When I was a young girl, I had a peculiar food quirk that in hindsight was probably a mild annoyance to my mom. She was an excellent cook (still is at age 88) and made all of our meals from scratch – I’m not sure I ever saw a recipe on our kitchen counter. My childish requests those many years ago included pecan pie without the pecans, banana pudding without the bananas, and chocolate meringue pie without the meringue. I didn’t want anything to distract from the sticky sweetness of the pecan pie filling, the creaminess of the banana custard, or the richness of the homemade chocolate pudding.
As an adult, I’ve discovered that there is another version of my childhood idiosyncrasy, but it’s certainly not as inconsequential. In the same way that I requested desserts without the ingredients which were undesirable to me, I now prefer a life without the hassle of petty inconveniences, relationships without the messiness of vulnerability and sacrifice, and circumstances without the heartache of suffering and loss. I don’t want anything to interrupt the ease and predictability of a life that goes my way.
The purposes of suffering and trials in the life of a believer are manifold: pruning for fruit-bearing, greater perseverance and compassion, being made more like Christ, etc. But the purpose of suffering that I want to focus on is that of strengthening and deepening our faith – a faith that can be described as the capacity to increasingly interpret our lives and circumstances with a God-given spiritual sight.
In Aaron’s recent message on “Transformed Affections,” he made this statement: “I think the reason that the things we see become more valuable to us than delighting in God is because they’re more tangible. We have access to them physically from a sensory experience that rivals the presence of God.” Aaron was speaking of our delight in God as our primary source of pleasure. But this is also true as we consider God as the object of our faith – a God who is the fountainhead of our hope and comfort in suffering and trouble. When we encounter trials, it’s almost a reflex to look for help in people and things which we can see and hear and taste and feel: trusted friends, a healthy bank balance, comfort food, and physical well-being. As Aaron said, the tangible nature of sensory experiences rivals the unseen presence of God.
When God grants us faith at our new birth, that gift of faith is not fully mature. The development of our faith happens as a process of spiritual growth and transformation that God promises to us when He makes us His own. Just as our children develop through the stages of infancy and childhood to adolescence and adulthood, God takes us through a process of growth from spiritual infancy to maturity. It’s a beautiful picture of His faithfulness and commitment to us, but it more often than not involves suffering and painful trials.
The development of our faith increases our spiritual capacity and ability to behold the unseen. In this earthly life, we are prone to delight in the tangible. What we see, feel, and hear is right in front of us and we physically and emotionally cling to it as we encounter burdens and heartaches which seem grievous, tedious, and too heavy to bear. So, in order to break this vise grip on what we can see with our physical eyes, God mercifully works to develop and mature our faith – the “spiritual vision” that enables us to see the intangible and respond to the eternal promises that anchor our hope in the Rock of Ages.
Matthew Henry speaks eloquently of this indispensible spiritual sense: “Faith demonstrates to the eye of the mind the reality of those things that cannot be discerned by the eye of the body….Faith is designed to serve the believer instead of sight, and to be to the soul all that the senses are to the body.”
Again, faith is the spiritual sense that enables us to behold the unseen. But without a maturing faith, we are left with a frail and powerless hope in things that will never answer our deepest needs.
Here’s the thing: It takes some shaking up to break our natural focus on what can be physically seen. Trials and suffering are regularly God’s chosen instruments to accomplish this task. But because we are averse to the pain of suffering, we pray diligently and earnestly for God to remove the very instruments He’s using in our lives to establish and strengthen our faith. His purpose is to increase the capacity of our faith to respond to the unseen, but we cling ever more tightly to what we can see.
When Rob was diagnosed with cancer, our emotional reflex was shock and disbelief. Those responses quickly morphed into fear and distress. We were beholding and responding to the seen. Our responses were normal and natural. But in God’s grace, He didn’t leave us there. He began His merciful work in our hearts to increase our capacity to behold the unseen.
We had to repeat this lesson over and over during our journey with cancer. I remember so well one particular visit to Duke Eye Center. It was after Rob’s initial surgery, and the first part of the examination was to check his vision. Rob was instructed to cover his right eye and then to read as much of the eye chart as he was able to see. With dismay, Rob responded that he couldn’t even see the eye chart. We didn’t know it at the time, but as a result of the trauma of the surgery, Rob’s retina had become detached leaving him temporarily blind in his left eye.
I sat in a chair in the corner of that examining room focusing on what was before me. With tears running down my cheeks, I grieved for all that cancer was taking from us. But God’s promise was to give us greater spiritual sight – a fuller comprehension and experience of the unseen. As great as the temptation was to focus on our loss, faith was training us to see with spiritual eyes all that we had to gain in the difficult circumstances God had appointed for us.
Just recently, I awoke in the night with a nagging anxiety in my heart for my youngest son, Philip. He and his wife are new parents and are experiencing the sleepless nights that many of us remember so well. The fear in my heart was because of my focus on the seen: When Philip was a young teenager, he was diagnosed with a seizure disorder for which he will have to take medication for the rest of his life. He has been seizure-free for years, but one of the main triggers for him is sleep deprivation. I’ve seen enough seizures to last a life-time, and my wakefulness exposed a heart that was dwelling on the dreaded possibility that he might once again be subject to seizures.
Because this blog post had been bouncing around in my head for several days, I realized quickly what was transpiring in my heart. I turned on my light, pulled my Bible into my lap, and opened it up to Psalm 40. I prayed that God would help me change my focus from the seen to the unseen. I prayed that He would increase and strengthen the capacity of my faith – that I would dwell on truth rather than on circumstances. Verses 11 and 17 particularly spoke to my middle-of-the-night trembling heart: “As for You, O Lord, You will not restrain Your mercy from me; Your steadfast love and Your faithfulness will ever preserve me!…As for me, I am poor and needy, but the Lord takes thought for me. You are my help and my deliverer; do not delay, O my God!”
As I prayed through these verses, God dispelled the anxiety in my heart. No circumstances had changed, no assurance had been given that Philip would never again have another seizure, but my faith was strengthened to believe God’s promises – that His mercy, steadfast love and faithfulness would preserve us, and that He would not delay in giving us the help that we would need in every eventuality. The peace born of faith once again ruled in my heart.
In his first epistle, the apostle Peter says, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to obtain an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven for you, who are protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.”
These verses are replete with faith-building truth. But one of the main points is that we are protected by the power of God through faith. This is why it is one of God’s great priorities to develop, deepen, quicken, strengthen, and establish our faith. It protects our vulnerable hearts in this sin-broken, idol-polluted world. And trials are a necessary ingredient in the establishment of our faith. Trials increase the capacity of our faith to behold the unseen – to recognize and experience the truth of God’s promises to us, and to become vessels through whom He can offer life and hope to others. Matthew Henry says that “faith is a sovereign preservative of the soul.” The difficulties we encounter in this life are God’s way of giving us that kind of faith.
James, the brother of Jesus, wrote that we should consider it joy when we encounter trials. The author of Hebrews mentions Christians who joyfully accepted the seizure of their property because their focus was on the unseen promise of a better possession. The apostle Paul gladly boasted about his weaknesses because of His experience of the power of God’s grace. Our Lord endured the cross because of the joy set before Him. In each of these cases, and in innumerable others, the focus is on the unseen. Our capacity for spiritual sight is increased through the trials and suffering that we embrace and endure in this temporary vapor of life.
When my faith is strengthened and quickened by the experience of suffering, then it becomes more vigorous than the physical senses by which I experience and interpret the world around me. My spiritual reflexes – my choices, my responses, and my perceptions – increasingly become fueled by faith rather than by sight. I am moved and motivated by the promises in God’s Word rather than by the troubling circumstances that vie for my attention and emotion.
I am so grateful for this gift of developing faith – the increasing capacity to behold the unseen. Our spiritual sight isn’t yet 20/20, but Scripture promises that one day it will be: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I shall know fully just as I also have been fully known.”
Charles Spurgeon exulted in the day when his faith would be made sight: “Oh, to burst open the door of our Joseph’s granaries, and see the plenty which He hath stored up for us! This will overwhelm us with love. By faith, we see as in a glass darkly, the reflected image of His unbounded treasures, but when we shall actually see the heavenly things themselves, with our own eyes, how deep will be the stream of fellowship in which our soul shall bathe itself! Till then our loudest sonnets shall be reserved for our loving benefactor, Jesus Christ our Lord, whose love to us is wonderful.”
Oh Lord, increase our faith, that we might behold the glorious unseen!