The year 2016 marked the centennial anniversary of America’s National Park Service. In celebration of the anniversary, a particular issue of National Geographic contained some amazing photos of several parks—as only National Geographic can capture.
Now, I pride myself on having a Jed Bartlet-like appreciation for the national parks, so when I looked at these photos, I was captivated. They were unlike anything I had seen. In a single image, you could see both day and night, shadow and light, sun and moon. The photographer, for hours at time, took thousands of pictures, and with the aid of technology, “compressed the best parts into a single photograph.” The result is a massive and sweeping image comprised of thousands of smaller photos.[i]
Yet, the more I looked, the less certain I was that I liked it. For these photos are attempts at seeing what is not meant to be seen—a full day all at once. The scenery was beautiful, yet odd. It was unnatural. Frankly, it wasn’t real.
When we face trials for which we don’t know the outcome or don’t understand the purpose, and struggle with wanting to know all the answers at once, it is like we are wanting to see a full photo of the end and the beginning, in one frame.
But were we to see such, I think we would be disappointed. It likely wouldn’t make sense, for it is neither real nor what God intends. God, in his kindness and wisdom and mercy, uses trials and hidden things to draw us closer to himself, and even when we can’t understand the outcome or the purpose, joy is revealed in the process.
In his first letter to his exiled and suffering readers undergoing trials, the Apostle Peter reminds that these trials are only “for a little while” (1 Peter 1:6-9). This is not Peter’s attempt to minimize them or belittle the pain and challenges they produce, but to offer another bolster of hope that even the longest of trials will, in fact, end.
Trials and sufferings are a part of a post-Genesis 3 world. They were not what God intended when he created the world. Whether the result of sin, physical malady, or material loss, trials and sufferings do not escape the believer in Christ (Jn 16:33) and, indeed, can serve as painful instruments of the evil one.
As we behold and experience the trials that are a shared burden in this world, believers often understandably question why God allows such to happen. Even though God, in his faithfulness and wisdom, may never allow his children to have the full understanding of why he permits suffering, Peter’s words here give a great deal of insight and help.
Trials, of all kinds, test our faith in crucible-like ways—ways that will show the greatness and goodness of God and result in our greater praise to him. This is, in part, because he endures the trials with us. The living hope we have of Christ himself within us is even better than the appearance of an additional man alongside Daniel’s three friends in the fiery furnace (Dan 3:25).
Through Christ, in every trial we have a shield of faith “with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one” (Eph 6:16). When we are tempted, God is faithful and “will not let you be tempted beyond your ability” but will provide a way of escape (1 Cor 10:13).
Often the way to rejoicing is the way of weakness through suffering, and a powerful New Testament portrait of this is the life of the Apostle Paul revealed in 2 Corinthians. As J. I. Packer explains in is marvelous book, Weakness is the Way, the testimony Paul gives shows “Pain and exhaustion, with ridicule and contempt, all to the nth degree; a tortured state that would drive any ordinary person to long for death, when it would all be over. But, says Paul, Christ’s messengers are sustained, energized, and empowered, despite these external weakening factors, by a process of daily renewal within.”[ii]
Paul begins 2 Corinthians declaring that “we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead” (2 Cor 1:9). From this reliance comes “good courage” (2 Cor 5:6) and the ultimate lesson that God’s “power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9).
Packer writes Weakness is the Way from personal experience. He has lived a life of “physical and cognitive weakness” due to a head injury as a child. Yet, Packer’s early learning to rely on divine strength has sustained him. Writing in his eighth decade, after recovering from hip replacement surgery, he shares of his growing “acquaintance with Satan’s skill in generating gloom and discouragement.” Yet, in these years, he reveals, “[m]y appreciation of 2 Corinthians has also grown as I have brooded on the fact that Paul had been there before me …. The whole letter is an awesome display of unquenchable love and unconquerable hope.”
Even if we could see a National Geographic photo of our lives that shows the end and purpose of our suffering, I don’t think we would understand or like what we saw. Instead, by looking at the true Picture, Christ Jesus, while undergoing trials, both Paul and Packer show us the better way of endurance and the source of hope.
This article is an adaption from Mere Hope: Life in an Age of Cynicism now available from B&H Books.
Jason G. Duesing (with a foreword by Russell Moore)
B&H Books, 2018
[ii] J. I. Packer, Weakness is the Way (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013), 99-101.