The wise teacher, J. I. Packer wrote of how those who are new in the faith, “advance into their new life joyfully certain that they have left all the old headaches and heartaches behind them. And then they find that it is not like that at all. Longstanding problems of temperament, of personal relationships, of felt wants, of nagging temptations are still there—sometimes, indeed, intensified.”
“God does not make their circumstances notably easier; rather the reverse. Dissatisfaction recurs over wife, or husband, or parents, or in-laws, or children, or colleagues or neighbors. Temptations and bad habits which their conversion experience seemed to have banished for good reappear. As the first great waves of joy rolled over them during the opening weeks of their Christian experience, they had really felt that all problems had solved themselves, but now they see that it was not so, and that the trouble-free life which they were promised has not materialized. Things which got them down before they were Christians are threatening to get them down again.”
What are they to think now?
“The truth here is that the God of whom it was said, “He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms” (Is. 40:11), is very gentle with very young Christians, just as mothers are with very young babies. Often the start of their Christian career is marked by great emotional joy, striking providences, remarkable answers to prayer and immediate fruitfulness in their acts of witness; thus God encourages them and establishes them in ‘the life.’”
“But as they grow stronger, and are able to bear more, he exercises them in a tougher school. He exposes them to as much testing by the pressure of opposed and discouraging influences as they are able to bear—not more (see the promise, 1 Cor. 10:13), but equally not less (see the admonition, Acts 14:22). Thus he builds our character, strengthens our faith, and prepares us to help others. Thus he crystallizes our sense of values. Thus he glorifies himself in our lives, making his strength perfect in our weakness.”
How does God help us grow?
“Not by shielding us from assault by the world, the flesh and the devil, nor by protecting us from burdensome and frustrating circumstances, nor yet by shielding us from troubles created by our own temperament and psychology; but rather by exposing us to all these things, so as to overwhelm us with a sense of our own inadequacy, and to drive us to cling to him more closely.”
“This is the ultimate reason, from our standpoint, why God fills our lives with troubles and perplexities of one sort and another: it is to ensure that we shall learn to hold him fast. The reason why the Bible spends so much of its time reiterating that God is a strong rock, a firm defense, and a sure refuge and help for the weak, is that God spends so much of his time bringing home to us that we are weak, both mentally and morally, and dare not trust ourselves to find, or to follow, the right road.”
“When we walk along a clear road feeling fine, and someone takes our arm to help us, as likely as not we shall impatiently shake him off; but when we are caught in rough country in the dark, with a storm getting up and our strength spent, and someone takes our arm to help us we shall thankfully lean on him. And God wants us to feel that our way through life is rough and perplexing, so that we may learn thankfully to lean on him. Therefore he takes steps to drive us out of self-confidence to trust in himself.”
Learning through failure
“This truth has many applications. One of the most startling is that God actually uses our sins and mistakes to this end. He employs the educative discipline of failures and mistakes very frequently. It is striking to see how much of the Bible deals with godly people making mistakes and God chastening them for it.”
“Abraham, promised a son, but made to wait for him, loses patience, makes the mistake of acting the amateur providence, and begets Ishmael—and is made to wait for thirteen more years before God speaks to him again (Gen. 16:16-17:1). Moses makes the mistake of trying to save his people by acts of self-assertion, throwing his weight around, killing an Egyptian, insisting on sorting out the Israelites’ private problems for them—and finds himself banished for many decades to the back side of the desert, to bring him to a less vainglorious mind. David makes a run of mistakes—seducing Bathsheba and getting Uriah killed, neglecting his family, numbering the people for prestige—and in each case is chastened bitterly. Jonah makes the mistake of running away from God’s call—and finds himself inside a great fish.”
“So we might go on. But the point to stress is that the human mistake, and the immediate divine displeasure, were in no case the end of the story. Abraham learned to wait God’s time. Moses was cured of his self-confidence (indeed, his subsequent diffidence was itself almost sinful!—see Ex. 4:10-14). David found repentance after each of his lapses and was closer to God at the end than at the beginning. Jonah prayed from the fish’s belly and lived to fulfill his mission to Ninevah.”
“God can bring good out of the extremes of our own folly; God can restore the years that the locust has eaten. It is said that those who never make mistakes never make anything; certainly, these men made mistakes, but through their mistakes God taught them to know his grace and to cleave to him in a way that would never have happened otherwise. Is your trouble a sense of failure? The knowledge of having made some significant mistake? Go back to God; his restoring grace waits for you” (J. I. Packer).
The clear lesson is that we are always dependent on our Lord. And our extremity furnishes the most suitable opportunity for God to display His power.