That’s what J.I. Packer calls troubles. That’s what he calls times when we are confused by life and our response to it and we can begin to doubt our faith in God. That’s when we lose our peace about our lives, when things are not right. That is not the life of a Christian is it? Loss of peace? Our inward trials can come from how we handle the temptations in life, when we spiral into sinning and feel distant from God. We ask ourselves “Why did I do that? How did I get here? and How can I overcome this impulse to do wrong?”
Does this sound familiar?
Sadly, it does for me and I am a born again Christian who gave his life to Christ twenty-two years ago.
All of us have “inward trials.” These times are a part of life. Before I became a believer, I struggled to get through hard times. After I became a believer, I struggled to get through hard times.
Before I believed, when I experienced problems in life I suffered from stress and anxiety. There were times when I felt great fear about my life and certainly great fear about the future. When problems came [depending on their severity], I even had times when I had depression. I never plunged headlong into chronic depression; my depression for the most part was situational. There were times when I was even saddened to the point of having to go for help [short term counseling and short term medication help].
Before I believed, I did not deal well with the temptations of life. I was a regular “church-goer” but mostly I attended out of a sense of duty. I listened to countless sermons that seemed addressed to someone else. I attended countless Sunday school classes that gave me some socialization with good people but I rarely took the message of the lesson personally.
When I fell into sin I knew I was doing something wrong. Yet I had no idea about how to deal with it other than feeling some vague sense of guilt. I knew about heaven and hell and of course I preferred heaven as my final destination. Death seemed a long way off and I figured I had time to find some strength from somewhere to straighten out my life. I sure did not feel strength coming from the church, because the teaching did not seem relevant for me. Others seemed to be getting something out of it, or at least they were very good at faking their enthusiasm about the teaching. I even doubted the sincerity of their “Christian” lives. Everything was just too perfect.
Life was just unfolding for me, the church goer, but when hard times came, I struggled.
As I wrote above, before I believed in God I met my “inward trials” with stressful responses and anxious responses. Life for me was not a continual succession of problems. I had times when things went well and I could relax; rarely is life totally dreadful. My life before finding God was not totally dreadful.
Twenty-two years ago I experienced something that dramatically changed my life. Dramatic change is not something that all people can relate to. They don’t come to Christ due to some trauma, or some colossal mistake that they make. Sometimes God does call to us in the midst of drama.
He spoke to me in such a time.
I found myself confronted with a problem that was beyond my ability to handle. It crushed me. This is not an exaggeration when I say that my life could be compared to an airplane. My “plane” was climbing higher and higher [or so I thought] and suddenly it started heading back to earth. It was in a tailspin, a rapid out of control descent.
I was in the middle of the greatest inward trial of my life and I had nothing to help me get through it, nothing.
I remember the morning when the problem became obvious. I plunged headlong into a traumatic response. Panic set it. I knew my life was never going to be the same, but I had to do something with that day. I had to go to the college where I was a full-time faculty member. I had to teach class, meet with students, grade papers [all that teacher stuff I was paid to do].
My problem was so life altering that some would say I could justify taking some time off from my job. My problem was so distressing that some would say I could justify anger and hatefulness. I could have ruined lives.
God said “go to work.”
Some will read that and think how stupid. Here we have another Bible-believing fanatic who thinks God spoke to him and in his delusion he is making a big deal out of three words that he probably just imagined he heard. The problem is that I was not a Bible-believing anything. I was just a guy who was meeting the inward trials of my life with stress and anxiety, not really knowing what to do. I just worked my way through my problems with little to help me and here I was: facing the biggest problem of my life and “go to work” was a surprise.
I really felt God was telling me to carry on with my life, not upsetting a great number of people. I did not need to unleash information that would make life harder for others. I needed to keep my problem to myself, but I did do one thing.
For the first time in my life, I cried out for help for me to do His will.
Everyone has heard of “fox-hole prayers.” Those are prayers that are prayed when things are at their most difficult, when you are pressed beyond your ability to handle the situation. In desperation “the soldier” cries, help me out of this God. Quid pro quo usually occurs because the soldier promises God that he will do better, change something that needs to be changed.
My prayers that morning were fox hole prayers because I was in a situation that was impossibly difficult but little did I know that God would reward me the way He did for obeying His command that morning.
I did His will. I went to work.
That morning, that traumatic morning was the beginning of my life with Christ.
Was it instantaneous?
It truly was just a beginning. I had no idea what was going to happen in my life due to this event. I had no idea that God would put a platoon of Christians in my life to get me started down the road to know Him. These people loved on me, empathized with me and steered me toward the Bible and toward a relationship with God. To this point I never understood those crazy Christians who loved to talk about relationship with God. What did that mean?
Suddenly Church was not a duty. I wanted to go and every sermon seemed to relate to me, my problem and my spiritual growth. I started attending a Sunday school class and those people welcomed me in their midst and as some of them heard about what I was going through, they did not judge me. The showed me with what some would call “unconditional love.” I sought other opportunities to learn about God, attending workshops and retreats. I am a teacher so a big part of my experience was learning about God, not just experiencing Him. I wanted to know more. Eventually after attending a retreat, the power of our Savior was so strong at this retreat that I made a public declaration of my belief and upon returning home, I was drawn to a book I had never seriously read before: my Bible. I read the New Testament like my life depended on it. Every page held helpful information; I could not get enough.
Twenty-two years ago.
The greatest spiritual highs came from the lowest point in my life. If I had not had to cry out to God I would have never found Him, I would have never taken Him seriously.
I have had several “inward trials” since my born again experience but those trials were met head on with some power that I have now that made all the difference. I experience less stress and anxiety today due to my growing faith. Trauma has occurred and will continue to occur but I have a God who helps me now to meet trauma head on. I can tell anyone of His presence in the midst of my troubles if they care to ask and they want to listen. His power is real.
As scripture that I read twenty-two years ago became my mantra: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” *
I give God total credit.
We often hear the misquoted adage “God works in mysterious ways.” We think it is from the Bible but it’s not. ** The closest Scripture to this sentiment I can find is in Isaiah 55:8-9, “ ‘For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Nor are your ways My ways,’ says the Lord.” He does work in ways we don’t understand but that is ok. He is God; I am a man, but I am more than just a man. I am a believer in God, a child of God.
Inward trials are a part of my life. They are a part of everyone’s life. When troubles come I may be a bit confused but that does not mean that I am ready to doubt the existence of God. When I lose my peace about life, I don’t think that is a permanent problem; I turn to God in prayer and more often than not, I can get some peace to return. When I fall prey to temptation, I can get distant from God because I am disappointed in my behavior, but I remember that I am a man who has many faults, but God loves me despite my faults. He wants to help me work through my problems; He wants me to grow beyond where I am today. He wants to extend His loving grace to me, a believer.
As we begin to close Chapter twenty-one of Packer’s Knowing God he pinpoints the reason that Christians have problems with inward trials.
They lose sight of grace.
Twenty-two years ago I did not even understand grace. I do today and I am thankful that I know what it means. In the next post, we will explore what happens to all believers who lose sight of grace. For me, grace is all about growth in faith, growth in belief, for we are bound to fall short in life.
We may do things to hurt our relationship with God, but He wants to have a relationship with us anyway. He does that through His grace.
Certain expressions make an impression on us and as I recall my past, I recall an expression that has meant so much to me, an expression of growth: “I am not where I should be but I am sure better than where I used to be.”
I want to continue to grow, continue to learn more about God, continue to strengthen my relationship with Him.
Part of that growth is how God and I handle my inward trials.
**from William Cowper’s poem “Light Shining out of Darkness”