Through Many Tribulations

Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22).  This saying was used by the Apostle Paul to strengthen the souls of the churches in Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch.  In contrast to this view of the Christian life, a view that includes travail and hardship, many contemporary evangelicals are being taught a contrary doctrine.  They are told that it is God’s will for the Christian to be monetarily prosperous, to be free from unresolved conflicts, and to be healed of all sickness because poverty, conflict and sickness are not to be a part of the lives of the faithful.  While this statement should seem false at the outset, many are taken in by its promises of a pain-free life here and now.  An overrealized eschatology has been problematic in the church dating back to the early Corinthian believers.  To examine this false teaching we must consider the various components of the claim.  First, is it true that all Christians ought to be monetarily prosperous?  Secondly, is it true that Christians should be free from all unresolved conflicts?  Thirdly, is it true that Christians should be healed of all sickness?

In response to the first question, what is the teaching of Scripture concerning the Christian and material prosperity?  Is it God’s revealed will that Christians be financially well off and care free in their lifestyle?  Biblical evidence supporting this assertion will be hard to come by, even with significant distortion of the original meaning of key texts.  The Bible addresses the issue of wealth, clearly stating that, far from being normative for Christians to be wealthy, the wealthy are a separate subgroup given correspondingly specific warnings and responsibilities.  For both poor and rich, the goal is found in contentment and gratitude to God, their ultimate hope.

God has ordained the existence of the poor, the rich, and all those living between these two poles of human material existence.  Many throughout the Old Testament history of Israel as well as the New Testament history of the church have been moderately or even extremely wealthy (e.g. Abraham, Job, Solomon, the women who supported Jesus’ ministry, several of the twelve, Zaccheus, Joseph of Aramathea, the “rich” addressed in 1 Tim. 6:17).  However, it is equally true that there have been many godly people throughout Old and New Testament history who have been extremely poor (e.g. the Israelite multitude in Egypt, Ruth, the Shunnamite widow to whom Elisha ministered, Joseph and Mary, John the Baptist, Christ, the widow with the mite, the believers addressed in the letter to the Hebrews, the churches of Macedonia, most of the Corinthian church).  In fact, it is noteworthy that the Apostle Paul specifically clarifies that the majority of believers in this New Testament era will not be materially prosperous or powerful in this world.  He reminds them that “not many were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth” as accords with God’s plan to use the base things of this world to confound the wise that He might receive all the glory to Himself (1 Cor. 1:26).  The poor have been given a special place in the kingdom of God being made “rich in faith” (James 2:5).  Both lots in life, rich and poor, have been ordained of God and are to be accepted by the believer with gratitude and humility.[1]

The wealthy, a non-normative subset of the Christian community, are given certain extra responsibilities or stewardships, and also warned of certain inherent risks that attach to their outward status.  With prosperity comes a unique temptation to forget God and His benefits and to trust in oneself and one’s assets.  Just as it was a concern for Israel (Deut. 8:11-20), so it would be a concern for New Testament believers who might be tempted to be “haughty,” or to “set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches” (1 Tim. 6:17).  It is foolishness to set one’s hope on temporal blessing; nonetheless, we are susceptible to this temptation.[2]  In addition to a unique temptation, the wealthy have unique stewardship responsibilities to “do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share” (1 Tim. 6:18).  Therefore, it is clear that the wealthy are a subset of the believing church with unique temptations to face and unique contributions or roles to play in the life of the body.  All believers have never been intended to fall into this category.  On the contrary, the church is characterized by suffering of various types including material want.  This is the ordained lot of the majority of the chosen.   Their key to living, along with the rich, is “godliness with contentment” (1 Tim. 6:6).

What about the second question, the promise of conflict free living?  Does the Bible promise the believer a life free from conflict?  If there are conflicts in the life of a believer, can we infer that there is something deficient in that believer’s life?  The Bible is full of conflict from cover to cover.  Conflicts with God and conflicts with others, this is the bulk of the biblical content.  When God became Man in the person of Jesus Christ, He was born into the thick of conflict.  At His birth, Herod sought to destroy Him and in his lunacy killed a whole generation of baby boys.  Jesus conflicted with Satan and the powers of darkness throughout his three-year ministry.  He frequently found Himself in conflict with the rulers of Israel, the Priests, the Saducees and the Pharisees, who opposed him and ultimately sought His death.  His own family opposed Him at times, and at least once accused Him of being crazy (Mk. 3:21).  So, if the Son of Man experienced a life of conflict around every corner, why would we expect a life free from it?

Conflict didn’t end with the crucifixion.  The rulers of Israel thought for a moment, on that Good Friday, that they had ended the madness of the world going after Jesus.  They must have been greatly disappointed and a bit fearful to hear a few days later that the One they had crucified was risen and had been seen by many of His followers.  They stepped up their opposition to the followers of Christ.  The early disciples were subjected to frequent persecutions as part of the conflict between their Lord and the Jewish authorities.  The apostles not only experienced conflict from the Jews, but also from rogue sects such as the Gnostics.  Conflict was also experienced internally in the churches.  Many of the early congregations were marked by conflicts that are clearly referenced in the Epistles addressing them.  And we are taught today that we ought not be experiencing conflict.  Jesus taught specifically that we should anticipate and would experience conflict in the world, in the church, and even in our families.  Why are we shocked at its existence among us?

In response to the third question, what is the Biblical teaching regarding the believer and sickness?  Is it God’s will for the believer to live a life free from the effects of the fall, a life devoid of pain and suffering as a result of sickness and disease?  The Bible provides numerous examples of devout believers that have suffered in one way or another physically, who in no wise have been exemplary of unbelief (e.g. Isaac, Mephibosheth, Peter’s mother, Paul, Timothy) and others who have been ill as a result of God’s chastening (David, the Corinthians, Ananias and Saphira).  While the Bible, and for that matter church history since the biblical era, confirms the presence of illness among the people of God, it also offers and bears witness to the first fruits of the redemptive work of Christ, the Healer, in the accounts of various saints who by the mercy of God have been miraculously healed of various conditions.  Believers of deep piety have been found in each extreme of the health continuum, and have accepted their calling in this regard from the Lord.  All illness is not necessarily the result of personal sin, but is often for the purpose of God’s glory and growth in character of the suffering saint into the likeness of Christ, the Suffering Servant.

The age in which we live is an era marked by the presence of remaining corruption and futility as the creation awaits the final redemption to come (Rom. 8:20-21).  Our bodies are a part of that creation awaiting final redemption and subject to the consequences of the curse upon the created order.  Our “outer man,” our body, is fading away or decaying day by day while our inner man is being renewed simultaneously (2 Cor. 4:16).  Sometimes, in the midst of this futility, God still mercifully provides physical healing, however, not always nor in every case.  Oftentimes God’s purposes take the believer through sickness and suffering to teach them invaluable truths they could not otherwise grasp.  John Piper says it well, “God’s goal for His people in this age is not primarily to rid them of sickness and pain but to purge us of all remnants of sin and cause us in our weakness to cleave to Him as our only hope.”[3]

The believer, then, can rest assured that in poverty or wealth, in conflict or shalom, in sickness or health, they have a loving heavenly Father who is watching over every aspect of their lives, working without fail to bring to pass His likeness in them through whatever adversity He ordains.  God wastes nothing, even our own sin in His great plan of character transformation.  We are living in the “not yet.”  This side of Christ’s return, we are not promised a life of ease and comfort.  On the contrary, we are promised a life characterized by sharing in the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings (Phil. 3:10).  In the final analysis, we see the wisdom in Paul’s teaching to the suffering churches, “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22).


[1] See Calvin, 1960, 3.7.9; see also Phil. 4:11-12.

[2] See Lk. 12:20; Matt. 6:19-24.

[3] John Piper, “Christ and Cancer,” (17 August 1980), 5; available from http://www.desiringgod.org/library/sermons/80/081780.html; Internet; accessed 1 May 2006.

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