April 11, 2013

Joy in the fire

At the end of our ‘small group’ Bible study, everyone offered prayer requests. Almost all of these concerned extreme situations. One was for a family whose small child is not eating and wasting away. Another was for a blended family with one daughter who is cutting herself. Two more concerned a woman awaiting surgery and a family whose son has been arrested for murdering his girlfriend. After we prayed for each of these difficulties, I still feel heavy for the people who are suffering.

Today’s devotional reading indirectly refers to suffering of a worse kind. It is from a passage near the end of the Bible that speaks about the end of days and the wrath of God. The focus is on those who have come through trials and have won in the battle against evil. God has given victory to His people and handed them harps. They are filled with joy and as the next verses say, sing praises.

Then I saw another sign in heaven, great and amazing, seven angels with seven plagues, which are the last, for with them the wrath of God is finished. And I saw what appeared to be a sea of glass mingled with fire—and also those who had conquered the beast and its image and the number of its name, standing beside the sea of glass with harps of God in their hands. And they sing the song of Moses… (Revelation 15:1–3)

Even as I think about winning over troubles combined with my burden for those we prayed for who are now in trouble, I’m aware that not everyone comes out of trials with a harp and a song. Sometimes suffering produces “a loss of what was noblest and most attractive in them” before their troubles happened. Those gracious in health become crabby and irritable in sickness. Those generous in wealth turn stingy after poverty overtakes them.

Trials can stir up sluggish people to a greater passion for life, but trails can also crush the passionate and send them defeated to their graves. How then can the Bible depict trials as something God can use for good?

I cannot speak for others, but I notice in myself that difficult situations that seem to break my life in pieces also reveal my flaws. If I am happy only when comfortable, then my zest for life is based on ease rather than on the joy of the Lord, a joy that never depends on circumstances. Because of this, I can see the value of trials. God wants me to live in the power of the Holy Spirit and I will not do this unless I am helpless.

While no one likes being helpless, the joy of the Lord is available to the people of God, and this amazing joy does overcome physical and emotional pain, loneliness, restrictions, difficult relationships, fears, financial reverses and disappointments. He has a way of giving victory that may not include reversal of bad situations. In fact, Jesus Christ somehow makes it possible to give strength IN the trial.

Such strength is not about ‘grin and bear it’ or even a dogged determination to see it through to the end. It is about letting the fire burn away the dross and even being glad to see it go. This great revelation does not come from reading about it, but from experiencing this unexpected result in those dreaded trials and being forever convinced of the permanent value of suffering. Besides showing me my needs as I walk with Him, trials are also about God handing me a harp in the midst of suffering and putting songs of praise in my heart. 

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