The Theology of Trial: Finding Your New Normal on the ‘Fire Road’
Excerpted and adapted from a forthcoming resource by Les Ollila and Sam Horn and discussed by Horn on The Steve Noble Show on Nov. 18.
An iconic Vietnam War photo shows 9-year-old Kim Phuc Phan Thi fleeing naked down a highway, horribly burned by napalm. Yet Kim Phuc, once suicidal over being scarred and exploited as a North Vietnamese propaganda tool, could ultimately proclaim, “I am thankful for the ‘Fire Road’ because eventually it led me to Jesus,” the one who was also ruthlessly scarred and persecuted.
At one time or another each of us will walk down an unexpected “fire road” of deep pain, suffering and, in some cases, unbearable loss. Peter tells us not to be surprised when the fierce fire of trial engulfs us for a season (I Peter 4:12). And James affirms the reality of trials afflicting God’s choicest servants (James 1:2).
What will you do when you encounter an unanticipated season of trial as the Good Shepherd leads you through your own fire road? In particular, how will you handle this holiday season when the memories or current reality of pain, loss, conflict and — these days especially — fear can feel overwhelming?
Four principles from God’s Word can sustain and lead us through personal ordeals as we follow Him.
The expected, shocking end of normal produces denial and confusion — followed by crushing grief and anger at the fact that you must start finding a new normal.
Yet we have no ability to change or control reality: God has taken that out of our hands. What He has left in our hands is our response. Will we refuse to believe that our old normal is over? Or acknowledge that God has permitted this to happen?
Consider Job, who experienced devastating loss in every sector of his life: wealth, servants and all his children.
Job’s response? He “arose and tore his robes and shaved his head, and he fell to the ground and worshipped … . Through all this Job did not sin nor did he blame God.”
Job felt shock, grief, helplessness and pain. Yet he did not blame God. Rather, he worshipped! Acknowledgement starts when, amid our deepest anguish and anxiety, we run to — rather than away from — the Lord we know has loved, redeemed, and made promises to us.
Once we acknowledge our new normal, we can choose the path of Naomi or, again, of Job.
Naomi (initially) chose bitterness at the loss of her homeland, husband, sons and any hope of a secure future with no children or grandchildren to support her:
“It is exceedingly bitter to me for your (her daughters-in-law’s) sake that the hand of the Lord has gone out against me” (Ruth 1:13b).
“Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me” (Ruth 1:20).
Naomi was so angry she almost missed the bountiful blessing God gave her in Ruth and that would eventually come through Ruth.
Job, in contrast, gives us the key to acceptance: trust in God’s wise providence no matter what He allows to touch us.
“Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” (Job 2:10).
“Though He slay me, I will hope in Him!” (Job 13:15).
Acceptance is not the absence of grief; it is grieving well. We can’t remove our feelings, but we don’t have to be controlled by them.
Moving from acknowledgement to acceptance of our new normal requires dethroning self, enthroning God, and employing the fuel of worship and gratitude for His not sparing His Son so we could experience abundant life.
Like acknowledgement and acceptance, adaption is a choice, one in which we move beyond accepting to thriving in our new normal.
The secret to adapting: realizing trials are all about our good and God’s glory, as Paul tells us in Romans 8:28 and personally lived out in writing the Philippian believers from jail. Instead of bemoaning harsh conditions in addition to lost freedom and ministry opportunities, the apostle “rejoices!”
““(T)he things which have happened to me have actually turned out for the furtherance of the gospel so that it has become evident to the whole palace guard, and to all the rest, that my chains are in Christ; and most of the brethren in the Lord … are much more bold to speak the word without fear” (Phil. 1:12-14 NKJV).
A Christlike response to circumstances deepens our endurance, helps us value what He values, and can prepare for a new ministry advancing the Gospel and strengthening believers.
God has no intention of wasting your pain, and once we are thriving through Spirit-enabled adaptation, we are ready and eager for Him to use us in new and fresh ways. But how do we accelerate into a new ministry lane after perhaps months or years of being in the healing and recovery lane?
One example: Joseph. Sold into slavery and falsely imprisoned, he emerged as a brilliant ruler and rescuer of not just one but two peoples — Egypt and Israel.
This prophet did it, first, by putting the past behind him, as reflected in the naming of his sons: “God has made forget all my toil and all my father’s house,” and “caused me to be fruitful (accelerate!) in the land of my affliction.”
But Joseph also had to let go of what God had already forgiven, choosing not to wreak vengeance on his brothers because he realized that what they had intended for evil the Lord was using for good. To propel forward, he developed a bad memory in favor of a good vision.
In the same way, God does not interrupt our normal to harm us but to perfect us for greater service. How soon we accelerate into that new lane depends on our willingness to, with Paul, “forsake those things which are behind and press forward to the upward prize of the high calling of Christ.”
Scars for God’s Glory
Fire always leaves scars, and their pain can feel especially acute in this seeming season of joy. However, as Kim Phuc learned, our scars are reminders of the scars Jesus wears on our behalf. And these “fire-tested” Scriptural principles — acknowledging and accepting like Job, adapting like Paul and accelerating like Joseph — enable us to use our scars for His glory.
That is, until the day we appear before Him and He wipes away all our tears, removes all our sorrows and heals all our heartbreaks.