I pray over the topics I write about for each month, and I felt I needed to look further into “trials” for October, or the troubles and afflictions we face in life. I wasn’t sure what direction I should go with the subject, so I decided to start by looking up the definition of “trials” in a Bible dictionary and go from there. However, the funny thing is that when I looked up “trials” in the Bible dictionary, I found a short statement about judicial trials (as in a judge and a person who is convicted of a crime!), rather than the kind of trials I was thinking of.
So I changed up my search tactic and instead looked under “affliction.” And, the heading yielded me a better result. A definite direction began to unfold as I read through the heading and also came across a passage in my notes (which I’ve shared below).
As I’ve written before about pain and the troubles we encounter in this life, I wasn’t entirely naïve on what the Bible says about the topic. We can have afflictions in this life because we live in a fallen world or as consequences for our sin. In addition, the Bible talks about evil spirits and Satan afflicting us. However, there is another reason that we can suffer trials in our life, and that is because God allows them or even orchestrates them for our instruction.
This, of course, is not a popular idea. We have a hard time wrapping our heads around the idea that God allows certain situations and suffering for our instruction. However, if you press in for a moment with me, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the beauty of this idea and the goodness of a God who loves us so much that He teaches us and draws us back to Himself when we stray.
Psalm 119:71, 75-76 says: “It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees … I know, Lord, that your laws are righteous, and that in faithfulness you have afflicted me. May your unfailing love be my comfort, according to your promise to your servant.”
A few ideas we can take away:
1. Affliction teaches us God’s lessons.
The psalmist notes that it was beneficial and good that he was afflicted. While we generally associate affliction with the negative, the writer of this psalm does the opposite and says that affliction can be good — not that the trying events themselves are good, but the outcome of the events. Hebrews 12:11 says it a different way, saying, “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.” God orchestrates at times just the right heat in our lives to bring about a desired result: that we might learn His decrees.
Affliction is the teacher that teaches us through our experiences what God wants us to learn. Along these same lines, in the Treasury of David Commentary it says this: “Very little is to be learned without affliction. If we would be scholars we must be sufferers. As the Latins say, ‘Experientia docet’, experience teaches. There is no royal road to learning the royal statues; God’s commands are best read by eyes wet with tears.”
It is one thing to read about an idea in a book, but another thing entirely to learn it through experience. In fact, the New Testament consistently uses the word “know,” in verses such as John 8:32, that translates in the Greek as “ginosko,” or knowledge through personal experience. To truly understand God’s commands, we can’t just read about them. God allows us to understand these precepts through our experiences as believers, and the lessons He teaches are often though personal pain and difficult circumstances. I have heard it say that God’s lessons come in hard packages.
I had my own experience with this when I was leaving my job to go a new direction, and I tried to bypass a few tasks that God wanted me to do. I ignored those nudges and focused instead on what I wanted to do — which was get into music. Yes, God had promised me that He was going to use me in music, but the way He was leading didn’t look like the right way to go. I didn’t see ignoring his small nudges as that big of a deal. But He did!
In response to my refusal to do what He said, He orchestrated some very tough situations in my life that were so difficult and humiliating that I literally spent every Sunday weeping at the altar, asking Him in desperation to take the pain away. He did take me out of that situation when I chose to go the way He wanted me to go and learned that I had to trust Him, rather than in my own strength and plans. I also learned during that time that God wanted me to remove an addiction from my life that I didn’t even know I had! (Check out the podcast episode at the top of this post to hear the story.)
2. Affliction encourages us to obey in future situations.
Not only does affliction teach us God’s ways, affliction encourages us to obey. As in the story I shared, the tough situation I went through not only taught me an important lesson in the moment about trust, but is one that encouraged me to make it a point to obey Him right away, rather than wait for affliction to teach me.
I view Scripture now as the lifeline it is and try to learn as much as I can and use Scriptural knowledge to guide my life so that I can avoid learning through God’s discipline of me. Earlier in Psalms 119:67, the same writer says, “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I obey your word.” In other words, his past afflictions served to motivate him to stay on the straight and narrow because he remembered his past painful experiences that had come about because of his choices and did not want to repeat those.
Certainly, we can’t avoid every challenging circumstance with our obedience. And we will fail at times even when we try to get it right. We sometimes will unknowingly bring consequences in our lives with our actions or we will simply face problems because of the world we live in. Or, God might allow trials not because of anything we have done but for our strengthening and the building of our faith. In addition, we may actually face troubles because others see our faith and persecute us for it. However, if we have been taught a certain lesson in an area (say, trust), we can learn the lesson and not fall into the same trap of self-reliance in the future.
When I was preparing to be a teacher, I had to observe at a middle school. In my observation of a classroom one week, I observed a mother who followed her son around for a few days at school. She sat behind him in class, walked behind him in the hall, and sat near him at lunch. When I asked about this mother, the teacher told me the boy’s mama was coming to school for a few days to help inspire her wayward son to clean his act up.
This mama loved her son so much she was willing to let him got through some humiliation in order to help him make the choices he needed to make to turn away from his bad attitude and laziness. You better believe that this boy learned his lesson. And whenever he felt tempted to slide back into his former habits, he remembered the sting of his mama following him around and decided against it.
That’s what God does with us: He lets us fall into some challenging circumstances when we choose to go our own way, but He doesn’t leave us there. He uses those experiences, if we let Him, to give us a desire and zeal to know His Word and His precepts — so that we don’t fall into those same ones again because of our ignorance.
The trials we go through not only teach us and encourage us to learn God’s Word, they also make us more like Christ if we let them do their work. Our natural reaction is often to get so angry at what we’re going through that we don’t press into what God would have us learn, but afflictions rub against our hard edges and soften us into a more beautiful version of ourselves.
I read about this in a devotional once, but there is a beach in California called Pebble Beach that has the most beautiful polished stones. People flock there to collect the rocks. The reason the rocks are so polished there is because they are exposed to harsh waves. Nearby, in a quiet cove, people do not go to gather the rocks because the cove has protected the rocks there so that they are rough and less beautiful — as they have never had the chance to be worn down by the pounding surf.
If we have been walking with Christ awhile, we can look back and see those places in our lives that were hard in the moment but yielded fruit — either because we learned an important spiritual lesson through our trial, we came out of the trial with more compassion and love for others, or we experienced a closeness to Jesus that we never had before because we turned to Him in the midst of it.
Stay tuned to next week’s post and podcast episode as we dive into Part 2 to conclude this article. We will talk about how we can trust the faithfulness of God in our trials and what we can do when we’re in a challenging circumstance.
“Afflictions are among the most precious means of grace. They are entirely under the direction of God. They may be endlessly varied, and adapted to the case of every individual … Among those things for which good men have most occasion for thankfulness are afflictions; and when we lie down on the bed of death, and look over life and the divine dealings with us through life, as the glories of heaven are about to open upon us, we shall feel that among the chiefest mercies of God are those dealings of his holy hand, trying at the time, which kept us from going astray, or which recalled us when we had wandered from him — and ‘that in our life, now closing, there has not been one trial too much.’ ”– Albert Barnes, theologian and minister
” ‘I had never known,’ said Martin Luther’s wife, ‘what such and such things meant, in such and such psalms, such complaints and workings of spirit; I had never understood the practice of Christian duties, had not God brought me under some affliction.’ It is very true that God’s rod is as the schoolmaster’s pointer to the child, pointing out the letter, that he may the better take notice of it; thus he points out to us many good lessons which we should never otherwise have learned.” — From John Spencer’s “Things New and Old,” qtd. in The Treasury of David
Co-host Suzy Lolley is back with us this month on the podcast! So good to have her with us! Check out the podcast episode above the article if you’d like to hear us talk over the points of the post.
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