Chapter One: Expect Trials
Beloved, do not think it strange concerning
the fiery trial which is to try you,
as though some strange thing happened to you.
—1 Peter 4:12
Peter tells us “not [to] think [trials] strange.” The New Testament was primarily written in Greek, and the word for “strange” is xenizō. It means, “Surprised, astonished, or shocked.”1 We should not be surprised, astonished, or shocked by trials; instead, we should expect them. James 1:2 says, “when you fall into various trials…” versus “if you…” We will face trials, and this is a New Testament theme:
- Acts 14:22a—“Strengthening the souls of the disciples, exhorting them to continue in the faith, [Paul said], ‘We must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God.’”
- Thessalonians 3:3—“No one should be shaken by these afflictions; for you yourselves know that we are appointed to this.”
Even though trials are part of the Christian life, we often question how they could happen to us. We might say, “Why would God let this take place?” We act surprised, astonished, or shocked, but based on Scripture we should say, “Since I know trials are part of the Christian life, how would God have me respond? How can I handle this in a way that glorifies Him?”
We should go through this life with the understanding that all Christians experience trials. People expecting the Christian life to be carefree are in for a shock. This is why it is terrible to tell people, “If you become a Christian, Jesus will make your life wonderful!” When they experience trials, there are only three possibilities:
- They will be upset with you later, feeling as though you lied to them.
- They will be angry with Jesus for not making their life perfect like you said He would.
- They will think Christianity is untrue, telling themselves, “If Jesus were real, He would not have let this happen to me.”
Instead, we need to be honest about trials, encouraging others and ourselves to embrace what Jesus said to His disciples: “In the world you will have tribulation” (John 16:33b).
Trials Are Unpredictable, but Not Accidents
Even though we should expect trials, we do not know when they will take place, which makes them unpredictable. James 1:2 says, “My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials.” The words “fall into” communicate the unexpected nature of trials. The Greek word for “fall into,” or other translations say, “face,” “meet,” or “encounter,” is peripiptō.2 It only occurs three times in Scripture and each time it describes something that is unpredictable. The other two occurrences are:
- Luke 10:30—“Jesus answered and said, ‘A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among (peripiptō) thieves, who stripped him of his clothing, wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead.’”
- Acts 27:41a—“Striking (peripiptō) a place where two seas met, they ran the ship aground.”
It was unexpected when thieves robbed the man and when the boat crashed. Unpredictable is a great way to describe trials, but do not misunderstand the words “fall into” and think trials are accidents. It is not as though we are walking along, trip, and find ourselves in a trial.
If we see trials this way, then when we experience one we will say, “I am so unlucky. Why do bad things keep happening to me?” Even worse is when people feel as though they could have prevented whatever took place. They are filled with guilt and regret saying, “If I had only _____, then this would not have happened.” They beat themselves up, sometimes never forgiving themselves.
Instead of viewing trials as accidents, we need to recognize they are from the Lord. Before trials reach us, they first pass through the throne of God. Some people are troubled by this view, but what is the alternative? God is not sovereign. He is not directing our lives. He is not in control of what happens to us. He is looking down saying, “Why did this happen to _____? I wish there were something I could do. If only _____ would have happened instead.” This is a troubling view!
If you could only choose one area of life you want God in control of, wouldn’t it be the trials you experience? When you are suffering, one of the best ways to encourage yourself and experience any comfort is in recognizing: “God is in control. I can trust Him. He loves me. I am His child. He wants what is best for me, and He is using this for my benefit.”
One of the most quoted verses when people are suffering is Romans 8:28: “We know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.” This verse is about God’s sovereignty. It encourages us because we are reminded the trial we are experiencing is not an accident.
The Need to Be Prepared
Since we should expect trials, we must prepare for them. Asa, king of Judah, provides a perfect illustration. Unfortunately, sometimes people read the Old Testament and think, “What does this have to do with me? How can I learn from people whose lives are so different from mine?” These are unfortunate questions to ask because the New Testament states the Old Testament provides us with examples:
- Romans 15:4a—“For whatever things were written [in the Old Testament] were written for our learning.”
- 1 Corinthians 10:11a—“Now all these things happened to [the Israelites] as examples, and they were written for our admonition.”
Church Age believers can learn from Old Testament accounts. Often, they provide a backdrop for New Testament instruction. Asa was one good king in the Old Testament, and he reveals how (and when) to prepare for trials. Early in Asa’s reign, God gave him peace. What did he do during this restful time? He built! Part of 2 Chronicles 14:5–7 records:
The kingdom was quiet under [Asa]. And he built fortified cities in Judah, for the land had rest; he had no war in those years, because the Lord had given him rest. Therefore he said to Judah, “Let us build these cities and make walls around them, and towers, gates, and bars, while the land is yet before us, because we have sought the Lord our God; we have sought Him, and He has given us rest on every side.” So they built and prospered.
Like Asa, we should build during peaceful times. While Asa strengthened his nation physically, we should strengthen ourselves spiritually. Pray and read the Word regularly. Serve the body of Christ. We do not serve others so they will serve us. We serve others because we want to serve Christ, but one blessing often produced is brothers and sisters who will “weep with [us when we] weep” and “suffer with [us]” when we suffer (Romans 12:15b, 1 Corinthians 12:26a). I have seen people enter trials and become frustrated that nobody was there for them, but in most of those cases they were not there for others who were “weeping” and “suffering.”
Unfortunately, during peaceful times, we are often tempted to do the opposite of build, and that is to relax. Then we are unprepared when trials come.
Let me illustrate the danger of this with a sports analogy. I attended a small high school. Our football team had less than twenty players. While I have no doubt I would not have played much at a more competitive school, at my school I was the running back, punt returner, and kickoff returner. As a result, I was often tackled, and it taught me there are two ways to be hit. The most common and desirable way is when it is expected. You know you will be tackled, so you prepare for the hit. The other tackle type takes place when you are blindsided. Since you did not expect to be hit, you are unprepared, and it can be devastating. The point? Sadly, many people are like football players running down the field, unprepared for the trial about to blindside them.
As a pastor, I have seen people become serious about their relationships with the Lord once they are in a trial. Then they begin praying, reading the Bible, and attending church consistently. God uses trials to bring people to Himself, so this is better than not engaging in these spiritual activities; however, this is far from the ideal approach. What if Asa built his nation after an enemy attacked him? Should a student begin studying the day of a test? Should a couple plan for retirement when they retire? Should parents start discipling their children when they become teenagers? Likewise, people should not begin preparing for trials when they are experiencing one.
Athletes and soldiers spend years preparing for competitions and combat. Should Christians compare themselves with athletes and soldiers? Paul thought so! He said a Christian “must endure hardship as a good soldier of Jesus Christ…that he may please Him who enlisted him as a soldier” (2 Timothy 2:3–4), and he called Epaphroditus and Archippus “fellow soldiers” (Philippians 2:25, Philemon 1:2). We are commanded to wear armor and carry a sword (Ephesians 6:11–17). Paul compared the Christian life to a race (1 Corinthians 9:24–25, 2 Timothy 4:7, Hebrews 12:1). Like athletes and soldiers must prepare physically, so must Christians prepare spiritually. When believers are spiritually lazy, they should expect to struggle with trials as much as physically lazy athletes and soldiers would struggle during combat and athletic competitions.
Moving back to Asa, he strengthened his nation during times of peace, and this left him prepared when the time came. Second Chronicles 14:8–10 continues:
And Asa had an army of three hundred thousand from Judah who carried shields and spears, and from Benjamin two hundred and eighty thousand men who carried shields and drew bows; all these were mighty men of valor.
Then Zerah the Ethiopian came out against them with an army of a million men and three hundred chariots, and he came to Mareshah. So Asa went out against him, and they set the troops in battle array in the Valley of Zephathah at Mareshah.
We all face trials, and Asa was no exception. One of the most formidable armies recorded in Scripture came against him. His five hundred eighty thousand soldiers sound impressive until you read that the Ethiopians numbered one million. No, we do not face armies that greatly outnumber us, but we do face trials that make us feel as desperate as Asa felt. He was completely distressed, and to his credit, he responded wonderfully. Second Chronicles 14:11–12 records:
And Asa cried out to the Lord his God, and said, “Lord, it is nothing for You to help, whether with many or with those who have no power; help us, O Lord our God, for we rest on You, and in Your name we go against this multitude. O Lord, You are our God; do not let man prevail against You!” So the Lord struck the Ethiopians before Asa and Judah, and the Ethiopians fled.
This is what it looks like to turn to the Lord during a difficult trial. Asa praised God’s strength and poured out his heart to Him. Write this prayer down. Circle it, highlight it, or underline it in your Bible. Asa’s trial was the Ethiopian army, but our trial might be a job loss, cancer diagnosis, unfaithful spouse, or rebellious child. When the trial comes, follow Asa’s example and cry out to God for help.
The Greater Victory God Provides
God honored Asa’s dependence on Him by fighting on his behalf and striking down the Ethiopians. At this point, I wish I could write: “If you depend on the Lord, He will strike down whatever trial you face. He will give you a better job. He will heal the cancer. He will bring your unfaithful spouse or rebellious child to repentance.” The problem is, this would not be true. God might not do any of those things regardless of your spiritual maturity or faith.
In a discussion of the godliest Christians, the Apostle Paul would have to be considered, if not placed at the top of the list. He suffered from “a thorn” that affected him so much he “pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from [him]” (2 Corinthians 12:8). In 2 Corinthians 11:23–29, Paul listed his sufferings for Christ, and they included imprisonments, whippings, near-death experiences, beatings, stoning, shipwrecks, sleeplessness, hunger, thirst, and nakedness. This man was acquainted with trials, so for him to pray three times that God would remove something reveals how terrible it must have been. Despite Paul’s godliness, instead of removing the thorn, God told him, “My grace is sufficient for you” (2 Corinthians 12:9a). God gave him the grace he needed to endure the difficult trial.
We do not know what the thorn was—whether it was physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual—which allows us to apply it to any suffering we experience. We pray for God to remove trials like Paul prayed for God to remove the thorn. If God does not remove the trial like He did not remove Paul’s thorn, then we must also trust God’s grace will be sufficient to endure the trial like it was sufficient for Paul to endure the thorn.
The most extreme consequence of a trial is death. What happens if “the thorn” takes our lives—how does that reveal God’s sufficiency? In 1 Corinthians 15:26, Paul calls death our “enemy” and then in 1 Corinthians 15:54–57, he writes:
So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.”
“O Death, where is your sting?
O Hades, where is your victory?”
The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Death is capitalized to personify it as an enemy that Jesus defeated. Asa faced the Ethiopians, and Death is an enemy we face. To illustrate the finality of Christ’s victory over Death, Revelation 20:14 says, “Death [is] cast into the lake of fire.” If a trial takes our lives, then God’s grace is sufficient through Christ’s victory over Death. Just as God fought for Asa and gave him the victory over the enemy he faced, so too has He fought for us and given us the victory over the enemy we face.
Hebrews 11 contains a collection of the great men and women of faith. Toward the end of the chapter two groups are identified. The first group is in verses 33–35a:
Through faith [they] subdued kingdoms, worked righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, became valiant in battle, turned to flight the armies of the aliens. Women received their dead raised to life again.
What a fantastic account of victories! This might be the most condensed list of triumphs in all of Scripture. Immediately after this though, the second group is listed in verses 35b–38:
Others were tortured…[they] had trial of mockings and scourgings, yes, and of chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, were tempted, were slain with the sword. They wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented—of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, in dens and caves of the earth.
What a heavy account of sufferings! This might be the most condensed list of defeats in all of Scripture. Why the difference between the two groups? Did the second group lack faith? Were they lesser Christians than the first group? Not at all. They were wonderful men and women of God. For reasons not revealed, God allowed completely different outcomes for two equally faith-filled groups of people. From earth’s perspective, it looks as though God did not give the second group victories over the trials they faced, but from heaven’s perspective “the world was not worthy” of them. They were too good for this world, so God removed them from it. In Philippians 1:21, Paul said, “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain” and they gained the victory of being ushered into heaven.
The Danger of Daily Trials
James 1:2 says, “You fall into various trials…” and 1 Peter 1:6 says, “You have been grieved by various trials…” The words “you” and “various” reveal the personal and unique nature of trials. For Asa, he faced an Ethiopian army that was almost twice the size of his army. For others, their trials were considerably different:
- Joseph was betrayed by his brothers and sold into slavery.
- Job lost most of his loved ones and experienced terrible physical suffering.
- David was hunted by King Saul for years.
- Ezekiel’s wife was killed.
- The Apostle John was exiled on the island of Patmos.
Each of these trials was personal and unique to the individuals, and the trials we experience are personal and unique to us. Although that creates a similarity between us and the people in Scripture, the problem is we are often given the most dramatic events from their lives. Most trials we experience daily are of a much smaller magnitude. Only a handful of times do we experience suffering that could be considered life-changing. The rest of our lives are filled with trials that could be fittingly described by Jesus: “And the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house” (Matthew 7:25a and 27a).
What imagery is created by the words “beat on that house”? These are the trials that take place daily and can even become unrecognizable because of their regularity. These storms beat on us at work, home, school, while raising children, and the list goes on until we—like the house in the parable—feel as though we are going to collapse. Who has not said, “I cannot do this anymore! I do not know if I will make it through one more day.” Many people have honorably endured great trials, but then found themselves too weak to endure the strain of sleepless nights with babies, unpleasant co-workers, obnoxious neighbors, marriage struggles, financial issues, and health problems.
In November 2015, Czech pilot, Zbynek Abel, was forced to perform an emergency landing of his Aero L-159 Alco subsonic attack jet when it collided with a bird. The aircraft was armed with powerful weapons that could destroy other planes and attack cities, but it was downed by a bird hundreds of times smaller and had no powerful engine, deadly weapons, or skilled pilot.3 In the same way, small trials can threaten to take us down, making them as dangerous as the large trials we fear most. We know people who have endured great trials, whether it is a disease, physical handicap, or the loss of a loved one. We are challenged by their endurance, wondering how we would respond if we were in their place. Although, this creates a danger if we, like the attack jet, only “arm” ourselves for the large trials of life.
What is the solution to these daily trials? Jesus provided the answer: “whoever hears these sayings of Mine, and does them, I will liken him to a wise man who built his house on the rock: and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it did not fall, for it was founded on the rock” (Matthew 7:24–25).
Asa needed to build a strong foundation during times of peace to endure the trial of the Ethiopian army that could have collapsed his nation. Similarly, we need a strong foundation to endure the trials that can lead to the collapse of our lives. That foundation is obedience to Christ. Jesus promised obeying His teaching enables us to survive the storms of life we can all expect.
- Why should it be encouraging to remember God is in control while you are in the middle of a trial?
- Have you been “building your walls” during times of peace? If yes, how? If not, how will you build in the future?
- Discuss three trials you experienced that are common to all Christians.
- Discuss three trials you experienced that were unique to you.
- Describe a victory God gave you from a trial.
- What daily trials do you experience that you need to be aware of, because of their potential to wear you down?