Another message from Ian Taylor in Winconsin, USA while he is in isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic.
What can we do when difficult times come? How can we understand what’s going on? We need to remember that God is still in control.
“Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings” (1 Pt. 5:8-9NIV). (more…)
How to endure our circumstances
Last year I hiked along a trail that followed the route of an electric power line. As the power poles were on ridges with valleys in between, the trail traversed a series of ridges and valleys. So the trail went up and down several times with zig-zags up and down each ridge, which reminded me of life, with the hills being like when times are good and the valleys like when times are tough with difficulties, struggles and suffering. It this article we will look at a similar pattern in the lives of Joseph and Moses.
Joseph was born to Jacob and Rachel about 3,900 years ago. He was Jacob’s 11th son, but Rachel’s first child. The hills and valleys in the first 30 years of his life are shown in a figure; the graph goes up for hills and down for valleys.
Hill: As Jacob’s favorite son, Joseph was given a richly ornamented robe (Gen. 37:3). So life would have been good for him as a child. The robe was a mark of Jacob’s favoritism, but this made his other brothers jealous and they hated him.
Valley: When Jacob sent Joseph to visit his brothers who were grazing their flocks about 100 km away, they wanted to kill him. So his life was threatened. Instead they put him in a pit and then sold him as a slave to some traders who were travelling to Egypt, where he was sold to Potiphar the captain of Pharaoh’s guard. What a change from being his father’s favorite to being a slave in a foreign country. That’s why later on he was glad to forget his family (Gen. 41:51).
Hill: Because God was with Joseph, he was put in charge of Potiphar’s household, which would have been one of the most respected households in Egypt apart from the palace (Gen. 39:2-4).
Valley: When Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce him, Joseph ran out of the house. As a result of this, he was accused of attempted rape and Potiphar was angry, putting Joseph into prison (Gen. 39:20a). So now Joseph was in prison in a foreign country.
Hill: As God was still with him, Joseph was put in charge of all the prisoners (Gen. 39:20b-22).
Valley: God helped Joseph interpret two of the prisoner’s dreams and Joseph asked the cupbearer, who was to be released, to remember him and help him get out of prison (Gen. 40:14-15). But Joseph was forgotten in prison for another two years (Gen. 40:23 – 41:1a). That’s why he called Egypt, “the land of my suffering” (Gen. 41:52TNIV). God allowed this—he was there because he didn’t compromise his integrity in Potiphar’s house.
Hill: When Pharaoh had two dreams, the cupbearer finally remembered Joseph and he was released from prison. After being told that the dreams meant that there would be 7 years of abundant harvests followed by 7 years of famine and that they should store up food for the famine, Pharaoh put Joseph in charge of Egypt (Gen. 41:40-43). So, at the age of 30, Joseph was second-in command over all Egypt! He was given a wife and he had two sons. Later on his extended family moved to Egypt to survive the famine and Joseph lived for another 80 years in Egypt.
After about 200 hundred years in Egypt, the Israelites multiplied so greatly that the Egyptians felt threatened and put slave masters over them and used them as laborers. Pharaoh issued an order that every Hebrew boy that was born was to be drowned in the river Nile. It was a dangerous time to be born. The hills and valleys in the first 80 years in the life of Moses are also shown in a figure.Valley: Moses was under the death threat as a baby. When his mother could hide him no longer at home, she hid him in a basket among the reeds of the Nile.
Hill: When Pharaoh’s daughter went to the river to bathe, she saw the basket and opened it and felt sorry for the baby (Ex. 2:6). As a result, she adopted him and he was brought up in the palace, receiving the best education in Egypt and having all the privileges of royalty (Acts 7:22).
Valley: When he was grown up, Moses saw an Egyptian beating a fellow Hebrew and as no one was around, he killed the Egyptian. But the news got out and Pharaoh tried to kill him (Ex. 2:15). As his life was in danger, Moses escaped Egypt as a fugitive. He fled the palace to live with sheep herders.
Hill: Moses lived in Midian for about 40 years where he married and had children.
Valley: Much later, God gave Moses the task of leading the Israelites from their slavery in Egypt to the promised land of Canaan (Ex. 3:10). But Moses was reluctant and doubted that he could lead the Jews and that they would follow him (Ex. 3:11; 4:1, 10, 13). He thought they would not believe him or listen to him and he was a poor speaker. So he asked God to send someone else.
Hill: God gave him Aaron to speak on his behalf, and miraculous signs that convinced the Jewish people that God was going to rescue them from slavery.
Valley: But when they asked Pharaoh permission to travel into the wilderness, he reacted by making the Israelites work harder (Ex. 5:1-23). So, the Israelites hated Moses and Aaron. It took 10 plagues to get out of this valley: the river changed into blood, there were plagues of frogs, gnats, flies, the livestock died, there were boils, a hail storm, locusts, darkness, and all the first born sons and firstborn livestock died.
Hill: Finally the Egyptians wanted the Jews to leave Egypt and Pharaoh relented. The exodus of about 2 million Jews was a great victory. They were led by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night (Ex. 13:21-22). God caused Pharaoh to send his army out to bring them back, but they were drowned in the Red Sea (Ex. 14:28). Moses led the Jews in singing about God’s great victory over their enemy. The Jews celebrate this deliverance each year with the Passover Festival.
There were many hills and valleys during their 40 year journey to Canaan. The hills included: receiving the ten commandments at Mt Sinai, and being provided with manna, water and quail. The valleys included: facing enemies; the complaints, criticism and grumbling of the people; idolatry; the bad report by the spies; rebellions; and deaths due to God’s judgement.
Valleys Are Inevitable
Like Joseph and Moses, we experience many hills and valleys due to the circumstances we face, many of which we can’t control or influence. After a hill-top experience, the Lord allows a valley. For example:
- At Mt Sinai God demonstrated His power and called Moses up the mountain to give him the 10 commandments and other laws and instructions about the tabernacle and priesthood for the Jewish people. As this hill-top experience lasted 40 days, the people got impatient and made a golden calf and worshipped it in pagan revelry (Ex. 24:18; 32:1-35). God told Moses about it and threatened to destroy the people. So Moses went down the mountain and when he saw what was happening he knew he was in a valley.
- When God told Moses to send 12 men to explore Canaan, Moses expected to enter Canaan soon. However, his hopes were dashed by the bad report from 10 of the men. That night all the Israelites grumbled against Moses and wept aloud longing to return to Egypt (Ex. 13 & 14). As a result of this, they wandered for another 38 years before reaching Canaan. These examples show that we can go from a hill to a valley in less than a day and that valleys can last for a long time.
- Job was a successful man, but God allowed it all to be taken away and he suffered greatly. Fortunately he had another hill later in life.
- Paul experienced a vision of heaven. But to stop him being conceited, he was given a physical problem that tormented him—his “thorn in the flesh” (1 Cor. 12: 1-7).
In the case of Christians, the Bible teaches that we will suffer in this life and be rewarded in heaven (Rom. 8:17-18). We should not be surprised to experience trials and insults (1 Pet. 4:12-17). Paul faced many valleys and wrote, “everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Cor. 4: 8-9; 6:4-5; 2 Tim. 3:12). So, valleys are inevitable while serving God in this sinful world.
God Allows Valleys
Joseph told his brothers, “God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance. So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God” (Gen. 45:7-8). So God allowed Joseph to go through the valleys of slavery and imprisonment to bring him to the hill-top in Egypt and use him to rescue his family from the famine. God also allowed Pharaoh to mistreat the Israelites, so that God’s power could be demonstrated in the exodus (Rom. 9:17-18).
Valleys help us rely on God and not ourselves (2 Cor. 1:8-11). God rescued Paul from many valleys; he learnt to trust God’s deliverance, like the Israelites under Joseph and Moses (2 Tim. 3:11). The principle is when we are weak, we need to rely on God’s strength.
The valleys of life are God’s training ground (Heb. 12:7-11). He uses adverse circumstances to make us more like Christ—they produce holiness, righteousness and peace.
Satan tempts us when we are weakest. When we are in a valley, we are tempted to give up on God and to sin. For example, during the exodus the children of Israel grumbled (Num. 16:41) and turned to idolatry and sexual immorality (Ex. 32:1-6; Num. 25:1-9). Their failures are examples and warnings for us (1 Cor. 10:6-11).
Common temptations believers can face in the valleys of life include: focusing on the valleys, which become a barrier between us and God; worrying (Phil. 4:6); complaining and grumbling (Phil. 2:14); being discouraged (Heb. 12:3); giving up on living for God and lapsing into sinful ways (2 Cor. 4:16).
But God has promised, “No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to us all. And God is faithful; He will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, He will also provide a way out so that you can endure it” (1 Cor. 10:13). So, we all experience valley temptations—even Jesus was tempted when He was hungry and weak. Fortunately, God limits our valley temptations; they will not be beyond what we can bear and God will provide “a way out” of each valley temptation, which will help us endure it.
A Way Out
God has promised a way to endure valley temptations and help so that we do not fall into sinful ways. Here are some of His provisions.
Believers who were suffering were advised, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:30; 4:6-7). So when in valleys we should pray instead of worrying and we will receive the peace of God. This means realising our dependence on God and bringing our needs before Him.
Vision of the eternal
Paul wrote, “Our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Cor. 4: 16-18). He looked ahead to the resurrection and eternity with the Lord, which is far greater than our temporary valleys on earth—the valleys are insignificant compared to eternal life.
We are to be content with our circumstances because God gives us the strength to endure them (Phil. 4:11-13). Don’t be discouraged. No valley is too great for God. Like Paul we should learn to accept the valleys that are not removed. He accepted his “thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor. 12:7). He was given the ability to bear it.
Instead of turning against God like the Israelites in the wilderness, “encourage one another daily” (Heb. 3:7-19). Paul looked for the good of his imprisonment—the gospel was advanced (Phil. 1:12-18). The church’s repentance brought joy in the midst of Paul’s sufferings (2 Cor. 7:2-7). So, look at the big picture and get encouragement from what God is doing. Also, be ready to encourage others going though the valleys of life.
The early Christians endured persecution and trials (2 Th. 2:4-10). Christ is the greatest example of perseverance: “Let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before Him He endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider Him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart” (Heb. 12:1-3). This means using the patience given to us by the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:22). God gives us supernatural strength to have endurance and patience in the valleys of life (Col. 1:11). The second coming is a great incentive for patient endurance (Jas. 5:7-11). Other examples of patience are farmers who wait for the harvest and Job who endured intense suffering.
We all have hills and valleys in our lives. Our circumstances can always change; for better or for worse. Thank God there is a way out for believers to endure the valleys of life. Let’s be ready to pray; have a vision of the eternal glory that awaits us; learn to be content and accept what God allows us to go through; look for and give encouragement; and use patience, to persevere and endure our valleys because the hill-top ahead is the greatest of them all.
Written, March 2008
After the apostle Paul rescued a slave girl from demon possession, her owners realized that they could no longer make money from her fortune telling. So, they seized Paul and Silas and accused them before the magistrates (Acts 16:16-24). A crowd joined in this attack and Paul and Silas were stripped, flogged and thrown into the inner prison. This disappointing and painful situation could easily lead to depression and disillusionment. How did Paul and Silas react? Luke records: “About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them” (Acts 16:25 NIV). In a seemingly hopeless situation, they sang praises to God. Where did their joy and encouragement come from?
God the Father, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit are the sources of encouragement for the believer (Acts 9:31; Rom. 15:5; 2 Th. 2:16-17). This kind of encouragement is not something we have, but something we get from God. The Greek words translated “encourage” and “encouragement” in the New Testament are paraklesis and parakaleo. The most common ways to get encouragement are to meditate on certain Scriptures, on the gospel message of salvation through Jesus Christ, on Christ’s return and on our Christian faith shared with other believers.
The Bible is encouraging because it is God’s special message to humanity. Paul wrote, “Everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Rom. 15:4). This means that the Scriptures are encouraging, and following them brings hope into our lives.
Paul taught that a local church was to be led by a group of elders (Ti. 1:5-9). One qualification of an elder was that “he must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it” (Ti. 1:9). The “trustworthy message” that was taught by Jesus Christ, Paul and the other apostles has been recorded in the Bible. An elder encourages the congregation by teaching and following the sound doctrines of the Bible, the truths of Scripture.
After urging the believers to “stand firm and hold to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter,” Paul wrote, “May our Lord Jesus Christ Himself and God our Father, who loved us and by His grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word” (2 Th. 2:15-17). Also, prophets brought the message from God before the New Testament was available in a written form; and their messages “encouraged” the believers (1 Cor. 14:3,31).
The Gospel Message
The gospel is encouraging because it is the key to forgiveness of sins and eternal life. When the synagogue rulers said to Paul and Barnabas, “If you have a message of encouragement for the people, please speak,” Paul preached the gospel (Acts 13:15). He began with the Old Testament and concluded with, “I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you” (Acts 13:16-41). The gospel of Jesus Christ is always encouraging.
Paul described his mission this way: “My purpose is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ” (Col. 2:2). Here we see that encouragement is linked to an understanding that all believers are part of the Church (Col. 1:26-27). Paul also wrote, “We sent Timothy … God’s fellow worker in spreading the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you in your faith” (1 Th. 3:2).
Christians “may be greatly encouraged” because they “have fled to take hold of the hope offered to them” in the gospel (Heb. 6:18). In this image they are fleeing to heaven from a world bound for judgment.
The return of Christ to bring all His followers into heaven is encouraging because it means an end of the sorrow, suffering and disappointment of this sinful world. Believers are commanded to encourage each other with the fact that they “will be with the Lord forever” (1 Th. 4:18). The promise of Christ’s return so believers “may live together with Him” is a great encouragement (1 Th. 5:10-11). In view of Christ’s return and the resurrection of the dead, believers should “meet together” to “encourage one another” (Heb. 10:25).
The Christian faith is encouraging because it is the practical demonstration of living according to the Bible, the gospel and Christ’s return. Paul longed to visit the believers in Rome so they could be “mutually encouraged by each other’s faith” (Rom. 1:11-12). The encouragement here is from each other’s faith, not any external circumstances. He also wrote, “May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus” (Rom. 15:5). Here, encouragement and unity are associated with following the Lord. Paul was also encouraged when he heard about the faith of the believers at Thessalonica (1 Th. 3:7). Likewise, John had “great joy” when told about believers who continued to “walk in the truth” (3 Jn. 3-4).
Let’s be encouraged by God’s promises in the Scriptures, in the good news of salvation, in Christ’s return and in the faith we share with other believers. These are all linked, with the gospel being the core message conveyed by the Scriptures and Christ’s return being the hope of the gospel. It’s interesting that these facts do not depend on our circumstances, but in fact bring encouragement amidst struggles and suffering.
Also, let’s “encourage one another daily” in the faith so we will not be “hardened by sin’s deceitfulness” (Heb. 3:13). We are told to use these same means to encourage others (2 Cor. 1:4). Those with the gift of encouragement should exercise their gift amongst believers (Rom. 12:8). It seems as though Barnabas had this gift as his name meant “son of encouragement” and he encouraged the church at Antioch (Acts 4:36; 11:22-23).
When life is difficult, remember Paul and Silas in prison. Don’t follow your feelings or seek encouragement only from circumstances, as you soon will be disappointed. Don’t forsake the Lord when life gets tough. Instead, encourage yourself and others by remembering all that God has done.
Published, April 2008