It is time to dig deeper into the sermon from last Sunday. We looked at Genesis 24. The first verse of Genesis 24 says: “Now Abraham was old, well advanced in years. And the Lord had blessed Abraham in all things.” Mark had us dwell on this one sentence for several minutes: “And the Lord had blessed Abraham in all things.” If you think about Abraham’s life up to this point, you realize how many trials he has gone through. He and his wife Sarah could not have children for many years. This was a great burden for them. Abraham is asked to offer up his son Isaac on the altar. This is another tremendous trial that Abraham walked through. One commentary that I was looking at says: “Abraham had many and severe trials; but even these were blessings in disguise.” Mark reminded us of Romans 8:28 and how we like Abraham have been blessed by the Lord in all things.
Mark challenged us by asking us if we are living joyful lives? Are we living in light of Romans 8:28? Are we living our lives in light of the fact that the Lord has blessed us in all things? Martyn Lloyd-Jones gives us a similar challenge and I quoted this in the preparing for worship post, when he said: “Do you habitually think of your own salvation as the greatest and the most wonderful thing that has ever happened to you? I will ask a yet more serious question: do you give your neighbors the impression that you have found the most magnificent thing in the world?” If I am honest, I have to answer his second question by saying no, I am not giving the impression that I have found the most magnificent thing in the world. I am not living a profoundly joyful life, like I should. I am praying that God will change me and make me more joyful. You may be in the middle of a trial, or a sickness, or recovering from a breakup. You may be wondering in the middle of this trial, how God is blessing you in all things? How is this particular trial a blessing from God?
Blessed by the Lord in all things?
Let me see if I can encourage you, by sharing a personal story about a recent trial I went through. My wife is from the beautiful country of Guatemala and we both got to go visit her family and extended family this past Christmas and New Years. We got to take several trips around the country while we were there. One of those trips we planned to go to a popular water park in Guatemala. It was supposed to be about a 3 hour trip. It turned into about a 7 hour trip because of traffic. During that trip I happened to have a book about John Newton. The book is called ‘Newton on the Christian Life.’ I read a few chapters, but really got to dwell on a chapter called the discipline of trials. In this chapter the author Tony Reinke tells us some ways that God uses trials for our good. Reinke says: “Trials drive Christians to pray. Normally our prayer lives are unimpressive. Sin degenerates the beauty of prayer into a painful chore. The glorious privilege of prayer becomes for us a ‘mere task’ we ignore at the slightest excuse. The chief pleasure of prayer comes in the finishing of it. Instead of enjoying the blessed communion with the Almighty, we are dragged before God like a slave and we run away from prayer like a thief. Or we fall into the trap of mindless praying. We slip into rote prayers when life becomes comfortable.”
So, when life is comfortable our prayer lives are a ‘mere task’ that we often ignore. Reinke says that: “Easy lives weaken our communion with God.” So, what happens when a trial comes upon us? Reinke continues: “Mindless and habitual prayers are never less suited than when the circumstances of our lives crumble around us. Trials breathe new desperation—new life—into our prayers. Suffering pours new language into our longings.” He then quotes John Newton who says: “Experience testifies, that a long course of ease and prosperity, without painful changes, has an unhappy tendency to make us cold and formal in our secret worship…Trials give new life to prayer, Trials lay us at his feet, Lay us low and keep us there.” So, trials drive us to our knees, and they breathe new life into our prayers as we are laid low at the throne of grace.
Trials also have the tendency to humble proud hearts. John Newton said that: “It requires much discipline to keep pride down in us,…” Reinke says that: “trials are aimed at setting us free from the shackles of our own self-righteousness and self-importance.” He continues: “If we are to live a holy life—a truly joyful life—we must learn to live a self-less life. Our grip on self-interest and on the idols of this world that promise security is rarely loosened without the assistance of trials…Trials are redemptive; they redeem us from our pride; they free us from ourselves.”
I don’t have time to dig too deep into this, but I will briefly mention some of the other ways that trials benefit us. Reinke says: “Trials teach us compassion. Trials produce confidence in God.” Trials are ‘love tokens’ to us. “Suffering and affliction are truly among our chief mercies, counterintuitive gifts for the Christian life.” John Newton reminds us that: “Afflictions are either small daily medicines which our Physician and best friend sees that our spiritual maladies require, or they are furnaces to prove and purify our graces;…”
Tim Keller said: “John Newton put it so perfectly. I try to say it every year or so, but that’s probably not enough. Memorize this: ‘Everything is necessary that he sends. Nothing can be necessary that he withholds.” If it’s in your life, you need it, even if it’s bad. If it’s not in your life, you don’t need it, even though you think you do. Why? Because there is an order to your life. Your Father hates to see brokenness and tragedy, but he is monitoring it. He’s letting it into your life in stages in ways that actually will teach you the things he wants you to learn.”
So, back to my trial. While we were stuck in the traffic jam in Guatemala last year, I was reading through that chapter that I quoted at length above on the discipline of trials. Over the next several days of our trip I was often thinking about that chapter and I got to talk to my wife about it. Then we came back to the U.S. and just a few days after getting back I got really sick. I came down with a bacterial infection. I had severe stomach pain for several days, and was basically miserable. I threw up in the middle of the night, couldn’t sleep well because of the pain etc. In the middle of this trial I began thinking about all that I had read in that chapter on trials and I knew that God in His grace had brought this trial to me. I found my prayer life filled with new desperation, and new life. I found myself often at the throne of grace during those few days.
One of the coolest things that happened during my painful experience was that I found myself falling more deeply in love with my sweet wife. I wrote the following on Facebook after it happened: “During all this I have been humbled and amazed at the love of my sweet wife. The doctor recommended only certain types of food for me, so my wife made multiple trips to various grocery stores to get what was needed. She talked with her Mom multiple times and called one of her Aunts late Tuesday when things were not good for me, for tips to help. She researched online into the night and she was just always lovingly there by my side. As Matt Chandler says: “Nothing about you lying on the floor, trying to crawl your way to the toilet to vomit makes your wife go, “I’m glad I married this one.” Do you know what you need in that moment?
On that day where you’re exhausted and just being the worst parts of you,…You need someone who goes, “Yeah, I’ve seen that. It’s ugly, but I love you. I’m not going anywhere.”
So, if you asked me if I could go back in time and could choose whether or not I would get that sickness or not, I would choose the sickness without hesitation. As John Newton said: “Everything is necessary that he sends. Nothing can be necessary that he withholds.” God in His grace brought that sickness to me. He used it to humble me, to draw me closer to Jesus. He used it to keep me close to the throne of grace. He used it to remind me of the deep love that my wife has for me, and to remind me of His grace in providing my wife to me.
Living our lives full of joy
I intended to talk mainly about marriage on this post, and I just got derailed a little bit 🙂 Lord willing, I will eventually write on marriage on this blog. I just want to end this post by talking about joy. Are we living a life that is full of joy? If we are not, then why not? Martyn Lloyd-Jones says that: “The difficulty with us is that we are all immersed in the petty problems of life…” We get so consumed by the fact that we are single, or we don’t own a home, or we don’t have the job that we want, or we don’t drive the car that we want and on and on. As Jerry told Mark in his singleness, ‘don’t waste your singleness.’ We need to not waste our apartment rental days, or our night shift job days, or our part time job days, or our summer school days. We need to learn contentment in the here and now. We need to pursue joy in Jesus, no matter what condition we find ourselves in. As Lloyd-Jones says: “I have not truly got the joy of the Lord if it is going to be variable and dependent upon circumstances and accidents and things that may happen to me. No, I say it is a deep profound, dynamic thing that enables me to stand whatever may be happening to me, whatever may be taking place in the world, because I know Him, because I see Him and because I know that nothing can separate me from Him and from His love.”
Let us all meditate on the gospel every day. Let us saturate our minds in God’s precious Word each day. Let us plead with God at the throne of grace that He would stir up our affections for Him, and let us plead with Him that he would make us more joyful each day as we live our lives in light of His Word and in light of eternity.
I will give the last word on this post to Joni Eareckson Tada who has suffered so much in her life, and yet lives a life full of joy. She was paralyzed in a diving accident at the age of 17. She has spent almost 50 years of her life in a wheelchair. She was diagnosed with cancer in 2010 and went through surgery and 5 years of treatment and is currently cancer free. Here is a short video talking about her cancer that is honestly hard to watch towards the end as you really see her suffering. In the last two paragraphs below Joni talks about her joy and how she wakes up each morning in desperate need of Jesus:
“Basically, I wake up almost every morning in desperate need of Jesus — from those early days when I first got out of the hospital, to over four decades in a wheelchair, it’s still the same. The morning dawns and I realize: “Lord, I don’t have the strength to go on. I have no resources. I can’t ‘do’ another day of quadriplegia, but I can do all things through You who strengthen me. So please give me Your smile for the day; I need You urgently.” This, I have found, is the secret to my joy and contentment. Every morning, my disability — and, most recently, my battle with cancer — forces me to come to the Lord Jesus in empty-handed spiritual poverty. But that’s a good place to be because Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:3, NIV).
Another anchor is Deuteronomy 31:6, where God tells me, “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified [of quadriplegia, chronic pain, or cancer], for the Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you” (NIV). I’m convinced a believer can endure any amount of suffering as long as he’s convinced that God is with him in it. And we have the Man of Sorrows, the most God-forsaken man who ever lived, so that, in turn, He might say to us, “I will never leave you; I will never forsake you.” God wrote the book on suffering and He called it Jesus. This means God understands. He knows. He’s with me. My diving accident really was an answer to that prayer to be drawn closer to Him.”
Picture from here