Maturity in the Christian life comes slowly and painfully for some. Whether because of entrenched distortions in their thinking, severe mental or emotional disturbances, drug or alcohol dependency, or simply a resistance to change, there appear to be people who have been claimed by the blood of Christ but still go crashing through life, contending with one calamity after another. Although such a person is free to make his own choices as before, God now asserts sovereign control over his life because that life now belongs to God. The wayward Christian may well find himself in continual difficulty, suffering painful adversity and the inexplicable scuttling of his material pursuits.
In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, he confronts that church about a man among them who has been sleeping with his mother. Paul tells them: “Hand this man over to Satan so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord.” (1 Cor. 5:5) It is not much of a stretch to see that the banishment is intended ultimately to bring the man back into the fellowship through suffering and loss. In his second letter to that church, Paul writes on the same theme: “The punishment inflicted on him by the majority is sufficient for him. Now . . . forgive and comfort him.” (2 Cor. 2:7)
It has been said that the story of the Exodus is one great metaphor for the Christian life, and it fits perfectly. We see God redeem the Israelites from slavery in Egypt (salvation). But once delivered, the Israelites find themselves in a stark wilderness (the turmoil and pain of the maturing Christian), conspicuously pining for the fleshpots of Egypt” (temptation to sin). Although their needs are being met, their carnal appetites still rage (the battle of the flesh). They have forgotten the agony of their previous bondage and find it nearly impossible to trust God when faced with such hardships (God’s testing and our all-too-common tendency toward unbelief). The Israelites experience deprivation and uncertainty (trials), which God is using to teach them to rely on Him for everything they need (faith and prayer). God is requiring obedience and trust from them, but because they allow fear and loathing of their circumstances to control them, God turns an eleven-day journey into a forty-year meandering ordeal in the desert.
The Israelites are punished severely for their disobedience and unbelief, but God does not abandon them. He continues to work with them, and at long last they cross the Jordan River and enter the Promised Land. They have undergone painful training and discipline, and in one of the more inscrutable dilemmas in Scripture, they must now fight to take possession of the land God had already given them. This is to be a full-fledged battle involving loss, severe hardship, maimings and death for many Israelites.
The wrap-up to this story mirrors the quandary of the Christian’s struggle with sin. Scripture declares unequivocally that the follower of Christ is a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17), dead to sin (Rom. 6:2), fully empowered for holiness and Christlike conduct. (2 Pet. 1:3-4) Nevertheless, the lingering milieu for the maturing Christian is suffering and tumult. These are the “fiery trials” Peter essentially calls normal. (1 Pet. 4:12) James tells Christians to “grieve, mourn and wail.” (Jas. 4:9) But then, in the very next verse, we read: “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and He will lift you up.” (Jas. 4:10) The pain and adversity in our lives is for the purpose of destroying our pride and our addiction to comfort. Once the child of God has come to the place where he trusts and obeys even in the midst of excruciating trials, he will experience the peace and joy God promises. (John 14:27, 1 Pet. 1:8) He has become like the soldier who slogs on through the trenches and even sings his favorite songs while bullets are flying all around him.
It is through all manner of unpleasantness that God disciplines His children, even as He promises them: “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” (Heb. 13:5) For the Christian still struggling with sin, the only fatal misstep seems to be giving up and shutting God out. Once that option is ruled out, the carnal Christian who is holding on to pet sins will eventually, through God’s discipline and the natural outcome of foolish decisions, find that he has painted himself neatly into a corner. Let him then cry out to God and forsake his own way, and God will lead him into the Promised Land.