Tribulation and Faith

Even when we came into Macedonia our flesh had no rest,
but we were afflicted on every side:
conflicts without, fears within.
(2 Cor. 7:5 ESV)

Sometimes Christians get the wrong idea about faith. Knowing that only believers enter the celestial city, we put a great deal of importance on faith, and if it wavers, we become fearful. If we experience doubt, we wonder if our faith is failing – if, after all, we’re not Christians at all, or if we are, if we haven’t departed from the Lord and ceased to be such. I myself have been there – I won’t go into the details, but there was a time in the 80s when I seriously did wonder whether I’d ever been saved in the first place. My faith was under attack, and I grew afraid.

To some extent at least this grows out of a wrong idea of what faith is. Even the most knowledgeable Christians can sometimes make this mistake, believing that Biblical faith has something to do with our emotion state, or that it’s something we have to muster up from within ourselves. Let’s be sure of what faith is, and then attacks against our faith arise along this line, we’ll be better able to resist. There are two related Greek words we need to consider, one a noun and one a verb – pistiz and pisteuw (pistis, pisteuo). The noun means, “reliance upon, trust in, dependence on,” and of course the verb means “to rely on, to depend on, to trust.” Thus, when we have faith, or when we believe, we have that trust and dependence on Christ, we’re trusting Him and depending on Him. And it is important that we have the proper object of our faith. We must trust Jesus, Jesus entirely, and Jesus only. If we trust anyone or anything other than the Lord Christ, our faith is in the wrong object, and we’ll never see God. If we trust Jesus partly and something or someone else partly, we’re again not believing as the Bible demands, and we’ll come short of the heavenly city. Biblical faith has as its object Jesus alone and Jesus to the uttermost.

And it is here that some professing Christians miss the point.

They look not to Jesus, but to their faith. If you ask them, “Why are you saved?” they’ll answer, “Because I’ve believed in Jesus.” But that is the wrong answer! The right answer is, “Because Jesus has saved me.” No one can believe in the first place unless he’s already alive; just as a physical corpse can’t trust in someone to dig it out of the ground, and can’t even be aware that there is someone ready with a shovel in hand, so a spiritual corpse can’t even grasp the reality of the Savior, much less depend on Him. Jesus said,

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3)

As long as one is dead, he can’t even see, much less desire to enter, much less actually enter, the kingdom of God. Only those to whom God has already given the new birth can see, and then desire, and then enter, the kingdom. We see, therefore, that if we’re looking to our faith, rather than to the Object of our faith, we’re looking at the wrong thing. If I were climbing a mountain (a thing I’ll never do; I have acrophobia) and fell, and someone on the other end of the rope held on and prevented me from dying, I wouldn’t thank the rope, but the one who held that rope and preserved me alive. So we ought not to consider our faith, but the One in whom we trust. It as the Scripture says, “fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith.” (Heb. 12:2)

If we’re looking to our faith, the “conflicts without, fears within” that Paul spoke of will frighten us further, and cause our faith to weaken, which will again frighten us, until this downward spiral leaves us quivering in abject terror. It is only when, even when conflicts abound and fear rises, we look to Jesus alone that our faith will withstand the pressure. We must always be like Job, who though he did indeed fear what came upon him (Job 3:25), never ceased to trust in God. He said, “The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away. Blessed be the name of the LORD” (Job 1:21), and he was able to do so because instead of looking to his own faith, which surely must have staggered under the blows that fell upon him, he instead looked to God. We must be like Abraham, who although God ordered him to sacrifice on the altar the only son, the son in whom the promises of God were to find fruition, proceeded with the act, believing that if necessary God would raise Isaac from the dead rather than allow those promises to fall to the ground. (Heb. 11:17-19) Job and Abraham, and many more, were able to continue in faith because instead of considering the strength or weakness of their faith, instead turned their eyes on their Lord, and looked only to Him, and depended only on Him.

And this is necessary because we will, if we’re genuine Christians, experience those conflicts and fears that Paul spoke of in the text. The word faith movement, what some call “name it and claim it,” and what one man in my hearing denominated “blab it and grab it,” is one of the vilest heresies in the history of the Christian church because it teaches people to expect precisely the opposite of what Scripture teaches, and thus sets them up for a tremendous fall when the Bible proves true. There is not one word in the Bible which promises that any Christian, or all Christians, are to be financially prosperous and physically healthy! On the contrary, God has provided us with armor precisely because as Christians we will come under vicious attack. The famous “hall of faith” in the 11th of Hebrews not only reminds us of those“who by faith conquered kingdoms, performed acts of righteousness, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, from weakness were made strong, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received back their dead by resurrection,” but also of those who “were tortured, not accepting their release, so that they might obtain a better resurrection; and others experienced mockings and scourgings, yes, also chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were tempted, they were put to death with the sword; they went about in sheepskins, in goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated (men of whom the world was not worthy), wandering in deserts and mountains and caves and holes in the ground.”

These latter didn’t suffer because their faith was weak. They didn’t suffer because they uttered words of doubt and so brought suffering upon themselves, as some wolves will tell us is the case when we suffer. Rather, these faithful men and women whom the author honors suffered because of their faith. It was precisely because they continued in faith, because they refused to look away from Jesus, because they depended only and entirely on God, that all these terrible things came upon them. Had they forsaken God, they would have had an easier time of it. Asaph looked and saw that it was the wicked who prospered, and not the faithful (Ps. 73:3), and we can look around us today and see how true that is.

Jesus told us, “In the world you have tribulation.” (John 16:33) And Paul reminds us that “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” (Acts 14:22) One of the things that ought to characterize a Christian is patience (Gal. 5:22), but patience comes through the testing of our faith. (James 1:3) If we’re going to grow as Christians, we’re going to experience testing. The gold in my wedding ring, if it were sentient, no doubt would have intensely dislike the process by which it came forth from the ground. First high explosives had to blast the ore loose. Then gigantic machines crushed it, and harsh chemicals leached it, and then it passed through a burning fire, until finally that gold came out pure. We too experience a refining process which we may not enjoy. But we have so much slag, so much dross, within us that if we’re ever to be fit for heaven, if we’re ever to become conformed to the image of Jesus, we must go through the fire, and the crushing, and the blasting. We’re going to experience conflicts, and we’re going to feel fear. That’s just how it is to be a Christian in this world.

The thing is that this is normal. It doesn’t mean that the one experiencing this is a sub-Christian, someone whose faith is weak and who is liable to fall out of God’s hand. Indeed, if God holds onto a thing or a person, that thing or person is safe against all attack, for not even Satan and all his armies can even begin to pry loose the least of God’s fingers. Omnipotence always defeats mere created power, no matter how great that created power is. The devil certainly did attack Job, but only within the bounds God had set, and he never had the slightest chance to go beyond those limits. God told the devil, “only spare his life” (Job 2:6), and the devil obeyed – he had no choice in the matter. And when we become the target of Satan’s most vicious and violent attacks, God again says, “only spare his life,” and our eternal life remains eternally safe from the very worst that the devil can do. We do have enemies all around us, but in their presence God spreads us a table from which we eat in peace. (Ps. 23:5)

If we really are Christians, there will be conflicts and fears. That’s natural. That’s part of being a Christian. And if we’re looking within ourselves, testing our faith, depending on it to remain strong, those conflicts and fears will weaken us, and cause us to stagger and stumble. So we don’t look within ourselves. Charles Spurgeon said, “If you trust to your faith and to your repentance, you will be as much lost as if you trusted to your good works or trusted to your sins. The ground of your salvation is not faith, but Christ; it is not repentance, but Christ.” (New Park Street Pulpit 7:24) And again, “Remember, therefore, it is not thy hold of Christ that saves thee — it is Christ; it is not thy joy in Christ that saves thee — it is Christ; it is not even faith in Christ, though that be the instrument — it is Christ’s blood and merits; therefore, look not so much to thy hand with which thou art grasping Christ, as to Christ; look not to thy hope, but to Jesus, the source of thy hope; look not to thy faith, but to Jesus, the author and finisher of thy faith.” (Morning and Evening June 28, morning)

I like that image of the hand that holds to Christ. My hand is weak. It will tremble and lose its grip. But it isn’t how tightly I hold to Him that saves me, but how tightly He holds to me. I’ve raised two daughters, and still have a large hand in raising my granddaughter, who though she now lives in Texas, has come to visit each of the past two summers. I know from experience that if, when crossing the street, my girls’ safety had depended on how tightly they held onto my hand, they would have gotten run over long ago. Being children they weren’t very strong, and in any event their attention would wander, and they would – in the middle of the street – sometimes try to dart off after something that had caught their eye. But their grip wasn’t the deciding factor – mine was. When they couldn’t hold tightly, I did. When they wanted to go see this or that, I held on and kept them in the safe way.

And God is our Father, if we are indeed His children. Shall the eternal Father be one iota less loving, and less careful, and less diligent to preserve His children than I was to keep my daughters and granddaughter safe? May it never be! My my tongue shrivel in my mouth before I ever say such a thing, and may my mind become a blank before it ever thinks such a blasphemous thought. God cannot possibly be less than I am, except in all things that are unholy; in all good things, and in all saving things, He is so far above me in His thoughts and His acts that I can’t even conceive of the difference.

My thoughts are not your thoughts,
Nor are your ways My ways,” declares the LORD.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
So are My ways higher than your ways
And My thoughts than your thoughts.
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
And do not return there without watering the earth
And making it bear and sprout,
And furnishing seed to the sower and bread to the eater;
So will My word be which goes forth from My mouth;
It will not return to Me empty,
Without accomplishing what I desire,
And without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it.
(Is. 55:8-11)

God’s Word will accomplish the purposes for which He gave it, and He will succeed in all that He purposes, for it is from Him, and He is the All-Sufficient, the Almighty, the God who created all things from noting by His mere word. The God who could create light simply by saying, “Let there be light,” surely cannot fail to preserve us – even in the midst of conflicts and fears. So let us never take counsel of our fears. They are real, and the Bible never says otherwise; it is false religion which holds that real things are illusion, and not Christianity. But let us never allow them to control us. When conflicts come, and when we’re afraid, we ought to still fix our eyes on Jesus, and cling to Him, for He will never leave us nor forsake us.