Thorny Days

“And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure”

2 Corinthians 12:7

The intent of this part of Paul’s letter is not given so that we can rack our brains trying to work out what his “thorn in the flesh” was. Let us take it in its context which clearly identifies it with the temptation to pride and God’s means by which he assured Paul remained humble. Paul had been privileged to see special visions and receive special revelation from the Lord which had the potential to provoke pride. In God’s wisdom and grace there was some temptation remaining to Paul that reminded him of his past life in opposition to Jesus Christ (Acts 9:5; 22:8; 26:15).

It may be that temptation to particular sinful thoughts and behaviour were brought to a sudden end at the time we came to faith or at some time later when we finally abandoned all to Jesus. For this grace we should be extremely grateful daily. However, it is possible that God does allow Satan to test us periodically in an area of sin that we would rather not still have. Like Paul, our requests to have the temptation removed seem to go unanswered (2 Corinthians 12:8). We can take encouragement from Paul’s experience and learn that this is God’s way of keeping us in the realm of humility and not being swallowed up in that powerful sin of pride.

We might ask how being tested can glorify God? Being tested is not a sin. Jesus was tested/tempted without sin (Matthew 4; Hebrews 2:18; 4:15). The Lord’s answer was given to Paul and he recorded it for our benefit: “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness” (v 9). Paul acknowledges this by writing, “For when I am weak, then I am strong” (v 10). God’s grace is magnified in that though we are tempted, He gives grace and strength to resist yielding (1 Corinthians 10:13). In Romans 6 Paul gives an extended explanation. For our own benefit God may have chosen to allow a “thorn in the flesh” to remain for each of us. The purpose is clear – that we might remember where He brought us from and to keep us from being overcome with pride resulting from the glorious revelation He has given us and to keep us humbly walking with our God (Micah 6:8).

Various Trials

“My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials”

James 1:2

James is writing to Christians who are suffering “various trials.” He doesn’t identify what those trials may be because what he is about to write applies to all kinds of trials. If we want a list we could start with Hebrews 11 or 2 Corinthians 11:23-28 but there are many more examples in the Bible. We should expect to experience tests and trials throughout our lives. In school we had regular tests to prove we had learned something and were ready to move on to the next level. The same is true in our walk of faith. Our heavenly Father allows us to experience various trials so that we might know our progression of faith in Jesus and be ready to move on.

In this chapter James gives the reasons why we may pass or fall short in any trial or test. Those who come through successfully, as God considers success, do so because, at foundational level, they have a genuine love for Jesus (v 12). Those who fall short do so because they love themselves and sin more than they love Jesus (v 14).

The evidence of love for Jesus is in doing His word (v 22). A person may profess to love Jesus but their works will give evidence for or against this profession. Love for Jesus is evidenced by love for His people. 1 John has many confirmations of this truth such as “We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love the brethren” (3:14) and he tells us what kind of love this is, “By this we know love, because He laid down His life for us. And we also ought to lay down our lives for the brethren” (v 16). Jesus said the key evidence that we are His disciples is the expression of God’s kind of love for one another (John 13:35).

How we treat other Christians is how we treat Jesus. Saul persecuted Christians but Jesus said he was persecuting Him (Acts 9:4). Peter says that lying to Christians is lying to God (Acts 5:4). Jesus says that how we are treating His people is how we are treating Him (Matthew 25:31-46). In Hebrews 10:24-25 He says that our reason for meeting together is love expressed through serving one another, mutual encouragement and edification. If we forsake meeting together it is an indication we don’t meet with Him either.

It is sobering to realise that how I am treating my fellow Christians is how I treat Jesus – but He says it is so.

Warning Every Person

“We speak, not as pleasing men, but God who tests our hearts”

1 Thessalonians 2:4

When Paul wrote that God tests the hearts of His people he was not writing anything new. In Psalm 66 we find the same revelation. “You, O God have tested us” (v 10) with the result that they were refined as silver is refined. God not only allows but purposely creates or provokes circumstances by which what we think we believe is tested. The purpose is to expose what is really in our heart. The heart is deceitful (Jeremiah 17:9) so we are very glad that God reveals those areas where we are deceived or in error that He wishes to correct. He also reinforces areas where our hearts are right.

In this letter Paul wants us to allow the Holy Spirit to test our hearts. Tests will reveal where we are right and where we are not right. Allowing the Holy Spirit to test our hearts will reveal the extent to which the Holy Spirit has us. All true Christians have the Holy Spirit indwelling but to be “filled with the Holy Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18) means that the Holy Spirit has us. At its root this means a humble and teachable spirit toward God.

If we are trying to please men we will not share the Gospel with them. This may be because we fear what they may think of us, say about us or do to us. If we are trying to please God we will share the Gospel and let Him deal with their responses. This is the context of Paul’s letter, especially chapter two verses one to twelve. If we are seeking the praise of men we are not seeking the praise of God (v 6). The two are mutually exclusive.

From time to time I reflect on what this will mean when all the unsaved appear before the Great White Throne (Revelation 20:11-15) with Christ on that throne and myself and all believers with Him. How many unsaved will look over to me questioning why I didn’t warn them?

The Lord declared Ezekiel a watchman for the house of Israel (Ezekiel 3:17-19). Ezekiel didn’t ask for it. It came with the Lord setting him apart as a prophet to Israel. The church has been set apart to warn all peoples of the world of the wrath to come and of God’s wonderful Gift of life in Jesus Christ that is able to deliver them from that wrath. In Colossians 1:28 Paul writes, “Him we preach, warning every man and teaching every man in all wisdom, that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus.”

Regular Tests

“Now these are the nations which the Lord left, that He might test Israel by them.” Judges 3:1

With each generation of Israel, the Lord sent a test to see “whether they will keep the ways of the Lord, to walk in them …, or not” (Judges 2:22, cf. 3:4). Ever since God breathed life into Adam this has been the way of the Lord. No generation, Jew or Gentile, may live by the faith of their parents (although there are great advantages in having believing parents). Each person, each nation, each generation will be tested. The book of Judges records various groups in Israel being tested.

Chapter one of Judges reveals Israel’s failure to perform all that the Lord had commanded. It would appear that they failed because they lacked faith in the Lord and did not persevere in the task given. From God’s perspective we discover in Judges 2:20-3:4 that the Lord left the ungodly nations in order to test Israel.

The professing church is facing a similar test today. We are being tested by the ungodly to reveal whether we will hold fast to and obey the word of the Lord, or not (3:4). Testing is a good thing; without it many might go through life believing their eternal destiny was heaven when in fact it was not. I have heard many testimonies of people who had believed they were Christians but on hearing a faithful Gospel presentation discovered that they had been “Christian” in name only.

This current test is revealing a division among professing Christians; between those who believe God’s word and those who do not. The tares and the wheat are being exposed by their fruit in preparation for the harvest when a complete separation will be effected. Following that separation the Lord will remove His true Church from the earth in readiness for the outpouring of His wrath on the whole earth.

In His prayer the Lord prayed to the Father, “They were yours, You gave them to Me, and they have kept Your word,” “I have given them Your word” and “Sanctify them by Your Word” (John 17:6, 14, 17). That which separates true believers from merely professing believers is their faith in the words of Jesus expressed in their own words and actions. Those who deny the words of Jesus, and thereby call Him a liar, cannot possibly be His disciples.

Each generation must be tested to expose false profession and reveal the truly born of God. That is what we are observing today.

Be Strong and Courageous

“Be strong and of good courage; do not be afraid, nor be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go”

Joshua 1:9

After forty years of being second in command to Moses, Joshua has now been delegated the leadership position, under the Lord, to lead Israel. Four times in this chapter the Lord tells him to “to be strong and courageous” which tells us two things: 1) He was facing the humanly impossible; and 2) he was feeling the weight of responsibility. What could possibly allay his fears and uncertainty?

The Lord had the answer to that question and it is given in verse eight, “This book of the law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate in it day and night that you may observe to do according to all that is written in it.” The Book of the Law, the first five books of our Bible, includes the covenant promises that the Lord had made with Israel. The previous generation had faltered at the promises of God and failed to enter the land. Of the twelve spies who spied out the land Joshua and Caleb were the only ones who recommended going forward. Forty years later Joshua was facing the same circumstance but this time as leader and with a new generation. Each generation must face a test as to whether they will believe and act on God’s word.

Our generation is facing such a test. Satan has desired to sift the church, as he did Peter (Luke 22:31-34), but equally Jesus has prayed for His church as He did for Peter. Peter would come through strong and of good courage. The professing church is being sifted. Out of this sifting a divide will become clear between those who are faithful to the Lord and His word and those who are not. As the Lord said to Joshua, strength and courage come from trusting in the word of God and God’s faithfulness to it and His people.

Testing the professing church will reveal the true church and expose false professors. This will have the effect of removing much of the haze around the true Gospel. One cannot honestly claim to be a follower of Jesus Christ and reject His teaching.

As we face this test, and it may well become severe very soon, we will remain strong and very courageous only as we meditate on and observe to do according to God’s word (Joshua 1:7). After the testing and separation the Lord will remove His own and then judge the nations as He has done on previous occasions (e.g. Noah & Lot).

Giving Myself Away

“From everyone who gives it willingly with his heart you shall take My offering” Exodus 25:2

Contrary to the world’s conception of giving, the above is the biblical base for giving. The world’s conception of giving in the church is derived from people who falsely profess to be Christian and who reject teaching from the Bible for their own material gain.

The Apostle Paul affirms the Old Testament teaching in 2 Corinthians 8 in reference to the churches in Macedonia, “For I bear witness that according to their ability, yes, and beyond their ability, they were freely willing” (v 3). The reason behind their willing giving is given by Paul, “They first gave themselves to the Lord, and then to us by the will of God” (v 5).

Key here is that they first gave themselves to the Lord. This is where we may fall short and fail the test of faith by placing limitations on how much we will give to the Lord. In my first year of learning to walk with the Lord I came across the following and I believe it depicts accurately what Christian giving really is. It was written in the front cover of the Bible of teenager Elizabeth Alden Scott on August 3, 1925.

“My Covenant

Lord, I give up my own purposes and plans, all my desires, hopes and ambitions (whether they be fleshly or soulish), and accept thy will for my life. I give myself, my life, my all, utterly to thee, to be thine forever.

I hand over to thy keeping all of my friendships, my love. All the people whom I love are to take second place in my heart.

Fill me and seal me with thy Holy Spirit. Work out thy whole will in my life, at any cost, now and forever.

‘To me to live is Christ and to die is gain’ Philippians 1:21

Why don’t you reread her covenant and pause to speak with the Lord Jesus. Tell him whether you will accept or reject this covenant as your own. Your carefully and prayerfully considered response from your heart will be a defining moment for now and eternity.

Of course, having made such a covenant you can expect the Lord Jesus to take you on a path to test your heart as to the genuineness of your desire. Then He will lead you to fulfilment. As for anyone walking with Jesus life will be anything other than what is expected. As He did with Israel (Exodus 24+), the Lord will deal with our heart relationship with Him first, not our behaviour. Behaviour is shaped by our heart, never the other way around.

Elizabeth (Betty) Scott Stam and husband, John, missionaries with China Inland Mission, were murdered in China by Communist revolutionary soldiers on 8th December 1934 when she was just 28 years old. Her baby girl was rescued. For more of her life story click the link below.

Biography: Elisabeth (Betty) Alden Scott Stam

Darkness Turns to Dawning

“I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees You. Therefore I abhor myself and repent in dust and ashes.” Job 42:5, 6

When Job spoke these words to the Lord he was coming out of the darkest place. He had lost all his material possessions and all ten children. He lost his bodily health and was destitute. His wife turned against him and his friends falsely accused him. The young men who had previously looked up to him now mocked him.

Job had always done what he believed was right before the Lord and that is attested to in the first verse of the book. He doesn’t claim to be without sin but blameless because he confessed known sin and offered the appropriate offerings for himself and his family. God also attests to Job’s godly living (1:8).

Job had spent seven days in silence allowing God to search his heart. His friends insisted that he must have done some great sin. Job expresses his frustration at not understanding why he should be enduring such a horrific episode in his life but he still sticks with his faith in the Lord. Even if he should die in the present circumstance he knows that he will rise again and see God his Redeemer face to face (19:25, 26).

All Christians will suffer tribulation at various times during their lives (John 16:33) but some will experience this place of greater darkness at least once in their lives. It is darkness because all knowledge seems futile and all understanding seems empty. It is a time of extreme aloneness when no one else but Jesus can comfort and He seems distant. We will either come out sweeter in fellowship with the Lord or bitter against Him. How we come out of the dark place is determined by how we go in. The dark period will reveal what was already there and multiply it. Sweet will be sweeter; the self righteous will be more bitter.

We can only see as much of God as He chooses to reveal and only when He so chooses. Job had heard of God and His ways and, as a result put his trust in Him to deliver and keep him. For many Christians this is a similar experience. They have been born of God, know and trust the truth about who Jesus is and what He has done for them on the cross. Then they are taken into a dark place where that faith is sorely tested.

For Job and for Christians who endure the dark place, they will see God in an indescribable and inexplicable way. They will know they have seen God. The evidence that follows such a revelation of God is a greater realisation of the sinfulness of their fallen nature. This will produce confession and repentance. This is the sweet place where Job came and so will Christians who truly trust the Lord. For them the light that follows the darkness is glorious indeed; “now my eyes see You.”

It is evident that some Christians do end up bitter with God after such testing. This is seen in their attitude to serving the Lord Jesus and is a revelation of what was already in their heart before the test but is now multiplied.

We cannot engineer the dark place in timing or manner. The Lord will do so without warning, at the right time, in the right way and individually tailored. Whether we come out more bitter or sweeter will depend on the sweetness of our fellowship with Him before the darkness came.