Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you. (1 Peter 4:12)
Facing difficulties is something that often makes us question God, life, and ourselves. But as Peter writes, we shouldn’t be surprised by such things. The context of this verse is being insulted for being a follower of the Messiah. That’s something to be proud of, not ashamed of. If we are truly children of God, then we are on the winning team, and while some people may resent that, we shouldn’t let that get us down.
But not all difficulties in life appear to be directly related to taking a stand for our faith. Difficult things just happen: Injuries, sickness, and so on. The little annoyances of life are better ignored; but what about those other bigger issues that are not so easily blown off?
Both Paul and James say that difficulties build character:
Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us (Romans 5:3-5).
Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing (James 1:2-4).
This character building should not be understood as impersonal cause and effect. But rather God is personally involved in this process:
It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it (Hebrew 12:7-11).
The writer of Hebrews wants his readers to understand harsh difficulties in terms of God’s discipline. Discipline isn’t always punishment. A better word is “training.” And as everyone knows, good training is hard; even painful at times. It goes against our grain as it trains us to do something very different from what comes naturally to us.
It seems to me that God confronts me on issues in my life at the most inconvenient time; inconvenient to me, that is. But isn’t that how disciplinary training works? It happens on the trainer’s terms, not mine. It can be so frustrating to deal with my issues, especially when I am in the middle of acting out! But so what? God is disciplining us as a loving Father. Perhaps we would do well to cooperate with him when we get called out on things.
A lot of people say that the way we picture God is largely dependent on how we view our earthly fathers. I understand that. I have struggled with that myself. But from God’s perspective, that must be a huge rip off. Why should we base our understanding of anyone based on anyone else—let alone God! Some of us have had great fathers; others—not so much. But the way to know God is to get to know God for himself through his Word. And his Word tells us that his discipline is based on love beyond comparison and is 100% absolutely for our good.
Understanding God’s motive in using difficulties for our good, doesn’t automatically tell us how to respond to difficulty. Just because problems are thrown in our direction, that doesn’t mean we have to take it. One of the purposes of the Bible is to help us know how to deal with life effectively. Sometime we need to endure pain; other times we should avoid it; and other times confront it. Jesus said that if we are persecuted in one city don’t stick around, go to the next one (see Matthew 10:23). King David understood this. Before he was king, during the reign of King Saul, David suffered greatly due to Saul’s jealousy of him. One day Saul tried to kill David with a spear. But David, who so trusted God, didn’t think that it was God’s will for him to take the spear to his heart. He got out of the way. So we too need wisdom to know how to handle what’s thrown at us.
We shouldn’t be surprised when we face difficulties, it happens to everyone. If it’s for the Lord, learn to be happy about it. But whether it is or not, it benefits us more than we know. And let’s not forget that we always need God’s wisdom to know how to deal with what comes our way in life.
Now for the big question: Why do bad things happen? That’s the question no one seems to be able to answer, but I am going to try. First, some bad things are simply the result of living in a broken, sinful world. Ever since Adam and Eve rebelled against God in the Garden of Eden, the world we live in is not what it should be. Evil has affected every area of life, and believers are not exempt from day-to-day, big-and-small problems. Sometimes this is the only explanation for difficulties.
Second, we are called to confront that evil. We are on the winning team, but we still have a game to play—a game of life & death (in know it’s not a game, but stay with me here). It’s difficult because the opposing side plays for keeps and has no problem playing dirty. This is a game of rescue in which we are called to bring God’s salvation and his blessing to the nations of the world. So we shouldn’t be surprised when we face opposition. If you are truly a follow of the Yeshua (Jesus) the Messiah, you are not a victim in this game. You are a victors. So let’s learn to play as victors.
All scriptures, English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible
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