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Triumphing Over Trials

To overcome suffering, we need comfort and honesty from others as well as a creative and faithful response to it.


Connie Wertenberger is facing a major trial. Connie is a 30-year-old mother of two boys, a woman of faith who is excited about the birth of a third child next month. Two weeks ago, Connie felt a lump on her neck. A series of tests revealed that she has cancer that has already spread into her lymph nodes. The pregnancy has prohibited X-rays to determine the exact source of the malignancy. As soon as the baby is mature enough to live outside the womb, she will undergo chemotherapy.

James 5 says that if any of us are sick we ought to call for the elders of the church to pray for our healing. This past Tuesday night, eight elders from our church met at Connie's home for prayer. We were very impressed with her faith. Her spirits were vibrant as she related how she had been a Christian since childhood, but this tragic news had driven her deeper into prayer and the study of God's Word.

Connie said, "When I first learned how serious this was, I wondered what I had done wrong that God would punish me this way. I was reassured that God wasn't punishing me, and he would sustain me. God didn't save Daniel from the lion's den; he saved Daniel through the lion's den. I know that God is using this experience to deepen me, and the Bible has become my arsenal. I'm putting my faith in God for healing and for strength."

I asked her husband, Jody, how he was coping with the situation, and he said, "It was really tough at first, but seeing how well Connie handles it has been a source of encouragement to me."

The elders gathered around Connie and prayed for her, one by one. It was a moving experience. As we left, all of us felt like we'd been there to encourage her, but her faith had been a source of inspiration to us. That's what I want to discuss today: how a positive response to difficulty is a source of encouragement to other Christians.

The apostle Paul experienced that in his relationship with the Christians at Thessalonica. They were undergoing serious threats and persecutions, but they remained faithful to God in spite of their trials. Three factors enabled them to triumph over their trials and become an inspiration to Paul. I hope their example will give us a fresh understanding of the purpose of suffering in our lives today.

They received a personal visit from someone who cared.

The Thessalonians' first asset was a personal visit from Timothy, who cared about them. Paul sent Timothy from Athens to encourage them.

Timothy had the credentials to help. He was a man of God. He'd been in Thessalonica when the church was started. They knew Timothy and respected him. Encourage in the Greek means "to come alongside." It's the word used for the Holy Spirit, who is our comforter. But we still need Christian people who will stand by us as we go through trials.

Ray and Judy Williamson's son, David, was killed in a fall at Red River Gorge several weeks ago. Speaking later, Ray said, "I used to wonder if I should go to the funeral home when somebody had a tragedy because I always feel so awkward and don't know what to say. But I'll never ask again. I'll always go. It's not what you say but your presence that makes the difference."

I'm concerned about some of you who don't have close Christian friends. You come to church every week to enjoy the service, but you don't know anybody on a personal basis. What happens when your mate gets sick or dies, or you need the strength from somebody else? That's one of the reasons we encourage you to get involved in a small group. We have 130 different small groups of six to eight people that meet every week in each other's homes for accountability and fellowship. When there is a trial, they reinforce each other. When there's something to rejoice about, they rejoice together. There's special power when small groups meet together in the name of Christ.

Solomon said in Ecclesiastes 4, "Two are better than one, because … if one falls down his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up! … Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken."

Paul knew all this. When the Thessalonians were going through trials, he sent Timothy to strengthen them.

They had accurate information about what was in store for them.

A second factor that enabled the Thessalonians to triumph was accurate information about what life had in store for them. Paul had told them in advance what to expect from the Christian life.

He warned them that trials were inevitable and would originate from the adversary. In verse 5 he says, "I was afraid that in some way the tempter might have tempted you." Just after Jesus was baptized, the devil came to him in the wilderness to tempt him. After you become a Christian, there will be opposition from the adversary. Peter said, "Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that your brothers throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of sufferings."

Once you become a Christian, there are attacks from the Adversary. Satan will use financial pressure, illness, former companions, family ridicule, sensual temptations, and nagging doubt to drag you down. Paul informed the Thessalonians that the purpose of Satan's attack was to unsettle them. God wants us to be confident, decisive. Satan wants us to be insecure, always looking over our shoulders, wondering whether our lives are really right with God.

Almost a year ago, our church announced a relocation project. We're going to buy a hundred acres of land, design a new building, and relocate. For the last year, the architect has been working on the design of a new building. We've hit one snag after another in trying to find a hundred acres of land. We're negotiating right now on several pieces of property. But it has not been easy. Are those barriers from God telling us to wait? Or are they obstacles from Satan trying to unsettle us? Or is that just the natural kind of problem you have when you try to buy one hundred acres of real estate near an interstate? I don't know. But I know if we're not realistic and not faithful, it can unsettle us, make us impatient, restless. If we're going to triumph over trials, it's imperative that we anticipate them.

Have you ever talked with a starry-eyed young couple about to be married? They say, "Oh, we just can't wait. It is going to be so wonderful to be together twenty-four hours every day." I often tell them about W. A. Criswell, who'd been married for fifty years when he said, "Sometimes I love my wife so much I could just eat her up. Sometimes the next day I wish I had."

There are going to be ups and downs in life. If we don't anticipate those down times, we're going to be disillusioned when they come. We need to be prepared in advance, for marriage, for the Christian life. Our enthusiasm for Christ needs to be tempered with realism.

I get irritated when I hear some media ministers say, "Just give your life to Christ, and everything will go smoothly. You'll be healthy and wealthy." That is not true. Paul got sick; Jesus was poor. Anyone who enters the Christian life with those kinds of unrealistic expectations is going to be disillusioned and drop out.

Jesus said, "Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head" (Luke 9:58). The Lord couldn't make it clearer. Being a Christian doesn't exempt you from trials. You can still get cancer. You can have a Down Syndrome baby. Your parents can get Parkinson's disease. Your mate can walk away. The rain falls on the just and the unjust. The same difficulties that fall on the world are going to fall on you.

In 1 Peter 4:12-13, it says, "Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you."

When my son, Rusty, was five, he wanted a ball glove. So I took him, and we went to three or four stores to get a glove to fit a tiny hand. No store had such a glove. Rusty was getting impatient. We walked into a drug store and saw one mangy-looking glove on the shelf for $4.95. Rusty said, "There's one, Dad. Get that one."

I said, "No, Russ, I want to get one that will last."

He said, "No, we've looked, and we can't find one. Get that one." He started to cry, not a temper tantrum, but one of those pitiful weeps that little kids get. People were coming by, and I know they were wondering what kind of a father would refuse his kid a glove. He was in tears as I dragged him out of the store. We found a sporting goods store with a ball glove for about $10.95. He was elated, and the glove lasted for several years.

Sometimes God lets us go through some hurting experiences in life because he has something better in mind for us.

Once a young man came into my office and said, "I was in church a year ago when you told the ball glove story. On the Saturday night before, my fiancée had jilted me. I thought she was the girl God wanted for me. On that Sunday morning, I was devastated, but you kept saying, 'Maybe God has something better in mind for you.' I'm here today to tell you I've found a better ball glove. Would you perform the wedding ceremony?"

They had a positive response from the one who was inspired by them.

Jesus said, "In the world you're going to have tribulation, but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world." The third factor that assisted the Thessalonians in overcoming their trials was the positive response of one who was inspired by them.

Look at verses 6 through 8 again. Paul says Timothy brought him good news: "Therefore, brothers, in all our distress and persecution we were encouraged about you because of your faith. For now we really live, since you are standing firm in the Lord." Can you imagine how these new Thessalonian Christians were inspired because they were an encouragement to Paul in his trials?

I have tremendous respect for Charles Colson, who served as special counsel to President Nixon and was involved in Watergate. He went to prison, gave his life to Christ, and has since established a worldwide prison ministry. When I read his books or hear him speak or talk with him personally, I am inspired by his leadership.

Annie Howard of our church is involved in Prison Fellowship. For the last year, she has sent tapes of our services to Charles Colson. He has written notes back to me on a couple of occasions, encouraging me about sermons. Two weeks ago, he wrote a note that said, "Bob, I listened to such-and-such a tape. I am traveling probably three Sundays out of four, so I can't be in my own church. There's a sense in which you have become a pastor to me."

You can't imagine how that encouraged me. It came just two days after a nasty, anonymous letter criticized this ministry. But that one phrase, "You have become a pastor to me," from Charles Colson, inspired me to persevere through discouragement.

Just as the great apostle Paul had been encouraged by good news about their faithfulness, his encouragement had a reciprocal effect on the Thessalonians. They were encouraged by Paul's encouragement. When you experience a trial, God puts a spotlight on you.

You have an opportunity to be an inspiration to other people in that one trial more than you could in a thousand days of ordinary living.

There are four negative ways to respond to trials.

When you have a trial, you can respond in one of four different ways.

First, you can respond irrationally. A group of Boy Scouts from the city camped along the river for the first time, and that evening the mosquitoes were fierce. Their attacks sent the boys under their blankets to escape. One boy peered out and saw a bunch of lightning bugs. He said, "Guys, we might as well give up. They're coming at us with flashlights."

You can exaggerate the difficulty. Or you can hurt so badly you just quit. You even think about suicide or running away. When Elijah was under pressure, he ran away, hid in a cave, and said, "God, I'm the only prophet left; just take my life." God said, "No, Elijah, you've exaggerated the problem. You're responding irrationally. There are seven thousand. Now let's get up and get going."

You can also respond resentfully. When Job's wife underwent all her troubles, she told Job to curse God and die. Some people get angry at God and become extremely bitter about life, thinking, If there really was a God in heaven, he wouldn't let my child disappoint me like this. He wouldn't let my mate run away with somebody else.

Warren Wiersbe says that realism is idealism that has been through the fire and got purified; cynicism is idealism that has been through the fire and got burned. Now whether you get burned or purified is not determined by the intensity of the heat but by the malleability of your spirit.

There are positive ways to respond to trials.

You can also respond creatively.

Don't you love to see people who have difficulties use them to their advantage? Jay Leno has this huge pointed chin, and when he laughs about it, he's even funnier. Woody Stevens was a little man, but he became a jockey, then a horse trainer, who won the Belmont five times. Mel Tillis is a stutterer, but instead of going into hibernation, he comes out to laugh at himself, and it endears him to us even more. I read somewhere that high heels were invented by a woman who got tired of her boyfriend kissing her on the forehead.

Don't you love it when people look for creative ways to deal with their discouragements? When Magic Johnson announced he had AIDS, he vowed to use that tragedy to promote AIDS awareness. He is to be commended for using that illness for a creative, positive purpose. But don't you think it would be better if he informed young people of the real cause of disease: promiscuity. The real cure is abstinence before marriage and faithfulness in marriage. We don't need information nearly so much as we need discipline and positive examples. I've read that the best preventative methods are still only about 90 percent successful. There's no such thing as safe sex outside of marriage. To encourage safe sex rather than abstinence is to promote the disease, is it not? But we have to commend Magic Johnson for wanting to have a creative way to deal with his problem.

As Christians, however, when we face trials, we are also to deal with them faithfully. When Job had all the things go wrong in his life, he said of God, "Even if he slays me, I will trust him." The faithful Christian admits, "I don't know why God has permitted this to happen. I don't know how it's going to work out. But I still believe there is a God in heaven. I still believe he loves me. I still believe that all things work together for good. Even when I hold to my faith with only my fingernails, I'm still holding on."

Ray and Judy Williamson found out on Saturday afternoon that their son had been killed. At 7:30 A.M. on Sunday morning, I watched as they staggered into church. It was hard for them to be here, but they said, "We knew this is where God wanted us to be." Their faithfulness in the worst kind of adversity was an inspiration to everybody in that early service. When a Christian remains faithful, it's an encouragement to other Christians.

Fanny Crosby was blind. Instead of wallowing in self-pity, she held on to her faith in God and wrote the hymns we still sing: "I Am Thine, O Lord," "Jesus Is Tenderly Calling," "To God Be the Glory," "Blessed Assurance." When Fanny Crosby was old, somebody told her that, if she had been born in that day, an operation could have restored her sight. Instead of being bitter, she said, "I don't know that I would change anything. Do you know that the first thing I'm ever going to see is the face of Jesus?"

We're inspired by faith like that. Several years ago, I heard David Ring speak. David has cerebral palsy and a speech impediment so bad that you can barely understand him. But he held 11,000 people in that arena spellbound for twenty minutes. He told us how as a little boy he was close to his mother, and when she died, he had nowhere to turn but to the Lord. He then said, "They said I would never ride a bike, but I did. They said I would never get married, but I did; I have five kids to prove it. They said I would never preach, but last year I preached 265 times. I have cerebral palsy, but I preach. What's your problem?"

For two days, I had heard some of the greatest speakers in the world and never shed a tear. When David Ring spoke that morning, tears flooded from my eyes. What God didn't do for me through some of the best-known authors in the land, he did through a young man with cerebral palsy. I said to myself, If that young man with his trial can still preach, I can't wait to preach again.

Paul says that God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, the weak things of the world to shame the strong. When you are at your lowest, weakest moment, that may be when God uses you to make the greatest impact.

John Claypool, when he was the preacher of the Crescent Hill Baptist Church here in town, had a little daughter who suffered with leukemia. When she went into remission, everybody thought maybe God had healed her. On an Easter Sunday morning, she went into a terrible recurrence. In his book, Tracks of a Fellow Straggler, Claypool relates how for two weeks his daughter was wracked with pain, her eyes swollen shut. She asked him, "Daddy, did you talk to God about my leukemia?"

He said, "Yes, dear, we've been praying for you."

She asked, "Did you ask him how long the leukemia would last? What did God say?" What do you say to your daughter when you can't help her, and the heavens are silent? Emotionally and spiritually he was exhausted. A few hours later, she died.

The following Sunday morning, John Claypool got into the pulpit to preach. I've heard the tape. It's one of the most powerful sermons I've heard. He preached on Isaiah 40:31, which says, "Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint." Dr. Claypool said something to the effect, "There are three stages of life. Sometimes we mount up with wings as an eagle and fly. We're on top of the world. Sometimes we run, and we don't grow weary. We just go through the routine. Sometimes it's all we can do to walk and not faint. I'd like to tell you today that because of my faith in God, I'm mounting up with wings as an eagle and flying. I know my daughter's in heaven. But the truth is, it's all I can do to walk and not faint, and I need your prayers and your encouragement."

At the moment John Claypool was at his lowest, he preached probably his most influential sermon. Perhaps his greatest contribution came at his darkest hour. He could have said like Paul, "For when I am weak, then I am strong."

Any time you think life is unfair, look at the cross. It wasn't fair for a 33-year-old man to be nailed to a cross to die. Three days later, he rose from the grave, and God showed his triumphant power. He has promised us that if we walk by faith in him, he will do the same for us. That's why we can walk and not faint. That's why we can still smile through tears. That's why we sorrow not as those who have no hope. We believe in Jesus Christ.

If Christ is not the source of your strength and encouragement, why not respond to him today when we sing our hymn of invitation? If you don't need him right now, you will someday, because you're vulnerable, sinful, and mortal. Only Christ can be an eternal encourager and Savior to you.

© R. L. Russell
Preaching Today Tape #119
A resource of Christianity Today International

Bob Russell is a speaker, chairman of the board of the Londen Institute, and author of When God Builds a Church (Howard).

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Sermon Outline:


I. They received a personal visit from someone who cared

II. They had accurate information about what was in store for them

III. They had a positive response from the one who was inspired by them

IV. There are four negative ways to respond to trials

V. There are positive ways to respond to trials