we might lapse into losing heart by either blaming ourselves for the adversity we experience and wish things were different, or by blaming others for our troubles and believing that if they would just get their act together all would be well with my soul. No matter the source or nature of the problem, the church needs a point of focus to direct their troubled hearts. We all need to be reminded of the grace we possess in Jesus Christ.
The resurrection of Jesus from the dead is both a spiritual and a physical reality. If we believe this truth in our hearts we will be raised both spiritually and physically (Romans 10:9-10). This faith in Christ gives shape to the hope that, although we might be experiencing the effects of mortality and the fall of humanity, we are, at the same time, being spiritually renewed day by day. The very same afflictions that cause our bodies to degenerate and dispirit us are the means to achieving a glorious resurrected existence (2 Corinthians 4:13-18). There cannot be the glory of spiritual and bodily resurrection without a shameful death. The way of Jesus was to absorb the shame of the world’s violent ways on the cross so that we might be raised with him in his resurrection.
However, this does not mean that the church will never experience difficulty in this present life. In fact, daily spiritual renewal can and does happen through adverse circumstances. There must be suffering before glory, both for Jesus and for us. Just because we are saved does not mean we are inoculated from daily stress and pressure because it is the troubles of this life that teach us to trust in God and weans us from all that we have previously trusted in to deal with those troubles.
The truth of God using adversity and trouble in our lives begs several questions for each believer and every local church:
Ø Do we give inordinate attention to either the tangibly physical or the intangible spiritual?
Ø How does Christ’s resurrection impact us today?
Ø How do we interpret our earthly troubles?
Ø What place does faith in God have in our daily decisions?
Ø The older we get, are we being renewed in Christ?
Ø Does the Lord’s Table, as a tangible sign and seal of our intangible faith, shape our hope?
When I think of a person who is outwardly wasting away, yet inwardly being renewed, I think of Joni Eareckson Tada. She has been a paraplegic for forty-five years after an accident as a teenager in which she dove into shallow water and broke her neck. After the accident, lying in the hospital for months unable to move, she had completely lost heart to the point of being suicidal. But she could not even kill herself since she could not physically move. Finally, in her darkest moment she cried out to God with what she says to this day was the most significant prayer she ever prayed: “Lord, if I can’t die, show me how to live.” And he did. Joni’s faith is as strong and robust as anyone’s, despite her infirmity and her handicaps. She has learned to embrace her troubles as the means of growing her faith.
We cannot accept, cope, and transcend our troubles and afflictions if we do not acknowledge them. They only have power over us for ill if we ignore them or put up a false front to hide them. Paul was open with others about his life: We do not want you to be uninformed about the hardships we suffered…. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead (2 Corinthians 1:8-9). Paul faced whippings and beatings, stoning and shipwreck, hunger and poverty, danger and trouble, not to mention all the pressures of his concern for all the churches he established. Through it all Paul was transparent and named his troubles so he could apply the poultice of God’s grace to his afflictions. It is our brokenness and not the pretension of having it all together that shows the grace of God to others.
Over and over again Paul described his life and ministry in apparent paradoxes: strength in weakness; glory through shame; life through death; riches through poverty. Although we experience the fallen nature of the world, God bends each situation for his own purposes so that what seems to be our downfall becomes the means to our spiritual renewal. Every church is inherently paradoxical, a strange amalgam of victory and defeat, faith and doubt, full of sorrow and joy. Let us all embrace this reality and allow God to use whatever means he so desires to shape his church for kingdom purposes. Soli Deo Gloria.