First Things First


April 22, 2020

Jeff Brannon writes this week’s article. Jeff is Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies and Chair of the Biblical Studies and Ministries Department at Belhaven University. He holds an M.Div. from Reformed Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. from the University of Edinburgh. Jeff regularly teaches in The Refuge class at Highlands. 

God’s Promise to Us

In a time of trial and uncertainty, it is wise and important to remember the promises that God has made to us.  One of the promises that Jesus gives is a bit astounding, and it is one that we all too often forget.  In John 16:33, Jesus promises, “In this world you will have trouble.”  Interestingly, this is not a “one-off” in Scripture; statements and promises such as this one are replete in Scripture.  Consider the following. “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). 

To follow Christ is to live a life of self-denial and sacrifice and will entail suffering, perhaps even death.  In 2 Timothy 2:12, Paul contends that “everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted….”  This is in fact a guarantee for believers: followers of Christ will be persecuted.  In Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, we read there is a time for everything.  There are times for life, healing, building, laughing, dancing, and peace, yet there are also times for death, killing, tearing down, weeping, and mourning. 

In Revelation 1:9, John describes this life in an interesting way when he emphasizes that he is our “brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom.”  This life is a time of both reigning with Christ, and yet also suffering, trial, and tribulation.  In Revelation 7, we read that the great multitude of people in white robes from every nation, tribe, people, and language before the throne of God are those “who have come out of the great tribulation” (Rev 7:14).  Rather than understanding this “tribulation” as some future event from which believers will be removed, the better and more natural understanding is to identify these people as believers who have died and gone to be with the Lord.  Believers who have died and gone to be with the Lord have been removed from the “great tribulation” of this life.  Interestingly, this word for “tribulation” is the same word that is used in John 16:33 and Revelation 1:9.  This life, between the first and second coming of the Lord Jesus Christ, is a time of suffering and tribulation for all people, including believers.  The Bible consistently describes this period in this way and Jesus affirms it with a clear promise.  One of the hopes for us is that this is not the only promise that God has given to us.  

The Reasons for Suffering and Our Response

In the midst of suffering, our natural inclination is often to ask, “Why God?”, “Why did this happen?”, “Why is this happening?”, or “Why did this happen to me?”.  The Bible, in fact, gives many answers to questions such as these.  Although the list is by no means exhaustive, if we were to sum them up, we could probably say that we undergo suffering for one or more of the following reasons:

  1. We experience suffering because we live in a fallen world.  In Romans 5, Paul writes that sin and death entered the world when Adam sinned.  We continue to feel and experience the effects of the fall until the second coming of Christ and the new creation.
  2. Suffering can bring glory to God in some way (John 9:1-3; John 11:4).
  3. God uses trials and tribulations for our sanctification (1 Peter 1:6-7; James 1:2-5; 2 Cor 4:16-18; Hebrews 12:4-10; 1 Cor 11:27-31; 2 Cor 12:7-10; John 11:15).
  4. We experience persecution for our faith in Christ (1 Peter 2:19-21; 2 Timothy 3:12; Revelation 12:17; John 15:18-21; Revelation 2:10).
  5. God punishes and/or disciplines us because of sin (James 5:13-16; Hebrews 12:4-10; 1 Corinthians 11:27-32; Acts 5:1-11). 
  6. God uses suffering and trials to accomplish his redemptive purpose and plan (Genesis 50:20; Gal 3:13; Mark 10:45).

These categories are broad and do not represent every instance (Job experienced suffering because he was the subject of a cosmic wager between God and Satan), but provide some framework for why we experience suffering.  Just as in the case of Job though, God does not reveal to us the precise reason for our suffering – remember that Job never actually found out the reason for his suffering!  Our trials could be the result of one or more of the reasons listed above (Hebrews 12:4-10 brings together discipline and sanctification), or could be the result of some other reason known only to God.

Although God does not give exact answers for our specific trials, Scripture does in fact give us some ways that we can respond.  First, God would invite us to search our hearts.  Listen to David’s prayer at the end of Psalm 139: “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts.  See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting (Psalm 139:23-24).  Second, God calls us to repentance.  Consider the examples in Luke 13:1-5: 
Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices.  Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way?  I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.  Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them– do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem?  I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”

It is noteworthy that Jesus goes out of his way to make it clear that these calamities in Luke 13 were not the result of specific sin.  Yet Jesus also makes it clear that they are nonetheless opportunities for repentance.  C.S. Lewis wrote, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains.  It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”  When God shouts in our suffering, we are invited to search our hearts and turn to him in repentance and faith.  Third, God calls us to cling to his promises.  God has in fact given us many other promises besides the promise that we will have trouble.