In fact, when we were with you, we kept telling you that we would be persecuted. And it turned out that way, as you well know. (1 Thessalonians 3:4)
For the apostle Paul, the benchmark of success was preparing his disciples for ministry but also for trials and persecution. The spiritual foundation one builds is best measured by what it takes to topple it. Trials, like rain, must eventually fall upon the life of your disciples and you play a crucial role in helping them to integrate and interpret their circumstances. Effective coaching can make the difference in how they persevere through them, or if they do at all. Paul obviously felt the burden of this responsibility, desperately hoping through his letters that trials and persecutions had not thrown his disciples off course. What follows are teaching points and coaching tips to help you, help them, weather the storms.
One of the bitter seeds of trials is the nagging sense that what we are suffering is directly related to God’s displeasure with us. This has the effect of removing from us perhaps the only thought of available comfort: that God loves us and is on our side. We are indebted to the writer of Hebrews for uncoupling this fatalistic chain of logic: I am experiencing hardships, therefore God must be angry with me.
And you have forgotten that word of encouragement that addresses you as sons: “My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.” Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father.Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of our spirits and live! Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. (Hebrews 12:9-10)
This passage also brings us to the foundation of those nagging feelings: childhood baggage. Most of us remember being disciplined by our parents and through imperfect parenting we come to associate discipline with anger. The law of the adolescent jungle is: you disobey, and disobey, and disobey, until your parents finally loose their temper and then you get punished, unless you can pin it on a sibling.
The Bible tells us that God doesn’t parent this way. He is not yelling at us in the backseat, “So help me mister, if I have to pull over this car.” God’s discipline comes from His heart not His fist. The passage also suggests that God’s discipline (which takes the form of trials) is actually an indicator of God’s approval and demonstrates the reality of our adoption into God’s family. Granted I would have chosen a nice bedroom and an X-box, but I long for the affirmation. Trials can be a sign, not that we’ve been doing something wrong, but something right, and as a result God is preparing us to move up a grade in our spiritual schooling.
Your disciple in the midst of a trial is going to feel rejected by God, or feel that God is angry or disappointed with him. If God were visibly there, He could clear up the matter. But He’s not, so He would like you to do that. Communicate that God is not angry, that He has not deserted them, that they haven’t failed and that they haven’t necessarily done anything wrong. Your strength in discipleship may not be cheerleading, but you’re going to have to grab a set of pom-poms and give it a go. Your team is getting beat up out there and morale is low. It is not your personal support, per say, that makes the difference but showing them that God is in the audience actually rooting for them, and not booing them. This passage in Hebrews is extremely helpful in accomplishing this.
TRIALS: GAS STATIONS NOT ROADBLOCKS
Most trials present themselves as obstacles preventing us from living a godly life. We think, “If only I didn’t have to deal with this, then I’d be free to love and live for God.” If perceived this way—as an intruder—your disciple will never learn from the trial. Trials are not obstacles (though they often feel that way) that keep us from getting to the goal; they are the fuel we need to get there.
Have you ever prayed for greater holiness only to find the world cave in around you, and actually observe that you’d become at least 30% more evil under the pile of adversity? While trials might provide momentary setbacks to our visible progress in the faith, they ultimately provide the fuel we need to get to our destination—greater godliness. They build into our lives passion, perseverance, and deeper character change that go far beyond the surface behavior change we were trying to manifest in our lives.
If you have ever played a sport and received private lessons from a pro, you understand how this dynamic works. The local “pro” checks your fundamentals and realigns your swing, stance, or posture: your approach was somehow flawed. Now, upon leaving the lesson you are thrilled to find that you’ve paid $40 an hour to get worse. (It’s now clear to you why your instructor is not currently on the pro tour but giving lessons and running the snack shop.) Your new foundation is awkward and it seems your game has taken a step back. But this realignment has now postured you to make progress because your game had gone as far as it could without professional help.
Often God answers our prayer for greater holiness, not by providing better circumstances that help us perform better, but by providing trials. These trials will often bring out the worst in us. In the midst of this, encourage your disciples that they should not expect to be at their peak performance and that patient, godly perseverance is the new definition of success. Identify with them: “I’ll tell you, when I was going through (fill in the blank), I considered it a good day if I hadn’t sworn at anyone.” You have the ability to take enormous weight and guilt off their shoulders. Do it.
OLD SIN HABITS
“Therefore, prepare your minds for action; be self-controlled; set your hope fully on the grace to be given you when Jesus Christ is revealed.” (1 Peter 1:13)
Peter, wonderful shepherd that he is, is concerned that in the midst of difficult trials, his disciples will return for comfort to old habits of sin. This is a concern. When I meet with men going through trials I always ask, “How are things going with the Internet?” Because men often medicate pain with lust, I know that difficult trials can send them scurrying back to these familiar filthy waters to get a drink. If you know the person well, you can often guess at what fire hydrant they’ve been sniffing.
I identify with what they are doing, because I’ve done it myself. I give them the freedom to come clean in the ways they’ve been seeking comfort. I do not wag my finger in their face but rather I look to create an environment of grace and empathy. If I say anything it is simply, “I’m so sorry,” because usually they feel awful about whatever they’ve done.
As we move along in the conversation, I simply ask questions, seek to understand, and empathize. Then, toward the end of our time, I go back to the issue (I hadn’t for- gotten) and now I gently say, “Listen, as God is doing this good—but painful—work in your life these choices are simply going to bring guilt and confusion into an already difficult situation. I know you don’t want to be there. How can I help you make good choices in this area as you persevere through these difficult times?” It is a gentle reminder that grace is not license, and that God desires holiness in the midst of trials— “So let’s not return to that swamp. Agreed?”
What I want to communicate is that I, and God, are concerned about how they
are doing in and through this trial, not simply the sin it has manifest—but, by the way,
that’s not OK.
In the Gospels, Jesus’ absence is as conspicuous as His presence, and often accompanies a major trial or testing—you definitely don’t want to be sent across the lake without Him. And so with every season of trials comes the unmistakable sense that Jesus is either asleep in the back of the boat or has chartered a sturdier vessel. It’s just you and an angry sea. With the deterioration of our circumstances and this sense of being orphaned comes a natural weakening of faith: doubt sets in.
It’s instructive to see faith as a muscle, and trials like bodybuilding. The weights of Jesus’ absence and the world-gone-wild form the resistance, whispering daily, “God isn’t there, and He doesn’t care.” Each day your disciple must lift that weight, by faith clinging to the promises of God, for it sure is heck is not by sight. The more difficult the trial, the heavier the weight, and the larger the faith muscle must become to lift it. Through the trial, faith grows and expands, but it doesn’t feel strong because it is constantly exercised to its exhaustion point. Paradoxically through trials, you are most prone to doubt and it is through such that faith actually grows to meet the heavy resistance. At the end of the trial, circumstances change, God comes out of hiding, the resistance is removed, and the experience of spiritual strength returns, but the muscle of faith has grown larger through the process. Peter describes the process in these words:
In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith — of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire — may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. (1 Peter 1:6-7)
However you illustrate the process, it will aid your disciples in the translation of an experience that is both foreign and unintelligible. It also helps relieve the guilt of doubt, which is best viewed, not as a failure of faith, but the vehicle by which faith grows. I always find it a source of encouragement to look at the doubting moments of John the Baptist whom Jesus gives this endorsement: “Among those born of women there is no one greater than John.”
When the men came to Jesus, they said, “John the Baptist sent us to you to ask, ‘Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?’”
At that very time Jesus cured many who had diseases, sicknesses and evil spirits, and gave sight to many who were blind.
So he replied to the messengers, “Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.” (Luke 7:20-23)
BUT I’VE CAUSED IT
Some trials are a natural result of mistakes we’ve made or our own failings as people. The rub is that it’s difficult to experience God’s comfort in a trial when we trace the source and find that the breadcrumbs lead to our own backdoor. Somehow, in our minds, this puts the trial outside of God’s sovereignty: “God didn’t cause this, I did.”
Trials are rarely alien circumstances imposed on our life, but are organically grown out of the fabric of our lives. I teach my children through the natural hardships that arise in their lives; I do not import foreign ones. A trial arisen from my own life and choices does not mean God didn’t have the ability to shield me from the consequences, or that it is any less purposeful, or that God is any less compassionate for my struggles.
Your disciples need to be assured that what they are suffering still abides by all of the same properties of a trial: God has allowed it, He could have prevented it, He felt it was necessary for them to go through, it has a divinely appointed ending, God will use it for good in their lives, and He cares deeply for the struggle they are experiencing. The plan hasn’t changed just because the root cause of the trial isn’t Satan but ourselves.
In 1 Peter 1:6, it says that, “you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.” The key phrase, “you may have had to,” could be translated “it may have become necessary” for you to suffer trials. The verse discloses that there is design and intent behind trials. God has looked at your life and decided that it was necessary for you to go through a trial for the sake of spiritual growth. God looked at your life, looked at the upcoming trial, and said, “Yep, bring it on. She needs this.”
Often Christians fail to persevere in trials because they believe that they are random happenstance, and therefore have no point or benefit. Right now if you were to go into a hospital and listen in to conversations taking place between friends and family with sick loved ones you might hear phrases such as, “You’ll see, it will all work out,” “You’ll come through this a stronger person,” or “Every cloud has a silver lining.” These people need hope, and loved ones reflexively provide it by explaining that their pain has purpose. Unfortunately, without God, these can be nothing more than shallow platitudes, because there really is no guarantee that their pain will be redemptive. However, as Christians we always have hope because there is nothing random, unplanned, or unforeseen in any of the trials that come into our lives.
1 Peter 1:6 is a helpful verse to share with a disciple in the midst of trials because it affirms the truth that nothing about a trial is random: its beginning, intensity, purpose, and duration have all been thoughtfully planned and foreseen by God.
In Edith Schaeffer’s book Affliction she gives a profound illustration to a person suffering through a difficult trial. Schaeffer draws out two playing fields on a piece of paper — one representing the world of ministry, and the other representing the world of trials. She goes on to explain that we all want to glorify God in the arena of ministry and good works but forget that it is equally possible to glorify Him in the arena of trials.
To give thanks, patiently endure, and praise God in the midst of a trial is of eternal value. Even if our personal ministry has dried up, we will be equally rewarded for how we have glorified God in the midst of trials. Trials, like ministry, provide an opportunity to accrue heavenly reward, as we witness in the life of Job. A choice to praise and give thanks while afflicted can echo through heaven as loudly as preaching the gospel. Schaeffer’s point is that trials do not prevent us from competing on the playing field of ministry, but are a separate playing field altogether, offering the opportunity to win or loose, gain or suffer loss.
Seeing our faithfulness in the midst of a trial as a performance separate from, but equal to, ministry can provide motivation for your disciples to embrace and endure the peculiar race course God has set before them.
SICK AND TIRED OF BEING SICK AND TIRED
And we urge you, brothers, warn those who are idle, encourage the timid, help the weak, be patient with everyone. (1 Thessalonians 5:14)
Paul teaches what we have all experienced in ministry: that different people require different tactics to move them onward in their walk with God. Some sheep need a hug, some a cattle prod. There are people who seemingly never emerge from under the rock of trials, and take a posture of self-pity or resentment toward God. And there are those, you learn, for whom life in general seems to be a trial.
As you progress down the path of encouragement and patience, there will come a time when you will realize that what your disciple really needs is to get on with their lives—to get sick and tired of always being sick and tired. Knowing when to gently encourage and when to insert your foot onto someone’s rear is a finer nuance of discipleship. Those who are lousy cheerleaders need to learn how to gently encourage their disciples, while on the other hand, born encouragers and comforters need to learn there is a time for a good kick, and the place is the backside.
A good tact to take is to move them in the direction of thankfulness and a posture of embracing their hardships.
In James 1:2, it says, “Consider it pure joy ... whenever you face trials of various kinds.” This passage encourages a positive outlook in the midst of trials for the many reasons we’ve already looked at. There are many reasons to be both thankful as well as embracing of our trials.
If your presentation of these reasons over successive weeks has not brought about an attitude change, prescribe a steady diet of thanksgiving: “I want you throughout the day to take time to give thanks for the smallest of provisions, for how God is using these circumstances in your life, etc.” Thanksgiving changes our perspective to see what God is doing, not what He isn’t. It is preventative medicine for heart disease that can develop through prolonged trials or a cynical, pessimistic attitude that may be endemic to your disciple’s personality.
Teach them to be thankful and hopeful.
BETWEEN THE VERSES
I still had no peace of mind, because I did not find my brother Titus there. So I said goodbye to them and went on to Macedonia. (2 Corinthians 2:13)
But God, who comforts the downcast, comforted us by the coming of Titus,
(2 Corinthians 7:6)
Between these two passages (anxiety tied to the absence of Titus, and the “coming of Titus”) is a thoughtful detour where Paul describes what keeps him pressing on in the midst of trials, anxiety, and suffering. Look for the repeated phrase, “therefore we do not loose heart.”
Within these chapters, Paul shares some mind-bending (bordering on hallucinogenic) perspectives, allowing you to see what kept him pressing on amid staggering pressures. Try walking a disciple through these chapters, asking him to pull out what enabled Paul to keep focus in the midst of overwhelming trials and opposition. And while in 2 Corinthians, don’t forget the powerful first chapter which describes the flow of God’s grace between the positive and negative polarities, affliction and comfort.
Most often I hear people remark to someone going through a trial, “Remember, trials produce perseverance.” Perseverance is not a particularly motivating goal. The progression described in James 1:4 is actually that trials produce perseverance, and perseverance in trials, maturity. The motivation to persevere under trials is mature character, life transformation, and a powerful faith. It is in these chapters that you are exposed to the motivating results of perseverance.
The productivity of evangelism and discipleship can seem to compete with the patience needed to comfort and coach a young Christian through their trials. The struggle exemplified in the conflict between Paul and Barnabas over whether to take John Mark along on the next missionary journey. The apparent evidence, in that John Mark ultimately produced an important gospel, is that Barnabas was right to patiently wade through the troph of John Mark’s ministry. I’m not sure if that makes Paul wrong, but it does make Barnabas right.
Individual Bible study and prayer have their place in spiritual growth. However, learning through a community can lead to deeper, more widespread life change.
How do you have a difficult conversation with others? Watch this talk from author and speaker Timothy Muehlhoff of Biola University.
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