The Training Ground: How does the Lord use our adversity for something greater? For more information, visit cornerstone-sf.org
The weather, as you know, has been raining. It might still be raining out there right now. It’s been breaking today, but it feels like it’s rained the entire year. That’s what it feels like to me. It’s been extraordinary. I want us to jump right in. We’re talking about the training ground. How God can use difficult things to train and break us into new places and spaces in life. Let’s start by reading from one of the great chapters. The opening of the chapter connects directly with our theme. Romans 5, “Therefore, since we’ve been made right in God’s sight by faith, we have peace with God because of what Jesus Christ our Lord has done for us. To be made right in God’s sight is to be justified.”
It’s one of the great doctrines in the teachings of scripture. We are justified. We are made right in God’s sight as if I’d never sinned because of Jesus. It doesn’t mean we don’t sin. It doesn’t mean we’re not broken or we won’t disappoint. We do, and we’ll do it until the rest of our days are done here in this life, but we have a great savior. It’s greater than our greatest stability to pull away from Him. If we are all just open, His love is irrepressible. We have peace with God because of what Jesus Christ our Lord has done for us. This is the key to peace with God. It’s the basis of Jesus. “Because of our faith,” verse two, “Christ has brought us into this place of undeserved privilege where we now stand.” The older version says, “This grace by which we stand.” We confidently and joyfully look forward to sharing God’s glory. He says, “In light of place and promise, we are to be an optimistic people.” That’s what he’s saying. Paul says, you’re standing with God has been secured by a work that you could never do. Remember how much grace has been bestowed into your life. When you have a relationship with God it is because of the bridge that Jesus created with His own life.
He says, “Remember who you are. Sons and daughters, beloved of God in a relationship by faith.” Then he says, “Remember where you’re going and live in that hope always. Never let yourself be deceived. This is the only life. This is a wonderful experience, the only one we know, but the Lord reminds us that this is meant to just be part of our life journey.” He talks about life and what life is yet to be. Paul starts off by saying, “Remember the grace that’s been given to you. You couldn’t earn this thing. It was a gift from God. You only received it because you were willing to believe. Even that requires the grace of God.” Then he says, “Because of that, you have not only this place but you have a promise that can never be taken from you. That promise is anchored in the victory and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Live that way. Learn to live hopefully.” We are reminded that we are to adjust our perspectives always. Yet that doesn’t take away from the fact that between now and then, between who we are in Jesus and where we’re ultimately going, that there aren’t things in life that need to be addressed.
I love the scriptures because they don’t just talk about just getting us to heaven and escaping this world. It consistently talks about how we are to live and what is clearly at times an unfair, broken, sin impacted life. The Bible calls it a world where a lot of things happen that don’t make sense. The truth is some of them do make sense and they still hurt a whole lot. Sometimes they hurt even more, but in verse three, Paulo goes on to address that. He says, “Yes, we can even rejoice when we run into problems and trials.” Why? Because we know that they help us to develop endurance. Endurance develops strength of character. Character reinforces the confident hope of our salvation that has already been given to us. This hope that we have will not lead to disappointment in a world that is filled with disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us because He’s given us His holy spirit to fill our hearts with His love. We can get an impression of it because of the real love of God that dwells in us by His spirit.
If you go back to verse three, then some of us might say, are you serious? We’re to rejoice when we run into problems and trials? That’s the same thing James brought up the previous two weeks. Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying. We can rejoice. Certainly not because of the adversity itself. Not because of the problems or the bad things. We’re not rejoicing because of those bad things that we’re going to deal with inside and outside around us. No, and we’re not even talking just about the grace. We’re not just talking about the glorified future. We’re talking about good growth. The reason we can rejoice is that God has made a promise, if we welcome Him into the difficult places of our lives, He can bring good from it.
Oftentimes that good shows up in the form of development and deepening in our lives in ways that would not have otherwise been possible. I was talking with someone close to me and we were joking together because you notice the word develop. We were talking about growth. You see how in verses three and four, ‘develop’ is key. You see in verse three, ‘helps us, for we know that they help us.’ There it is, develops endurance and endurance develops strength of character. You see that word and realize that part of the key to development and growth are the trials and problems. They’re critical. It’s implied that you almost can’t get the growth and development without it. Some of us might say, “What if I don’t want to develop and grow? Could I check out the problems and the trial stuff? Is it possible that I could take a pass on that?” How about this? “Am I content with no growth? Can I just get the pass on the trials and the problem part?” Here’s the thing, you can get a pass on the growth. No question about out it, but not on the trials and the problems. They’re coming either way. I’m going to get it either way in this life.
Then the question is, do I want to grow from it? That’s our choice. We get to decide that. As I said before and reminded myself a few times is if I’m going to go through it, I might as well grow through it. There are certain things that we have to deal with. There’s an amazing example in the bible. Some of you may want to take at some point in the early part of this year, a detour in the book of Genesis and check out the life of a man named Joseph. Joseph is a fascinating figure because of his story. The account of his life takes up 14 chapters in the book of Genesis 50 chapters. That’s a significant chunk, one-quarter of the opening. There are a lot of things that are happening in the book of Genesis. To have that much time devoted to one person is an amazing thing. Josephs’ life is an amazing and profound example of how to persevere, prosper, and grow through the adversity that is sent our way. The pain that he had to endure and the things that he had to walk through were huge. We read his story again in Genesis, but in the book of Acts, it’s summarized by a man named Stephen. I put his summary in Acts 7 in the handout.
I’ll try to get everybody caught up and see how it links together. The patriarchs that are being referred to here are the fathers of the Jewish nation whom the tribes were named after. They were the sons of Jacob. Joseph was one of those sons. Jacob himself was the son of Isaac. Isaac was the son of Abraham. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The father of the nation was Abraham. The father of all, the Bible says, who believed in God, for Abraham walked by faith when he had nothing. He was told that if he walked by faith, God would make out of his descendants a great people. He couldn’t have children at the time that promise was given to him. God said, “Your descendants will be like the grains of sand on the shore and the stars in the sky.” In a way, now everyone who follows Jesus by faith is connected as well to the Jewish people who are his physical descendants. We all become, in a sense, sons, and daughters of Abraham by faith.
It’s an amazing thing through Christ. Yet what we’re told here is that the patriarchs, the brothers of Joseph, were jealous of Joseph. Stephen, in Acts seven, is summarizing this huge swath of information. He’s consolidating it down to two verses. He says, “The brothers were jealous of him and they sold him to be a slave in Egypt, but God was with him and rescued him from all of his troubles. God gave him favor before Pharaoh, the king of Egypt. God also gave Joseph unusual wisdom so that Pharaoh appointed him governor over all of Egypt and put him in charge of the palace.” Joseph was sold into slavery. God is with him and rescues him from all of his troubles. Then he ends up becoming someone who’s promoted to the highest places in Egypt, Pharaoh’s right-hand man and he ends up saving his people. The gap between verses nine and 10, between when they sold him into slavery and when God rescued him from all of his troubles is a big space. We’re talking years of difficulty and pain. It was a circuitous path of years as a slave and then as a prisoner in the dungeons of Egypt. It was a long journey to get to that and the gap between chapters nine and 10 is huge.
Remember, Joseph’s youth is defined by trauma caused by his own brothers. It’s true, in some ways, he was a bit naive and perhaps self-centered. That seems to be the indication. His father, who created a dysfunctional family, was making a clear case for who his favorite was. It was Joseph. He gave him special gifts and assignments He set Joseph above the rest. He was younger and given a special place. His brothers seethed with resentment. We know that for a variety of reasons. We can go on an extensive study of it. The bottom line is the brothers got to the point where they said, “We’re so sick of him. We need to get rid of him.” They basically put him in a pit and he could hear their conversation. They were discussing whether or not they should kill him.
As they were having that discussion and thinking it through, they said, “All we have to do is show father that special coat that he gave him. Dip it in some animal blood and say he got killed by a beast. Father will go for that and we can be done with him. We’re sick of him.” Then there’s a slave caravan going to Egypt and they end up deciding, “You know what, let’s just sell him.” They sold him and said, “We’ll never see him again. No one ever lives through that stuff anyway, ever.” In the Bible, the way it describes it is Joseph is yelling, “My brothers.” He’s in the pit, screaming to them. “Brothers, brothers.” That kind of scar, to feel that, to then ask, “What are you doing? No matter what I did, how can you do it? My brothers.” Flash forward years, I’m talking years of being stuck in a bad place. Eventually, God works it out in such an amazing way that during this gap of time, through the pain, suffering, disappointment, and through the moment where it looks like it’s going to break for him and he gets disappointed again. Someone lets him down again. This man demonstrates what it is to have a beautiful character with God as he refuses to let the pain of his circumstances prevail over his life.
The Bible says it beautifully, “But God was with him.” Flash forward, years have passed. Joseph’s now been placed in the highest position in Egypt. Then lo and behold, his brothers show up and through a series of events, Joseph ends up being in a place where they don’t know who he is. They can’t recognize him. He looks like an Egyptian, walks like an Egyptian. How do they walk? I don’t know. They have no idea. He’s clearly fully adapted to Egyptian culture at the highest levels. These guys are much older now, but he recognizes them immediately as his brothers. Everything in you says, ‘ah.’ If you’re a fan of movies or novels, I was thinking about Alexander Dumas’ The Count of Monte Christo. This is a theme often explored. Someone is totally left for dead, treated unjustly, taken advantage of, stripped of all they have, but somehow miraculously they live. When they get through it, over time they have the opportunity meticulously to plot in a detailed fashion how “I will deconstruct the lives of the people who did this to me.” Vengeance.
In Joseph’s case, he has that moment come. It’s such a beautiful contrast because he’s there. First, when he sees them all gathered, the Bible tells us that he can’t even contain his emotions. He has to leave and starts weeping. I think all the feelings that came back to him so he started weeping. He reveals himself in this powerful moment. They’re utterly terrified. They think, oh no, oh no. Now we’re going to get what we deserve. It’s all coming back. Joseph, shocking, unbelievable. Joseph. They’re thinking, ‘okay, payback time. We’re dead.’ Watch what Joseph says. This is from Genesis 50. “But Joseph said to them, do not fear. Don’t be afraid of me. I’m in the place of God. That is this. I’m exactly where God wants me.” Then he says something that is classic when it comes to adversity, reminding us that things can be moving at multiple levels. God can be moving in one place and other circumstances can be moving as well. It could be a result of this or a product of that. God’s still weaving inside and out of it. It’s not about separation. It’s all interwoven together.
Joseph says, “Listen, you meant it for evil against me. There is no question about it. Even now, I remember. You meant it for evil.” You could feel the passion in it. It’s powerful. I just try to imagine in my mind’s eye him saying it to his brothers. “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good. He meant it for good that many people should be kept alive as you’re going to be today.” It’s a powerful moment. I don’t know why. It always impacts me. It reminds us that Joseph understood experientially that God can use pain and adversity for good. God can use what was meant as evil even for good. God can use our own mistakes for good. God can use our choices that are poor, selfish, and self-centered for good. God can use anything. There’s nothing that He cannot get His way. There is nothing that His good cannot find its way into. I know, it sounds incredible.
Let’s shift back to Romans 5 again. Let’s look at it through a different lens. I put a slightly different passage translation in there so it gives it a different focus. Watch, if you can, as we read through that passage one last time. Try to note how Paul takes us from saving faith into resilient faith. “By entering through faith into what God has always wanted to do for us, that is set us right with Him, make us fit for Him, we have it all together with God because of our Master Jesus.” That’s not all. We throw open our doors to God and discover the same moment that He has already thrown open His door to us. Our faith move is a response that we find He’s already made the move. He started it. In alert expectancy such as this, we throw open those doors to God and discover the same moment that He has already thrown open His door to us. We find ourselves standing where we always hoped we might stand. I love this phrase. To me, this characterizes what the walk and life of a follower of Jesus are supposed to look like. He says, “Out in the wide-open spaces of God’s grace and glory.” I love that. It’s not meant to be confined. It’s the wide-open spaces of God’s grace and glory. This is what a vital life in Christ looks like, standing tall. It compels us to shout at our praise to God when we understand what He’s opened up for us.
Next, He then shifts from saving faith into resilient faith. There’s more to come. We continue to shout out praise. Shouting out our praise is such a part of our life because we live with such an understanding of God’s love and grace that work in our lives. Even the worst of life can’t hem us in and stop His love from flowing out of us. We’re hemmed in with troubles. It’s true. We could still rejoice because we know how troubles can develop passion and patience in us. Look at how that patience in turn forges the tempered steel of virtue, keeping us alert for whatever God will do next. In alert expectancies, such as this, our eyes open and spiritual eyes enlightened. We’re never left feeling short-changed. Quite the contrary. We can’t round up enough containers to hold everything that God generously pours into our lives, through His holy spirit.
I hope we can see it. We can see how those who follow Him are to not just settle for a saving faith. As great as that is, He calls us and invites anyone who would follow Him into the wide-open spaces into a vital faith. That vital faith is always connected to adversity. Adversity, problems, and trials are the training ground. God works His way into maturing, growing, and developing us, to deepen our peace and widen our reach. It’s right there. The things we would despise are often the place where He provides the kind of environment at a spiritual level that breaks us into new places.
Speaking of development, I was rereading an older book by a guy named Jerry Bridges called Trusting God, in light of this series. I remembered a story that I had read in it years ago. He talked about this unique thing in nature, the Cecropia moth. I thought, ‘oh, moth.’ I didn’t know exactly what it looked like. I’ve seen a lot of moths in my days. They can’t compare to butterflies. I always liked butterflies over moths. I looked up a Cecropia. It’s beautiful. It has its own beauty. It’s big too. Bridges wrote, “One of the many fascinating events in nature is the emergence of the Cecropia moth from its cocoon, an event that occurs only with much struggle on the part of the moth to free itself. The story is frequently told to someone who watched a moth go through this struggle, trying to break out of its cocoon and what the viewer did. They wanted to help the moth so they snipped the shell of the cocoon to help them get out of there. Soon the moth came out with his wings all crimped and shriveled. The person watched the wings remained weak. The moth, which in a few moments would have stretched out those wings to fly was now doomed to crawling out its brief life in frustration of ever being the beautiful creature God created it to be.”
What the person in the story did not realize was that the struggle to emerge from the cocoon was an essential part of developing the muscle system of the moth’s body and pushing the body fluids out into the wings to expand them. By unwisely seeking to cut short the moth’s struggle, the watcher who had good intentions had actually crippled the moth and doomed its existence.” He goes on to say this about a spiritual principle, “The adversities of life are much like the cocoon of the Cecropia moth. God uses them to develop the muscle system of our lives.” When it comes to moving through adversity, I have two principles to present that we can sit and wrestle with, and pray over.
The first one is connected to what we just shared. One of the keys is learning to accept and align, as Bridges would later say, insofar as we are able to see what God is doing, make His purpose our purpose. Anybody who’s been through surgery knows you cooperate with the process. If you go in fighting it, you’re setting yourself back. I have rarely had surgery. When I was a boy I dislocated my shoulder. One time, I had my thumb broken somewhere along the way, skiing with my wife. She was a better skier than me. I fell. I said, “Hon, what do you want me to do?” She says, “Go back into the valley by yourself. I’m going to stay here and ski.” It’s the last time I went skiing with her, by the way. I had years where I had no surgeries at all. Then in the last three years, I’ve had to go in twice. Once it was a freak thing. Who gets their appendix out at 50? I was up in the mountains and thought I had pulled a muscle backpacking. I knew I had to preach the next day. I remember I went and preached. I could barely move to preach. I thought something’s wrong. I ended up going in and my appendix had slightly burst open. Then about two years ago, I had to have vocal surgery.
The point is, in each of those surgeries, there was a process I had to align myself with. For it to be as successful as possible, there were things I needed to do. I didn’t want to go into that fighting it. I wanted to walk into it aligned. That’s a great principle, right? I was thinking about this a lot. When we’re under fire or in the heat of things in life, things are getting hard, we’re afraid or angry, we can struggle with accepting and aligning ourselves with what God is trying to do. The encouragement or the exhortation I would say both to myself and all of us is, “in those places, don’t cut the cocoon, don’t cut it. Don’t abort the process. Accept, align, and then allow as much as possible through much wrestling, pain, and tears, allow His grace to shine through.” One of the big mistakes we can make is to try to rush something.
Looking back on my trial that I experienced before and during my medical sabbatical in 2015, I wasted so much energy trying to control the uncontrollable and fight the unwinnable that I set myself backward. I struggled with this chapter for many reasons. I focused so much energy on trying to solve and escape my feelings and situation, that I delayed my learning and extended my duration. That was my, ‘don’t cut the cocoon.’ The struggle’s okay. God’s there. He’ll help us through it. He’ll grow us through. Work with it. Welcome Him in. Let Him work. Be patient with the process. One of the things I found is how incredibly hard it can be when we’re in the middle of a trial in life that’s hard for us because it can hit us hard. How hard it is sometimes to be patient and not try to escape. When we’re in pain, suffering, feeling trapped, confined in a situation, lonely, depressed, or deeply conflicted, it’s normal to want to escape that. Who doesn’t want to escape that? It’s normal to want to get relief some way, in any way possible.
There are certainly legitimate ways to do that that will help us. But I’m going to tell you, we have to be careful in these places. In these places, the real tendency will be to cut the cocoon. I have to get out of here. I have to escape this. I have to do something. It might be reckless. That is exactly what we should not be doing. That’s how we can get ourselves addicted to stuff that will be worse than the thing that we were in. It happens all the time. We want an outlet. We’re in pain, so we look for answers in all kinds of different places; drugs, alcohol, pornography, sex, food, unhealthy relationships, relational dependency, you name it. We can find ways to try to address that pain, but it’s not the solution. It just becomes a worse captor. The way is the way of Jesus. It’s the Jesus way. I am an unabashed proponent, an advocate of the Jesus way because I believe in it.
This will be the last thought we share around this. In most cases, not all, but I believe it’s true for anyone who’s listening to this. We are being trained in positions for a higher purpose. It’s very possible that God is trying in the middle of the mess to grow something into us or out of us, preparing us for something we can’t even see, a transformation. He wants us to make a blessing. He wants us to take from His hand that He reaches out to us, but it’s hard to get to it because we have to stretch. We probably won’t make the change on our own because it’s too painful or uncomfortable. For some of us, the expansion comes via the breakdown. You’ve heard me allude to this many times. I’m talking about the breakdown that leads to the breakthrough that leads to the breakout. There are those wide-open spaces in God. That’s what I’m talking about. Breakdowns are tough. They’re the pain nobody wants, but it presents an opportunity like no other. When we’re in pain, everything’s on the board. Raw, real, honest, no veneer, no pretense, and no need to fake it. We’re hurting and blessedly open. Open in a way we would have never been and may never be again.
It’s possible we’ll never again be as open and raw as we are in this moment. We’re trying to get out of it. In some way, it may be one of the greatest blessings in the pain, unlike anything. We are forced to think about things. I don’t even want to ruin that moment. I just want to let it sit. One of the things that I’ve noticed in the scriptures when you read the life of Christ, most of His healings, miracles, and a majority of His teachings, or at least many of them were connected to broken people. Brokenness and despair often open us up, as few other things will. Keep that in mind. That’s what we’re getting. Don’t cut the cocoon. Let it work. Stay close to God, wrestle. We’re going to go up and down. It’s okay. Be gentle with yourself and patient with the process. Let Him work in our lives. We’re going to grow through this. It’s how it works. The Lord can do it. It’s what He does.
Two things. We’re going to have our time of giving. I know a lot of us more are giving online these days. I get all that, but we’re still going to have our time of giving. After we do that we have a song. That song is a song that I asked if they could do today. I often say our closing songs are prayers, but this one will feel like a prayer. There’s a part of the song that says, “my eyes could see, but my heart was blind.” It talks about walking through fearful places and how the Lord will lead us through the way. I want to close by having us look at the prayer that we’re connecting for the week to this message. I want to encourage all of us if we can throughout the week at different times. You can use your mobile app to pull it up anytime. It’ll be sitting right there. I’m going to close it with this prayer.
Lord, there are some seasons where things are hard. They’re very hard, but I thank you. I thank you. Thanking Him is like driving the nail into the wood. I thank you. I thank you for the promise and the hope I have in you. Nothing needs to feed or define me if I keep my eyes upon you. Even when I have little in the tank and I’m running on those faith fumes, help me not to be dismayed, but instead to trust in you and your unquenchable goodness. I love this. You have a record of using the trouble of life as a training ground that creates out of our broken places, a broad path of breakthrough and blessing. This promise, I claim for myself in Jesus’ name. Amen.