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In life, we experience many kinds of trials, but they don’t all feel like they belong in the same category. There are some trials that seem to just happen to us out of the blue. That flat tire on the road. Our kids falling ill. Then there are the trials that other people stick us with. The jerk who steals your purse, and then starts racking up bills in your name. The boss who is always giving you a hard time at the office. And finally, there are the trials that we seem to bring onto ourselves. You cheat on your man, and he divorces you. You steal from the company and you get caught. These are the three main categories that humans tend to divide their trials into. But how does God see it?
When we think that God views our trials like we do, we quickly end up in a theological mess. Your dad is an alcoholic who smacks you around. In your mind, this is a case of someone else intentionally making your life miserable. But where is God? Obviously He’s just leaving you to the mercy of a mean human. Here’s where we start talking about generational curses, which is another way of saying, “God uses other people’s wrong choices as an excuse to kick you around.” But does He?
The problem with the theory that God sometimes just hands you over to be brutalized by someone else is that it suggests a difference in value. After all, why did God hand millions of Jews over to the Nazis in World War II? Why should God bless the nasty plans of the Nazis and let them have their way while He makes innocent parties suffer horrible things? When God lets one bully terrorize a neighborhood, it seems as if He’s saying that the bully’s choices get precedence over everyone else’s. In World War II, there were some people who could see that Hitler was a bad egg, and they made a valiant attempt to kill the guy only to have God block them. Why? When two humans want two different things, and God blesses one plan while He stomps on the other, isn’t that a statement of favoritism? How many sons have tried to fight back when their abusive fathers started laying into them? How many women have tried to fight off a sexual assailant? Why doesn’t God always side with the victims? Why does He so often empower the aggressor instead and allow the victim to get utterly ravaged? Is God a jerk, or what?
When we assume that God categorizes trials the same way we do, we can’t help but end up seriously questioning His goodness. When trials fall on us out of the blue, we either feel abandoned by an indifferent God, we feel unjustly punished, or we feel like God is some limited Being who just got overwhelmed by an evil He can’t seem to keep in check. When other people stick it to us, we feel like God is siding with them against us, and it hurts. When our trials appear to be direct responses to our choices, we either feel terribly guilty and ashamed of what we’ve done, or we feel unjustly punished. If God sees trials the same way we do, then we’ve got all kinds of bad news we need to deal with. But the reality is that God doesn’t use the categorization system we do. He views things quite differently, and His viewpoint leaves no room for the concept of Him abandoning us to the mercy of nasty humans or allowing random things to happen to us. So now let’s talk about how God views trials.
THE PURPOSE OF YOU
Whenever we’re trying to understand how God views us, we have to start with His motivation for making us. God created humans for the purpose of having personal interactions with us. Your existence is a very personal thing to God. He didn’t just crank you out on an assembly line, nor did He delegate the task of creating you and taking care of you to some angel. God’s obsessive focus on you is simply mind-blowing, as are His intentional efforts to make you extremely complex, frail, and totally high maintenance.
Consider the life of a rock. It just sits there. It doesn’t do anything. It is just acted upon by the elements until it eventually erodes away into dust. God could have made you like a rock. He didn’t have to give you the ability to think and choose and emote. And He certainly didn’t have to make you so insanely complicated. Your earthsuit alone is impossible for any one human to totally understand. Why did God have to give you so many organs? Why a liver and a heart and a stomach and that whole complicated maze of arteries and veins? Why does your face have so many pieces to it? Why not just a mouth and maybe an eye? Why does every part of your face have to be so impossibly complicated? All of those individual teeth, all of those individual taste buds on that tongue of yours that’s always dancing around. Why bother with taste at all? Taste has no eternal value. God could have just fixed it so you open some hatch in your torso and set the food inside. Or He could have designed you like a car with some tank that you pour liquid into now and then. The whole concept of taste and all of the complex programming that goes into it was utterly unnecessary, and yet He decided to throw that into the package when He made you. Not only did He give you the ability to taste, smell, touch, see, and hear, but He then decided for you what kinds of tastes, smells, textures, sights and sounds you’d like, and what kinds you wouldn’t like. But why? Doesn’t God Almighty have better things to do than to sit around deciding what your favorite color is going to be in life? Why should He spend His time programming your tongue to love certain flavors? What’s it to Him if you really enjoy your food or not? Why not just let eating be some mundane chore?
The next time you look at yourself in a mirror, lean close and look at all of those lashes that line the top and bottom rim of your eyes. Notice how your eyeballs have a protective shield over them which is always kept moist with a saline solution. Notice those tear ducts that are always on standby, ready to produce moisture that will sweep away any foreign objects that make it past those swatting eye lashes. Notice those eyebrows that are standing guard, ready to fend off any debris that tries to fall down from above and allowing you to show all kinds of emotions. Notice that complex design in the colored part of your eye. Turn the light off and on and watch how that little black circle in the center of each of your eyes grows and shrinks to adjust to the change in brightness. Realize that there are over one million teensy little nerve fibers attached to each one of your eyeballs, and those fibers act like computer cables that constantly transfer information from your eyes to your brain. Why on earth are you such a complicated little thing? You’re just an impotent speck of a creature, and God is so massive that He can spin off entire universes with just a single thought. So why did He make you so incredibly complex? There’s so much going on with just your earthsuit that the smartest humans on the planet can’t begin to claim that they fully understand how you operate. What was God’s point in making you too complex for humans to comprehend? It’s His way of reminding you of where you came from. You are the very intentional creation of a non-human Being who is keenly interested in interacting with you. Your existence is extremely personal to God, and He personalized everything about you just to make it very clear to you that you are not at all some “whatever” project to Him. He’s interested. He’s invested. And everything He does with you is about pulling your focus onto Him.
You originated from God, and God wants you to find your satisfaction in Him. You could think of your life’s journey as making a big loop. Just as salmon spawn in a river, swim off to live life in an ocean, then return to the river from which they spawned, God created you, allowed you to have a sense of living apart from Him, but He then wants you to choose to return to Him. No human is born with a conscious understanding of their origin. We’re all born in a fog of ignorance. But at some point in our lives, God begins clearing that fog away so that we can see Him standing before us, identifying Himself as the One who made us, and calling us to pursue a close relationship with Him. It’s all about the relationship to God, and you relate to Him by constantly deciding how you’re going to respond to Him on a soul level. Here is where trials come into play.
THE PURPOSE OF TRIALS
To God, creating trials in your life is about creating opportunities for you to respond to Him in a wide variety of ways. Because our choices are always limited, we need a zillion choices in a zillion different contexts if we’re going to develop the kind of rich bond that God wants us to have with Him. Imagine how dull married life would be if food was the only subject human spouses discussed with each other. “How do you like your breakfast?” Elizabeth asks her husband every morning. “Just fine,” Sam replies. They never talk about any other aspect of life: only about food. How utterly dull that would be, and this is how lackluster your relationship with God would be if He never brought trials into your life or if He never varied the kinds of trials you experienced.
It is through trials and trial variation that an opportunity is created for you to engage with God on a wide spectrum of topics. When your neighbor’s darling little girl dies of a brain tumor, you’re shocked and grieved and distressed that God would allow such an awful thing. Good, because these are all issues that God wants to discuss with you. God is an incredibly complex Being—He’s not just rainbows and sunshine. He doesn’t just drift through the day thinking happy thoughts. God is a hurricane of polar opposite extremes. Ecstasy and heartbreak, love and rage, compassion and revenge, gentleness and brutality. God could have made you unable to contemplate negative things, and then kept His entire dark side hidden from you. But He wanted something more complex than that. He wants to engage with you on complex matters, and discuss both joy and suffering. He already knows everything about you, but He wants to ease you into a deeper understanding of just how complex and varied He is. Trials are a fabulous way of doing this. As God creates situations in your life which cause you to feel betrayed, hurt, sick, lonely, scared, vulnerable, depressed, empty, and burned out, He is creating contexts for you to respond to Him in new ways.
DEVELOPING THE BOND
When life is going great, what do you care about why God lets bad things happen to good people? But when God nails your spouse with some debilitating disease or He brings on financial ruin or He causes your sweet child to get viciously bullied at school, suddenly you’re asking Him a whole new set of questions. Suddenly you’re questioning His Character and His methods and perhaps even His very existence. Excellent. God is all about you engaging with Him.
When everything you touch is blessed, where’s your motivation to ponder just how gracious and merciful God is? But when you get all snarky and rebellious and God comes back at you with discipline, suddenly you’re questioning the depth of His interest in you and His willingness to put up with your shenanigans. It’s after we know we’ve been little tykes that all of those fears of God ditching us arise. It’s when we see just how ungrateful we can be that we find reason to fear that He just might be done giving us new chances.
Your existence is highly personal to God, and it’s important to Him that you learn to separate yourself from the rest of humanity and see your relationship with Him as the unique thing that it is. Trials are a great way to teach you how to do this. None of your friends cheated on their wives, but you did, and now she hates you and your kids are miserable. You were a total idiot, and all the humans in your life are shaking their heads in disgust. When you start hitting the bottle, they back off even more, turned off by your spineless pity party. By now you’re so disgusted with yourself that you can’t even stand your own company, so why would God be any different? It’s by giving us the option to defy Him that God teaches us how much more merciful He is than a human being. God is so easy to succeed with, but you won’t really appreciate that until you experience Him graciously embracing you in the midst of your bratty fit. God is so incredibly compassionate and kind, but those concepts will take on a whole new meaning the day you experience Him being compassionate and kind to you in some highly personal way. Trials are a critical part of how God personalizes your experience of Him and makes the opportunity for you and He to forge your own unique dynamic. You’re not just one more human to God, you’re His unique creation who He created with the capacity to experience Him in a very special, very personal way.
To God, trials are about shaping your personal dynamic with Him. To Him, there’s no such thing as a random trial or some rotten coincidence. Every trial that God brings into your life is very purposeful and very personal. God never just hands you over to other people. He certainly uses other people to create trials in your life, but to Him those other people are like the tools a carpenter uses to build some complex design. Can a chisel work on its own? No, it can do nothing until the carpenter picks it up. But once the tool is in the carpenter’s hand, it can only accomplish what the carpenter wants it to accomplish. It can only do what the carpenter gives it opportunity to do. The carpenter is in total control over the chisel: he sets its position and angle on the wood, and he controls the power of its thrust. It’s the same with other humans who God uses to create trials in your life. Other humans are never allowed to just run amuck on you—God is always micromanaging their movements and setting precise limits on what they can do to you. The bully wanted to hit you three times, but his hand hurt too much after the first punch to continue. Because you don’t know what his original intentions were, you don’t recognize God’s intervention. Hitler wanted to completely exterminate the Jews, not just kill one part of their population. So while we gasp in horror at the staggering numbers, we’re refusing to appreciate how many of them didn’t die at the hand of the Nazis because God never lets humans have their total way down here. Hitler wanted to take over the world, not just make a big scene in Europe. Just because he did more damage than we wanted him to, does that mean God was being triumphed over? No, it meant God’s priorities were different than our own.
We humans don’t like it when God disagrees with us about what is best in a situation. We don’t like it so much that we pretend it can’t be happening. Before you can say “Satan triumphed over God,” you must first assume that God wanted to do what you wanted Him to do. This is how arrogant we humans are: if our kid dies of some nasty illness, we say that it must be because God was triumphed over by sin or evil or a clever demon. It can’t be that God wanted our kid to die and that God refused to set His desires aside to accommodate us. We always try to reduce God when He doesn’t do what we want because we can’t stand facing the fact that He refuses to play the part of our Subordinate.
Bad things don’t happen in this world because of some whoops or because our sweet God was taking a nap or locked in a closet by Satan. Bad things happen because God wants and causes them to happen. From God’s perspective, there is immense value in making humans suffer in various ways, but that suffering must be perfectly timed and precisely controlled, and this is so very easy for God to do. So in your life, every trial is quite strategic and driven by God’s very personal interest in you specifically. Sometimes He drops something on you that you can’t see any logical cause for. Other times He uses people. Sometimes He’s initiating a new topic of conversation with you. Other times He’s responding to your response in a discussion that the two of you have been having for several days. When Jonah was rebelling against God by trying to flee to Tarshish, and then the storm whipped up at sea, Jonah knew it was God’s personal response to Jonah’s refusal to obey God’s clear instructions to go to Nineveh. Was the storm just about Jonah? No, it was also about the other sailors on the ship who were scared out of their wits. God was using the same trial to accomplish a different goal in each individual’s life. This is how personal it is with God and us. Jonah could only recognize and respond to what was happening between him and God—he didn’t know what was going on between God and the other men on board the ship. This is how God wants it: He talks to you about you in life, He doesn’t talk to you about what He’s doing with other souls.
It’s none of your business what God is doing with other souls, and for you to get all focused on that will distract you from developing your own personal dynamic with God. So God intentionally keeps you out of the loop. You can’t even see the souls of other people—you can only interact with their earthsuits. God has intentionally thrown up barriers between us all by trapping us in these earthsuits which so hamper our ability to communicate with each other. What’s His point in making human relationships so temporary and incapable of fully satisfying our souls? It’s all about motivating each of us to pursue Him first in life, and to realize just how personal it all is.
God created you for Himself. You are a creature who was designed with an intense need to bond with the One who made you. You can’t find fulfillment apart from God. You can’t find true satisfaction of soul. He designed you to feel frustratingly incomplete without Him and then He micromanages every detail of your existence and causes your life to unfold in a very strategic way so that you’ll become aware of who He is and how to pursue Him. But in the end, the choice is yours to make. God doesn’t force you to pursue Him, but He never stops micromanaging you. If you rebel against Him for too long, He then decides to never let you come close to Him, but He remains in your business, strategically heaping miseries upon you in eternity as a response to your defiance of Him. If instead you fully submit to His Authority and embrace His invitations to come closer to Him, then He strategically creates a myriad of experiences for you in this world that will strengthen your bond with Him. Every path unfolds differently because God deals with each of us in such a personal way. But when we are responding well to Him, God keeps moving us closer to Himself and we end up in a fabulous situation when we reach eternity, where the journey continues.
It’s a special thing to be human. The other animals of earth were created to be mere flashes in the pan: they live, they die, and they are no more. The elements of earth are locked in an unending cycle of decay and regeneration. One day this whole planet will be obliterated. But we humans were not designed to just procreate, hunt, fight, and die. We weren’t designed to be like lifeless mountains which rise up and fall down over time. We humans were created for a relationship—a highly personal, complex kind of relationship with the three non-human Beings who created us. Yahweh, Jesus and the Holy Spirit are constantly in our business, calling us to engage with Them, and inviting us to bond with three Beings who are so totally different than we are. It’s such a mysterious, astounding, and thrilling thing to be human. If we are wise, we will ask our Creators to help us fully embrace Their intentions for us and we will be receptive to the lessons They are offering to teach us in every trial that They put us through.
Understanding Divine Judgment: Illumination, Empowerment & A God Who Delights In Mercy
Soul Before Earthsuit: Understanding God’s Priorities
The Great Gift of Sin: Why Our Depravity Gives Us Hope