Does it really make you stronger [if it doesn’t kill you]?

stronger

When I was a child and a teenager, I had a concept of adulthood that assumed everyone who was a grown up physically was mature and responsible.  Children were characterized by their levels of youth-li-ness (terrible two’s, irresponsible adolescents, etc), and often times I would hear testimonies and accounts of people who had “finally grown up” or who, through a series of terrible circumstances, “had to grow up too soon”.  Being “grown up” meant, to me, being mature, responsible, having polished social skills, and good interpersonal relationship skills.  Somewhere along my path of maturation, however, I realized that not everyone is guaranteed to grow in every aspect.  Sometimes obnoxious children turn into obnoxious adults.  Sometimes irresponsible teens turn into irresponsible middle-aged people.  And sometimes the burden of life and mid-life crises turn what appeared to be responsible adults into fools or senile old people.

But while all of these things are glaringly true, we as a culture live by the motto,

“What doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger.”

In essence we cheer ourselves through hardships and struggles by chanting the mantra that we will grow and be stronger because of our current life situation.  Have you found this to be true in your life?  If you step back and make an honest assessment of your most difficult moments, did you grow?  Or did you become hardened?  Did you mature?  Or did you set up walls to protect yourself from the world?  Did you press into God and the Church?  Or did you learn how to make it on your own because “people will always let you down”?

It has been said that the same boiling water that hardens an egg softens potatoes.  And we, as Christians, should be the potato.

Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand; and we exult in hope of the glory of God.  And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.

 – Rom 5.1-5

God has sovereignly and purposefully given us lives full of trials and tribulation so that our faith can be tested and through perseverance we can obtain good character and ultimately hope. We do not by nature enjoy and rejoice in trials, we want life to be smooth, easy and comfortable.  But God desires to make us people of deep and solid faith, and He does that by causing us to be more holy through the purification fire of suffering (James 1.2-4).

God also uses suffering and persecution to weed out false believers:

“The sower went out to sow his seed; and as he sowed, some fell beside the road, and it was trampled under foot and the birds of the air ate it up.  Other seed fell on rocky soil, and as soon as it grew up, it withered away, because it had no moisture.  Other seed fell among the thorns; and the thorns grew up with it and choked it out.  Other seed fell into the good soil, and grew up, and produced a crop a hundred times as great.” As He said these things, He would call out, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

 – Luke 8.5-8

The Gospel falls on all kinds of ears.  Some people do not respond at all – the birds eat the seed away before it can take any root.  Some people respond quickly and with joy, but as soon as persecution arises they die and wither away because they have no depth, no conviction, no hope.  Some people respond quickly and spring up, but when the temptations and pleasures of the world come around, they take over and their faith withers away.  They choose the world instead of God.  And the others hear the Gospel, believe it, and when trials come they persevere and die to themselves.  When the pleasures of sin tempt them, they turn away and choose the pleasures of God.  These are those who persevere and develop character and hope.  These are those who are softened by the boiling water.  These are those who are saved.

“To this end also we pray for you always, that our God will count you worthy of your calling, and fulfill every desire for goodness and the work of faith with power, so that the name of our Lord Jesus will be glorified in you, and you in Him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

 – 2 Thess 1.11-12

It is God who is at work in us, both to will and to work for His good pleasure (Phil 2.13).  Trials and suffering will make us stronger in a worldly sense if we do not have the Holy Spirit at work within us:  we will rely less on people, be more independent, we will be hardened and calloused.  Strong like a rock.  But if the Holy Spirit is at work within us, we will gradually be softened by trials.  We will be humbled and die to ourselves.  We will put one another first and seek to serve one another and God.  When the Spirit is in us, He is doing the mighty work of making us worthy of our calling.  Not that we would deserve our calling of salvation, but that He is continually making us more holy and Christlike.  He is making us into what our calling demands of us.  He helps us set resolves for holiness and then empowers us to fulfill those desires, and that all to the glory of Jesus Christ.

Our trials do not develop perseverance, character and hope so that we can have a better reputation.  They do all of things to make much of and to glorify God.  If Jesus has paid the penalty for your sin, He will also fight your sinful nature within you and make you more like Him in the process.  He will not pay the penalty for your sins and leave you to act like the world.  He will transform us to be representative of the glorious calling to righteousness and holiness.

So what does that mean, practically?  Step back and look at your current trial or hardship.  How are you responding?  Are you pressing into God?  Or are you ignoring Him?  Are you putting your desires and emotions to the side and considering the other person involved?  Or are you harboring bitterness and anger?  Are you training yourself in “street smarts” for how to not be taken advantage of again?  Or are you asking God to show you how to bring Him glory by your loss?  Are you content in whatever life situation you are currently residing, giving glory to God and finding every opportunity to praise Him?

“Not that I speak from want, for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am.  I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need.  I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.”

 – Phil 4.11-13

Let us be aware that trials and difficulty to not produce strength by their very nature.  Many people revert, become hardened, or simply choose to play the victim and never mature.  You must be an active participant and choose to grow through trials, and we do that by relying on the power of the Holy Spirit to obey the Scriptures and to become more Christlike.  Be purposeful and intentional in your self-awareness and Spiritual growth.  Growing up physically does not mean that you will mature Spiritually.

When life gets messy.

High speed image of splashing milk

When God calls us to salvation, He places us perfectly within His body:  the Church.  We are all given strengths and abilities to help the church thrive, to maintain health, to reach the world and to make disciples.  The Church needs every member and every member needs the Church.

“But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually just as He wills.  For even as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ.  For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.  For the body is not one member, but many.  If the foot says, “Because I am not a hand, I am not a part of the body,” it is not for this reason any the less a part of the body.  And if the ear says, “Because I am not an eye, I am not a part of the body,” it is not for this reason any the less a part of the body.  If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole were hearing, where would the sense of smell be?  But now God has placed the members, each one of them, in the body, just as He desired.  If they were all one member, where would the body be?  But now there are many members, but one body.”

– 1 Cor 12.12-20

This is the beautiful and unique form of community with which God has blessed the Church.  In short, we get in each other’s lives and we “do life” together.  But do you know what happens when you get in other people’s lives?  It gets messy.  No Christian has attained perfection and the fullest maturity until he is freed from his earthly body, and that means that people are going to be misunderstood, people are going to be offended, and there will be conflict.  Even within the Church.  ::gasp::  If you’re not getting messy, you are not doing it right.

But let us not despair about this fact.  This is actually our opportunity to first of all glorify God in how we respond.  If Jesus is our example, let us remember that He was the only person to walk the face of this Earth without sin, and He was despised, mocked, tortured and murdered.  He endured all of this without lashing out, but with forgiveness and grace, even praying for God to show forgiveness to those who were in the act of murdering Him.  Can you imagine?  We often times need space and time to cool our emotions, but Jesus, in the midst of His own murder, was able to show selflessness and mercy.  In the same way that He loved and forgave us, we must love and forgive one another.  Otherwise we elevate ourselves and our offense above what Jesus endured on the cross.

Secondly, this gives us an opportunity to grow in maturity.

“Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance.”

– James 1.2-3

I particularly love this passage out of James because he speaks directly to “various trials”, not simply persecution for the Gospel’s sake.  Various trials can be our cars breaking down, a difficult child, a tension at the church or persevering through an illness.  All of these various trials are tests of our faith.  How do we respond?  Do we get angry and selfish?  Or do we turn to God and die to ourselves?  Are we humble or are we proud?  When we persevere through the testing of our faith we achieve endurance.  And Romans tells us that,

“And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.”

– Rom 5.3-5

We will not have proven character until we persevere through the mess of relationships and come out victorious on the other side.  We will not have true, Biblical hope until we persevere through trials that test our faith.  If we do not persevere and glorify God by dying to ourselves and following Christ’s example in day-to-day trials, we will be tossed around like the waves of the sea and depend on our circumstances for happiness (James 1.6).

Thirdly, these situations give us an opportunity to express the Gospel to others in the Church and to a lost world.  We will all have conflict.  But consider this:  we are all familiar with the terrible and ongoing “worship war” that is present in many churches.  Everyone wants his own style of music.  For some the music is too loud, for some it is too soft, for some it is not played skillfully enough, and for some the style is just unbearable.  Consider a person who has never come to the church before and who has never heard hymns, contemporary praise, quartet or even Christian rock music.  Everything, to him, is new.  He can have two polar opposite experiences determined by the church-goer by whom he sits.  The church goer can have a bad attitude, choose not to sing, choose to be grumpy – or even wait in the foyer until the music is over before coming in.  The unsaved man will see nothing different from the world here.  What he knows and expects.  Nothing attractive.  And he will probably examine the music with the same mindset.  Now, imagine he sits next to someone who does not necessarily care for the style of music being played, but this person says in his heart, “I want God to be glorified by the music and in my heart.  I am going to sing whatever they choose to sing and praise God!”  He considers his neighbor who loves this music and can best express his heart to God through this style, and he prays, “God help my neighbor meet with you today, and I praise you that these songs are fostering his heart to praise you!”  The lost person will see this as a selfless and humble person who loves God and loves his neighbor, and will see something different.

If the world sees conflict between two believers, if the believers act like the world, then our witness is lost.  But if the believers humble themselves, put one another’s desires and needs above themselves, respect one another and forgive lavishly, then we demonstrate the love and forgiveness that we have been showed in Jesus.  Scripture teaches us that we only love because He loved us first (1 John 4.19).  And Scripture teaches us that we should love and forgive in the same degree by which we are loved and forgiven.

“So, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience; bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you.”

– Col 3.12-13

Paul teaches us that our attitude towards one another should be, at the foundation, one of humility.  And based on that humility we bear with one another and forgive in the same manner that we have been forgiven.  What does that mean?  If you have come to Jesus for salvation, He has forgiven you of every offense you have ever committed and will ever commit.  In short, there is nothing that another person can do to you that would be worse than your offense against a holy God.  Therefore, if Jesus has forgiven you of everything, then we, by His example, must forgive every offense confessed towards us.

Paul knows, however, that this is not easy and that it goes against our sinful nature.  That is why every single letter that He wrote addressed the topic to some extent.

Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil; cling to what is good.  Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor; not lagging behind in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope, persevering in tribulation, devoted to prayer, contributing to the needs of the saints, practicing hospitality.  Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.  Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.  Be of the same mind toward one another; do not be haughty in mind, but associate with the lowly. Do not be wise in your own estimation.  Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men.  If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.  Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “VENGEANCE IS MINE, I WILL REPAY,” says the Lord.  “BUT IF YOUR ENEMY IS HUNGRY, FEED HIM, AND IF HE IS THIRSTY, GIVE HIM A DRINK; FOR IN SO DOING YOU WILL HEAP BURNING COALS ON HIS HEAD.”  Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

– Rom 12.9-21

So much as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.  This does not mean that you have to be buddy-buddy with everyone in the Church.  This also does not mean that you excuse and overlook sin.  Jesus gave us very clear instructions for how to handle a church member who is sinning (Matt 18.15-17), and Paul teaches us that when someone is in sin, we should lovingly restore him and help him fight the sin (Gal 6.1).  We should never overlook sin, but bring it to light and squash it before it takes a foothold in anyone’s life.  This is the truly loving thing to do, to push one another on to maturity and hope.

But humility follows the example of Christ and dies to one’s self.  Humility seeks to glorify God and His gospel by forgiving in the way that He forgave.  Humility serves the body and individuals in the likeness and manner of Christ (Phil 2.3-8).

Life will get messy.  It is in these moments that we must choose to put away our pride, we must choose to seek to glorify God by loving and forgiving as He has loved and forgiven.  We must long for the unity of the body by lifting one another up and resolving conflict, and this will show the world that we are Christians:  by our love (John 13.35).  It is easy to do service projects and humanitarian aid.  It is easy to look happy on Sunday mornings, but a dynamic witness to the world is Christians loving one another when they do not necessarily want to.

“For this finds favor, if for the sake of conscience toward God a person bears up under sorrows when suffering unjustly.  For what credit is there if, when you sin and are harshly treated, you endure it with patience? But if when you do what is right and suffer for it you patiently endure it, this finds favor with God.  For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps, WHO COMMITTED NO SIN, NOR WAS ANY DECEIT FOUND IN HIS MOUTH; and while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously; and He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed.”

– 1 Peter 2.19-24

So let us approach community with a realist mindset, knowing that pouring into one another’s lives will bring conflict eventually.  People are people, they will let you down.  But let us embrace those opportunities to press into God, to press into one another, to grow in maturity, and to be a dynamic witness to a lost world.  Let us die to ourselves, put one another first, help one another fight sin in our lives, and thus sharpen one another and be what God intended the church to be:  a body.

Refined. Like Gold.

It is normal to doubt.  We all doubt from time to time.  There are two ways to fall off the proverbial faith wagon:  I can doubt the sincerity of my faith or I can doubt God: that He will keep His word, or that He is real.

“Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand; and we exult in hope of the glory of God.  And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.”

– Rom 5.1-5

I grew up in a strong home that sought after Jesus.  I made a profession of faith when I was quite young and never really had a period of rebellion.  Passions for the the Lord and Kingdom purposes were established on my heart at a young age, and through the death of five classmates in four years of High School, God fostered an eternal perspective in my heart.  Losing one of my best friends at the age of 19 rooted my faith and life-ambitions even deeper into my heart and many temporal things have been of minimal consequence to me during my adult life.

After school I pursued my dream.  I lived my dream.  And then one day my whole world came crashing down.  In one instant I lost everything that I had.  Literally.  I had only my parents and the clothes on my back.

And God.

Up until this point in my life, my trials had been minimal.  The eternal perspective that God had set in my life helped me process normal problems like broken down cars, moving, learning a new language (OK, maybe that one is not so normal), school, relationships – and even problems that might seem a little more intense like being robbed.  No big deal.  Not big enough to shake me or my faith, anyway.

But then that day came.

The thought never crossed my mind to blame God or turn from God.  He was all I had.  And why in the world would I get mad at the only thing that I have?  But it was a struggle to get through the very long days.  I certainly was not rejoicing.

The Bible promises us that if we follow God we will have trials.  When we are not yet following God, we are on the enemy’s side (John 8.44).  We are no threat so he leaves us to our own devices.  But when we come to faith, we are a threat.  Often we deceive ourselves that God is like a cosmic genie and when we come to faith our lives will magically be better and fixed.  But the Macedonians, when they came to faith, experienced much more difficulty; it added to their poverty and affliction:

“Now, brethren, we wish to make known to you the grace of God which has been given in the churches of Macedonia, that in a great ordeal of affliction their abundance of joy and their deep poverty overflowed in the wealth of their liberality.”

– 2 Cor 8.1-2

Some trials are directly related to our faith and result because of our obedience.  Some trials are not related to our faith in the sense that they are because of a stand we have taken.  But all trials test our faith.  And the strength of God gave the Macedonians the result of increased love and increased generosity through trials!

This is how we know that we are sincere – that our faith is real:  when trials come, we persevere.  Paul states four truths in Romans 5:

  1. Tribulations produce perseverance
  2. Perseverance produces proven character
  3. Proven character produces hope
  4. Hope does not disappoint

Trials prove our faith.  If in our doubting we question the sincerity of our own faith, we can see it proven through tribulation.  Trials also attest to God’s reliability.  Why?  “Hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Rom 5.5).  It is only through the strength of the Holy Spirit that we endure through tribulation to the point of perseverance and thus have character – the character of God – proven in our lives.  When the Spirit works perseverance resulting in character, we experience His love and thus hope is multiplied in our lives.

That is why we can understand trials in life to be refining fire.  And this is why we can rejoice in trials!  God gives us grace and love.  He pours out His Spirit on us, and when we are given the opportunity to trust, persevere or stand firm in our convictions, He gives us the strength to do so and prove our faith, prove our character, and experience His love more deeply.  He destroys doubt through trials.

“In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials, so that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ; and though you have not seen Him, you love Him, and though you do not see Him now, but believe in Him, you greatly rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory, obtaining as the outcome of your faith the salvation of your souls.”

1 Peter 1.6-9

It is not humanly possible to rejoice in trials.  That is a work of the Spirit.  I have known very few people who can rejoice through trials, and they tend to be very mature, older believers who have already persevered through many.  Let us seek to learn from them, imitate them, cling to God for strength and persevere through trials.  To the glory of God.

Shatter doubt.

“I do believe; help my unbelief” (Mark 9.24).