Trials and tribulations are an unavoidable part of living in this age.
Jesus said they would be.
“In the world you will have tribulation.”
As we have considered previously, in the age to come, shalom will be our ‘natural’ state all of the time. In this age, how can we live in shalom when we know we will have trials and tribulations?
There are perhaps several ways to consider this question, but mostly we tend to respond in one particular way. In this way we see our lives as series of steps forward, punctuated by setbacks that mean we sometimes have to pause or even take steps backwards.
In this way of seeing our trials and tribulations, life is what happens only when we are stepping forward. The absence of troubles becomes our best indicator that we are living our life, and in this mode we can make plans, have hopes and even dare to dream. But when the inevitable setbacks come, we effectively put our lives on hold until we can move past the time of tribulation. In this way of being, we tend to reject any kind of suffering as an imposter and an enemy who has come to steal, kill or destroy us. Our life is supposed to be going a particular way but the enemy is preventing me from living it.
In the previous reflection we saw how a fear of making mistakes, often rooted in shame, can limit us and prevent us from taking risks in life — risks that often lead to significant growth and even great rewards. The same is true if we hold the view set our here, that trials and tribulations prevent us from living our lives. Why would we take a risk if we are comfortably living our lives in peace and without any major concerns? Wouldn’t we risk introducing trials and tribulations? If we did that, the life we were living would come to an end, at least until the trials and tribulations ended.
It is true that we have enemies set on stealing, killing and destroying anything and everything good in our lives. If it were possible, they would even take that life itself.
“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.”
But here is the thing we need to notice and pay attention to: if we are living in this way, trying to maintain a life free from trials and tribulations, then our enemy has already succeeded without having to do anything. We have done all the hard work.
How so? As we stated earlier, Jesus said we would have trials and tribulations in this life. They are unavoidable. Avoiding trials and tribulations means avoiding life. The thief can’t steal something we don’t already have. But here is what Jesus also said immediately before and after his words about the inevitability of trials and tribulations:
“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace (that is, shalom).
In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”
Immediately after acknowledging that our enemies do indeed come to steal, kill and destroy, Jesus also says,
“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.
I came that you may have life in all its fullness.”
Both of these are Jesus’ ways of saying,
“You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.”
Here’s how: Jesus’ view of life includes trials and tribulations and puts them in their proper place. As we considered when we looked at death in an earlier reflection, it too needed to be put in its proper place, because shalom requires that everything is in the right place, and nothing is in the wrong place.
There is something about embracing suffering in a proper way that is part of what it means to live in shalom in the present age. There isn’t sufficient time or space to explore this meaningfully here, but we can see from Jesus’ own example — and that of his apostles and many Christians throughout the centuries — that those who live for God somehow draw the suffering of the world onto themselves and are able to absorb some of its sting and turn a curse into a blessing. It is truly a great mystery, but nevertheless an observable truth, that the sufferings of the world are somehow carried and converted in the body of Christ.
“Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith—that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”
To live in shalom in this age requires that we accept trials and tribulations and, moreover, we recognise that, as children of God, we are somehow entrusted with these sufferings for the sake of the whole world. As has already been stated: this is indeed a great mystery, but Jesus uses a familiar picture to emphasise this point.
“When a woman is giving birth, she has sorrow because her hour has come,
but when she has delivered the baby, she no longer remembers the anguish,
for joy that a human being has been born into the world.”
If we have eyes to see, Jesus is teaching us that our sufferings are like birthing pangs that lead to new life — they are birthing moments. Paul says something similar in Romans 8, and includes the whole of creation as being caught up in this struggle. For Jesus, and in turn Paul, the focus is not the suffering; the focus is life and JOY!
Living in shalom frees us to claim every trial and tribulation as a means to a new level of joy. No one wants or enjoys suffering, and neither should we; a time is coming when there will be no more suffering. But in that day, those wounds we bore for love and for the sake of Christ will be glorified in our resurrection bodies, just as Jesus still bears his wounds.
Therefore we can despise the suffering, yet at the same time shake out the joy from any trial and tribulation. It’s always there for the taking, if we have eyes to see. This is the abundant, extravagant and mysterious provision that only the Lord who is my shepherd can provide.
In the midst of our trials and tribulations, when our enemies are surrounding us and looking for ways to steal our joy, kill our hope and destroy our faith, the Lord sets a table before us and places some bread and wine on it, and offers them to us saying,
“Take, eat, for this is my body given for you;
Take, drink, for this is my blood, the blood of a new covenant
shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.”
Whenever we gather at this table, in the knowledge and sight of our trials and tribulations, we can know this truth of the Lord who is my shepherd:
“You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.”
May you live in Shalom, and may you know that there is joy even in trials and tribulations.
May you know the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings as you endure in your own struggles.
May you know the extravagant provision of the Lord in the midst of your enemies.