The greatest tests of faith come either when life is going well (prosperity) or when it seems to be falling apart (trials). How can I keep my focus in life during both of these distracting times? A few years ago, when the prayer of Jabez was getting all the attention and selling many books, I became enamored with another obscure prayer in Scripture. It was prayed by a little-known wisdom writer named Agur and recorded in Proverbs 30:7-9:

Two things I ask of you, LORD;
do not refuse me before I die;
Keep falsehood and lies far from me;
give me neither poverty nor riches,
but give me only my daily bread.

Agur was asking God for wisdom to live an HONEST life, both in the words he spoke and in the simplicity of his life. Perhaps even more profound is the reasoning he gives for avoiding the two extremes of riches or poverty:

Otherwise I may have too much and disown you
and say, ‘Who is the LORD?’
Or I may become poor and steal,
and so dishonor the name of my God.

Agur’s wisdom reminds us of the two most challenging times for us to live for God. When we enjoy material prosperity, we can easily forget about God and begin to trust in ourselves . . . to take life into our own hands.  But the same thing can happen in times of great trial (Agur’s illustration is extreme poverty). Then too we might miss seeing the hand of God in the midst of a trial, and again take life in our own hands. Remember, the greatest tests of faith come either when life is going well (prosperity) or when it seems to be falling apart (trials). Make sure you keep your focus upon God in both of these times!

My intent in this and several other blogs is to take a deeper look at the role of trials or suffering in our Christian experience (see earlier blog ‘When Things Go Wrong’ posted Oct 12). Sometimes the experience of a trial provides the deepest soil in which faith can grow to maturity. Like Agur, most of us do not welcome the difficulties of life, and we pray fervently that God would prevent or deliver us from them. This is truly a normal human response, and such requests are found often in Scripture. Yet, trials are an inevitable part of life and should not surprise us (James 1:2; 2 Tim 3:12; 1 Peter 4:12; John 16:33).

Somehow trusting in God through a trial develops qualities of perseverance, deepened character, and maturity. It can be likened to the physical process of an athlete “getting in shape.” I enjoyed participating in high school sports, especially basketball and track. I still remember the words of my coaches as we labored to get in shape at the beginning of each season: “No pain, no gain.” The process of physical conditioning was never fun, and there were no short cuts to get there. In the midst of tough training . . . when you feel like giving up . . . the only thing that keeps you going is hope. Hope that this will pay off in the end. That is exactly what God promises:

 . . . we also rejoice in our sufferings,
because we know that suffering produces perseverance,
and perseverance, [proven] character,
and character, hope.
And hope does not disappoint us,
because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit
whom he has given us (Rom 5:3-5)

In many of the passages about trials in Scripture we find closely associated the attitude of joy or rejoicing (e.g. Rom 5:3; James 1:2; 1 Pet 1:6; 4:13). This makes no sense if we look only at the trial (that would be a masochist). But it does make sense if we keep our focus on the potential results of a trial—bringing greater glory to God, and a spiritual growth process that can only come through tested faith.

Remember, when we go through our deepest trials, God may be doing his greatest work! He may be producing results that can come in no other way. Let’s be honest. As we reflect back over life’s experiences, is it during prosperous times that we become strong? Rarely. It is in the midst of trials where real growth happens.  “It is not by miraculous deliverance that our faith grows, but by discovering His faithfulness in the midst of our pain.”[1]

Sometimes when we pray, God seems to be deaf . . . and at times he is completely silent. Klaus Issler’s words remind us that God’s lingering silence may be intended to “move us into a place of painful self-awareness regarding the truth about ourselves, which we would not (and could not) do on our own, with the intent to dissuade us and cure us from trusting in ourselves or trusting in the feelings of spirituality.”[2]David, in the midst of intense persecution and likely a fugitive running for his life from Saul, prayed this prayer in Psalm 13:

How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
and every day have sorrow in my heart?
How long will my enemy triumph over me? (Ps. 13:1-2)

This is an honest lament cried out to God. “Lord, I’m hurting, my enemy is winning, and it feels like you have forgotten me.” Yet out of this experience David concludes the Psalm with these confident words of trust:

But I trust in your unfailing love;
my heart rejoices in your salvation.
I will sing to the LORD,
for he has been good to me. (vv. 5-6)

Several years ago I promised to pray for a friend who was in the midst of a tremendous personal trial. In our conversation he said that he appreciated my prayers for his deliverance, but asked me to also pray for the grace to endure the trial, however long that might be. And then he said something I will never forget. “I think I am learning that I don’t want to waste any of the experiences God allows into my life.” I cannot say that I have faith that strong, but I want to view life with that perspective!

More to come . . . [3]

[1]Margaret Clarkson, Destined for Glory: The Meaning of Suffering (Grand Rapids, Mich., Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1983), 84

[2]Klaus Issler, Wasting Time with God: A Christian Spirituality of Friendship with God, (Downers Grove, IL, InterVarsity Press, 2001), 143-44

[3]Several more blogs will follow in weeks to come, 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, I have published a book, 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.