James has an interesting take on trials. He tells us that we are to consider it all joy when we face them. Whatever shape or size the trial takes, we are to meet it with joy and expectation. Why? Because we “know” the adversity is a kiln to the strengthening of our faith and refinement of our Christian character (Jas. 1:3).
Knowing a hardship has meaning and value changes everything. It doesn’t make it pleasant but it does make it promising. Knowing that trial comes to us from the hand of our Father in heaven is what stimulates joy.
The problem is that we often miss out on the benefit a trial brings. We miss it because we don’t look for it. We see the trial as something to be weathered, more in line with surviving, not thriving. We may look for God’s grace to bear up under it, but we don’t give attention to it as a vehicle for the workmanship of God’s grace in it.
That’s something the writer of Hebrews addresses in considering the relationship of God with His children (Heb. 12:1ff.). God loves us. He loves us as a father. And He is an involved father, at work in our lives through His providence.
Because He is our Father, we can expect discipline (vv. 5-6). That’s what fathers do. Our heavenly Father does it perfectly. Discipline is not just punishment. It includes instruction, correction, and training in righteousness. A trial is often the forum for spiritual formation, the training ground for cultivation of godliness.
Discipline involves discomfort. It brings disequilibrium to our lives, something to get our attention. It is painful rather than pleasant (v. 11). The writer of Hebrews enjoins us to “regard hardship as discipline” (v. 7, NIV).
Let’s reflect on that statement a moment. God is telling us that when we encounter adverse circumstances in our lives, we are to understand that adversity as the hand of discipline of our Father in heaven. That means we should take stock of what our Father in heaven is doing to ferret out impediments to our Christian walk (i.e., hindrances and sin; v. 1) and to cultivate holiness (v. 10-11) for the race of the Christian life.
If it is the case that circumstances of adversity carry with them the discipline of our God, why is it when people suffer illness, lose jobs, or encounter distress in finances, relationships, or whatever else might afflict them, they do not connect the dots between the trial and God’s fatherly intervention? Why do they not ask questions like: “Is my heart in line with God’s will?” “Is my life in order as a child of the King?” “Am I honoring God in my ambitions, priorities and practices?” “What hindrances (non-sin that is interfering with my progress in sanctification) or sin (omission or commission) should I be aware of?”
Life’s hardships should prompt us to do inventory, starting with a prayer for the Spirit to search our heart and expose what is holding us back (see Psalm 139:23-24). Pastors should be able to lead the sheep in such an inventory, to pull alongside them in time of adversity and help them take advantage of the hardship that their Father has brought to them.
But I’m not optimistic of that happening. I know I have not been very successful when I have tried. For one thing, people are not typically open to correction. Rather than take heed, they take umbrage. Sometimes, they leave.
For another, people are unwilling to make the connection between their development in the Christian life and difficult circumstances brought to them by an involved Father for their maturation. That sounds too much like merit. “If you’re good, you’ll be in good stead with God, or good things will happen to you.”
But that’s not it at all. The circumstance arises because we are ensconced in the gracious arms of God as His children. It is for the very reason that He loves us so tenaciously that God brings adversity to us. That’s the whole point behind the discussion of hardship as discipline in Hebrews 12. Our Father wants to grow us in Christlikeness, and He is telling us one way He goes about it.
I suffered a level two quadriceps strain earlier this year. I wasn’t doing anything wayward when it happened. In fact, I was being environmentally conscious in taking out my recycling. But I was unaware of a water-covered ice patch on my walkway as I sprinted toward the curb. I wiped out and suffered a ten percent tear of my lateral quad and stretched out a good portion of the rest of it.
I was in physical pain. My short-range plans went out the window. My schedule was to be filled with medical appointments. All that was a pain as well.
Then it struck me, “this is hardship.” This is an adverse circumstance. That sent me to my prayer closet asking the Holy Spirit to search my heart. Guess what? I found things, things that were distracting me from the race set before me and sin that I was tolerating in my life. Now I needed to deal with those things by His wisdom and grace.
I can’t say with certainty that is what my Heavenly Father wanted me to see, but I can say He wanted me to look. That’s the idea of not making light of God’s discipline. (For more detail see chapter two of my book, A Vine-Ripened Life, “My Father the Gardener.”)
There has got to be some way pastors and brothers and sisters in Christ can draw people’s attention to God’s design in discipline when their lives are impacted with adversity. I’m not talking about being dogmatic about it by pontificating, “This happened to you because you did ______ or didn’t do _________.” Only God knows the heart. But I am saying that in the face of hardship, the question needs to be asked.