The presence of pain and trial in our lives is a matter of when not if. James tells us: Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds (James 1:2). Pain and trial are not mere possibilities on the landscape of the Christian life. They are certainties.
Given the certainty with which we should expect pain in our lives, what truths should we set our minds and hearts upon before and as we endure trial? I can think of at least five things we should remember as we consider how the Lord uses pain in our lives.
In a mysterious and beautiful way, if you are a Christian, you and Christ are one as a result of God’s saving work in your life. You are spiritually identified with him, and he with you. Of all the blessings that Christ brings into the lives of his people, this is surely the greatest. For it means that what is true for Christ is true for you, as well.
I think it is helpful to consider the past, present, and future implications of this.
The teaching of Jesus in Mark 7 is simple, though challenging: What makes one unclean or corrupt is the uncleanness and corruption that is natural to the human heart because of sin. Putting “unclean” things into your body won’t make your heart more unclean than it naturally is. Furthermore, washing the outside of your body (ceremonially) won’t make your heart more clean than it naturally is. The locus of our corruption is on the inside, not the outside. Sin doesn’t come from what we consume, or what we fail to consume, but from our hearts.
Martin Luther called justification by faith the “chief article” of the Christian faith, the doctrine upon which “the church stands or falls.” That the holy, righteous God of all justifies freely according to his grace those who trust him in faith is sublimely good news.
Yet, because of sin, we are always leaning away from justification by faith and toward some form of self-justification. Our hearts are so corrupt that we drift away from the justification offered in the gospel and toward many expressions of justification by works. How?
When considering the parable of the persistent widow (Luke 18:1-8), we infer quickly that God is not like the unrighteous judge. Jesus intends for us to come to this conclusion: And the Lord said, “Hear what the unrighteous judge says. And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night?” (Luke 18:7). In other words, if even this unrighteous judge who neither fears God nor respects man gives people justice, how much more will God – who is holy and righteous and perfectly just – grant justice to his chosen people?
God is not like the unrighteous judge.
But often when this parable is explained, it seems that Christians are left with the impression that we should be like the persistent widow.
Adoniram Judson was the first overseas missionary from the United States. In 1812, when he was 23-years-old, he sailed to Burma to take the gospel to people who had never heard it. With him sailed his wife, Ann – to whom he had been married for twelve days on the day they departed. Ann would never return home. They both gave their lives – their talents – to see Christ treasured in Burma, serving there until they died.
Christian history is littered with people who thought they knew exactly when and exactly how Christ would return. All of them have been wrong. Furthermore, those who continue to prognosticate about these things will always be wrong. After all, Jesus himself said: Concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only (Matt 24:36). Idle speculation about the time of Christ’s return is foolish, and we should avoid it.
But my concern here is not only for those who are drawn toward idle speculation about the timing of Christ’s return. My concern is for all of us, and for the deeper, universal impulse such idle speculation reflects.