Thanksgiving day 2011 has come and gone. Like many families, it has always been for us a time when the relatives gather together. Like many Christian families, we try to remember in a more intentional way the blessings God has bestowed upon us. But unlike most families, on Thanksgiving Day we are painfully reminded of another memory . . .

In 1983, on Thanksgiving Day, my wife’s brother committed suicide. Fortunately, the passing of time has provided a buffer to the thoughts and emotions we experienced on that day. The Lord has healed the deep waves of despair, and the helplessness we experienced then. But I will always remember how that traumatic event grabbed the immediate attention of our whole family. My wife and I, with our two young daughters, were just sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner with friends . . .  then within minutes the series of phone calls . . . the devastating news . . . on our way to the airport to be with our extended family 1,500 miles away. 

How quickly life changes. The trials of life, especially the unexpected ones, have a way of capturing our attention like nothing else. C. S. Lewis wrote, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains. It is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”[1]His words capture the relative effects of various forms of God’s experiential “voice.” And sometimes that “voice” is simply trying to get our attention. Trials and experiences of suffering have an uncanny way of drawing our attention back to the things that really matter . . .

 . . . away from the trivial to that which is really important . . . away from being self-centered to become others-centered . . . away from spiritual apathy or sin to a stronger walk with God . . .away from materialism to valuing people and relationships. In the days following 9/11, this happened on a national level. While that tragedy directly affected thousands, the ripple effect reached across our country. At least for a short time everyone shared in an experience that moved us to re-evaluate life . . .to re-assess priorities . . . to hug a wife, a husband, a friend more tightly. So, it is with personal trials. In our relationship with God, if we allow them to accomplish what God wants for us, we will see through the clutter and look at life with fresh commitment to the things that really matter.

In recent weeks I have posted blogs that deal with finding purpose in the trials of life.[2]Among those purposes is the reality that God may allow suffering to draw our attention back to important things, especially our walk with God. Has a pattern of sin gained a foothold in your life? Has apathy caused your love for God to grow cold? God’s wisdom in the Scriptures depicts his fatherly role at those times:

. . . My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and  he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.  Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons . . . we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it.  How much more should we submit to the Father of our spirits and live!  Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness.  No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful.  Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. (Heb. 12:5-11 NIV)

While trials may come upon us for a variety of reasons . . .  the effects of living in fallen world. . . sometimes our own sin . . . sometimes spiritual warfare . . . God wants us to view that situation as a time of honest reflection. Please do not misconstrue my words, for the Bible is clear about this: Not all trials or times of suffering come as a result of personal sin. The Old Testament story of Job clearly makes this point (to be developed in a later blog). But, during trials God may be calling our attention to sin. Like a loving parent, he seeks our repentance and restoration to a deeper walk with him.

Finally, to appreciate the infinite wisdom of our God, we must look at one more possibility. Sometimes God may allow a trial into our lives to protect us from the destruction of potential sin. That’s right, an all-wise God who knows you best may through a trial actually protect you from future sin and destruction. In 2 Corinthians 12:1-10, Paul give us an example of a trial in his own life:

. . . Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. (1 Cor. 12:7 NIV)

We do not know exactly what Paul’s “thorn” was, but presumably he suffered some sort of chronic physical ailment. Even after persistent prayer, God refused to remove it. For what purpose? According to Paul, because his background and amazing revelations would have led him to arrogance, it was this trial that protected him from the sin of pride. We must acknowledge that we may never fully know the sin and destruction God protects us from, and he sometimes does it in ways we would not have chosen.

Some years ago I interviewed the director of the UCLA Pain Management Center, who teaches graduate students and medical interns about the subject of physical pain. He told me more than I could ever imagine about the complex system in our bodies that senses and responds to pain. As an internationally renowned expert on this subject, he admitted that despite sophisticated scientific analysis, we know almost nothing about how the human brain interprets and appropriately responds to all the sensory information it receives. What we do know is the body’s response to the source of pain is what saves us from great harm. In his words, pain is a “gift from God,” a Creator who was extremely careful in how he designed this profound warning system.

We can say the same about God’s spiritual “warning systems.” Trials are never pleasant, and most often unexpected and uninvited. But if we seek to understand their purpose, we discover that through them God wants to divert our attention to the things that really matter.

More to come . . . [3]

[1]C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (London: Collins, 1940), 81.

[2]See earlier blogs by me dated Oct 12 and Nov 8, 2011.

[3]More blogs will follow in January, as we explore some of the biblical purposes for the trials of our lives. I hope these will be helpful to you in your Christian experience and ministry to others. If you desire to go into more depth in your study, perhaps even discussing this topic in a small group in your church,  check out Thinking Right When Things Go Wrong (Kregel Press, 2005). The book also includes discussion questions at the end of each chapter that can be easily used in a small group setting.