INTRODUCTION: This devotional series is based on J.I. Packer’s classic work, Knowing God. There is no greater quest, no more important activity, nothing that should be a higher priority than getting to know God. Too many Christians know about God without making their time with him personal. These devotionals are designed to challenge you to ask questions of yourself, bring these questions before God, make you think, and transform your relationship with God. My prayer is that your study will overflow in emotion, in touching your heart, in connecting with God, and sharing your relationship with others. The book consists of 22 Chapters, thus this series last 22 days. Dig in!
Reflections on Chapter 21: These Inward Trials
Painting an unrealistic picture of the Christian life can really damage people’s faith. A misunderstanding of grace and struggling in our faith can lead to either glamorizing or bemoaning the Christian life.
Heaven on Earth?
Many Christians believe all the right doctrines, yet glamorize the Christian life by over-emphasizing the victories of the Christian life while failing to factor in the troubles and struggles. This picture fills young disciples with thoughts that Christians can “overcome any challenge thrown at them” whether temptation, difficulty, trial, or pain. Jesus promised that trials will come. Even sins we overcome may come back to tempt us. And these struggles shouldn’t shock us.
Hell on Earth?
The other unrealistic extreme portrays the Christian life as a marathon of drudgery – from one degree of suffering to the next. This equally lopsided picture fails to communicate our glory in suffering; as Paul describes, “we are more than conquerors” (Rom 8) living the victorious Christian life even as we struggle (Rom 7). This pessimistic extreme repels those reluctant to lose their life to a God who fails to deliver them from defeat.
In reality, God is often very gentle with young Christians. Many start their Christian walk with great victories and joys as God eases them into challenges they are able to handle. As they grow, they learn to deal with the disappointments, trials, and defeats of life. Admittedly, not every Christian experiences this. Sometimes the overwhelming trials never seem to come while other times trouble comes too quickly and never seems to go away.
Understanding Grace Through Trials
What most of us fail to understand is that this “struggle” is not sub-standard Christianity. Rather, struggle is an intricate part of our walk with God that helps us “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:19).
It is true that when Christians grow careless toward God and revert to non-Christian habits, they need to repent, turn to God and re-surrender to his will. A backsliding Christian will not find the same joy in sin they did before knowing the truth. Additionally, an older Christian must mature or be an “infant” unnaturally later in life (Heb 5:14-15).
How can we balance these two extremes? The imbalanced portrayal of heaven or hell on earth stems from several misunderstandings:
· God’s Grace. The purpose of grace is to restore man’s relationship with God. How? Not by shielding us but rather by exposing us to the trials, troubles, hardships, and temptations of life. We are weak, God is our Rock; we fall, He restores us; we get hit, He is our shield. He would rather us rely on him than be strong by relying on ourselves. He loves us too much not to allow just enough trouble that we can’t handle it. He drives out self-confidence so that we will be confident only in him. “When I am weak, then I am strong.”
· Our Spiritual Growth. We are merely spiritual babies when we are born again. Should we be surprised that we are not able to handle the more difficult spiritual challenges? Growth takes care and feeding. Growth happens in phases. Growth leads us to maturity. By God’s grace he helps us grow.
· Our Sinful Nature. Too many Christians are surprised by their own sinful nature. Wake up! You will sin in ways you wish you didn’t. You need to learn to sin. You need to learn to repent. There is no magic formula to take away your sinful nature. By God’s grace he helps us overcome our sinful nature, but only with his help.
· Spiritual Warfare. There is an enemy and his goal is to defeat you. Satan wants you to turn away from God and he will use any tool he can to destroy your faith. If trouble or persecution will defeat you (Matt 13:31), expect it to come. If sickness or loss will hurt your faith, Satan will bring it (Job 1-2). The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. (2 Cor 10:4). Only in God's grace can we stand against this enemy (Rom 5:2).
· Confusion Between Heaven and Earth. The Christian life in heaven is pure bliss – “no more death or sorrow or crying or pain” (Rev 12:4). Jesus promised Christians, “In this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33). Let us not confuse the two! One day, by grace, we will enter into his glory. Until then, his grace must sustain us through the challenges of life!
God wills grace toward everyman: his will is our salvation. God also works grace in us as he did in Paul who said, “by the grace of God I am what I am, yet not I but the grace of God in me” (1 Cor 15:10).
God uses our sins and mistakes to this end. It is shocking how much of the Bible deals with men and women of God who make mistakes and need to be disciplined by God for it – Abraham learned to wait for God’s timing, Moses lost his self-confidence and learned to rely on God as a humble man, David learned repentance and how to get back up again after a fall, etc. Somehow the key to living the Christian life is actually to fail enough so that we truly understand grace. Once we grasp grace, grace grasps us! When we are weak, then we are strong!
Our challenge is to face reality – the reality of our sin, the challenges of this life, our deep need for forgiveness – and to learn to embrace grace as a means to draw closer to God.