|by James A. Fowler
Soul-rest and the Trials of Life
Though temptation does not come from the objects and circumstances of our environment, there is an opportunistic link between the trials of life and the spiritual solicitations of Satan's temptations to evil expression of his character, and God's testings to elicit godly expression of His character. This is particularly apparent when we examine the Greek words used in the New Testament. We have previously noted that the Greek verb peirazo is translated both "tempt" and "test," depending on the source and objective of the solicitation. The noun form of the same word, peirasmos, can also be translated "temptation" to identify the evil action of the tempter (Lk. 4:13; I Tim. 6:9), or "testing" in reference to God's action (I Pet. 4:12), as well as "trial" which refers to the circumstances and situations of life without any particular reference to good or evil intent (James 1:2,12; I Pet. 1:6)). The Greek root word, peiro, meant, "to pierce in order to examine or prove." Socrates stated, "The unexamined life is not worth living." The circumstances or trials of life do indeed "pierce our status quo," and by these we are tested and examined to prove whether we will respond by faithful receptivity to God's activity in expressing His character in our behavior, or whether we will misrepresent our spiritual identity as Christ-ones in responding to Satan's temptation to manifest his selfish and evil character. It is interesting that in Modern Greek usage the word peirasmos simply refers to the "experience" of life.
There is a fallacy in some religious teaching that "Christians should not have problems," and if they do it is a sign that they lack faith, or that they are not working or praying enough. They falsely conclude that hardships indicate that God is withholding His blessings or punishing an individual, and they encourage such persons to pray for deliverance from such demonic assault. While some explain the adversities of life as "the devil is after me," others attribute the same circumstances to God's sovereignty, saying, "God has done this to me, or allowed this to happen to me." The source and causation of life's trials has long been debated, and the various positions taken depend on one's theology and theodicy. Some forms of Eastern religion regard the situations of life as "just an illusion" to be disregarded or denied. Humanistic naturalism, on the other hand, resigns itself to the explanation, "Stuff happens," and attributes the unpleasant ordeals of life to "bad luck," "bad karma," or "the fickle finger of fate." The pessimistic and aphoristic adage commonly applied is, "It's Murphy's Law - if anything can go wrong, it will." Claiming to be "victims of the circumstances," many seek to blame others for the difficulties they encounter.
The following sequence of statements shows the range of religious explanations for the circumstances of life:
Confucius says, "Stuff happens." The Taoist says, "Listen to the sound of stuff happening." The Buddhist says, "Stuff happens again and again. How do I escape all this stuff?" The Muslim says, "Stuff happens. It is the will of Allah." The Jew says, "Why does stuff always happen to us?"
What, then, is the Christian explanation for the "stuff that happens," in the events and situations of life? Believing in God's providential sustaining of His created order, the Christian cannot accept the Deistic detachment of a world that just plays out in evolutionary indeterminism, nor the monistic merging of good and evil into one principle. Christians recognize the fall of man into sin (Gen. 3) and the "world system" of evil that prevails among mankind as orchestrated by "the ruler of this world" (Jn. 12:31; 14:30; 16:11), the "god of this age" (II Cor. 4:4). We are "in the world, but not of the world" (Jn. 17: 11,14,16), and must expect that we will experience problems and be personally rejected by fallen and selfish persons. God did not promise a red carpet walk into Fantasyland. He did not promise us "smooth sailing on calm seas of life." Jesus said, "In this world you have tribulation" (Jn. 16:33). Peter advised his readers, "You have been distressed by trials" (I Pet. 1:6); ". . .do not be surprised, as though some strange thing were happening to you" (I Pet. 4:12). Since the Greek word peirasmos can be translated both "temptation" and "trial," Paul's statement can be translated, "No trial has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, Who will not allow you to be tested beyond what you are able, but with the trial (or testing) will provide the way of escape also, that you may be able to endure it" (I Cor. 10:13). Christians should be realistic in their expectation of aggravations, inconveniences, tragedies, and crises in this fallen world that we live in. Christianity is not an escapist community serving a "no problem" God who has made us immune from the trials of life. Soul-rest is not an exemption or escape from the circumstances of life in this world, but is a rest of the soul in the midst of the problems of life. Since "trials are common to man" (I Cor. 10:13), the non-Christian has trials that reveal his own insufficiency, and the Christian has the same kinds of trials that reveal his own insufficiency, but the Christian also has the sufficiency of the One who has come to be his life in spirit-union. "Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to consider anything as coming from ourselves, but our sufficiency is of God" (II Cor. 3:5). Christians can view the situations of life as God's opportunities to manifest His sufficiency within the situation. The extent to which the circumstances of life are orchestrated by the sovereign God has long been debated among Christians, but we must beware of attributing sinful actions such as rape, assault, and murder to God, for although God, as Creator and sustainer, is the essential cause of all things, He is not the blameworthy cause of evil which is contrary to His character.
Forms of Trials
Our trials present themselves in three different forms: (1) Non-personal trials. (2) Inter-personal trials. (3) Intra-personal trials.
Non-personal trials are situations that do not necessarily involve other people: Our car breaks down, our house burns up, the wrench slips, the stock market crashes, we catch a virus. Birth defects, like that of the man born blind (John 9:3), could be regarded as non-personal trials, as well as physical ailments, like that of Paul's "thorn in the flesh" (II Cor. 12:7), or even the death of a loved one, like Lazarus (John 11:14). Since the experiences of life are not always unpleasant, non-personal situations could also include getting a raise, the stock market going up, and a doctor's report indicating good health.
Interaction with other persons is the context of inter-personal trials. In the context of husband and wife relationships, parent and child relationships, employer and employee relationships, neighbors, friends, and club members there are many situations that we confront. People have different personalities that think and feel differently, act and react differently, and these can cause frictions and misunderstandings. Laban's treachery with Jacob (Gen. 29:21-30) and Joseph being sold into slavery by his brothers (Gen. 37:18-28) are a couple of biblical examples of inter-personal situations. Pleasant inter-personal situations might include being nominated for a promotion, making new acquaintances, or developing a friendship.
Intra-personal experiences are those that arise from within, subjectively. They are often associated with temptation in our thoughts or emotions, or with the "flesh" patterns of selfishness and sinfulness in our desires. Obsessive and addictive impulses present themselves to our conscious minds. We may begin to engage in fantasy dreams of pleasing ourselves, possessing for ourselves, or promoting ourselves. On the positive side, mental awareness, emotional concern, and spiritual revelation, may also qualify as intra-personal experiences.
Purpose of Trials
Only as we come to some conclusion of the source of the situations of life in the context of God's sovereignty can we begin to understand the purpose of life's experiences and respond to them in soul-rest. If God is in sovereign control of all things in the universe He has created, and has a particular love for those who are His people, why do we have to experience adversity, suffering, accidents, or catastrophes? But wait! Would it not be just as legitimate to ask, why do we have to experience the caring concern of a friend, the purr of a kitten, the splendor of a sunset, or the intimacy of a family? We must beware of focusing on trials and experiences only in the context of what we regard to be the unpleasant circumstances of life. "God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose" (Rom. 8:28).
God does not place tall hurdles on the track of life to make life difficult or to trip us up. "God is love" (I Jn. 4:8,16), and seeks our highest good. The circumstances of life should not be viewed as obstacles, but as opportunities. G.K. Chesterton wrote, "An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered. An adventure is an inconvenience rightly considered." Our perspective of the purpose of the situations of life will greatly affect our orientation and response to what happens. In the words of Epictetus, "Men are disturbed, not by things, but by the view which they take of them." Or as Montaigne said, "A man is hurt not so much by what happens, as by his opinion of what happens."
Religious explanations of the purpose of the experiences of life are often self-centered. A common explanation is that the trials of life make us better, stronger, more mature, or more spiritual. An abundance of analogies are employed to illustrate such an explanation. I have heard people explain, "God uses trials to temper your metal." "You are a 'diamond in the rough' and God wants to chip, and shape, and polish you into a well-cut diamond." "Just as the Vikings made strong ships out of trees that were weathered and twisted by the storms, so God makes us strong by tough trials." "Just as Stradivarius made his violins out of trees bent and twisted by the winds, so God seeks to make perfect instruments out of us." God has no intent to make us better or stronger, but only to allow for a more adequate manifestation of the life and character of Jesus Christ in our behavior. Many have stated that the trials of life build and develop character in us and serve to perfect us. We are already spiritually "perfect" by the presence of the Perfect One, Jesus Christ, in our spirit, and God's desire is to see His own perfect character manifested experientially in our behavior. Others have explained, "God is trying to teach you, or to prepare you for a ministry." "God trusts you so much that He is allowing you to 'suffer for Jesus,' and will thereby produce perseverance in you." In most of these explanations there has been too much focus on us, and not enough focus on God and His purposes.
God's purpose is always to allow His own all-glorious character to be manifested within His creation unto His own glory. We were "created for His glory" (Isa. 43:7), and He "does not give His glory to another" (Isa. 42:8; 48:11). The circumstances of life are God's "attention-getters" to expose and reveal to us the next opportunity to manifest His glorious character. What a privilege, then, to be tested, examined, and proven to be those who overcome by His life and character, allowing the situations of life to serve God's disciplinary purposes of demonstrating that we are His disciples and followers. It was in this context of purpose that Joseph could say, "You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good" (Gen. 50:20). After all of Job's trials, he could say, "I know that Thou canst do all things, and that no purpose of Thine can be thwarted" (Job. 42:2). Explaining the purpose of the man born blind, Jesus said, "It was in order that the works of God might be displayed in him" (John 9:3).
With our finite understanding we may not understand what God is doing or the particulars of why God is doing what He is doing. The general purpose of His own glory should be enough to cause us to continue to trust Him and rest assured that "His ways are always right" (Hosea 14:9). "Since the Lord is directing our steps, why try to understand everything that happens along the way?" (Prov. 20:24 LB). Paul explained, "The sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us" (Rom. 8:18).
Response to the Trials of Life
Believing in God's sovereignty and recognizing His purpose of manifesting His glorious character, Christians can respond to the situations of life with a soul-rest that is inexplicable to those in the world around us. We are not to respond with the escapism of attempted deliverance, or the asceticism of withdrawal from the world. Nor are we to react with the fatalism of acquiescence, the stoicism of painful endurance, or the survivalism of trying to cope with the struggles of life. The world may try to "grin and bear it" with encouraging mottoes such as, "Don't worry; be happy," while some religion advises that we should just "Praise the Lord anyway!" but these are just techniques of avoidance which attempt to overlook the problems. Christians, on the other hand, can see with the clear vision of faith that God is providentially at work in all circumstances. Like Paul, we can "be content in whatever circumstances we find ourselves" (Phil. 4:11).
Only as the Christian accepts all circumstances as God's providential opportunities and is secure in God's provision in the midst of all situations can he respond to all things with gratitude and thanksgiving. Paul exhorted the Thessalonian Christians, saying, "In everything give thanks" (I Thess. 5:18), and encouraged the Ephesians to "give thanks for all things" (Eph. 5:20). The Greek word for "giving thanks" is eucharisteo, meaning "good grace." As Christians "give thanks," they recognize the "good grace" of God in all circumstances. Only from this perspective does James' admonition make sense, when he admonishes his readers, "Count it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials" (James 1:2). He is not saying, "Be happy when bad things befall you," but is advising the Christian brethren that "the testing of their faith" produces the endurance that "perseveres under trial" (James 1:11) as they recognize the sufficient grace of God in every experience. Peter, likewise, encourages his readers to "rejoice, even though you have been distressed by various trials, .rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory" (I Peter 1:6,8). This "joy inexpressible" in the midst of trials is the privilege of every Christian who knows that "we are more than conquerors through Him Who loves us" (Rom. 8:37), and "overcomes" (Rev. 2:7; 3:21) all things by the strength of Christ, the Overcomer.
The Christian life is certainly not problem-free. We can expect, even welcome, circumstances that unexpectedly "pierce our status quo" and by which we are examined concerning whether we will respond with the dependence of faith. When we encounter these "speed bumps" that threaten to "upset our apple cart," we may have initial perplexity (II Cor. 4:8), distress (Lk. 12:50), or a "troubled soul" (Jn. 12:27; 13:21), but then we recognize the sufficiency of Christ within our spirit and respond with the faith that allows Him to bring rest to our souls. Christ in us is panic-proof. He does not get frantic and over-react to the trials of life by going into hysteria or having a nervous breakdown. In the midst of turmoil Christ brings peace and rest to our souls as the oil of the Holy Spirit is poured on the troubled waters of life.
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©2004 by James A. Fowler. All rights reserved.
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