The path towards a highly valuable goal is often painful and arduous.
When I was in middle school, I took Tae Kwon Do (a Korean martial art with an emphasis on kicking) for a couple of years. Now that I’m an adult, I’m thankful for the opportunity and what I learned, but as a middle-schooler, it was torture; not only was it physically and mentally exhausting, but one of the instructors used to be a drill sergeant (I think), so I felt as though I was getting “army” training. However, as much as I believed I’d suffered back then, I only got to the “green belt” level (4th belt) before quitting, so I imagine those who reach the “black belt” level (the highest belt level, although there are ranks within this level) have experienced years and years of harsh physical and mental training. It’s worth it, though, to go through years of suffering to obtain the black belt, since it’s usually a testament to hard work and dedication, and that you’ve endured training which the average person couldn’t even imagine.
If we imagine the Christian life as a “martial arts dojo”, we Christians as the “students”, and God as the martial arts “Master”, trials should be seen as the training and belt tests needed to achieve the highest belt level: the “belt of life” (which symbolizes “everlasting” life, just as the “crown of life” from James 1:12)
A few months ago (in March), guest speaker Mark spoke about the 1st chapter of James which centers on trials. He spoke about how we should have faith in trials, as they test us and make us holy (James 1:12). Since the 1st chapter is like a summary of the whole book, He also mentioned how we should watch our speech (James 1:26) and to obey Scripture (James 1:22); these are both good topics to write about, yet I chose “trials” because I believe we need to discuss it and most of us can relate to it.
So, why does God allow trials? Although we can’t know the answer completely, we can speculate based on His character and what Scripture says (there’s nothing wrong with doing this, as long as you don’t contradict the Bible and remember that it’s only a speculation). I’ll give 4 reasons I believe God allows them, starting with the most important one.
Discipline, which produces Godly Character
The strongest reason for trials (in my opinion) is discipline. God disciplines us through trials, which will both create endurance and lead to a dependence on Him. Endurance and dependence both build godly character.
Romans 5:3-4 explains how trials create endurance and character, as Paul writes that we must “rejoice in our sufferings”, because “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope” (hope for “everlasting” life, in this case). So according to Paul, since “suffering produces endurance”, and “endurance produces character”, suffering must produce character (James 1:4 says something similar). Hebrews 12:7 also reinforces this idea of “fruitful suffering”, as it tells us to “endure hardship as discipline”
“Endurance” appears to be the source of character development according to Romans, James, and Hebrews, and trials are great producers of that; just as the martial arts student gains endurance from years of practice and tests, the believer gains endurance from years of trials. The endurance he gains builds godly character.
Discipline through trials also lead to a dependence on God. When we encounter tough times, we must lean and depend on God, since He is our “refuge” (Psalm 94:22) and “provider” (Luke 12:22-31). We will then realize that God is the center of the universe and that He does what He pleases when He pleases (Psalm 115:3). This creates humility (a godly character trait), and we’ll think less of ourselves and more of Him as a result. Thinking more of God will incite us to worship Him, which is “admiring God”, and since we usually become the thing we most admire (admiring celebrities creates an imitation of their behavior, for example), the act of worship will result in us becoming more like Him.
Similar to how the martial arts student depends on the master to teach him the skills needed to one day become a black belt and to give him strength and determination, we need to depend on God during the hard times. Even the act of “worship” is similar: although the student should refrain from actually worshiping the master as a deity, he should admire all of his “black belt” attributes, and follow in his footsteps. So since dependence on God creates humility and the desire to worship, and worship builds godly character, dependence on God builds godly character.
Hence, when God uses trials as discipline, He’s giving us opportunities to build endurance and to create a dependence on Him, which leads to Godly character. We should take James 1:2 to heart, and “count it all joy” when we “meet trials of various kinds”.
Consequence of Sin
Apart from just being discipline, trials are sometimes a natural result of sin. This sin can have both physical and spiritual consequences.
Certain sins harm the body, whether it’s overeating (which causes health issues) or promiscuity (which may cause venereal diseases). When the effects of these sins become drastic, they become trials (diabetes from overeating, HIV/AIDS from promiscuity). Since these trials are self-inflicted, we should be well aware that we have directly caused our own suffering and our actions have consequences.
All sin “grieves” the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4:30), so sins which harm us physically also damage us spiritually (this is because the Spirit is the agent which molds us to be like Christ, so spiritual growth is stunted when He is grieved). Overeating, for example, is a result of having little self-control with food consumption and the desire to unnecessarily indulge in “fleshy” desires (I’ve always imaged gluttony being a type of “lust”). Since self-control is one of the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23), and the “desires of the flesh are against the Spirit” (Galatians 5:17), overeating has the potential to cause not only physical trials, but spiritual ones (one example being depression, which can be caused by the dissatisfaction of feeding the “flesh”, instead of the “spirit”).
Also, some trials are caused by purely spiritual sins (having a short-temper can lead you to insult someone you love, which can damage your relationship with them and torment you with guilt which makes you “liable to the hell of fire” according to Matthew 5:22) and some of these trials are caused by the sins of others (you suffering from a physical disability which was caused by a drunk driver).
Studying a martial art is similar to living in a sinful world: as you must take tests while studying a martial art, we believers must also take tests (trials) while living in a sinful world, and until Jesus returns to rid the Earth of corruption, sin will always have the potential to cause trials.
Means of Fulfilling God’s Purposes
God might even use your trials as means to His holy ends (other than your character edification) and some examples come straight from the Bible:
The entire Book of Job. The book of Job can be described as a “theodicy”, which is a “defense of God’s goodness during tragedy” (For example, this article). In the story, there is a righteous man named “Job” is has been greatly blessed by God, who ends up losing his blessings for no apparent reason. Job becomes devastated from this ordeal and even “curses the day of his birth” (Job 3:1-26). However, God had a reason for giving Job these trials: to prove to “Satan” that Job will fear and love Him without His blessings (Job 1:6-12). God never lets Job know about this “test”, but He does confront Job and assures him that He is All-Powerful and has complete control of the world. The book ends happily as Job gets “twice as much as he had before” (Job 42:10). The point of Job’s story is that God’s “ways are higher than our ways” (Isaiah 55:9) and that trials might serve purposes we don’t know about. The best we could do in these situations is to praise and worship God and to thank Him for all He has given us.
Joseph being sold into slavery by his brothers and ultimately becoming 2nd in command of Egypt. In the last story of the book of Genesis, Abraham’s great-grandsons trap their brother Joseph because of their jealousy towards him. He is then sold to some travelers who journey to Egypt, where they sell him to slavery. Years (and many God driven events) later, Pharaoh makes Joseph the 2ndmost powerful man in Egypt, and because the famine in Egypt has spread to Canaan (Joseph’s homeland), his brothers end up journeying to Egypt for food. Joseph meets with them, and since they don’t recognize him, he uses his power to play a “prank” on them (Genesis 44), which ends up being a heartfelt reunion when he finally reveals his identity (Genesis 45:1-15). In the last chapter of Genesis, after Joseph brings his family from Canaan to Egypt (because of the famine), he delivers the last line of dialog in the book towards his brothers, who are asking for his forgiveness: “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” (Genesis 50:19-20). Many of us have been in Joseph’s situation, where we face trials caused by our loved ones. However, how many of us would have the wisdom and clarity of Joseph, realizing that our trials might be tools God uses in order to achieve His goals? Joseph knew that, because his brothers sold him to travelers, who would later sell him to slavery in Egypt, he would never have become powerful enough to save his family from the famine. It was also because of this trial that Joseph’s descendants were able to form the nation of Israel centuries later, which led to the coming of God’s Son and the world’s salvation.
Jesus’ Crucifixion. I could imagine that when Jesus realized He was the awaited Messiah, the thought of His impending death and carrying the weight of the world’s sin might have caused Him great grief. He was so stressed about the ordeal that, according to Luke 22:42-44, he prayed to God to “remove that cup from him” (you know God the Son is terrified when He asks the Father to prevent an event which He knew couldn’t haven been prevented) and “being in agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (this describes a rare medical condition caused by extreme anguish called “Hematidrosis”, where sweat contains blood) when He was on the Mount of Olives. However, He accepted His fate because He knew it was part of God’s divine plan (Matthew 26:52-54); Peter also knew that it was “according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God”, that Jesus be “crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men” (Acts 2:23). Therefore, Jesus needed to suffer His trial in order to “atone for our sins”, which was part of God’s plan of redemption; in other words, Jesus’s trial made our salvation possible.
There are other examples of God using evil and tragedy for good in the Bible (the book of Ruth, Paul’s “thorn” in 2 Corinthians 12:7, the blind man in John 9:1-3, etc.), and I’m sure we could find examples in our own lives in hindsight, but this fact should give us comfort and hope that our trials aren’t “random”.
Sometimes, the children who suffer martial arts training have protective parents, and these parents want their children to learn how to defend themselves (and maybe others); the children are suffering for a good purpose. Similarly, God could use our sufferings for a divine purpose, and this purpose is always good (Romans 8:28).
(continues on part 2)