It is easy to think that the saintly characters in the Bible never experienced any problems in their lives. In our minds, we picture them as super-humans living a constant, high level of spirituality, with unceasing joy and strong hope in God. With these assumptions, we may admire or even envy them. But our perception couldnâ€™t be further from the truth. In reality, these biblical figures were often completely downhearted, and Godâ€™s will often appeared very distant to them.
How long, O Lord? Will You forget me forever?
How long will You hide Your face from me?
How long shall I take counsel in my soul, Having sorrow in my heart daily?
How long will my enemy be exalted over me? (Ps 13:1-2)
Does this prayer sound familiar to the ones we utter when we feel that we have no one and nowhere to turn to? In fact, these words uttered by David paint a picture of deep despair and wretchedness beyond anything most of us will ever experience.
Despair does not find its way only to the less successful. It comes to all. Even the great apostle Paul was no exception; outstanding and spiritual as he was in divine work and character, Paul was as human as we are. "For we do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, of our trouble which came to us in Asia: that we were burdened beyond measure, above strength, so that we despaired even of life" (2 Cor 1:8). Paul was downcast probably because of the riot and the chronic opposition he encountered in Ephesus (Acts 19:23-41). This was but one of the many life-threatening situations that he encountered during his missionary journeys.
Fixing Our Eyes on Jesus Christ
Even so, Paul shared with the Christians of Corinth his secret of how his faith remained firm in times of unbearable distress and trials: Paul knew that God was in control of all circumstances. Throughout his life, Paul realized that there was nothing he could do to help himself. In light of his knowledge of Jesus Christ and His will, Paul trusted in God and praised Him at all times (2 Cor 1:3-7). Likewise, the apostle Peter wrote to the believers in the midst of trials, praising God for the future blessings and a living hope that were in store for those who endured (1 Pet 1:3-9).
There are many who say, "Who will show us any good?" Lord, lift up the light of Your countenance upon us. You have put gladness in my heart, More than in the season that their grain and wine increased. I will both lie down in peace, and sleep; For You alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety. (Ps 4:6-8)
This psalmist proclaims that God, and nothing else, is our true protection in time of danger. Paul also relied on the Lord Jesus through every trial, knowing that He was his only hope (1 Tim 1:1). Christ alone gave him the strength he required to continue his ministry, and this strength enabled him to face trials rather than avoid them. With Godâ€™s word and His divine presence in his life, Paul could face the most adverse situation in which he found himself. "We are hard pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed" (2 Cor 4:8-9).
When we become discouraged because of difficulties, sufferings, or tribulations in life, our natural reaction is to focus on these external circumstances. Instead, we should look upon our Lord Jesus and try to understand what God wants us to learn and do during these troubling times.
Trust, Humility, and Perseverance
We can prepare ourselves to face all kinds of difficulties by keeping in mind that every trial is beneficial to those who love God (Rom 8:28). Part of trusting in God is knowing that He will never let us suffer beyond what we can endure (1 Cor 10:13). Paul once beseeched the Lord three times to remove "a thorn in his flesh," but Christ answered him, "My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness" (2 Cor 12:7-9). In effect, the Lord was telling Paul that he would receive no more of His grace, nor did he need more. Christâ€™s grace is sufficient in that it does not banish weakness, but it allows us to overcome it if we are willing to rely on His power completely.
To bear our trials in life, we must also show humility before God and admit to Him that we are weak and need His help. Our experiences in life or work for God should not prevent us from humbling ourselves before Him. In Paulâ€™s experience, he knew that when he felt weak, he became strong (2 Cor 12:10). It is precisely when we feel weak that God endues His power on us. Conversely, if we think that we are invincible or standing on firm ground, we are in danger of failing miserably (1 Cor 10:12).
During times of difficulty, we may wonder when God will deliver us. We need to remember that God will deliver us in His own time, and it may not be immediately. For example, the Jews were held in captivity for seventy years, and David was pursued by Saul for the main part of his early life.
In addition, the methodology that God deploys may sometimes surprise us. Take the example of Stephen in Acts 7. As Stephen was being stoned to death, God revealed Himself to him and freed him from the excruciating suffering that the unbelieving Jews were inflicting upon him (Acts 7:54-60).
We do not know when God will deliver us from our tribulations, but what we do know is that His deliverance is certain and will be in response to our faith and prayers, in His own time and in His own way. "I sought the Lord, and He heard me, And delivered me from all my fears" (Ps 34:4).
Benefits of Suffering
The most meaningful and valuable service that we can give to our Lord Jesus is to glorify Him in every aspect of our lives, whether we are living in joy or in suffering. If we are able to pass through suffering in a God-fearing manner, His name will be glorified. The Lord Jesus Christ submitted to Godâ€™s will to accomplish salvation for mankind, glorifying God (Jn 17:4-5, 22). Similarly, Paul endured every suffering that he encountered.
God wants very much to accomplish His purpose through us in times of suffering, but seldom do we allow our trials to be of benefit to ourselves or to others. Instead, we expect others to show consideration and empathy when we are suffering. When we study Paulâ€™s moments of difficulties, however, we discover that he channeled his effort, time, and energy into consoling others. When he was behind bars, he did not fail to pray and show concern for the Christians in Ephesus (Eph 3:1, 14). By encouraging others when we are experiencing our lows, we learn to endure in faith patiently. When we tend to the needs of others at those times when we most need God ourselves, we reveal the genuine love of God.
Our suffering is beneficial because it purifies us from sin and molds our character into what is needed for His work. "Therefore since Christ suffered for us in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same mind, for he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, that he no longer should live the rest of his time in the flesh for the lusts of men, but for the will of God" (1 Pet 4:1-2). By drawing near to the Lord day by day, we faithfully await His salvation when He comes again.
The strength to endure is a mark of Christian maturity as well as a living hope in Christ. As we endure suffering, we must fix our gaze upon our Lord Jesus and try to understand His purpose for us. Since God is in control of all circumstances, we should put our trust in Him. This means submitting ourselves humbly under His mighty hand, believing that God uses all circumstances for the edification of those who love Him, and understanding that He may use suffering to accomplish His will. Let us be prepared to allow Him to shape us, enabling us to work mightily for His name, and ultimately to lead us to salvation.