Life in a fallen world isn’t easy, and we all know the dark pressure of hard times. The collapse of a relationship, loss of a job, loss of health—they are sad reminders that sin brought all flavors of death and loss into the world and there is no escaping their effects in this life. But sometimes the burden is heavier because we don’t know how to respond. Some suffering is simply a consequence of living in a dying world, but the Bible also makes it clear that our Father may use trials to correct or discipline us. When troubles come, it is easy to feel stuck in the middle, unsure whether God is looking for us to repent of some sin or simply to trust and wait on him.
Proverbs 3:11-12 says, “My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline or be weary of his reproof, for the Lord reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights.” Sometimes, God uses troubles to shake us awake and confront us with our sins or mistakes. If your girlfriend is breaking up with you, it might be because life can be painful in a fallen world, or it might be because you are kind of a jerk. If you lost your job, it might be because God is giving you a chance to grow in your faith, or it might be because you don’t work very hard. Or you may have some habitual sin which is unrelated to this particular trial, but which God is trying to draw to your attention. Yet, on the other hand, desperately trying to ferret out some unnoticed besetting sin may simply add an unnecessary burden to an already painful situation. What to do? How can we remain open to our Father’s correction while also realizing that some troubles call for endurance rather than repentance?
Since trials may indicate the need for reassessment and repentance, it is wise to use them as an opportunity for humble reflection. It is easy to become complacent in our Christian walk, so allow suffering to remind you to look carefully at yourself and ask whether your own sins might have contributed to the problem, or whether you have been ignoring some persistent sin which God wants you to see. Remember that trials which shake us loose from sin are a sign of our Father’s love for us. If you are struggling with some besetting sin which seems to be spawning all sorts of trouble, that means you are not yet in the awful place described in Psalm 81: “But my people did not listen to my voice; Israel would not submit to me. So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts, to follow their own counsels.” Let trials correct you, if correction is needed.
And even in correction, remember that God is your friend. It is easy to pull back from him when we feel he is displeased with us, but that is exactly the time when we need to be seeking him most eagerly. Remember the parable of the prodigal son and the father who “while he was still a long way off… saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him” (Luke 15:11-32). Don’t let the devil lie you away from the Lord right at the moment when you need him most. Our God told Ezekiel, “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live” (Ez 33:11). How much more delight must he feel when his own children take even the most tentative steps of repentance from some ugly sin? Ask his help to discern if you need to repent; ask his help to repent; ask his help to do better next time.
If we do find that a trial has revealed some sin to us, it’s important that we not bring false expectations to our repentance. Repentance is not a Get Out of Jail Free card. Sins have consequences, even after we turn from them. David repented of his affair with Bathsheba, but the ripple effects of his sin still left three sons dead and his kingdom is disarray. Repentance takes away the sinfulness of our sins, but not all their consequences. (But remember, you have a mediator and friend in Heaven. Bring those burdens to him in prayer and ask for his help.)
But not all trials call for repentance. Some trials bear no message other than this: “Wait on the Lord.” Do not let your desire to escape your trouble pummel you with uncertainty like Job’s friends buried him in groundless accusations, insisting that he must have been guilty of some terrible offense to bring the wrath of God upon him. If Jesus could be called a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief (Isa 53:3), we can safely put to rest the idea that suffering implies guilt.
If you have searched your own conscience and not found any habitual sins, yet you still don’t feel peace, consider asking a wise, experienced Christian friend whether they see something in your life which you might be missing. Think about it. Pray about it. But then let it go if the Spirit doesn’t bring anything to your attention. Jesus promised that “the one who seeks finds” (Matt 7:7-8). If you are genuinely asking God’s help to discover your own sin, he isn’t going to hide it from you. If your trial doesn’t reveal any besetting sins, then it probably isn’t a trial intended to reveal any besetting sins.
In that case, you cannot do better than to emulate King Hezekiah, who has one of the most beautiful epitaphs imaginable in II Kings 18: “He clung to the Lord.” Waiting on the Lord is easy to describe and hard to do, as his people from Adam to Noah to Abraham to Jesus Christ discovered. Take time for prayer. Remember his promises. Read his word. Enjoy the sacraments, which are signs and seals of his faithfulness to you. Gather with fellow believers who can encourage, support, challenge, and comfort you. And wait. Some nights are longer than others, but you have the promise of God himself that it will not be forever. “Weeping may last for the night, but a shout of joy comes in the morning” (Psalm 30:5).