Charles Spurgeon once commented, “Trials teach us what we are; they dig up the soil and let us see what we are made of.” The Prince of Preacher’s observation is spot on. Tough times fall on Christians, especially those who serve in the ministry. Be that as it may, when God withholds certain things from us, or when God allows certain things to befall us, it is not to hurt but to help. Trials show us what we really are, show us where we need to grow, and give us an opportunity to become more.
In Isaiah 30, God’s word to the Jewish people speaks much of why he allows adversities in life. While the prophet does not give his hearers an exhaustive list of answers on the great theodicies of life, it is apparent that God’s allowance of suffering is to bring salvation and then sanctification.
The Book of Isaiah is one of many sections of scripture which make little-to-no sense without a healthy understanding of context. As many articulate Bible expositors have said, “Any text out of context is a pretext.” The words in Chapter 30 are rooted towards the end of the period of the divided monarchy. Soon afterward, the Jewish people would be carried off into captivity. The Assyrians were on the Israelites’ doorstep. The invasion was imminent. Rather than seeking God for their help, refuge, and rescue – the Israelites went elsewhere. In fact, they sought an “Anti-Assyrian” alliance with the Egyptians, hence God’s word to them in the first verses:
“’Ah, stubborn children,’ declares the LORD, ‘who carry out a plan, but not mine, and who make an alliance, but not of my Spirit, that they may add sin to sin; who set out to go down to Egypt, without asking for my direction, to take refuge in the protection of Pharaoh and to seek shelter in the shadow of Egypt! Therefore shall the protection of Pharaoh turn to our shame, and the shelter in the shadow of Egypt to your humiliation. Egypt’s help is worthless and empty…’” (Isaiah 30:1 – 3, 7a).
Instead of going to God for help, they sought military aid from the nation of Egypt. One must know that their willingness to forget God and His promises, just so they can run to the Egyptians, was nothing short of open rebellion and lack of faith (trust) in God.
The ultimate result of their choice was God’s judgment, by way of Assyria. Still, God was allowing things to happen, not to hurt the nation of Israel, but to heal it. You will find God to be much like the wonderworkers who craft kintsugi pots (pictured).
Kintsugi is a marvelous form of Japanese pottery that consists of a different medium. Rather than crafting vessels from scratch, Kintsugi pots are made of pots that were previously broken. The fragmented pieces are put together again, and the cracks are often interlaced with gold. The philosophy is that the piece is thought to be more beautiful for having been broken and repaired. God works a lot like that especially with his people Israel. Before he would do his finishing work with Israel (which, incidentally, is yet to be finished), he had to allow the nation to be broken, by the adverse Assyrian invasion.
In order to reconcile humanity back to himself, God will not spare anything, he would go to the ends of the earth – even giving himself up to die. God will allow adversity, so humanity may have his offered redemption. He would not spare any chastisement on his children, that they might return to him. Throughout the succeeding verses, the Christ-follower is given three answers, or responses, to adversity.
LISTEN FOR GOD’S WORD
“And now, go, write it before them on a tablet and inscribe it in a book, that it may be for the time to come as a witness forever. For they are a rebellious people, lying children, children unwilling to hear the instruction of the LORD; who say to the seers, ‘Do not see,’ and to the prophets, ‘Do not prophesy to us what is right; speak to us smooth things, prophesy illusions, leave the way, turn aside from the path, let us hear no more about the Holy One of Israel.’” (Isaiah 30:8 – 11).
Firstly, in response to hard times, Christians need to listen for God’s word. God frequently allows things to happen, for no other reason, than to garner the attention of his people. So, God tells Isaiah, “Write this down!” Dear reader, that statement nullifies any and every argument that states the Old Testament is irrelevant. What God said then applies now. His scripture is timeless and will always be relevant.
Yet, when dealing with life, many who sit in pews evidently have put on a pair of spiritual earmuffs, so as to not hear God and his truth. If Isaiah was given verse 10 for 2020, it may read something like this: “Don’t bother us with things that don’t matter in our lives; preacher, don’t waste time telling me things that are so impractical, tell us something to make us feel better and stop boring us!” People are very much like that, and the Bible told that they would be: “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions” (2 Tim. 4:3).
Itchy ears and dull spiritual hearing should not describe the church! When tough times come, listen for God – he is probably trying to teach you something. Most of all, do not be close minded and incapable of listening, the way Isaiah’s audience was. The word God was giving them was not complicated. He had been pleading with them through the words of every prophet. The message of the prophets, regarding the Jewish people, was “REPENT, come back to God!” God will permit difficulties and defeats to encourage his people to look to him.
A good biblical example of such was Israel’s military defeat at Ai, in Joshua 7, due to the sin of one of their own. Israel held the superior military force at that time, but they still lost the battle because there was sin in their camp. Therefore, when you find yourself “losing” in the battles of life, take inventory and listen for God’s instruction.
LOOK FOR GOD’S WILL
“Therefore thus says the Holy One of Israel, ‘Because you despise this word and trust in oppression and perverseness and rely on them, therefore this iniquity shall be to you like a breach in a high wall, bulging out and about to collapse, whose breaking comes suddenly, in an instant; and its breaking is like that of a potter’s vessel that is smashed so ruthlessly that among its fragments not a shard is found with which to take fire from the hearth, or to dip up water out of the cistern.’” (Isaiah 30:12 – 14).
The second adequate way to respond to one’s adversities is to seek God’s will. During hardship, one should look for God’s intention, asking, “What is God trying to accomplish?” Someone asked C.S. Lewis, “Why do the righteous suffer?” “Why not?”, he replied. “They’re the only ones who can take it.”
God tells the Jewish people their world is about to come crashing down, per his will. He willed their national destruction to build them back up. Like a wild horse, they had to be broken before God could make use of them again. God was not trying to hurt them, but to heal them. God’s will in adversity can best be simplified as an opportunity for a faith change.
a.) Adversity destroys our faith in others.
“For thus said the Lord GOD, the Holy One of Israel, ‘In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.’ But you were unwilling, and you said, ‘No! We will flee upon horses’; therefore you shall flee away; and, ‘We will ride upon swift steeds’; therefore your pursuers shall be swift. A thousand shall flee at the threat of one; at the threat of five you shall flee, till you are left like a flagstaff on the top of a mountain, like a signal on a hill.” (Isaiah 30:15 – 17).
Here, God points out that the Israelites were trusting in the military aid of Egypt. Yet, God says even if Egypt outnumbered Israel’s enemies, Israel would still lose. If the Jews had fast horses, the Assyrians would be faster. Tribulations in this world can illustrate the futility of having faith in anyone besides God. As powerful as the Egyptians were, they would still fail the Israelites. The superior force would flee from the smaller force.
As resourceful as friends and neighbors may be, they are never as resourceful as God. When the storms and whirling tempests hit the forests, you see which trees have the strong roots, because the others will fall. Only those rooted in God’s strength can withstand the mightiest of storms. Those rooted in God do not seek to anchor themselves to anything (or anyone) else.
b.) Adversity destroys our faith in ourselves.
Hardships in this life are meant to steer us towards God. Perhaps no Christian has suffered quite like the apostle Paul. Paul’s record of adversities included being shipwrecked thrice, beaten, flogged, stoned, and a host of other afflictions, including one “thorn” in the flesh. Yet, Paul knew his struggle was meant to serve as a goad to drive him to God. He wrote: “..we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced…we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself…But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God.” (2 Cor. 1:8, 9, emphasis mine).
Adversity is meant to shift faith away from others and ourselves. Furthermore, it is only in the darkest of the night, that we can remember how bright the day was. God will allow his people to be hurt, so that they can better minister to others who are hurt. A.W. Tozer commented on these things, with a bone-chilling statement for those who take seriously the work of God: “It is doubtful God can use any man greatly until he has hurt him deeply.” Nevertheless, when God allows his servants to be deeply hurt, he can make that much more use out of them. Jesus, himself, said a seed would be able to bear “much” fruit, only if it first died (John 12:24).
c.) Adversity develops our faith in God.
“And though the Lord give you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, yet your Teacher will not hide himself anymore, but your eyes shall see your Teacher” (Isaiah 30:2).
Here we come to the heart of the chapter. The bread of adversity and the water of affliction do not sound appetizing. Bread is a universal staple, every culture of the world has its own take on bread – from pumpernickel to plain white, it’s everywhere. People, especially southerners in the U.S., can easily over-indulge in the delicious rolls given at any good steakhouse. However, the bread of adversity is not nearly as savory.
God’s gift of adversity, illustrated by bread, is what we need and what is best. Eating gluten-free rye bread is not nearly as tasty as a thick, buttery roll from a good Italian restaurant. Still, eating healthier bread may help to see a slimmer waistline and better fitting clothes. The bread of adversity is not as appealing, but it is what all Christians need to be served.
LIVE GOD’S WAY
“And your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, ‘This is the way, walk in it,’ when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left” (Isaiah 30:21).
The final answer the Christian gives to the anathema of adversity is to simply live God’s way, in spite of it all. Notice, all of the things God was doing was to show his people the way. Also, notice the position here. Charles Spurgeon (who was quoted earlier) once dedicated an entire sermon to this one verse. He titled it, “The Voice Behind Thee.” One of his main points in that sermon is that mankind is, by nature, opposed to God’s way of living. We are, instinctively, turned away from God. He said,
“How does God find men when he declares that they shall hear a word behind them? First, he finds them with their backs turned to him…The sinner has gone away from God, and God calls after him from behind. He has turned his back upon his true Friend, his best Friend, his only capable Friend, but that Friend does not therefore change his temper and resent the insult; nay, he is provoked to a love more pleading and persuasive than ever, and calls to him to come into the right way. After having transgressed willfully and wickedly, the rebel now distinctly turns his back on God and truth…He turns his back on the law, on the gospel, on mercy, on eternal life. He turns his back on the adoption of the great Father, on pardon bought with the blood of Jesus, on regeneration which can alone be wrought by the Holy Spirit: he turns his back upon holiness, happiness, and heaven. He turns away from sunlight, and wanders down into deeper and yet deeper night, striving to get away from God and holy influences. Yet the Lord follows him, and with a voice of touching love and tender compassion he calls to him, ‘This is the way, walk ye in it…’”
Adversities, like no other mechanism in life, give the fastest vehicle with which one can live God’s way. When trials and tribulations arise, the great Teacher is not silent; he will tell which way to go.
Many in the church today have expressed difficulty in hearing that voice behind them. One possibility for not hearing the shepherd’s voice is because only the sheep know that voice. Think of what Jesus said about sheep and shepherds:
“But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers” (John 10:2-5).
If someone has never heard God’s soft, still voice in their hearts, perhaps they are not his. That is the first (potential) reason one may not hear God. That is, however, not to say the lost cannot hear the word of Christ. Such logic is admittedly flawed, for God reaches out to all humanity. Furthermore, the Bible states that faith itself comes by hearing the word of Jesus (Romans 10:17).
The other plausible reason that one cannot hear the voice behind them is a misunderstanding of how that voice speaks. In the present age, God does not speak in a thunderous, loud voice from the skies. Sure, he can, but people with real power and authority rarely need to raise their voice.
Good teachers know true authority need not come from the volume of a voice. The best teachers never yell, or scream, at their students. Only the inexperienced, frightened, or frustrated educator indulges in the temptation to lose control of speech or speak loudly.
Elijah the prophet was taught a serious lesson about God’s voice. He was shown a great and powerful wind, that “tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks.” He was also shown an earthquake and a fire. None of which was how God chose to communicate with him. The Bible says:
“And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper” (I Kings 19:12).
That is how God spoke to the great Elijah – the man who, according the Bible, never tasted death but left this world in a fiery chariot. Christians, today and forever, need to be sensitive to that still, small voice. This is why God also says to “Incline your ear, and come to me; hear, that your soul may live…” (Isaiah 55:3a). To “incline” the ear is to listen carefully. God is still speaking behind his people today, trying to tell them where to go and what to do.
The way God always points you in will be led by Jesus. He is “The Way” (John 14:6). Jesus has gone on to lead the way, the small voice of his Holy Spirit is now just behind, urging the faithful forward, through every adversity. As Apostle John wrote,
“Whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked…” (I John 2:6).
God the Father is the one who stands behind us saying, “Follow Christ, this is the way!” If you can face your struggle with listening, looking, and living for God’s will, word, and way, you will not be overtaken as the Israelites were. Adversities are sure to come in this life. Your sensitivity to God and his truth will determine how you handle them, or how those adversities handle you. – Jacob Roberts