Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. [1 Peter 4.12]
We have seen that there is so much more to the Christian life than being saved and going to heaven. It is God's will that we grow up into maturity, allowing the life of Jesus to be formed in us, that he might reach the lost through his Body, the church. We need to be empowered by his Holy Spirit in order to be effective witnesses to Jesus. We are called to press on to the higher calling, to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of us. That life takes place within the context of the Body of Christ, the local and universal fellowship of believers in which we are edified, encouraged, taught, corrected, fed and guided.
But there is another, equally vital part of this life in Christ. We are disciples of Jesus. A disciple is one who is being trained, disciplined, instructed in the ways and means of his calling. We often think of discipline as a negative thing, as a form of punishment for when we do wrong, and so we react badly to the idea of being disciplined. But, while it is true that discipline can often be difficult to take, it is an essential part of our training in maturity. As Scripture says clearly:
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. [Hebrews 12.10-11.]
Discipline, therefore, is not an unusual thing, something which happens as a punishment for our failures and sin. As we come to gradually understand the deep and amazing love God has for us, we realize that he does not punish us for our failures. All of the punishment which our sin deserves was laid on Jesus: "the punishment that brought us peace was upon him" [Isaiah 53.5]. John tells us that:
There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. [1 John 4.18]
But it may be asked, if we are not punished, then what is the discipline for? And why do we suffer, often painfully, in being disciplined by God. Discipline is actually an integral part of our training as mature Christians, the way in which the Lord conforms us to the image of Jesus. We need first of all to understand that nothing we do, nothing in all creation, can ever separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus [Romans 8.35-39]. Then we can examine the trials and temptations to see what is happening in those dark times.
There are many jobs in the world that require extensive training before a person is qualified to perform them. Doctors, for example, undergo years of class-room training and observation before being allowed to practice medicine. Even then, they spend some time under close supervision before being finally let loose on an unsuspecting public. Being a Christian is not like that: it is instead closer to the apprenticeship model. We receive "on-the-job" training, learning as we go, and putting into practice what we have been taught by experience. The type of training given depends on the nature of the work; a carpenter is not taught how to make horseshoes, and a weaver does not need to know how to build a dresser. So, what is the work a Christian is called to do?
There are very direct statements in the Scriptures about what work Jesus came to do:
The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil's work. [1 John 3.8]
Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death - that is, the devil - and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. [Hebrews 2.14- 15]
That is the work we have been commissioned to do also. We are the light of the world and the salt of the earth; we have been sent to extend the reign of the Kingdom of God into the areas once held by the kingdom of darkness. We have learned that we are saved to bring us to heaven, but we are sanctified in order to reach the lost and wage war against the devil.
For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armour of God... [Ephesians 5.12- 13]
But before going any further in examining this warfare, we must first remember something wonderful: Jesus has already disarmed the enemy! On the cross, Jesus destroyed the power of the devil, he broke his dominion on this planet. We, as Christians, have entered into that freedom, but the lost remain enslaved. We need to tell them the good news, the gospel:
And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross. [Colossians 2.15]
Not only are they disarmed, they are in submission to Jesus:
Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at God's right hand - with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him. [1 Peter 3.22]
Therefore, as long as we are living in submission to the Lordship of Jesus, not holding on to known sin or disobedience, then we are safe within the arms of Almighty Father.
Temptation and Warfare:
This may lead to an apparent contradiction. On the one hand. Satan is a completely defeated foe who was vanquished by Jesus. Jesus now holds the Keys of Hell and of Death, and we believers are covered by the Blood of the Lord. On the other hand, we are called to spiritual warfare, "our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers in the heavenly realms". Paul tells us to put on the whole armour of God so as to withstand the flaming arrows of the Evil One. There is the apparent contradiction: if Satan is defeated already, why do we have to fight against him over and over again? If we are now Sons of God and part of the victory of the Cross, why do we experience what we are calling "attacks of the Enemy"?
This is where we return to the idea of discipleship and training in maturity. We have to learn that, when we put on the armour of God in order to fight Satan, we are not fighting to save ourselves! We are saved already, we cannot be overcome by the Enemy, unless we refuse to use the armour the Lord has provided. We will speak about this later.
We know that anyone born of God does not continue to sin; the one who was born of God keeps him safe, and the evil one does not harm him. [1 John 5.18]
Look at the facts as we know them. From Job we learn that Satan needs God's permission before he can approach us. Unless the Lord allows it, the Enemy cannot come against us in any way. The authorities and powers are in submission to Jesus. Why then, would God allow Satan to work against us as he does? Because it is the Lord's will; and if God wants this attack, it can only be because he has his own purpose in mind. In other words, God allows Satan to come against us, because we have something to learn from God. Satan can never be more than a pawn in God's design for our lives. What Satan is going to bring against us, God wants to use for our growth. This is discipline, training in righteousness.
We are the Body of Christ on earth, the ones through whom the Lord has decided to work his will on this planet. When we are called to spiritual warfare, then, it is not in order to prevent Satan from destroying us, for he cannot do that anyway. No, we are fighting for the world; for the unsaved; we are fighting to work out God's rule on earth. The Lord is giving us the opportunity to exercise the authority that he has given us: to heal the sick, preach the gospel, deliver the captives. We also learn a tremendous amount about growing up in Christ. When Satan comes along and takes away our joy, or allows someone else to get credit for what we have done, we can quickly see how much we are still dependent on our emotions for our peace. If our feelings still dictate how healthy our walk with the Lord is, then we know we have much to learn about standing in the evil day. Satan often uses our emotions to steer us away from the Lord and his will for us. We feel too depressed, too unhappy, too hurt, or whatever, to walk in peace and victory. So God uses Satan's attacks to draw our attention to this fact so that we can recognize our condition and bring it to the Cross.
If we are aware of these schemes, the result is that Satan's attempts to bring us down and away from Christ, remind us instead of how much we need to be with him. God uses Satan to bring about the very opposite of what the Enemy is trying to do. That is something of what Paul meant when he said to put on the helmet of salvation: keep your mind fixed on the fact that you are a child of the Most High, regardless of how you feel. Be aware in your mind of how emotions can be abused by Satan to prevent you praying on behalf of others. He will make you so self-centred that you have no energy to spend on intercession for others. And intercession is a large part of spiritual warfare.
So, when we feel those emotional attacks, instead of asking the Lord why he is allowing these dreadful things to happen to us, we should immediately see them as God's way of getting our attention in order to point out something we need to learn. Not "Why, Lord?", but "What, Lord?" And it is not only at times of assault on our emotions that we need to react this way, but whenever it seems that "things aren't going right". And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him. (Romans 8.28) God is using these assaults of the Evil One to bring us to a place where we no longer rely on our emotions or happy circumstances for our peace with God and our effectiveness in the Kingdom. He wants us to be free of these limitations. Satan will try and make us angry with someone we should be praying for: so pray for those who anger you. Satan will make you too tired to pray or enjoy fellowship with the Lord: so take that as a hint from the Lord.
Now, that does not mean that we will always succeed in overcoming. There is nothing stopping us from overcoming; that is, everything that we need to overcome has been given us, but sometimes we just can't seem to overcome the weariness of spirit, or the strength of the emotions we are feeling. But practice makes perfect, and "you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect". The Word says that we are predestined to become like Jesus, (Romans 8.29) and there are so many other Scriptures that promise as much. Which brings us back to Paul's words on the armour of God. "Take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one" (Ephesians 6.16) Our faith, that is, our trust in the Lord, is the answer we need to the lies that Satan throws at us in our emotional turmoil. When we feel unloved, abandoned, unsure or unconvinced of God's truth, we can quench those arrows with the facts. Faith is being sure of what we hope for, and certain of what we don't see. Feelings have nothing to do with the facts of life, with the Truth. Furthermore, we should "take...the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God". God's word is the weapon we use to overcome, to fight in our spiritual warfare. Regardless of what the Liar says, we have the Word to contradict him and reveal the Truth. Each time Jesus was tempted in the wilderness, his answer was: "It is written...". We need to become acquainted with the weapons of our warfare, which Paul says, "have divine power":
The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. (2 Cor. 10.4-5)
We need to find out, and make clear to ourselves, exactly what the truth is: that we are saved and safe; that we have been given authority and must learn how to exercise it as Jesus did, in full submission to the Father; that we have been called to a battle on behalf of the Kingdom and that is why we experience Satan's unwelcome attentions. But there is more: we are more than conquerors through him who loved us (Romans 8.37); every move of Satan against us, whatever aim he has in mind, will only be used by the Lord for our benefit, to teach us about ourselves and our position in Christ, and give us the opportunity to exercise the authority we have been given as heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ.
Therefore, instead of fearing such attacks, instead of seeing them as something from which we need to be protected, we should recognize them as further lessons from the Lord for our education and growth. As long as we are walking with him, as long as we are wearing the armour and know the Truth which sets us free, then we are safe and cannot be touched by the assault, any more than Jesus was. We have authority as long as we are under his authority.
Some Christians become condemned simply because they are tempted in some way; but this is simply another temptation! Satan is allowed to tempt us, as he did Job. James warns us that trials will come, and we need to persevere. Look at the process James describes:
When tempted, no one should say 'God is tempting me'. For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death. [James 1.13-15]
The temptation is real: it is quite possible to fall. We can allow the thought, the desire, to took hold in our minds, and then we sin. It is not the temptation, but how we deal with it, that matters. Because, since Satan is disarmed and cannot harm us himself, we harm ourselves by deliberately entertaining temptation and willingly going against the will of God. We have the promise:
No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. 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 stand up under it. [1 Corinthians 10.13]
There it is: we do not have to give in to temptation. It is always our choice to sin, since we have been set free from slavery to sin and brought into the glorious freedom of the sons of God.
Satan's attacks, therefore, are simply allowed to give us the opportunity to put into practice what we have learned; to experience the truth of God's promises to us; to give us confidence in what God is doing in us as he conforms us to the image of his Son. Jesus said that the one who takes his words and "puts them into practice" builds his house on the rock. By dealing with temptation, we are building on the firm foundation.
At all times, we must encourage ourselves with the thought that Jesus, too, suffered temptation in every way that we do. Hebrews says directly:
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are - yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. [Hebrews 4.15-16]
The Gospels tell us a great deal about these temptations which Jesus endured. They are recorded, as with everything in Scripture, for our encouragement and instruction.
The first thing we are told concerning the temptation of Jesus supports the principle discussed in this chapter: that it is the initiative of God. Matthew makes it quite plain:
Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. [Matthew 4.1]
It was part of Jesus' training that he be tempted at this time. He had just been baptized by John. The Spirit had come upon him, resting on him, while the Father spoke: "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased". Then, after forty days of fasting, when he was hungry, weak and vulnerable, the devil was allowed to tempt him.
What was the point of these temptations? Basically, it was the same as applies when we are tempted in our own walk: who will we serve? Jesus had come to destroy the works of the devil. That would only be achieved by living a life of complete submission to the Father. Jesus did not come to be served, but to serve. We are told that it was his reverent submission, even to death, that won our freedom and broke the power of the enemy [Philippians 2.6-11]. The Fall of the human race had taken place because Adam and Eve did not continue in submission and obedience to the will of God, but decided to believe the lies of the devil and question the heart of God. Jesus was tempted in the same way, and so are we every time.
Much could be written about the individual temptations recorded in the Gospels, but I will simply point out some important features. Each approach of the devil tempted Jesus to take control. He was tempted to turn stones to bread to feed his own hunger. But the Spirit had led him to the desert to fast, and Jesus would not do (or say) anything that the Father did not lead him to. The second attack tempted him to make some dramatic gesture which would prove to the world that he was God, thereby taking a short cut through the will of the Father. But Jesus had come as a servant, not to draw attention to himself. He would follow the way the Father laid down, trusting in his love and wisdom. In the third attack, he was tempted by power. He knew who he was, and were he had come from. He knew what he could do, and yet was expected to veil that power, submit to the Father and refuse to take any glory for himself.
In every attack, Jesus countered the temptation of the enemy with the words: "It is written...". That is the weapon which is powerful against the lies of the devil. It is what Paul called "the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God", the weapon of the believer. It is the Word of Truth, our answer to the lies. When Satan insinuates his thoughts, as he did with Eve, by saying: "Did God say...?", we answer by quoting to him exactly what God has said on whatever issue is addressed. Remember this: whenever the enemy tempts you, he will distort the truth and lie. If you find a scripture that seems to permit sin, you can be sure it is taken out of context, or changed to suit the tempter. Take heed of Paul's advice:
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom. [Colossians 3.16]
And James has this to say on the subject of temptation:
Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God, and he will come near to you. [James 4.7-8]
One other lesson can be learned from the temptations of Jesus. Hebrews says that discipline later on produces a harvest of righteousness. Sometimes we can be tempted to do in our own strength what we know to be the will of God. We may be doing something for the right end, but if it is not the father's way, it is sin. Jesus was tempted to take short-cuts in the will of God, and refused. Look at the results:
1. Jesus was tempted to use his authority to turn stones to bread to feed his own hunger. He refused. Later, the Father led him to produce enough bread to feed five thousand people. He taught us that he is himself the Bread of Life, given to the world, broken that our spiritual hunger might be satisfied.
2. Jesus was tempted to throw himself off the top of the Temple in trust that the Father would save him, and so convince the people of what he was saying. He refused. Later, hanging on a cross, he looked down into Hell and Death. Then, committing himself to the Father, he threw himself down for our sake, and thereby saved us all.
3. He was tempted to serve Satan instead of the Father in order to win domination of the kingdoms of the world. He refused. Later, because of his obedience and submission, even to death on the cross, "God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord, to the glory of the Father".
Temptation, whatever form it takes, is always the same thing. We are tempted to question the Father. We question his love for us, his concern for us, his interest in us. We question his Word, and whether his promises are true. We question his ways, tempted to replace his plans with our own, and his thoughts with our own selfish and limited desires. That is how we are trained, disciplined in righteousness: we are given the opportunity to stand in the day of trial and be strengthened by his Spirit of grace. We can announce: "It is written...", and learn the truth of his word.
Sifting and Shaking:
It is not only through temptation that we are disciplined. In the life of every Christian, there are times when it seems everything they believe, everything they thought they knew, appears to be taken away. Nothing makes sense any more, and their spiritual life becomes dry and empty. This has been called "the dark night of the soul", and no-one reaches maturity in the Lord without going through that long night. It is relatively easy to die to self and submit to God's ways when we have peace or joy in our hearts, or when we have a sense of thankfulness and awe over the extent of the Lord's grace and mercy in our lives. But testing only begins when we no longer find it easy, when we lose all the positive emotional and psychological support that carries us through in normal times. Faith begins when feelings are no longer impelling us. We need to learn to say "Yes, Lord", when our emotions say "No!", when logic, reason, circumstances and our deepest desires point us away from obedience and trust. That is the dark night, when we must stand, as it were, naked before the dark, with nothing tangible to hold on to, no assurance, no peace, no power. In that moment, we need to throw ourselves on to the mercy of God, trusting that, regardless of all argument to the contrary, Jesus has told us the truth and will meet us in that place of darkness.
At other times, we find ourselves thrown out of our regular routines, everything we normally rely on for stability or support is taken away. Sometimes, this is a temporary situation we bring on ourselves deliberately, going away on vacation, for example, or taking a business trip. We leave our fellowship, our homes, our daily routines, for a short while and find it very hard to continue our normal prayer life. At other times, we are forced by circumstances out of the familiar and into the strange and distressing. Refugees know this experience, as do all those dislocated from home and community through disasters and wars.
At these times, it is easy for believers to lose track of God. They are preoccupied with serious issues: where to find shelter, food, warmth. It is as though they believe that the truths of the Gospel, which they claim to believe, only apply in "normal" times, and are somehow suspended during times of dislocation. The Lord, as someone said, is "put on hold" until things get back to normal. Once the usual routine is restored, then their Christian walk will also return to "normal". They don't realize that they have been sifted, shaken, and found wanting.
God's Word is for all times, all circumstances. He is never taken by surprise, or outmanoeuvred. The eternal truth is this:
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?...No, in all things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. [Romans 8.35,37.]
But these things can appear to separate us from Christ: we do find ourselves drying up through lack of fellowship or prayer because of the circumstances we find ourselves in. How can this be reconciled with the Word of God? It is extremely important that we understand what is happening to us in these times of trial. We can so easily be led astray by judging things by appearance instead of seeking insight from the Spirit.
We know, from the Word of God, that believers are growing to maturity in Christ. (I am speaking here of those who are willingly and deliberately pressing on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of them, and not the nominal church-going pew-warmer). We are being changed from glory into glory. We are being transformed by the renewing of our minds. We are being refined as gold is refined in the fire, that our faith might be more precious than gold. Part of this process involves times of sifting and shaking. These are not pleasant experiences. As Peter says, they are "painful trials", because they are designed to take from us something which is part of the very fabric of our being: our illusions.
Take, for example, Simon Peter himself. In the course of the time he had spent with Jesus, Peter had come to realize many things through revelation. He knew that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God, because the Father had revealed that to him. He had seen Jesus on the mountain, speaking with Moses and Elijah, glorified and transfigured. He was a man with a strong personality, ready to question and rebuke Jesus himself, when he thought it necessary. Jesus was the one who had called him Peter, meaning a stone, a man of strength. There was much Peter knew, but it was what he did not know that was most important. When Jesus announced at the Last Supper that he was going to be betrayed, handed over to the authorities and killed, the apostles wondered who the betrayer could be. But then they immediately started arguing as to who might have to replace Jesus, which of them was considered the greatest. I have no doubt that Peter saw himself as the obvious candidate. But Jesus had a special word for him:
Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers. [Luke 22.31-32]
All four Gospels record Peter's response to this warning: he declared that he was ready to go to prison and to death for Jesus.
Had he really heard what Jesus had said to him? And if he had, did he understand what he had been told? Obviously not. Jesus said that all of them would be sifted like wheat (the "you" is plural), but Peter seems not to have taken the warning seriously. Perhaps he was thrilled that Jesus had prayed for him alone, and not for the others, that his faith would not fail. But did he realize that he needed that prayer more than the others, because he was going to deny his Lord three times? "When you have turned back...": back from what, he should have asked. But instead, he declared proudly his decision for Christ: he would never leave him. Even when Jesus explicitly said: "You will deny me three times", Peter contradicted the Lord. He knew better! He would never do such a thing. Peter was blinded by illusion: he did not see himself as he was, did not know the really shallow nature of his faith. Until it was tested.
Peter knew that his faith was strong: but he did not know how limited that strength was. As long as things remained "normal", he could cope. But once his world was turned upside down, once he lost control over his situation, everything fell apart. When they came for Jesus in the garden, he was ready to defend him with the sword, and use his strength to protect his Master. But then Jesus reprimanded him for his use of violence. Suddenly, his strength and his determination were of no use to anyone. Jesus was arrested, the other disciples ran away. He was alone in a strange world that no longer made any sense. It only took a young woman's question to overturn all his resolve, all his proud strength, and he denied even knowing Jesus. In what must have been the worst moment of his life, Peter heard the cock crow. "The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter".[Luke 22.61] It broke his heart.
It also shattered his illusions about himself. Peter was restored, because he humbled himself before his friends and publicly declared his love for Jesus three times, once for each denial.[John 21.15-19] Although later in life he would often make mistakes, and even question God's plans, he never again believed that he knew better. He had learned from the sifting not to think more highly of himself than he should. He had learned that, only when it is put to the test, can one's faith and maturity be judged accurately, and false security swept away. That is what sifting does. The wheat is put into a sieve and shaken violently. The small stones and other debris fall through the holes of the sieve, and all that remains is the wheat. Gold is put in the fire to be refined, to be made pure. Gold is not naturally pure, it is contaminated with other minerals and elements, the dross, which make the gold hard. But in the furnace, other elements are added, which attract the dross and remove it from the gold, so that all that remains is pure, pliable and precious.
In Hebrews, the Lord speaks of shaking the earth and the heavens. The purpose is "the removing of what can be shaken - that is, created things - so that what cannot be shaken may remain". [Hebrews 12.27] Every now and then, we need to be shaken for the same reason. The Lord seems to take away everything we lean on: our friends, fellowship, money, possessions, property, whatever it is we find comfort and security in. Sometimes, we even lose our fellowship with him, and feel that there is no-one there at all, and everything we believe is just a lie. Christians have always experienced such times, and have called them "the long, dark night of the soul". It is painful to have "created things" removed from us: but it is to show us that what remains, what cannot be shaken, is what is real and lasting. You may think that you are a mature Christian, strong in faith and joy. But what happens to your walk during that long, dark night, when everything seems a sham and a delusion? Can you stand in that day, without any sense of joy or peace, and say:
I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes - I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me! [Job 19.25-27]
It is only when the storm blows down our houses that we understand that we have been building on sand, and not the Rock. Should we then moan and complain about the storm? Should we not rather thank God for taking away our false security, our illusions?
For, be assured, it is God himself who has brought these things about for your instruction. Remember what Jesus told Peter: "Satan has asked to sift you as wheat". The Enemy needed permission before moving against God's children, and he was granted permission because it was God's will that he do so! Likewise, Satan could only approach Job when God gave him permission. But he was limited by God as to what he could do to Job, because God restrained him from pouring out his full wrath against a righteous man. God will use Satan for his own purposes, and Satan is restrained in his actions against us, as the Word promises: "..the evil one does not harm him" [1 John 5.18].
Some may debate this last Scripture, saying that, of course believers have been harmed by Satan's attacks. They have been shaken or sifted and been damaged by the experience. Surely, they will say, this proves that Satan can harm us in this way? I would repeat: Satan is used as a tool by God to do God's will. We are never harmed by his actions: we can, however, be harmed by our response to those actions. When Satan, who controls the whole world [1 John 5.19], alters our circumstances in a radical manner, how do we respond? For example, our car is stolen, our house burns down in a fire, is destroyed in an earthquake, or is robbed of heat and light through a power failure: does this distract us from the Lord? Do we lose our peace and joy, is the Lord "put on hold" until the emergency is over? It is our choice to respond the way we do.
Christians need to remember that there is no neutral ground in this life: we are either living in the Kingdom of God, or the kingdom of darkness. Nothing happens to us "by accident", nor is there anything in this world that is not either from God or from the evil one. We have eyes, but do not see. As a result, we lose perspective and get short-sighted, not seeing the real issues that lie behind the outward circumstances. Satan has used this blindness to great effect, making even Christians believe that there are some things outside of God's control, or in which he is just not involved. This is a lie. From the beginning, it has been Satan's aim to make people believe that they are, or should be, in charge. To make them think that everything depends on them, on what they do, or say, or plan, or achieve. He wants to make us think we are "like gods", in charge, in control, essential. This, too, is a lie.
Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight. Do not be wise in your own eyes: fear the Lord and shun evil.[Proverbs 3.5-7]
So be aware of what is happening when Satan starts to sift and God starts to shake things in your life. Don't be surprised, as though something strange was happening to you. God will shake what can be shaken, to show you what remains unshaken. Learn from the lesson: if your house can so easily be taken away by fire or flood; if your job can be gone in an instant; if your bank account, however healthy, can become useless because the banks are closed and the machines don't work; if everything you have ever depended on for security in life can be so quickly taken away; then why do you go back to those things again and again? Why do you not look to the only source of true security in this and the next life: Jesus Christ.
If concern for these things interferes with your relationship with the Lord; if worry about possessions and family come between you and your Lord, then they have become false idols in your life. The people of Israel lived that kind of life, compromising between the things of God and the things of the world. They were prepared to allow the worship of false gods alongside worship of God Almighty. Then, one day, God started shaking: Elijah arrived on Mount Carmel and demanded that they face up to their true allegiance.
How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him. [1 Kings 18.21]
The purpose of sifting and shaking is to bring us to a true understanding of where we stand before God: who we really are and what we really value. Elijah demanded that God's people stop acting, stop pretending to be believers when their real allegiance was elsewhere. That is the call to God's people in these last days. Who will you serve? Don't be like those Israelites that day on Mount Carmel. In response to Elijah's demand to choose, we are told: "But the people said nothing". [1 Kings 18.21].
God has shaken his people in these days, to show us that we are not as faithful to him as we like to think. There are many other things which are more important to us than he is: we have proved that by choosing them over him when the crunch came. He was put on hold while we dealt with things which were more important to us. At least let us admit the fact, then we will be free to follow Peter: "when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers". The alternative is to say nothing: to deny the truth. This is to say that God really doesn't mind if we ignore him for a while. That there are things which he is not interested in. That there are things he commands in Scripture that are simply not possible in our modern society. This will free us to follow Baal in comfortable compromise.
But the end of all things is coming, when everything that can be shaken will be shaken. What will be left for you to cling to then? For each one of us, there will be times of sifting and refining, when the dross that creeps into our thinking, our attitudes, our walk, will have to be burned out. The weeds, the stones, all the accumulated garbage which we pick up along the way in this sinful world, needs to be sifted out. As the Word says:
See to it that you do not refuse him who speaks. If they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, how much less will we, if we turn away from him who warns us from heaven? At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, "Once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens". The words "once more" indicate the removing of what can be shaken - that is, created things - so that what cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire. [Hebrews 12.25-29]
But there is a word of encouragement in this also. For, when God shakes everything in our lives, it is not only to take away what can be shaken; it is also to show us what remains unshaken. When we have been through that long, dark night of the soul, we come out again into the glorious light of the Lord seeing clearly exactly where we stand with him. We may realize how firmly our faith has been confirmed; how precious our times of personal fellowship with the Lord were during the trial; or how comforting the Word of God was when it seemed our prayers went no higher than the ceiling. What remains unshaken becomes stronger, more sure, and our walk with him has gained in assurance.
David knew the value of sifting and shaking in his life. When he found himself facing the power and strength of Goliath, he was moved to defend God's name. Those around him seriously doubted the ability of this young man to overcome the giant Philistine, but David knew something of God that gave him the assurance he needed. He told the Israelites about past trials: he had been a shepherd, watching over his father's flock. When a lion or a bear had taken one of the sheep, David had to go up against it and save the animal. He had killed both lion and bear. He was able to apply to Goliath what he had learned from the earlier lessons:
Your servant has killed both the lion and the bear; this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them, because he has defied the armies of the living God. The Lord who delivered me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine. [1 Samuel 17.36-37]
In the normal course of his life, as he went about doing what he had been given to do, David had met with testing. He had found, through the trials, that God is faithful. That assurance gave him the power in God to stand against Goliath when the courage of all the armies of Israel failed. The lion and bear were not seen as "something unusual", but a normal part of his training as a shepherd. So with us, the shifting and sifting of God is part of our training, our discipline, teaching us a very powerful truth: "the God who delivered me, will deliver me".
Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons. [Hebrews 12.7-8]
Don't be condemned by temptation: it is simply part of our training as sons of God. Don't be disturbed by times of emptiness and deadness of the spirit, praise God that he is treating you as a son. Don't be perturbed by circumstances, when "nothing is going right". With God, everything is going right, and as long as you are a disciple, all things will work to the good for those who love God and are called according to his purpose.
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