An Ocean Away: why we can rejoice in tribulation

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There is a story of a young girl who attempted to swim from the mainland of Southern California to a small island off the coast called Catalina, a twenty-six mile swim. She had practiced for months leading up to this day and there was a boat to accompany her for safety and recording purposes. She set out with purpose and excitement. The day was foggy and visibility was only about twenty feet. All she could see was the ocean and endless fog. She swam for what felt like an eternity and after much internal struggle she called out for the boat to pick her up. When she was pulled up to the boat she looked forward and saw that the island was only about a hundred and fifty yards away. She immediately told the crew members that if she had only known how close the island was that she would have had ample strength to finish. She ended up doing the swim again about a month later on a sunny day and finished the challenge with comparative ease.
So often this is the story of our life, we just do not often get the chance to see that it is so. There are several truths in Scripture that give us insight into how to view trials and this story illustrates many of them. First and foremost it is evident from Scripture that God is in control of our the circumstances in our lives and everything else. God is also our good Father: “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:11) From these we can safely conclude that “for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28) So why then do we experience evil, pain, and hardship? Scripture seems to give an answer for that question: “Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance,and endurance produces character, and character produces hope,and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” (Romans 5:3-5) But some of the things in our life are too bad to possibly be good for us! Well God has an answer for that too. When Job cries out to God against the injustice done to him he gets a humbling reply: “Then the Lord spoke to Job out of the storm. He said:

“Who is this that obscures my plans
    with words without knowledge?
Brace yourself like a man;
    I will question you,
    and you shall answer me.

“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
    Tell me, if you understand.
Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!”
And the reply goes on and on. Ultimately, God knows what He is doing, you must trust Him. Why is this encouraging? Because God shows up when Job cries out. Also, because we know that God is a good Father and ALL things work for our benefit in His grace. Well this trial is just too hard for me. “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” (1 Cor. 10:13) That one hits me so powerfully. There is no room for a self-centered viewing of our tribulations “no temptation… that is not common to man.” The real power comes from the fact that God really knows what we are going through, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” (Hebrews 4:15) Wow.
So we know that everything works for our good, the God who loves us better than we can comprehend is in control, we gain endurance, character, and hope through tribulation, and we will never be tempted beyond our ability to endure because God will always provide grace and a way of escape. When we are in the midst of the trial, we need to remember these truths. My grandpa used to say, “Are you magnifying God or the problem?” Magnify Him who is bigger and truer than any tribulation. God is bigger than the boogie man. The Psalms can truly assist in this as they lament the pain of life but always exalt God over the problems. The psalmist constantly reminds his soul to praise the One who is worthy, who was good in the past, is good now, and will be good forever (here I use good in its most robust sense). My grandpa also used to say, “Pain is not your enemy, fear is.” That’s a shot to the gut of the Western instant gratification/avoid suffering at all cost/pseudo-utilitarian worldview. When swimming through the ocean of life (too many ocean references for one blog? maybe…) remember that “for now we see in a mirror dimly” and, while we get glimpses, God knows where the island is and He is guiding us towards it. It really can feel like all is lost and the shore of peace and joy will never be reached, but maybe you are just in the fog and the end is around the corner if you could only see. But even in this scenario trust in God is paramount and a focus on our own strength will only prove our inability to gain the shore without Him. In life the story of the girl would have been more analogous to our walk if her dad had been holding her up while she paddled. If you have ever held a child like this you know that they are actually not doing anything to assist in their own propulsion, but they are learning to swim. In life God is taking us through step by step and every trial is meant to teach us to rely more on Him and less on our own strength. He is guiding us. He is shaping us. And He will see us safely home.

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