The Testing of Faith.
by C.F. Hogg
THAT trial and testing, is the appointed portion of God's people in every age is testified throughout the record of His dealings with them. Moab might settle on his lees, but Israel was emptied from vessel to vessel (Jer. 48: 11). Nor could anything be more explicit than the Words of the Lord, "In the world ye shall have tribulation," and those of His Apostles that "through many tribulations we must enter into the Kingdom of God" (John 16: 33; Acts 14: 22). The writer of Hebrews, too, declares that our trials are evidence of our Father's love, quoting with approval what some of His saints had learned long before, and adding that "all chastening seemeth for the present to be not joyous, but grievous" (Heb. 12: 5, 6, 11). Peter recognizes that we are "put to grief in manifold trials," but comforts us with the reminder that our "proved faith" is precious (that is, to God) to Whose "praise and glory and honour" it will be found "at the revelation of Jesus Christ," "when He shall be glorified in His saints, and be marveled at in all them that believed" (1 Pet. 1: 6, 7; 2 Thess. 1: 10). Nevertheless, we still need the exhortation of Peter, "Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial . . . which cometh upon you to prove (test) you, as though a strange thing happened unto you; but inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ's sufferings, rejoice; that at the revelation of His glory also, ye may rejoice with exceeding joy" (1 Pet. 4: 12, 13). We are often perplexed by our Father's ways with us. Has not He said that "to them that love God, God worketh all things with them for good" (Rom. 8: 28, R.V.), and yet so many apparently meaningless trials befall us. But before this word can be of comfort to the believer, he must experience the faith-testing implied in it.
Trials fall upon us in many ways, but perhaps the severest are those that come through the Word of God. Early in life, Joseph was met with a vision from God, repeated to strengthen his assurance of God's purpose for him. Immediately thereafter, his trials began, succeeding one another and increasing in severity through thirteen years (Gen. 37: 2, with 41: 48), until at last, he was thrown into prison, where he lay for at least two years, not perceiving that he was as yet unready for the appointed destiny, nor that all these experiences were necessary to fit him for the responsibilities that would in the end devolve upon him. God does not build with untempered mortar, nor does He fight His battles with an unsharpened sword. The dross must be burned out of the metal in the furnace of trial; His servants must be toughened on the anvil of affliction, before they can become useful to Him. So as he lay in prison, "sold for a servant, his feet (they) hurt with fetters, "the Word of the Lord tried" him (Ps. 105: 17-22). What had those visions meant? Were they born of an ambitious mind? Were they the result of wishful thinking and self-dramatization in his youthful day-dreams? Memory of those visions afforded him little comfort as he lay in the prison-house fettered and shackled and perplexed by doubt. But the long night of trial was passing for him, and as his fall had been sudden in the house of Potiphar, so was his rise meteoric in the house of Pharaoh. Joseph's path lay in dark and unwelcome ways, but it was the one path to the goal. There are no alternatives with God, and if our Guide be in the light, what matters that we walk in the dark? Of these adverse experiences, Joseph was afterwards able to say to his repentant brethren, "as for you, ye meant (planned) evil against me; but God meant (planned) it for good, as it is this day" (Gen. 50: 20). He makes the wrath of man to praise Him, the remainder (what He cannot use) of wrath, He restrains (Ps. 76: 10).
Three generations earlier, Joseph's great grandfather also had an experience of trial by the Word of the Lord. To him, the promise had been given that his posterity would be as the stars in the heavens, and as the sand by the sea-shore, and this to a childless couple both well advanced in years. This Word of the Lord, that "Sarah shall bear thee a son," tried Abraham, for to nature, theirs was a vain hope. Nevertheless, "without being weakened in faith, he considered his own body as dead . . . and the deadness of Sarah's womb; yea, looking to the promise of God, he wavered not through unbelief, but waxed strong through faith, giving glory to God" (Rom. 4: 19, 20). In due time, the promise was made good and Isaac was born. A still heavier trial awaited them however, for this also is God's way; each trial prepares for one yet more severe, that faith may be made perfect. The bolt fell out of a blue sky. "It came to pass” . . . that God did prove (test) Abraham . . . and He said, “Take now thy son, thine only son, whom thou lovest, even Isaac . . . and offer him . . . for a burnt offering." The child on whom all their hopes were centred! How the promise must have revived in the old man's memory as this new demand was made upon him, a demand of compliance with which would make the promise itself impossible of fulfilment. But the earlier trials had borne fruit in a faith that endured even such a strain. God's confidence in His servant was justified; Abraham did not hesitate but "rose up early in the morning" to do as God had told him. The Word of the Lord tried him, indeed, but the grace of God enabled him to endure, and to vindicate itself, as is the way with faith, in prompt obedience.
The mission of the Baptist, last of the prophets, was a privileged one, to proclaim the actual presence among His people of the long-expected Messiah, to receive the sign whereby to identify the Incarnate Son, to be the first to point to "the Lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the world." But high privilege does not render us immune from heavy trial. After his mission to make the Messiah "manifest to Israel" (John 1: 31) was accomplished, his faithfulness with Herod caused him to be cast into prison. In this respect, he was in the goodly succession of the prophets. Twice, Jeremiah had been thrown into a dungeon for rebuking wickedness in high places; twice his deliverance had come speedily. But no such intervention was wrought for him. As the Word of the Lord tried Joseph in prison centuries earlier, so now the Word of the Lord tried John. Among the works foretold of the Messiah was "the opening of the prison to them that are bound" (Isa. 42: 7; 49: 9; 61: 1, cp. Ps. 146: 7). And when in the synagogue at Nazareth, the Messiah recited His programme from Isa. 61: 1, 2, the part He omitted was not the part that bore a peculiar significance for the Baptist, "release to the captives . . . to set at liberty them that are bruised" (Luke 4: 18, 19).
Who can guess what perplexities filled John's mind as day followed tedious day, spent thinking over the words of the prophet and of his Lord, Whose ways he was unable to trace out. Had he been mistaken in appropriating to himself Isaiah's words, "the voice of one crying in the wilderness" (Isa. 40: 37; John 1: 23)? Or in his identification of Jesus as the Messiah? Could it be that his eyes, when he saw the dove descending, and his ears, when he heard the voice out of Heaven, had been deceived? His perplexity, however, does not mean that John's faith had failed; still less does it mean that the Lord had failed His servant. He, too, would be imprisoned and the bonds of His captivity also would be broken only by death. It is enough, He had said, for the disciple that he be as his Master and the servant as his Lord (Matt. 10: 25). He does not ask us to undergo what He Himself has not undergone, nor to walk in a path in which He has not preceded us.
Hope deferred makes the heart sick. When at last, John "could no longer forbear, "he sent his disciples to ask the question that distressed him, "Art Thou He that cometh (the Coming One) or look we for another?" (Matt. 11: 3). As though to ask further, "If Thou art He, why am I still in prison?" In His answer, the Lord described the works He had done that John might draw his own conclusion. This time there was no reference to opening prison-doors. For John, there would not be an immediate sequel of glory as there had been for Joseph; only the deliverance wrought by the axe that sent him whither his Lord Himself would come (Luke 10: 2), His forerunner in death as in life.
It did not begin to be true only when Paul wrote the words, that "there hath no trial taken you but such as man can bear, but God is faithful, Who will not suffer you to be tried above that ye are able" (1 Cor. 10: 13). Neither has it ceased to be true, nor ever will. Not always is "the end of the Lord" seen as with Joseph and Job, but assuredly is the Baptist among those who set no limit to their confidence in God but say "though He slay me, yet will I wait for Him," and whom we call blessed because they endured (Job 13: 15; Jas. 5: 11). To us, as to all His tried ones, comes His Word, "Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee the crown of life" (Rev. 2: 10).
The home at Bethany has an attraction all its own for those who love to follow the steps of the Lord, so often an honoured guest there. We are told that the Lord "loved Martha, and her sister, and Lazarus." A hospitable home, giving an impression of kindliness and loving service. Yet it became the scene of one of the trials of faith recorded in Scripture for our learning. Lazarus was sick; a message was sent, simple, making no demand, but its very simplicity bore testimony to the perfect confidence of the sisters, "Lord behold, he whom Thou lovest is sick."
The Lord's answer to their message, "This sickness is not unto death," seemed capable of but one construction, that the sickness would pass and Lazarus be restored to health. Yet their brother was dead even before the message reached them! The Word of the Lord tried them; could faith withstand such a strain?
That was not the whole of the message, however, for God was to be glorified by this sickness, and that in His Son, their loved and trusted Lord. Did they perceive a ray of hope in the words? Are the words with which Martha greeted Him when at last He did come, "I know that whatsoever Thou shalt ask of God, He will give Thee," to be thus accounted for? Or did she remember the son of the widow at Nain? (Luke 7: 11-17). Here again, there is no evidence that the faith of the women failed as they returned to their household duties through four weary days until the Lord came----in His own time. Then was faith abundantly vindicated and Lazarus restored to his sisters, as they to him, and the home as it was before. And yet not as before, for now it was enriched with the joy that flowers only from the seed of trial.
But why this trial of faith? The secret of the Lord is to be learned only under the shadow of the Almighty (Ps. 91: 1). Their trial lay in the Lord's delay after He knew of the sickness of His friend and of their anxiety, with His puzzling message added thereto. The explanation John gives in his story, illuminates for those who dwell in the secret place of the Most High, all God's testings of faith. Because He loved them, John tells us, when the tidings reached Him, "He abode at that time two days in the place where He was." He Who tells us that all we do is to be done in love, does Himself all that He does, in love.
We are all represented at Bethany, in the sisters, "we that are alive, that are left until the presence (parousia) of the Lord," in Lazarus "the dead in Christ." For the former, there is still the furnace, and the Word of the Lord tries us; and will until His Word comes to pass and we enter into His rest; for the latter trials are over, since they too "died in faith."