Sermon 05-24-2020: “Do Not Be Surprised at the Fiery Trial”

May 27, 2020

Scripture: 1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11.

Cavonna Holcomb referred to me as Dr. Doolittle on Facebook two weeks ago—because I rescued a baby possum from my garage and brought it to her place. She named it Otis, and it’s living in one of her pastures. The week before Otis visited us, we had a groundhog in our garage. But even Cavonna doesn’t know the best story about an animal showing up at our house, which happened 14 years ago… 

It was early one morning. My son Townshend was four-years-old. He and I were the first ones up. It was daybreak; light was starting to peak through the blinds in our living room. And I walked through the living room on the way to fix breakfast in the kitchen. And it looked like… it looked like a large butterfly was fluttering around the room. Whatever… I didn’t think much of it. 

So I went to the kitchen, when Townshend shouted, “Daddy, look! A bat!” I ran into the living room. Townshend thought this was the coolest thing ever. But I did not think it was the coolest thing ever. See, I learned something about myself that day: I learned that, for me, bats rank just below snakes as animals of which I am irrationally afraid. So naturally I screamed like a little girl… which made Townshend afraid… So we both ran into the bedroom with Lisa and slammed the door shut! When I summoned the courage to wander back into the living room, there was no sign of the bat… naturally.

I called the county extension department. A guy came to the house and checked out attic. Didn’t see any sign of bats. And told us not to worry. “The bat doesn’t want to be in the house any more than you want it in the house. Next time you see it, open the doors and windows, and it’ll probably fly out on its own.” And sure enough, the bat appeared a couple of days later, at dusk. But… because I expected it, I wasn’t nearly as afraid this time. I calmly opened the doors and windows. But the bat wasn’t quite finding its way outside. But I had planned on this, too. I had set aside some work gloves in the garage and went and got them. And I grabbed that little booger out of the air. It was going “whee-whee-whee,” and I threw it outside and immediately closed all doors and windows. 

I am so proud of that story! That’s nearly the bravest thing I’ve ever done!

But the difference between my first experience with the bat and my second experience was not letting myself be surprised when it showed up again. The second time I was expecting to see a bat in the house, so it wasn’t nearly as scary. I was prepared.

And so it is with suffering as a Christian. Peter writes in chapter 4, verse 12: “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.” 

As hard as it is to say, it is nevertheless true that God intends and expects “fiery trials” to be part of the normal, average, every day experience of a disciple of Jesus Christ. Indeed, God is the one who’s doing the testing—even when the testing brings pain and suffering. Peter has already said as much in chapter 3, verse 17: “For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil.” Please notice: If that should be God’s will. Or chapter 4, verse 19: “Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.” Suffering in this case is “according to Gods will.”

Or consider Paul’s experience of suffering. 2 Corinthians chapter 1. Paul describes the suffering that he and Timothy experienced in Asia: “For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.” So there was a reason God let Paul suffer: “to make us rely not on ourselves but on God.” 

God redeemed the suffering! God used it for good!

Or how about chapter 12 of the same letter: Paul receives his “thorn in the flesh.” We’re not sure what the “thorn” was, exactly, but Paul tells us that it was painful enough to cause him to pray three times that Jesus would take it away. But God doesn’t: the purpose of the thorn, he says, is to keep Paul from becoming conceited and learn to depend on God’s all-sufficient grace. 

God redeemed the suffering! God used it for good!

And then finally, in Philippians chapter 1, Paul is in prison in Rome. He will soon be beheaded because of his faith. His dream of a future mission trip to Spain are out the window. In fact, his missionary career is over. But is he in despair? Hardly!… in fact, he writes his most joy-filled letter, telling the Philippians that even his imprisonment is for Christ, and he’s reaching lost people—including people in Caesar’s own household—that he wouldn’t otherwise be able to reach, and he’s glorifying Christ though his bold witness. And when he dies he gets more of Jesus, so even that’s not too bad! “To live is Christ, and to die is gain,” he says. 

God redeemed the suffering! God used it for good!

In all of these cases, we see God taking Paul’s experience of pain and suffering and transforming it into something good for Paul.

And guess what? If you are in Christ, you are no less of a son or daughter of God than Paul was! You’re no less loved by God than Paul was! You’re no less called by God than Paul was! God doesn’t care for you any less than he cared for Paul! He doesn’t have less of a good plan for your life than he had for Paul! 

So… Don’t be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, but please know instead that God is using the fiery trial for your good. Not in spite of his love for you; because of his love! Not in spite of his good plan for your life but because it’s part of this plan!

I emphasize this because I am well aware, frankly, of false teaching on this subject—even among people that I know—who tell us that God has nothing whatsoever to do with suffering, that God hates suffering, and if it’s happening to us it can’t possibly be anything other than something bad for us. Then why does God allow it. They never answer that question, but they imply that God doesn’t really have the power to do anything about it!

But this is wrong! Think about the many times that Jesus teaches us to be bold in prayer—to pray boldly and that God will intervene and do mighty things. So if we’re suffering, we will likely pray that God will take away the suffering. Suppose God doesn’t. What are we to conclude?

There are three options as far as I can see: One, God heard our prayer, but doesn’t have the power to do anything about it. God is not all-powerful. But this contradicts Jesus, the apostles, and literally all of the Bible. So it can’t be that. Two, God heard the prayer, but whether or not he chooses to intervene and help us is roll of the dice… It’s arbitrary. God is capricious. No, that’s blasphemous. So option number three is the only Christian option: God heard the prayer and considered our request alongside everything else happening in the world, alongside everyone else’s prayers, and is saying, “No, I’m not going to give you what you’re praying for right now for good reasons that you probably can’t understand. Because I’m God, and you’re not.”

This is likely a part of what Peter means in chapter 5, verse 6, when he says, “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God. We’re humble enough to recognize that we don’t know nearly as much as our Creator—to say the least. And we can’t run the universe nearly as good as he can!

As most of you know, we lost our brother Roy Gaines last week. Because of COVID-19, there was only a very small private funeral for now. The family hopes to have a church funeral when we can do so safely.

Let me tell you about a fiery trial in Roy’s life. When the Depression hit, Roy and his family had to leave their comfortable middle class life in Hartwell, Georgia, and became, literally, a share cropper family near Lavonia, working on a relative’s 85-acre red dirt farm. That caused suffering for Roy’s family. 

Then World War II started when Roy was in high school. His dad got a well-paying job at the Bell Bomber plant in Marietta. But Roy was starting his senior year—he was class president and captain of the football team. He wanted to graduate with his friends and classmates. In order to do that, however, he had to live away from his family for his senior year and move in with his aunt and uncle, who owned a coffee shop in town. Lisa and I know from experience how painful that can be—since our son Townshend lived away from us his senior year. Somewhere in this parking lot Lisa is saying, “Amen”! And it was hard for Roy and his family, too. One condition of living with his aunt and uncle is that he had to work at the coffee shop part-time washing dishes.

So one Saturday morning he was doing just that. The man who delivered bread to the shop happened to come into the store for a delivery. Only this time his daughter was with him. Her name was Evelyn Fowler. Roy looked up from washing his dishes, and it was love at first sight. They wrote love letters while he fighting the Japanese at Iwo Jima and Okinawa in the Navy in 1944 and ’45. He was discharged in 1946 and the two were married in 1947. 

Listen: I don’t know all the reasons why God wanted Roy to endure the trial of being separated from his family. I don’t know the hundreds or thousands of ways God used that experience for God’s glory and for Roy’s good. But I do know this: Roy’s son Stuart and daughter Connie literally wouldn’t exist if things had happened any differently his senior year! And of course God couldn’t have used Evelyn to bless and sanctify Roy the way she did—and vice versa—if this trial hadn’t happened. 

My point is, this change in the course of Roy’s life, this setback in his life, didn’t represent something that was second best for Roy. Even if it seemed that way at the time. It wasn’t a consolation prize that God awarded to Roy when God’s original plans for Roy’s life didn’t work out. No, all of this was God’s plan from the beginning for Roy Gaines, a plan made possible in part through pain and suffering! 

In his sovereignty, God foresaw and either caused or allowed everything to work out exactly the way it did in Roy’s life. God factored in all of the pain and suffering and setbacks and disappointments into Roy’s life, in order to custom-design the life that he wanted Roy to live.

Look at it this way: From before the foundation of the world, God wanted Roy to be the person that we knew and loved. To live here in Toccoa. To bless the people that he blessed. To make this community a better place to live. To glorify Christ and bear witness to him. To bring Connie and Stuart into the world. Among many other things.

It’s no exaggeration, therefore, to say that if any single thing, if any tiny, minuscule thing, had happened differently along the way, Roy would have become a very different person. And we probably wouldn’t have know him at all! Because everything in his past shaped him into the person he became. Because God shaped him through those experiences! Because God formed him through the furnace of his fiery trials. Because God wanted him to be the Roy Gaines that we knew and and loved not some other version of Roy Gaines!

And the same is true for you! I know some of you are hurting right now. Some of you have perhaps lost your jobs, or are in danger of losing your jobs. Some of you are struggling in your businesses. Some of you are struggling financially. Or maybe you’re worried about struggling financially if the economy doesn’t improve. Or you’re worried about your health or the health of someone you love. These past two months have been hard—indeed, they have been a fiery trial for you.

So what is God up to? I don’t know, exactly, because how he’s using the fiery trial in your life is different from how he’s using the fiery trial in mine. But let’s consider for a moment the image of a “fiery trial” in verse 12: It’s what happens when a goldsmith or silversmith puts his precious metal in a furnace for purification. Gold and silver have impurities or dross that are residing alongside the precious metal. And when you put it in the oven, those impurities are separated out and burn away. And what remains is pure gold or silver.

The same thing is happening with our faith: Every day we let other things compete for the allegiance that we owe to Christ alone. Every day we’re tempted to place our trust in people or things other than Christ. Every day we’re tempted to love people or things more than we love Christ. 

By all means, we say we trust in Christ, we say we love Christ, we say that Christ is number one in our lives, yet we often make little-G gods out of things like financial security… health… comfort… pleasure… romantic relationships. Perhaps this national crisis with COVID-19 has exposed within us these little idols that often compete for the allegiance that we owe to Christ alone.

Is God happy that we have all these little idols in our lives? Of course not! He’s a “jealous” God, the Bible says. But he also knows that we’re not going to find lasting satisfaction, any ultimate pleasure, or happiness, or joy in anything or anyone other than him. He knows that! He’s not going to let us settle for less than the best… so into the furnace we go for testing. Burn those impurities away, Lord. It’s going to hurt but it’s good for us. Let us emerge on the other side better prepared to experience lasting joy!

That’s what I want! Don’t you?

Listen: I can tell you this with the full assurance of the gospel: What’s happening to you right now does not represent God’s “second best” for you. God’s plan for your life has not been “derailed” by this national crisis. God is not giving you a consolation prize because your hopes and dreams didn’t work out the way you wanted: No, if you’re a Christian, if you’re trusting in Jesus, if you’re praying to your Father, if you’re listening to God’s Word, God is working right now on giving you his very best—and he’s using the trials you’re experiencing right now to do so. Just wait… you’ll see… 

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