Based on a sermon by S. Hwang—Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA
A LESSON FROM NATURE
Nature is a powerful teacher. It
neither lectures nor rebukes, but demonstrates through vivid imagery the more
fundamental instructions of life—including the Christian one. Here is one
A mother eagle does a curious
thing to its young. Once the mother decides it is time for the young to take
flight and leave the nest, it stirs up the nest, forcing the defenseless
eaglets off. At first blush, it is shocking that such a harsh method is employed.
But this is a momentous event for the eaglet; it is through a relentless series
of these brief, alarming windows of opportunity that the flightless fledglings
learn the art of flight. It is when these earth-bound eaglets free-fall towards
the ground, expecting to meet their deaths, that they find maturity instead,
stretching their wings to take flight, becoming the majestic and fearsome birds
of prey we know them to be.
Drawing from the richness of the
Bible, we will first explore why and how God trains His chosen and beloved
through the thorniest of trials.
BAPTISM OF FIRE
God uses suffering and pain to
humble and train His soldiers.
Fittingly, the eagle appears to have emulated the teaching style of its (and
our) Maker—God. Mankind reaches the heights of maturity the same way the
eaglets do—by falling first. Inspired by God, Moses notes this comparison with
clarity in Deuteronomy 32:10–12:
[The LORD] found [Israel] in a desert land and in the wasteland, a
howling wilderness; He encircled him, He instructed him, He kept him as the
apple of His eye. As an eagle stirs up its nest, hovers over its young, spreading
out its wings, taking them up, carrying them on its wings, so the LORD alone
led him, and there was no foreign god with him.
In the mother tongue of Moses,
Hebrew, the word for “establish” is kwun, which
is alternatively translated as “prepare” or “strengthen.” Thus, when we read
from Deuteronomy 32:6 that God establishes us, we understand that God is preparing us
for greater things that we will accomplish for His name. Like the eaglets, our
training can be abrupt, alarming, and at times, seemingly insurmountable. But
we know, by His grace, resting on His wings, we will eventually stretch wings
of our own and fly with an independent and mature faith.
We know this not just from eagles,
but from the experiences of the Israelites too. Moses and the people expected a
blissful future. Indeed, God had promised them one; the promised land of Canaan
awaited their arrival. The heroes of the Exodus never imagined that they would
spend nearly half a century as stateless nomads, wandering the harsh wilderness
and weathering a spiritually trying series of rebellions and strife.
Nevertheless, this was necessary for the Israelites to put away childish
things. After forty years of witnessing first-hand the compassion and
righteousness of their God, the faith of the Israelites emerged more mature
than ever, finally ready to inhabit the Promised Land. After forty years, a
disunited rabble of slaves emerged as a nation of faithful warriors capable of
conquest and conviction in God.
In fact, suffering is not just
used to build faith, but
also to reflect and diagnose it. When we are forced to confront troubles in our
lives, we reveal the truest extent of our faith and quality of our character,
allowing us to evaluate how we stand before God.
Job, one of the most impressive heroes
of faith in the Old Testament, immediately comes to mind. The personal tests we
may lament about today would scarcely match that of Job’s. He suffered a series
of horrid afflictions, designed and administered by Satan himself. Yet we also
know of Job’s spiritual fortitude and how he, and more importantly, his faith
in God, survived all the torments he experienced. Why was the test necessary?
Even if not to show the devil the spiritual caliber of God’s chosen, the test
was vital to Job reviewing his life of faith and understanding what it actually
means to dedicate one’s life to God and live as His child. It was a test for
Job’s friends as well, forcing them to re-examine their own flawed
understanding of how human suffering fits into the plan of God.
Yes, for most of us, our trials
today might seem trivial in comparison. But they are no less crucial for us to
understand where we really stand spiritually. For instance, when you attend a
church seminar and are faced with a barrage of rules and regulations, you feel
severely restrictive. “After all,” you
think to yourself, “even if I sleep an
hour after lights-out, who am I harming?” God wants to treat us
as adults, to be mature in thought and in action. The rules for the seminar may
not necessarily be warmly received or the best course of action. However, we
comply, simply because we love God and want His church to operate in love and
Our response to the challenges
that God places on our path helps us to better understand the stage and nature
of our faith. Is our faith still in its infancy, concerned only with our own
well-being and interest? Is our faith too pompous and insensitive, preferring
to pronounce judgment on others instead of performing frank introspection? We
have to be honest with our imperfections, accepting that we can, and must,
always better ourselves.
Training teaches us what true
contentment in God is.
The early passages of Deuteronomy 8 are very revealing. “And you shall remember
that the Lord your God led you all
the way these forty years in the wilderness,” reads the commandment in verses 2
and 3 of the chapter, “to humble you and test you, to know what was in your
heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not … that he might make you
know that man shall not live by bread alone; but man lives by every word that
proceeds from the mouth of the Lord.”
Understanding that suffering and
toil is an inescapable part of our lives, the question we must force ourselves
to confront is this: when in the
depths of our suffering, what, or who, will I turn to? Contentment
is a commodity that is in abundance today. From life coaches and therapists to
money, the possible sources of contentment available for someone searching for
meaning and comfort are endless. Alas, as we all know, these are but poor
imitations of the type of satisfaction only God can give us. It is
understandably difficult to maintain that God is sometimes responsible for both
the troubles that come our way and the healing balm that gives us peace. Yet
therein lies the truth: God desires that we turn to Him in the throes of
our turmoil. He wants us to yearn for Him, and in turn, seeks to demonstrate
the wonders of His hand as He grants us the fortitude and faith to weather the
Most students in church training
seminars are often confronted with the trying test of abstinence from food—fasting
prayers are especially demanding for the inexperienced. However, it is when the
physical is muted that the spiritual within us awakens. This we know from the
invigorating first-hand reports of the powerful spiritual experiences students
have during their fasting prayers. Brief abstinence from food is a small price
to pay for being able to be intimate with one’s spirit nature and with God.
There is simply nothing like it.
Reading Deuteronomy 8:4–5, one can
appreciate the poignancy of the point. Just like our seminary students,
suffering is indeed promised. Fasting is a symbol for the many sacrifices and
losses a Christian has to be prepared to go through according to God’s plan.
However, just as the forty years of nomadic living did not afflict the
Israelites with torn clothing and swollen feet, so has God promised deliverance
and strength through grace for the faithful.
THE SAKE OF SERVICE
A tenacious faith does more than
get us through the vicissitudes of life. It prepares the Christian for service
to the church. Many well-intentioned and dedicated youths have passed through
the doors of the church eager to use their talents to serve God in any ministry
they are called to. Unfortunately many drop out midway. Sadder still are those who
quit in tears. For many, the innumerable trials they encountered in their
service to God shattered their romanticized expectations of ministry. They
expected only bountiful grace and blessings—thinking these to be rewards for
their work. But when faced with the inescapable problems of their personal
lives and church work, they buckle under the weight of disappointment and
resentment. Therefore, we have to be very clear with our attitudes; life within
and without the church walls will certainly contain problems. Some are tests,
some train us, and others are opportunities for God’s glory to be perfected in
us. What we must never do is to have a false, idealistic notion of life as a
Christian, understanding that grace is what God gives us to get through our
problems, not get around them.
HOW JESUS TRAINED
Knowing the importance of
religious education and training through trials, we now come to the practical
aspects. What is the best way to train? The answer rests with the greatest of teachers:
Jesus Christ. We will explore three key features of the way Jesus trained and
was trained Himself.
First, Jesus’ ministry began with
Him being driven to the wilderness (Mk 1:13). The wilderness is an austere and
uncompromising environment that forces those who wish to survive to be
disciplined and focused on the necessary tasks. For the purposes of training,
the wilderness is the church. Almost everything that distracts us from godly
training at home is absent in church. No luxurious queen-size bed to laze in.
No forty-inch TV to captivate us with its glare. No high-speed broadband
internet connection to stream video after video. It is the various small
luxuries that are missing from
the church that make it such a conducive environment for spiritual training.
Beneath this, however, lies a greater lesson. The world has no shortage of
distractions that keep us unfocused and confused over our priorities. It is our
responsibility as Christians to recognize that God comes first. Furthermore, we
should do more than compartmentalize time for God, as if our Christianity is
suspended at other periods. Rather, we are called to have God in mind and heart
at all times. That
involves seizing every opportunity to train oneself spiritually and trying to
see the glory of God in the little things we do every day. This is best
achieved when in the church environment.
Second, Jesus resisted the
temptations of the devil by fasting for forty days and nights. Fasting is a
powerful way for us to set aside our fleshly vices and distractions, to focus
on the spiritual. If even the Son of God knew the weakness of flesh, and
therefore the need for spiritual cultivation through fasting, then we have all
good reason to fast regularly for our own sakes in our life of faith.
Third, one of the first things
Jesus did during the early periods of His ministry was to gather disciples.
These chosen men would eventually become His closest companions, students and
ambassadors, bringing the memory and legacy of Jesus to many others. “A friend
loves at all times,” Solomon counsels us in Proverbs 17:17, “and a brother is
born for adversity.” Jesus knew that His disciples needed each other to grow in
faith and perform the tasks appointed to them. It is hard to be a solitary
Christian; God intends for true believers to become a community, independent in
personal faith to God yet united in truth. Another proverb of Solomon reminds
us that iron sharpens iron. We need to study the word of God, pray, and grow in
spirit together. This builds a sense of shared accountability and camaraderie,
reminding us that a true faith is not a self-absorbed one, but one that cares
for fellow brothers and sisters, and for one’s family.
TO RISE WITH WINGS
Suffering produces Christian
character, allowing us to hone our virtues and learn how to rely on God. It
provides us with an opportunity to reflect on our faith, examining it for
frailties that most urgently require help. We should be prepared to ask both
God and our brethren for guidance and healing.
Lastly, it prepares us for service
in church by teaching us what true contentment is. This way, we are not
disappointed and resentful when our life turns out less than perfect, because
we know that Christianity is not in the business of giving us ideal, pain-free
lives on earth. Instead, it provides character and hope while we are
earth-bound, that we may receive the greater blessings above. In fact, we do
not have to wait for life to present us with trials before we commence our
training. Jesus has set out clear modes of training that we can emulate. This
includes the habit of coming to church and attending church seminars for
effective training, fasting, and fellowship among members of the spiritual
If we could speak to the towering
figures of faith in the Bible and ask them how they managed to keep the faith
and become role models for generations to come, what would they tell us? Would
Moses recall his polished, princely upbringing in Pharaoh’s courts, or his
wanderings in the wilderness, where he saw first-hand the majesty of God and
the importance of obedience? Would Daniel point to his education and his status
as his shining moment, or his quiet but determined faith and trust in the lions’
den? Surely we know the answer.
To rise with wings is not the goal
itself. God does not wish for us to soar that we may feel powerful, or glide
that we may inspire awe. We soar because God wishes for us to see the horizon
beyond. We stretch our wings and climb the winds that we may always have heaven
and our salvation in our sights and minds, never forgetting where we are going,
and who we must look to get there.