I don’t know how many times I have done this.
I wake up on Sunday morning and I have serious problems, normal human problems. Maybe I am sore-boned and tired. I don’t want to go anywhere, much less to church. Maybe I have a personal problem. I have done something I am not proud of and I can’t shake off the sin residue. Maybe I am distracted by the news of the day. Some personage has done something that angers me and I carry that irritation into my day of worship. These vague references are used to illustrate my normal life, my life in Christ. My life (to use a cliché) is not a bowl of cherries.
I am beset with “inward trials.”
My trials don’t sound that bad, but for some, the challenges of life can be downright debilitating. Yet we are promised that as we are made right with Jesus we will have a new birth in the Spirit with a new life in the power of Jesus’s resurrection. How could we be having these problems? How could we be having these struggles?
“I am a Christian now.”
“My life should be much better.”
Hold on says Packer, the reason we have these unrealistic expectations is that we don’t do a good job with what he calls our “evangelical ministry.” That is a major problem that can lead to good people falling away from a relationship with God.
Let’s explore what he calls the “misapplication” of Scripture in this situation.
When justification occurs, normal Christian living should be a “bed of roses.” “Everything in the garden is lovely all the time, and problems no longer exist—or, if they come, they have only to be taken to the throne of grace, and they will melt away at once. This is to suggest that the world, the flesh and the devil will give us no serious trouble once we are Christians; nor will our circumstances and personal relationships ever be a problem to us; nor will we ever be a problem to ourselves” [Packer, 245].
If we oversell being born again, eventually the new Christian will experience bitter disillusionment.
Why does this happen?
Preachers or well-intentioned Christians want to bring new people to God. That’s our call, to evangelize the world; Mark 16: 15 says “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.” That means tell people about God and His Son Jesus Christ. “The preacher wants to win his hearers to Christ; therefore he glamorizes the Christian life, makes it sound as happy and carefree as he can, in order to allure them” . We will experience the wonderful forgiveness of all our sins and we will have peace. Our conscience will no longer bother us as we fellowship with God our Father. We now have the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and those sins that used to master us are a problem no more. God gives us the power over sin. He also furnishes guidance, self-fulfillment and improved personal relationships. In short, we are going to have our “hearts desire” in life.
This is what we get when we give our life to Christ.
Long-term Christians or mature Christians listen to this message and take it “with a grain of salt.” They have been through the peaks and the valleys. They know life has its challenges and for the most part it is a steady effort to move ahead toward a more righteous life. They have experienced their new birth and they have left their old problems behind, but they know that longstanding problems don’t disappear overnight. Serious temptations are still there and they can reappear and sometimes even intensify. God does not promise that their lives will be easier; sometimes life gets even more difficult.
Mature Christians know that their faith may be tested. As daily problems occur, daily dying to sin is a part of life. War with satan is never over. It is endless. Life if not a constant walk in God’s light. There are times when it seems that we walk in darkness.
This is a key time in the new Christian’s life. Maybe overselling has occurred and a trouble-free life has been promised but Packer writes “Inadequacy and imperfection pile up on him (the new Christian), that he must have lapsed from normal. ‘Something’s gone wrong,” he will say, ‘it isn’t working any more!’ And his question will be, how can it be made to ‘work’ again?”
What is the purpose of all of this?
How can God allow this to happen? He has control of everything in life; there must be some purpose for this common problem.
Here is the short term answer. God truly is there for us when we give Him our lives. He is a source of joy, He is our Guide, He is a powerful advocate, but He does not take away life’s hardships. God wants us to grow strong in our faith and life challenges us to do just that. As we meet our problems head on with God, we are able to persevere in our faith; we can bear more. Packer says we are able to operate in a “tougher school.” He exposes us to as much pressure as we can bear, not more than we can bear but just enough. 1 Corinthians 10:13 says “No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; He will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, He will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.”
Through the challenges of life, He builds our character, He strengthens our faith and He prepares us to help others. “Thus He crystallizes our sense of values. Thus He glorifies Himself in our lives, making His strength perfect in our weakness” .
The evangelical ministry is essential to the maintenance and growth of Christianity in the world today, yet to get it wrong is to endanger the young Christian’s life. To overemphasize the good and ignore the bad is cruel. Misapplication of Scripture about beginning a new life in Christ can result in people falling away from God and maybe worse, telling the tale of His inadequacy.
If we scale down the problems of sin and the problems of life after the born-again experience we are losing touch with the overarching purpose of our Lord and Savior.
He is there for us.
In the good times.
In the bad times.
All the time.
*the title of chapter 21 of J.I. Packer’s Knowing God