Last June, I felt that first searing pain shoot down my right leg. Within a couple of weeks, I could barely walk and was having a difficult time in general as my back and both legs hurt. After x-rays and talking with a lot of people, I thought I had a disk problem and started forcing myself to walk at least a half hour a day in hopes of a gradual recovery. During those days, while the pain eased off after a walk, my condition slowly worsened. I learned how to move carefully, among other things, but soon got to the point where I couldn’t sleep. So, by the grace of God, I did get a lot of work done during the long nights over the last eight months. Eventually the pain so intensified that I could no longer walk around the neighborhood. Then, just after Thanksgiving, something unexpected happened. The muscle spasms started. So often, as they came wave upon wave, all I could do was sit in my chair and scream. I would occasionally fall to the ground unable to walk. I would sit or lie almost paralyzed in pain, sometimes for hours at a time. Of course, pain medication and muscle relaxing medication provided some relief. And yet, by January I was only able to walk short distances, and that with a cane. I cold no longer stand to preach but had to sit on a tall chair. By February, I was relegated to a wheel chair, almost immobilized. What I did not know at the time was that if something was not done, I was on my way to being paralyzed.
I finally saw a doctor who recommended an MRI. After two of them, a benign tumor was discovered on my spinal cord. The solution was surgery to remove it. The neurosurgeon consulted with me on a Friday and operated on a Tuesday. Her feeling was that we could wait no longer if we were to avoid permanent paralysis. By the grace of God, the surgery, two weeks ago, was a complete success. I am walking now, and that pain free. But God!
Some of you even now find yourselves in the midst of a trial. You have not found relief yet. My momentary light affliction (2 Cor. 4:17) lasted eight months until surgery and now I am on the road to recovery. Your trial may have just begun or you may be approaching that point of relief. Indeed some trials end in heaven rather than relief in this life, though most end in relief here. But whether your trial is over or just beginning, whether you see light at the end of the tunnel or not, the words are still true: but God!
The apostle Paul found himself in the midst of trial on many occasions. At one point in his life and ministry, he was in prison for the sake of the gospel. He was in chains for Christ. In that position, he was concerned for the saints at Philippi and wrote to them very specifically, among other things, "I want you to know, brethren, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel (Phil 1:12)." From this word from God, and sharing something of my own experience as illustration, we can glean some lessons for those times when we find ourselves in the midst of trial.
First, in the midst of trials, we must remind ourselves that we have a certain knowledge. Paul says, "I want you to know." Obviously, Paul wanted the Philippians to know that his trial had served to advance the gospel. But, there are certain things behind that affirmation that we must know if we are to make such and affirmation. In other words, we must take this verse and our trials and put them in the context of what God is doing in His world and in our lives.
For example, we know that God loves us, despite the fact that we find ourselves in the midst of trial. Peter tells us that we are to cast all our care upon Him, for He cares for us (1 Pet. 5:7).
We know that in the midst of trial, we have and advocate. "For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted/tried/tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need (Heb. 4:15)." We can get grace to help from the Lord Jesus in the midst of our sufferings.
We know that ultimately, our satisfaction is in Christ. Our trials are designed to wean us from the cares and distractions of the world. They are designed to show us that Christ is more precious than a thousand things we think we must have. They are designed to make real to us the fact that Christ is more precious than life itself. Our joy and delight is not in the things of the world, nor in the good things that God gives us, nor ultimately even in Heaven itself, but in Christ.
We know that because God is God, there is always hope. No matter what the doctors say, God is God. Our hope is in Him whether we live or die. Is not that what Paul expressed in this same chapter to the Philippians? "According to my earnest expectation and hope that in nothing I shall be ashamed, but with all boldness, as always, so now also Christ will be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain (Phil. 1:20-21)."
We know our trial is a gift from God and not a curse. James reminds and exhorts us, "My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing (1:2-4)."
J.I. Packer addressed this issue powerfully. "Grace is God drawing sinners closer and closer to him. How does God in grace prosecute this purpose? Not by shielding us from assault by the work, the flesh, and the devil, nor by protecting us from burdensome and frustrating circumstance, not yet by shielding us from troubles created by our own temperament and psychology, but rather by exposing us to all these things, so as to overwhelm us with a sense of our own inadequacy, and to drive us to cling to him more closely. This is the ultimate reason, from our standpoint, why God fills our lives with troubles and perplexities of one sort and another -- it is to ensure that we shall learn to hold him fast. The reason why the Bible spends so much of its time reiterating that God is a strong rock, a firm defense, and a sure refuge and help for the weak is that God spends so much of his time showing us that we are weak, both mentally and morally, and dare not trust ourselves to find or follow the right road. When we walk along a clear road feeling fine, and someone takes our arm to help us, likely we would impatiently shake him off; but when we are caught in rough country in the dark, with a storm brewing and our strength spent, and someone takes our arm to help us, we would thankfully lean on him. And God wants us to feel that our way through life is rough and perplexing, so that we may learn to lean on him thankfully. Therefore he takes steps to drive us out of self-confidence to trust in himself, to -- in the classic scriptural phrase for the secret of the godly man's life -- "wait on the Lord."
Beloved, these are things that we know.
Second, in the midst of trials, we must remind ourselves that we have a loving brotherhood. Paul refers to the Philippians as "brethren." This word is not chosen haphazardly. A point is to be emphasized and that is the love and fellowship we have in the body of Christ. This dynamic comes through a little later in this same letter when Paul wrote, "Yet I considered it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus, my brother, fellow worker, and fellow soldier, but your messenger and the one who ministered to my need; since he was longing for you all, and was distressed because you had heard that he was sick. For indeed he was sick almost unto death; but God had mercy on him, and not only on him but on me also, lest I should have sorrow upon sorrow. Therefore I sent him the more eagerly, that when you see him again you may rejoice, and I may be less sorrowful."
Note that Epaphroditus was not distressed because he was sick, but because the Philippians had heard that he was sick. He was concerned for them as they were concerned for him. That is fellowship. That is the brotherhood. That is what we have in the midst of our sufferings and hardships. That is encouragement from the Lord. Hear Paul’s heart and how he would have sorrow upon sorrow if Epaphroditus were to die. But, God had mercy on Epaphroditus, on Paul, and on the Philippians in that he lived. But, do not miss the love in these words.
By way of application, for me, this trial, particularly the surgery part, has shown me how much I love my family. I know that to be with Christ is better (Phil. 1:23). But how I love my family! And of course, I do not want them to have to go on without me. I have a precious wife from the Lord and three wonderful children as well (16; 12; and 2 years of age).
Not only did I learn how much I love my family, but I learned how much I love the family of God. How I've missed them while I was in the hospital! It was almost torture not to be there Sunday morning. How their love and fellowship ministers to my soul. I did not physically feel like going to church Wednesday, a week after surgery, but I needed to go and was so encouraged when I did. How we need the brotherhood in the midst of trial!
Third, in the midst of trials, we must remind ourselves that we have a sovereign God. Paul spoke to the Philippians about the things that had happened to him. Of course, he was mainly referring to his imprisonment for the sake of the gospel. But, again, if we understand Scripture as a whole, and go back to what we know, these things did not just happen. Paul's circumstances were not by chance or happenstance. And, neither are yours. They are for a purpose.
God designs our trials and uses them for our sanctification. God has absolute control over our bodies and what goes on in them. He grew that tumor on my spine over the last eight months for a loving purpose. Hear the word of the Lord: "And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose." Our good in that text, according to the next verse, is our sanctification.
God designs our trials and uses them for our instruction. Consider the words of the Psalmist: "It is good for me that I have been afflicted, that I may learn your statutes (Ps. 119:71)."
Again, by way of application, as a result of my adversity over the last few months, God has instructed me in the way of compassion when another person is in pain whether slight or severe. How I weep over maimed soldiers coming home from Iraq. And yet, how my heart also goes out to children in my church when they scrape their knees.
God has instructed me in the way of humility when another person is in trouble whether slight or severe. Let us not judge what others are going through and how they react. But, rather, let us reach out to them with hearts of compassion and the love of Christ.
God has shown me that discouragement is real and cannot just simply be shaken off without His intervention. One day in eight months, the day after surgery, I was discouraged, and surprised at it. I could not shake it off. But, God brought to mind those whom I know who have been suffering for such a long time. Do they face discouragement? O how we must pray for them and reach out to them! I plead with God for them with a renewed sense of vigor.
God has given me a glimpse as to just how awful sin really is. Trials are a result of the fall and the curse placed upon this world. Our pain and suffering demonstrate to us just how great our sin against God really is and how grieved His heart is over sin and what it cost Him to deal with our sin through the infinite suffering of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
The point is that we know God is up to something when various trials fall upon us. Our trials are not senseless. Our trials are designed. In 1982, touching down after spending over two-hundred days in space, two cosmonauts could not walk for a week. They experienced dizziness, high pulse rates, and heart anomalies. Their muscles were atrophied by virtue of being weightless for so long. And so, an exercise program was implemented and a special suit was designed for that program. The suit was laced with elastic bands and resisted the movements of the men and thus forced them to work their muscles to bring them back to strength. If I go to the weight room and put tension on my biceps every other day for the next year, I will develop strong biceps. Beloved, we are in God's weight room. How He strengthens us in the trial!
Fourth, in the midst of trials, we must remind ourselves that we have a glorious purpose. Paul wrote that what had happened to him, his imprisonment, had actually turned out for the furtherance of the gospel. He noted that "it [had] become evident to the whole palace guard, and to all the rest, that [his] chains [were] in Christ (Phil. 1:13)." Among other things, he had opportunity to preach to the palace guard. Of course, God gave me personal opportunity to witness and give testimony to His glory and grace so many times during this period. Look for those opportunities that come especially as a result of your affliction and thereby receive grace upon grace in the work of the Lord.
Paul also noted this: "Most of the brethren in the Lord, having become confident by my chains, are much more bold to speak the word without fear (Phil. 1:14)." Our church eldership functioned just fine without me. In fact, they really did not need me while I was away. What ministers of the gospel they are!
Of course, I have a renewed commitment to the gospel ministry myself as God has granted me deliverance in this life. Never forget, our glorious purpose is the gospel of the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.
On the Monday before my surgery, we were out of town with my son's high school swim team. That day, I sat practically motionless in my wheel chair for the better part of twelve hours. On the way home, I was having some back and leg pain. And then, at sixty-five miles per hour, we blew a tire. As we pulled off the highway, some other parents and the swim team bus pulled off as well (my wife was driving the bus). I was hurting, worried about the kids getting out of the bus on the side of the road, the fact that I had a donut for a spare tire, the fact that it was late, and the fact that we were still one-hundred fifty miles from home. I told the kids to get on the bus, two of the men changed my tire as I could not, and afterward, as I did not want to risk another blowout on the donut or the tire that we had actually simply plugged the day before, I asked my family if we could check into a hotel. They agreed. We pulled off the interstate and promptly got lost! Of course, we began to question the wisdom of searching for a hotel and wouldn't we rather be home in the morning, etc. But then we decided to focus on what God was doing. I needed rest. Perhaps I needed to move around a bit to avoid blood clots in my legs. Who knows? But, we found a very nice hotel. When the clerk heard our story and the fact that I was having surgery the next day, she gave us a discount. At the same time, the hotel was right across the street from a Wal-Mart Tire Service Center. The next morning, we had a brand new tire, bright sunshine for our leisurely commute, and the opportunity to reflect upon the goodness and grace of God as we drove straight to the hospital. Mission accomplished!
In your trial, you may be on a dark road. You may be momentarily weighed down figuratively changing a tire. You may even get a little lost along the way. But, look to Christ! Tomorrow will be brighter. You may still need the surgery, but you can relax in that sunshine knowing that God is in control of all things and that He has a loving purpose for you. You may have one-hundred fifty miles to go before you reach the goal of your trial, but you can reflect upon the goodness and grace of God along the way.
I found a poem that struck me. I do not know who wrote it, but I want to share it regardless.
He sat by the fire of seven-fold heat,
As He watched by the precious ore.
And closer He bent with a searching gaze
As He heated it more and more.
He knew He had ore that could stand the test
And He wanted the finest gold,
To mold as a crown for the King to wear,
Set with gems of price untold.
So He laid our gold in the burning fire,
Though we fain would have said Him, "Nay."
And He watched the dross that we had not seen,
As it melted and passed away.
And the gold grew brighter, and yet more bright
And our eyes were so dim with tears,
As we saw the fire, not the Master's hand,
And questioned with anxious fear.
Yet our gold shone out with a richer glow,
As it mirrored a Form above,
That bent o'er the fire, though unseen by us
With a look of infinite love.
Can we think that it pleases His loving heart
To cause a moment of pain?
Ah, no, but He saw through the present cross
The bliss of eternal gain.
So He waited there with a watchful eye,
With a love that is strong and sure,
And His gold did not suffer a bit more heat
Than was needed to make it pure!
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