Encouragement when Severely Tested
by Peter Eng
Recent months and weeks unleashed on us a series of global troubles. Let us start with El Nino, go on to Saddam Insane's biological weapons of mass destruction, to the currency crash in Thailand, Indonesia, Philippines, Malaysia, (to a lesser extent Singapore,) to the hysteria leading to more currency runs in Korea, and who knows who is next. In the stock market, Hang Seng crashed, followed by FTSE, then by Dow Jones.
Global trouble concerns us when it produces personal pain. I am not sure what hurt you feel more: the problem of global warming or personal financial losses, loneliness, bad turns of events in a row, a fractured relationship with a loved one, and loss of personal freedom? In short, global trouble may be big, but it is personal pain that cries out for our immediate attention.
It is this personal pain I want to address in this article, without in any way implying that global troubles are not important. We have neither ability nor resources to handle global troubles. And sometimes the call to noble sacrifice cannot be heard when we are in pain. We should keep before us those in need despite our own needs.
I have had a series of bad turns in recent months, matching personal pain with global trouble. There were so many of these troubles that I decided to pray about them. Yes, it finally dawned on me that apart from the spiritual and the noble, my prayers should also include the mundane and the ordinary.
Many of our troubles are not more than the ground cursed from the fall of Adam and Eve. But from time to time, Satan singles us out for his special attention. I suspect the time has come for us to heed the warning and assurance Jesus gave to Simon Peter.
"Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you like wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers" (Luke 22:31-32).
These words were spoken on the night Jesus was arrested to be crucified. Judas had gone to betray Jesus. With the arrest of Jesus, the disciples will go through the most severe shock in their lives. But in this turmoil, there is a spiritual dimension. The trouble they face is physical, but the cause is spiritual.
The Greek for the clause, "Satan has asked to sift you like wheat" takes the plural 'you'. Satan asked God for permission to torment the disciples. They will be crushed. Satan, possibly like in the case of Job (Job 1), asked God to give him leave to torment Jesus' disciples. Through this, wheat will be sifted out, and the chaff blown away. Perhaps Satan told God, "Let me crush your disciples and shift them like wheat, to see if they are indeed wheat of chaff." The past few weeks had been bad ones for some of you and for me too. I suspect that the multiplied troubles in many of our lives are more than coincidence, or 'bad luck' as the world calls it. I had such a bad run that I thought, "We are facing so many difficulties it is abnormal. We are either doing something really wrong, or we are doing something right and Satan has been given permission to sift us like wheat." Perhaps it is neither. Perhaps it is simply the case of the devil picking on us when we are vulnerable. Do you sometimes feel as though you are crushed and sifted? Do burdens become so great that the right and noble things seem far away and the need to relieve pain or loneliness is near and desperate? Especially when calamity befalls us not due to our own neglect. Perhaps, Satan has been given permission to sift you like wheat.
"Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does" (James 1:2-8).
I find it hard to "consider it pure joy" when I face "trials of many kinds." What I feel is not "pure joy" but misery. While I know in my mind and believe with all my heart that God has not abandoned me, I still feel miserable. I write to all who like me are frail in faith. In view of this, James reminds us that the trials we face are for growing our faith. IT IS PRECISELY BECAUSE WE PLACE OUR FAITH IN GOD THAT WE FACE TRIALS. AND THESE TRIALS, WHATEVER THEY MAY MEAN TO ANOTHER PERSON, ARE THERE TO INCREASE OUR COMMITMENT TO GOD. When we go through trials, one misery is our inability to discern either the purpose or the duration of the trial. If we know where our trials are going to lead us, it will help us accept the trial with greater cheer; even if we do not find it possible to consider it "pure joy." In view of such humanness in us, James instructs us to ask God for wisdom. NOT JUST ANY WISDOM, BUT WISDOM TO WEATHER THE TRIALS, AND WISDOM TO LOOK TO THE GOODNESS OF GOD EVEN WHEN WE ARE UNABLE TO LOOK BEYOND THE TRIALS.
Now, we see the words of Jesus to Peter and the words of the Holy Spirit through James merge into a unified exhortation. James says we should ask, and not doubt. Jesus told Simon that he prayed for Simon that his faith may not fail. The key to all this is prayer. When we feel God farthest from us, it is time to pray. Pray for deliverance. Pray for strength. God knows we need both. So why be shy to pray for both? Above that, James reminds us to pray for wisdom.
In his conversation with Peter, our Lord told him that he, the Son of God who became the Son of Man, is praying for Peter. In Hebrews, we are told that we all have a high priest, Jesus Christ, who intercedes for us.
There is one grammatical feature I wish to draw your attention. Jesus said that Satan has asked to sift you (plural in Greek), but he told Peter, "But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail." This time the Greek takes the singular 'you'. Jesus told Peter that he did not just pray for all the disciples, but he prayed for Peter by name. WHEN JESUS INTERCEDES FOR US, IT IS NOT A GENERAL CALL FOR HELP BUT A SPECIFIC INTERCESSION FOR OUR TROUBLES.
Peter was sifted by Satan - severely. He denied our Lord three times. Jesus knew that Peter would fall. But that would not be the end. Peter like the others (with the exception of John) fled in fear. "And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers" Jesus told him.
PETER COULD NOT SEE HIS OWN FAILURE. BUT JESUS COULD. PETER COULD NOT LOVE HIMSELF FOR HIS OWN FAILURE. BUT JESUS LOVED HIM IN SPITE OF HIS FAILURE. PETER THOUGHT HE COULD NO LONGER SERVE JESUS WHEN HE FELL. BUT JESUS TOLD HIM THREE TIMES TO FEED JESUS' SHEEP. PETER COULD NOT SEE THE PIT AND FELL IN. JESUS SHOWED HIM THE HEIGHTS.
When Jesus hung on the cross, he bore our sins. The face of the Father turned from him. At the cross of Christ, he who knew no sin became sin for us. Jesus suffered separation from God the Father, so we will never need suffer separation. In agony, Jesus cried out, "My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me!" This separation and cry he suffered so we may never have to utter that cry nor suffer that separation. WE PRAY In times of trouble, we must cling on to the Lord all the more. Often, when I am too depressed to even open the Bible and read (yes, it happens to me too), I sing. Scripture songs, hymns, and choruses will come to my lips as I cry out to God.
For the first time in my life I could not do it. The bad throat I had stayed with me for a long time. (It was only this last week that I could sing again.) So in my troubles I could not even sing to God. Through this, I went on my knees and prayed to the Lord. For my troubles and for those of you who also go through trials. It is good for me to bear your burdens in prayer to the Lord, and for me to pray with my family so they too learn to bear the burdens of others. It is also good that you shared your trials with me while I went through trials, for then, I can call out to the Lord on your behalf with the same passion I have for my trouble, knowing that your trials are no less.
Many moments are spent talking to God. Many more moments are spent just on my knees with groanings that cannot be uttered, as the Spirit makes intercession. At last, I can say the dark cloud has lifted. The sun now shines through again. (Ironically, it is really dark at this time of the year. The sun sets at about 3.30 p.m. Sometimes, it is dark the whole day, and the lights are perpetually on.) Through the gloom of despair, God has once again been faithful.
It has been a long time since I experienced trouble in this way. I have enjoyed so much blessing from the Lord that I no longer know what it means to be troubled on every side. In all these, I felt the turning point was when I started writing back and asking you all to pray for me. For a time, I tried to be strong for after all, it is my calling to bear your burden and not your calling to bear mine.
When I was at my wit's end, I asked for your prayers. The Lord has heard your prayers. Your prayer is powerful and effective. Your intercession has brought the Lord's protection upon us and strengthened us.
As a nation, and as individuals, we have been blessed with much. I have forgotten the urgent heart cry to God, and the sweetness deliverance brings. In recent weeks, I experienced that all over again. Trials brought me pain. But your prayers opened the gates of heaven. The word of God makes no mistake when it tells us: "Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds." Dear brothers and sisters in the Lord, let us count it all joy when we face trials. We will also count it all joy to uphold each other in prayer. From: The Antioch Letter - Vol 4.49 MITA NO. 177/02/96
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Rev. Peter Eng graduated with Bachelor in Theology (1979), Master of Divinity (1985),and Master of Theology (1986) [Grace Seminary, Indiana, USA]. He has planted and pastored churches in Singapore, Malaysia, and the USA. He also served as adjunct lecturer at the Biblical Graduate School of Theology, Singapore. Rev. Peter Eng is now on study leave from his Church (Antioch B-P Church), but continues to minister in writing. He is pursuing his Ph. D in the University of Aberdeen, Scotland. His dissertation is in Lukan studies.
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