When huge pain comes into your life—like divorce, or the loss of a precious family member, or the dream of wholeness shattered—it is good to have a few things settled with God ahead of time. The reason for this is not because it makes grieving easy, but because it gives focus and boundaries for the pain.
Being confident in God does not make the pain less deep, but less broad. If some things are settled with God, there are boundaries around the field of pain. In fact, by being focused and bounded, the pain of loss may go deeper—as a river with banks runs deeper than a flood plain. But with God in his firm and proper place, the pain need not spread out into the endless spaces of ultimate meaning. This is a great blessing, though at the time it may simply feel no more tender than a brick wall. But what a precious wall it is!
As a father, I want to help our twelve-year-old daughter Talitha settle some things with God now, so that when little or big losses come—and they will come—her pain will be bounded and will not carry her out, like a riptide, into the terrifying darkness of doubt about God. So as we read God’s word together twice a day, I point out the mysterious ways of God.
Two days ago, we read this from the lips of Jesus to the church at Smyrna in Revelation 2:10:
Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.
I asked Talitha, “Is Jesus stronger than the devil?” “Yes,” she said. Indeed, I added, ten million times stronger. It’s not even close. In fact, as Mark 1:27 says, “He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” So all Jesus has to do is say to the devil, “You shall not throw my loved ones into prison,” and the devil will not be able to do it. Right, Talitha? Right.
So, Talitha, why does Jesus let the devil do this? Why does he let the devil throw his precious followers in jail and even kill some of them? She shook her head. I said, well, let’s read it again slowly, and you tell me the reason that the Bible gives. Slowly, “Behold the devil is about to throw some of you into prison . . . that . . . you . . . may . . . be . . . tested.” So why does Jesus let this happen, Talitha? “That they may be tested.” That’s right.
And what is being tested? The answer is given in the way Jesus describes what passing the test looks like. He says, “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.” Faithfulness to Jesus is being tested. Will his loved ones keep trusting him? Will they keep believing that he has their best interest at heart? That he is wise? That he is good? That he is stronger than all?
So, Talitha, there are a thousand things that God is doing every time something painful happens to you. Most of these you do not know or understand. Job, Joseph, and Esther did not know what God was doing in their losses. But there is always one thing you can know God is doing when pain comes into your life. This is something you can settle with God ahead of time. He is always testing you.
If the test leads to your death, as it did for some of the Christians in Smyrna, Jesus wants you to know something ahead of time. “You will receive the crown of life.” That means he will raise you from the dead and will crown you with the kind of everlasting joy in his presence that will make up for your losses ten-thousand-fold. “Crown” signifies majestic, royal restoration and exaltation.
James says the same thing:
Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.
Passing the test means loving God to the end.
So settle it, Talitha. Loss and pain are coming into your life, but Jesus is infinitely stronger than the devil. So even if the devil is causing it, as he did in Smyrna, Jesus is letting it happen. And he always has his reasons—more than we can know. One of those reasons is always testing, namely, the testing of our faith and our love for him.
We cannot answer every why question. But there is always this answer: My faith is being tested. And our Lord never wastes his tests. Whether we believe this truth is, in fact, part of the test. In the mind of Jesus, the promise that he would give them the crown of life was enough to sustain the Christians in Smyrna. I pray that it will be enough for Talitha—and for you.
Trusting the wisdom and goodness of Jesus in loss,