Trials 5 - Responding to trials, part 1

A Christian surprised by trials is like a student surprised by lectures and assignments - they shouldn't be, but often they are.
“Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.” (1 Peter 4:12)

Let's start this section by noting that we were created to respond to pain. We have nerves that identify physical suffering and emotions that can indicate mental suffering. Trials by their very nature involve pain. The question is not whether we will respond to trials, but how.

To consider some different responses to trials, let’s take our imaginations out to sea and witness some different people being dropped into the water. It’s not a perfect analogy but it is helpful.

The escapist
You may have noticed that all around you there are people working really hard for an easy life! This has become such a preoccupation in our culture that most people seem to consider comfort a natural right. We want the shops to be closer, the internet to be quicker, and everyone to be nicer to us.

When a person with this attitude is dropped into the sea, they panic. They haven't learnt to swim because they had hoped never to go in the water, and so they thrash about in confusion, desperate to get out but never actually going anywhere.

The stoic
Less prevalent in our culture but generally more admired, is the person whose philosophy is to put up with whatever’s going on until it stops happening or you don’t notice it any more. This is sometimes called Stoicism.

When a stoic is dropped into the water, they sink. They knew they’d end up in the water sooner or later but that’s as far as their preparation went. They hold their breath until they pass out, without making any attempt to escape.

I’ve seen Christians respond in both these ways, and I’ve done so myself, but I don’t see either of these being praised in the Bible. So let’s look at a believer’s response…

The believer
What shall we do as we feel the cold shock of the water, as waves crash over our heads? We should start swimming. Maybe this is pushing the metaphor too far, but here are some suggestions on how we can do this:

1. Learn to swim
Here are three practical things you can do to prepare for the arrival of a trial:

A. Learn from the best

I can still remember my first swimming lesson: I was about seven years old, standing in the shallow end of the kids’ pool, and the teacher invited the class to show what they could do. Everyone else set off with what seemed to me like marvellous speed. I, on the other hand, having never swum a stroke in my life, stood still and made waves by brushing my arm across the top of the water. Imagine if I had been the teacher that day! No-one would have learnt anything except how to make mini tidal waves with their arms. We need teachers with greater ability and more experience than us.

Find me someone used by God who did not experience trials. (Warning: you’re wasting your time.) Even Jesus – God Himself – went through trials.
“Although He was a Son, He learned obedience through what He suffered.” (Hebrews 5:8)
“If it is the way the Master went, shall not the servant tread it too?” (J.A. Motyer, The Message of James)
Maybe you have a favourite character in Scripture: read their story again and look for the trials they went through. I really enjoy reading Christian biographies, and any that are written with integrity will tell of trials. Our church communities are full of people who have gone through trials and come out stronger. Their wisdom is a gift for us to learn from.

B. Reassess events from your past in light of this teaching

You have been in the water before. When I look back on my life, I can see troubles I experienced that Jesus used to grow me. For example, it was during some of the darkest moments of my life that I learnt to trust the Bible. I used to be very sceptical and casual about it, now I love it. How did God get me reading it? By allowing me to experience a difficult time when I had nowhere else to turn except His unchanging truth. I’m so grateful for that.

We do need to be careful here: if wrongs things have happened to you, those things are still wrong. What is so wonderful about Jesus is that He can use even the worst of things, very gently and carefully, to grow you. Some trials will make sense with hindsight, and getting a right understanding of the past will help ready us for the future. But not every trial will be comprehensible in this life. Anything that profoundly affects you cannot be dismissed lightly with a wave of the hand and a thoughtless statement that God is good. Nor should it be. Think deeply and pray faithfully. Ask God to give you peace, even if He does not give you an explanation. That is His prerogative.

C. Take faith risks now

Get used to being in water, to feeling uncertain and uncomfortable. Even as I’ve been preparing this I’ve been convicted again that I am often negligent in doing this, but there is grace for us, so let’s keep trying! Trusting God for financial provision, praying for a sick friend, witnessing about Jesus to someone… those are faith moments that can be tough but are all part of learning to swim.

I have found from my own experience that learning to swim with these three things – the help of others, understanding my past, and taking some strokes now – does something to my spirit; they educate me and toughen me, they produce the first glimpses of steadfastness which is then fully developed when the real swimming begins.