Fighting for Holiness Under Fire
Where our Lord deems it necessary, He accomplishes great good in our souls through trials of various kinds (1 Peter 1:6). But wherever great good is in the works, we can be sure that evil is lurking nearby (Romans 7:21). This is why Peter warns us to “Be sober-minded; be watchful." The reason is clear: "Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Pet. 5:8). Like a cunning lion, he targets those who struggle at the back of the herd.
We may feel as if fighting the temptation to sin is the last thing that we can handle while weak in our suffering. However, we must always remember that the Tempter of Old doesn't fight fair. Sin is not a polite guest. It doesn't notice suffering and say, “Terribly sorry! You look busy right now. I’ll come back another time that’s more convenient for you.” No. Sin is scheming, crouching at our door, desiring to have us when our guard is down. Sin has no rules of war, no code of honor. It stabs a man in the back, raids the infirmary, and makes off with the women and children. Against such an enemy, we cannot afford to ignore Peter’s command to be watchful.
Though the trials we face will vary greatly from person to person and season to season, we must learn to recognize those that are common to all people in order to withstand them. Here are a few of the temptations that suffering believers commonly face:
1. Self-pity. The “I don’t deserve this,” voice is familiar to many of us. Sometimes, it may even be true in a creature to creature sense. Injustice is real- we are not always treated fairly by others or our hard work is not always fittingly acknowledged. Other times, self-pity rears up when suffering exceeds our determined limit- we want to say “when.” Or self-pity may functionally believe, “God exists to serve me, and he’s not doing a very good job.” In some cases, lament is very appropriate, but sulking in self-pity only keeps us from true comfort. It twists our reason into believing that our misery is the cause not the result of our problems. Without defining our own sin as the source of our cursed state, we will not be able to see and be thankful for mercy. In reality, we deserve death (Rom 6:23), but “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” (Rom 5:8) Self-pity is driven off by thanksgiving for mercy.
2. Anxiety. Having established our proper place as people deserving of death, but shown great mercy, the the next base suggestion that might come to mind is, “Now it’s up to you to keep it, or else…” At its root, anxiety is a lack of trust in God’s affectionate sovereignty. It cannot see that our troubles are ordained by God for our good “to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.” (2 Cor 1:9). Anxiety’s antidote is not the absence of difficult circumstances; it is to cast our burdens on the one who cares for us with power (1 Pt 5:7). Anxiety cannot thrive in the presence of prayerful dependence.
3. Resigned Fatalism. Despite the relief that comes from casting our cares, we may still begin to grow weary of doing good. This may start to look like an appealing alternative to longsuffering. Godly patience is active, hard work; hopelessness at least appears to require less of us. The fight to suffer long, requires taking the long view- the eternal view. Meditating on the eternal weight of glory shrinks despair to light and momentary affliction (2 Cor 4:17).
4. Glory-robbing. If the above temptations have not gained too much traction, then there is still another path that Woman Folly calls her victims down. She calls out promises of attention, promotion, and power. Suffering has a property of currency to it. It can be spent wisely, as credibility to promote the hope of the gospel or it can be wasted for selfish gain. Here we fight fire with fire. James tells us that when we have stood the test, we will receive the crown of life. (Js 1:12) Reward, honor, and glory are held out to us, in Christ. We can resist the temptation to steal them now, because Christ will bestow them in honor later. As Tolkien has said, “The praise of the praise-worthy is beyond all reward.” The promised praise of God to his saints keeps us from grabbing glory now.
I’ve only briefly mentioned a few of the flaming darts the devil flings and how to fight them. In reality, some of the deep suffering that we relate to in the Psalms takes 30 seconds to read but a lifetime to work out. The fight for holiness may not be easy, but it's necessary. James, Peter, and Paul having felt firsthand the sentence of death, knowingly, call us to resist temptation with these promises of God.
As we fight, let us take heart. Christ has stood upon the precipice of temptation through trial (Mt 4). He has been tempted in every way known to man (Heb 4:15) and fought the battle against “the evil in the heavenly places.” (Eph 6:12). He is the mediator that Job cried out for (Job 9:33), and He is the intercessor for all who like Peter, Satan has asked to sift as wheat (Lk 22:31). He has defeated the devil and weakness and death to give us the strength and life we need to worship him, so that we can say with Paul about our trials:
“But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Cor 12:9-11)