"I would ye should understand, brethren, that the things which happened unto me have fallen out [turned out] rather unto the furtherance of the gospel" (Philippians 1:12).
In this verse, Paul tells the Christians in Philippi not to worry about all the things they'd heard had befallen him. And those "things" included great afflictions and infirmities!
Paul wrote this epistle while bound in a Roman prison. At that point he was a seasoned warrior of the gospel, having endured every conceivable hardship and human affliction. If you've studied Paul's life, you know the kinds of things he'd faced: shipwrecks, beatings, buffetings, revilings, mockings, persecutions, hunger, thirst, nakedness, defamation of character. Paul's worst afflictions came at the hands of those who called themselves born-again believers. Some of his opponents were envious church leaders who turned entire congregations against him. They ridiculed his lifestyle, mocked his preaching, misrepresented his message, questioned his authority. Everywhere Paul went, it seemed, he was met by affliction, trouble and sorrow.
Yet Paul said, "...none of these things move me..." (Acts 20:24). Furthermore, he added, "No man should be moved [troubled] by these afflictions: for yourselves know that we are appointed thereunto....we told you before that we would suffer tribulation..." (1 Thessalonians 3:3-4).
Paul was reassuring these believers, saying, "I've told you all along - if you're going to walk with Jesus, you'll face afflictions. So, now that these afflictions have come upon me, why are you so surprised? This is our appointed lot in life."
Paul repeated this even more bluntly to the Philippians: "For unto you it is given [assigned] in the behalf of Christ, not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for his sake" (Philippians 1:29).
There is a certain theology in the American church today that says, "If you have your faith worked out correctly, you won't suffer. You'll be prosperous and won't have to worry about having troubles." No - those words don't appear in the Bible! On the contrary, Paul says we have been assigned to suffer for the sake of Christ.
Moreover, Paul wrote that every day he woke up "...not knowing the things that shall befall me there: save that the Holy Spirit witnesseth [solemnly testifies to me] in every city, saying that bonds and afflictions abide [await] me" (Acts 20:22-23).
Try to get this picture in your mind: Here was a holy man, called by God to take the gospel to the nations. And on every holy assignment, the Holy Spirit whispered to him, "Paul, the next stop isn't going to be easy. You're going to face opposition again. You'll find more afflictions, more testings."
I find this man's life absolutely amazing. Can you imagine it? Paul faced troubles and afflictions at every turn. The Holy Spirit told him to take a certain ship for a missions trip - and the vessel ended up sinking; Paul had to swim for his life. The apostle then set out for his next appointment on foot - and he was robbed along the way. Finally, Paul reached his next mission stop - and instead of hearing his message, the people mocked him, beat him and cast him into prison.
God delivered Paul from that jail cell. And when he was released, he shook the dust from his feet and started out for his next assignment. That's when the Holy Spirit told him, "Get ready, Paul - because you're going back to jail. And then you're going to be stoned. I know you've been through a lot, but there are more afflictions ahead. Rejoice, Paul - for you have been counted worthy to suffer for the sake of Christ!"
Paul continued on to the next place - and sure enough, he was stoned and left for dead. Yet God brought him back to life. Then, leaning on the handful of people who had accompanied him, he hobbled onward to his next appointment.
His next mission stop was a church he had raised up. Yet when he arrived, he found that Alexander the coppersmith was now their leader. Alexander told him, "You're no longer needed, Paul." This man had turned the whole church against Paul, their founder, a shepherd who had hobbled for miles just to see them.
So Paul went to his next assignment - and again the Holy Ghost told him, "That's not all, Paul. There are more afflictions ahead."
At this point you may be saying, "Wait a minute - you're talking about Paul's life, not mine. He was appointed by God to suffer afflictions. I haven't been called to such a life." Wrong! The Bible says: "Many are the afflictions of the righteous: but the Lord delivereth him out of them all" (Psalm 34:19).
The phrase "many are the afflictions" applies not just to Paul, but to us as well. And I believe the more righteous we are, the more afflictions we will face. We love to hear the last part of that verse: "...the Lord delivereth him out of them all..." But do we rejoice in the first part as well? "Many are the afflictions of the righteous..."
I say with Paul: Why are we so surprised when one affliction after another comes upon us? We have been told to expect them, even many of them. Yet often we cry out in the midst of them, "Oh, God - I've had enough! I don't understand why I have to endure all these things. You know I love you, that I've been faithful to you. So why am I having to take this? You said you wouldn't give me more than I could bear, and I can't bear any more. Please, cut these troubles short!"
We want quick-and-easy deliverance. But our afflictions serve no purpose whatsoever if we do not understand why God permits them. The truth is that every affliction, trial, trouble, difficulty and disappointment in our life is allowed by the Lord. And he has a specific purpose behind all of them. Why? It is because he is taking us somewhere - trying to accomplish something in us and through us!
We all know it would be just as easy for God to keep us out of all afflictions. Jesus implied this when he asked the Pharisees, "Whether is easier, to say, Thy sins be forgiven thee; or to say, Rise up and walk?" (Luke 5:23). He was saying, "I have the power to do both." So, wouldn't it be just as easy for him to shield us from afflictions as it would to let us go through them? He could deliver us with one spoken word! But he doesn't; instead, he allows us to go through our afflictions - all for a divine purpose.
If the Lord did not permit troubles in our life, that would represent the worst form of rejection. It would mean God is saying, "I have no special work for this believer, no plans for his life being set apart as a testimony. Therefore, I don't need to produce anything in him. Let him remain untrained, untutored, a man with a child's mind. Let him not abound in grace. Let him not learn through affliction so that he might teach others. Let him just exist and die in his childishness."
I know Christians who refuse to learn from their afflictions. After a while, when God sees there is no purpose in allowing their troubles, he withdraws the afflictions. These Christians simply float through life, seeming not to have a problem in the world. But it is because they are not going anywhere! There is no future for them in God's plan. They are like the children of Israel, who floated through the wilderness for forty years. God tried the Israelites time after time - but he finally gave up!
Let me give you the key to understanding your afflictions:
When a parent sends a child to college, it requires a great investment. And that parent hopes his child will apply herself to the rigors of her training. Why? Does he hope she will graduate, come home, hang her diploma on the wall, then sit around the house watching television? No! That parent hopes his child will make his investment pay off by starting a good career.
Likewise, when the U.S. military offers a free education to an enlisted soldier, those years of education are considered an investment. The soldier is told, "After you're educated, your nation and government want a certain amount of your time." That trained soldier is expected to serve in the armed forces for a number of years, to justify the investment.
So it is with the Lord and our afflictions! Everything you go through as a Christian is a training exercise, behind which God has a divine purpose. He did not save you to allow you to cruise into paradise on a luxury liner; he saved you to prepare you to be of use in his kingdom. The moment you were born again, he enrolled you in his school of suffering. And every affliction, every trial, is another lesson in the curriculum!
Some Christians are in kindergarten. Their afflictions are not difficult to understand, and their tests are much easier to endure. Others are in grade school, and they quickly learn that their tests have become a little tougher to face and harder to understand. Others are in college, and their afflictions are much more severe and more difficult to figure out. Still others are in postgraduate school, with years of hard affliction behind them and many difficult tests looming before them. Their afflictions are the toughest of their lives, and they realize they need Holy Ghost strength to deal with them all.
My point is, God wants veterans of spiritual warfare - people who have been through many afflictions - to prove to the next generation his faithfulness. And our every affliction is an investment he is making in us as his veterans!
So, you ask, does that mean God afflicts his own children? Listen to the psalmist's answer: "For thou, O God, hast proved us: thou hast tried us, as silver is tried. Thou broughtest us into the net; thou laidst affliction upon our loins. Thou hast caused men to ride over our heads; we went through fire and through water: but thou broughtest us out into a wealthy place" (Psalm 66:10-12).
Where does the psalmist say his affliction came from? It came directly from the hand of God! He's saying, "Lord, you put me in waters that rushed over my head, so I thought I would drown. You put me into the fire, to try me as silver is tried. You brought me into a net, laid affliction on my loins, caused men to trounce on me!"
Why did God allow such afflictions? It was because he was bringing his beloved child into a "wealthy place." In the original Hebrew this phrase means, "a place of abundant fruitfulness." God is saying, "I'm taking you through all these hard places to make you fruitful for my kingdom!"
Yet not all afflictions are from the hand of God. Many troubles come from the devil himself, straight from the pits of hell. "For he [God] doth not afflict willingly nor grieve the children of men" (Lamentations 3:33). God says, "I get no joy out of afflicting my children. That is not my purpose in allowing troubles." No - the Lord allows our afflictions only for his holy, eternal purposes. It is to bring us into a "wealthy place"!
Now, I am no apostle; I'm only a novice compared to Paul. But I'm old enough in the Lord to consider myself a veteran in the faith. And as I look back over the years, I can tell you it has been a lifetime of trouble, affliction, hardship and disappointment. I've written some books about it, but those books only touch on the highlights.
I cringe with amazement as I remember all the sorrows, trials, deep waters, flaming fires and powerful afflictions. And usually when afflictions came, they came not just one at a time, but in bundles. Many times I thought, "There's no way I can make it through this." Even the memories of afflictions are painful - memories of slander, chastenings of the Lord, ministry trials, personal buffetings, family problems, bodily pains and aches. Yet, as I recall those years of suffering, I can say with assurance, "God's word is true! He brought me out of every affliction that came upon me. I praise him!"
Almost any Christian reading this message could write a book about all the troubles and afflictions he or she has experienced. If you have served the Lord for any amount of time, I know you have a story to tell. Yet, what would that story sound like? Maybe it would go something like this: "I always have the peace and rest of the Holy Ghost. And I have wonderful fellowship with Jesus. But in this daily walk - in this flesh I wear - there has been such incredible pain, rejection, suffering, tears. It has been a lifetime of affliction!"
If you love Jesus with all your heart, your testimony will be, "God has always brought me out. I never went under. I'm still here, and I'm praising the Lord. Those afflictions are behind me now. I may be in the midst of another one, but all the others are under the blood. I am victorious, because Jesus brought me through!"
Perhaps there were times you almost fainted. You may have been so weak and weary you thought you couldn't go another step. But now, from where you stand, you can say, "No, I never want to go through that again - but God brought me out of it. He has been faithful. Praise the Lord!"
Yet God is not satisfied with a heartfelt "thank you" from us. Rather, he says, "Wait just a moment, my child. I did not bring you through all these troubles and afflictions just to make you a grateful overcomer. No - I have a big investment in you. I've spent years training you, putting you through all these things for a purpose. And I'm not going to let you waste them now. I fully intend that my investment pay off. I tell you, your best work is ahead of you!"
Now, as you emerge from your college-level afflictions, God opens your eyes to your struggling friends in kindergarten. These beloved ones don't think they can make it. So, what do you do with your affliction experiences? God whispers to you, "I need seasoned, tested veterans - people who have survived deep waters and awful fires, who have been refined through suffering. I want people who will prove my faithfulness to this generation!" The psalmist writes: "...that ye may tell it to the generation following" (Psalm 48:13). "Now also when I am old and greyheaded, O God, forsake me not; until I have shewed thy strength unto this generation, and thy power to everyone that is to come..." (71:18).
Paul sums it all up beautifully: "But I would ye should understand, brethren, that the things which happened unto me have fallen out rather unto the furtherance of the gospel..." (Philippians 1:12). That is saying something! When Paul wrote this, he was an older man with years of experience - and he was in the midst of one of the worst trials of his life. He spoke to his friends from his heart:
"It would be the most wonderful thing right now if I could go home and be with my Lord. That is my greatest desire. But I'm a veteran - I've been through afflictions and trials - and I know I'm needed here. This generation needs to see a sufferer who survives and rejoices in any affliction. My son Timothy is going to face all that I've faced, and he needs to know that God will bring him through. So, it is best that I stay and endure these deep afflictions. Look at me - not only have I survived, but I have true hope. I'm not down or depressed. I rejoice in the Lord for all he has brought me through!"
"...I shall abide and continue with you all for your furtherance and joy of faith" (verse 25). Paul is saying, "You know I've been through fires, infirmities, robberies, shipwrecks. At times I've even despaired of life. But God has delivered me from it all. And now I'm going to abide and continue with you for the furtherance and joy of your faith. I want to teach you that you don't have to be terrified of any adversary!"
Beloved, I have a question for you: No matter how long you've been walking with Jesus, you surely have known pains, trials, afflictions. So, how have you behaved in them? What has been the outcome, the result of your experiences? Have your afflictions all been in vain? Or have you learned of God's love and faithfulness in the midst of them?
Let's say you're a dedicated believer who has laid down his life for Jesus. You have a burden for a dying world, you weep for the lost - and you have a clear command to take the good news and win souls. So you tell all your friends you're going to a certain city to testify of God's grace.
Yet after you arrive, your friends back home receive word that you're not being used of God at all. There is no congregation as planned; in fact, your ministry is dead. You have nothing to show for your efforts. And rather than stirring the city up for Christ, you've landed in jail!
How would you react if all you had to show for your dedication, labors and sacrifice was utter failure? How would you behave if God shut you down, bound your hands and left you helpless?
Some Christians would pout. They would doubt God's word to them and question the Spirit's leading. They would give Jesus the silent treatment - whimpering, doubting, complaining to their friends. And the whole trial of their faith - the affliction meant to throw them into Jesus' arms - would be wasted, with no effect whatsoever.
Yet other Christians would respond as Paul did - rejoicing that they'd been counted worthy to suffer for Christ's sake. Paul did not try to figure out his afflictions. He responded with joy, faith and hope - because he knew he was in training as God's witness! He wrote to his friends from jail, "My situation is the topic of Caesar's palace. Everyone in Rome is talking about what's happening to me. I'm in jail for Jesus!" He must have been quite a sight in that prison cell - a scrawny Jew encouraging everyone around him, "Rejoice in your afflictions. God is faithful!"
Paul didn't waste any of his afflictions. He knew each of them had a divine purpose. And the Lord is watching how we behave during our trials as well. Let me give you three ways our afflictions are wasted:
1. We waste afflictions by whiny, murmuring, complaining behavior. This kind of behavior disturbs the Lord. It was the reason every test and affliction Israel experienced in the wilderness was lost on them!
The book of Numbers contains a sad example of wasted afflictions. The five daughters of a man called Zelophehad came to Moses asking for a share in the possession of the Promised Land. They told Moses, "Our father died in the wilderness, and he was not in the company of them that gathered themselves together against the Lord in the company of Korah; but he died in his own sin, and had no sons" (Numbers 27:3). These women were saying, "When all the others rose up against you with Korah, our father wasn't one of them. He wasn't in rebellion. He died in his own sin."
This last phrase struck me as I read it: "He died in his own sin." This meant that although their father had seen incredible miracles - deliverance out of Egypt, water flowing from a rock, manna coming from heaven - he died in unbelief with the rest of his generation. Of that generation, only faithful Joshua and Caleb survived the wilderness.
Obviously, these five daughters were born in the wilderness - and they grew up in a family full of anger toward God. All of Israel's testings and trials produced only hardened unbelief in their father. And all these young women heard growing up was murmuring, complaining and bitterness. At breakfast, lunch and supper, there was constant bellyaching, with never a word of faith or trust in God. Now these women had to tell Moses, "Our father left us with nothing - no hope, no possession, no testimony. He spent those forty years whining and in bitterness, because life was hard. He died in sin, his life a total waste!"
What a horrible thing to have to say of one's parents. Yet I must warn all parents reading this: Your children are watching you as you're under affliction! And they are being influenced for life by your behavior. So, how are you behaving? Are you wasting your affliction - not only for yourself, but for the generations that follow? Or, are your heirs being established in Christ as they hear you say, "I don't like this affliction - but blessed be the name of the Lord. He always delivers!"
I know many Christians who have become more bitter and grumpy with every new affliction. You would think their God is dead. They even look sour; over the years they've become prune-faced. The very afflictions meant to train and sweeten them - trials designed by God to reveal his faithfulness - instead turn them into habitual bellyachers, sourpusses, meanies. I wonder as I see them, "Where is their faith, their trust in the Lord? What must their children think?"
I've buried a lot of people in my lifetime, and in that time I've discovered something tragic: Those who become sour and bitter watch helplessly as their loved ones gradually pull away from them. Their children pull away, along with their grandchildren and friends. And those sourpusses end up dying alone. I've conducted some funerals where only one person attended. The deceased were forgotten almost entirely. God allowed them to go out with nobody!
Beloved, don't waste your afflictions! Let them produce in you the sweet aroma of trust and faith in your Lord. All your trials are intended to throw you into his arms, to cause you to say, "I am his, and he is mine. And he will bring me through this affliction!"
2. We waste afflictions when we face new ones without remembering our deliverances from old ones. We have a tendency to forget every good thing God has done for us!
When David stood before Goliath, he rehearsed his past victories in order to build up his faith. He recounted, "When a lion came toward me, I tore it apart. And when a bear came after me, I killed it too. Now the same God who delivered me from the roaring lion and the ferocious bear will deliver me from this giant!"
Moses reminded Israel of all their past deliverances. Then he warned them: "Take heed to thyself, and keep thy soul diligently, lest thou forget the things which thine eyes have seen, and lest they depart from thy heart all the days of thy life: but teach them thy sons, and thy sons' sons" (Deuteronomy 4:9).
Sadly, the Bible says of Israel: "They kept not the covenant of God...and forgot his works, and his wonders that he had shewed them" (Psalm 78:10-11). Like the Israelites, we have the same tendency whenever we face a new trial or affliction. We say, "Oh, God, this time it's too much for me to face." But God answers, "Simply look back, and remember me!"
If need be, keep a journal to remind yourself of God's great deliverances in your life. Jot down a few notes at night before going to bed. Do whatever it takes to remind yourself of all the things he has done for you - all the heartaches you've been through, from which he has delivered you. Then, when your next affliction arises, open your notebook and say to the devil, "You're not going to deceive me this time. My God brought me out before, and he will do it again!"
3. We waste our afflictions when we refuse to see that God brings us through them in order to teach others. We are to share our experiences with our brothers and sisters to prove God's faithfulness to them. We are to stand and say, "Thank God, I'm a veteran. And I can tell you by experience - he is faithful!" Paul actually boasted of his afflictions: "...I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus" (Galatians 6:17). He knew each scar bore an eternal purpose!
David wrote: "In my distress I called upon the Lord, and cried unto my God: he heard my voice out of his temple, and my cry came before him, even into his ears....He sent from above, he took me, he drew me out of many waters. He delivered me from my strong enemy, and from them which hated me: for they were too strong for me. They prevented [came upon] me in the day of my calamity: but the Lord was my stay. He brought me forth also into a large place; he delivered me, because he delighted in me" (Psalm 18:6, 16-19).
Dear saint, rest assured - if you're being afflicted, it is because God delights in you. "Whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth..." (Hebrews 12:6). Your afflictions are a sign of his love!
You must also remember that whatever you're going through will pass. Recently, I read a passage in one of my journals, which I wrote while going through a great trial. Three months' worth of entries all ended with the same phrase: "Oh, God, when will this nightmare end?" Then, finally, these words appeared across a page in huge letters: "IT'S OVER - HE HAS DELIVERED!"
I can honestly say I have learned more in my afflictions than I ever did in good times. Prosperity doesn't teach us; afflictions do. The humanitarian Albert Schweitzer said, "Happiness is good health and a bad memory." No - happiness is remembering all the ways God has brought us through!
I ask you again: How are you reacting to your afflictions? Are you wasting them, becoming a doubter and complainer? Or are you building up your faith, knowing that your God delivers?
There is only one way to endure your present troubles: Remember that your heavenly father delights in you! He has a plan at work, a great investment in you. And "...he which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ" (Philippians 1:6). Your father is preparing you to be a veteran of spiritual warfare - an example of faith and trust to this generation. Hallelujah!