With God, Struggles Make Strength
Fire is destructive. Particularly in a desert, it poses a threat to vegetation, crops, and animals in all directions. So, when Moses, herding his father-in-law’s sheep, saw a flaming, undamaged bush, he was as surprised as you or I would be. The message God gave Moses from the bush is the focal point of this text (Exodus 3), and no wonder: it would consume the rest of his life. But at this moment, let us stand in wonder with Moses and consider the miracle of an immaculate blazing bush.
Commentators are divided—or undecided—on the meaning of the symbol. Is the burning bush Israel, under threat from the Egyptians, yet prospering? Is it God’s presence in the church? Is it just an image God used to add some “wow factor” to His talk with Moses? Whether the answer is one of these, all three, or different altogether, we Christians are sometimes like the bush from which God spoke to Moses: we are on fire, but not consumed.
James opens his letter to the church with an instruction about temptations, or tests, of our faith. By the spirit, he writes, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (Jas 1:2–4).
James indicates a broad range of difficulties by saying, “trials of various kinds” (Jas 1:2, emphasis mine).1 With this, he is lumping in a variety of things that challenge our walk with God, from worldly pleasures to anxiety to poverty to illness to loneliness. And instead of telling us to bear up in it, or encouraging us to keep a stiff upper lip, he says, “Count it all joy.”
Hang on, James. To my ears, rejoicing in meeting trials seems a little sick. But my worldliness is hung up on verse 2 and forgetting the rest: “The testing of your faith produces steadfastness…. That you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” God, in His infinite graciousness, does not work to make us fail. On the contrary, with us He leverages difficult seasons to produce strength.
When it comes to being unharmed in the middle of a fire, Daniel’s friends form the most literal picture. Their unwillingness to bow to Babylon’s gods carried a stiff penalty: execution by burning. When the king of Babylon confronted Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, they responded like this:
Daniel 3:17-18. “…our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.”
In effect, they said: “God can get us out of this execution, but even if He doesn’t, we still worship Him only.”
I remember a time as a child (both literally and in the faith), when I thought my relationship with God served primarily for Christmas presents and big dreams. For childhood me, the day God took a break from doing the things I wanted was the day I would become an atheist. Glory to God that Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah were not like childhood me! Like many martyrs after them, they were committed to stick to Him even unto their own destruction.
The book of Daniel tells us what happened after they were pulled out of the furnace:
Daniel 3:27. And the satraps, the prefects, the governors, and the king’s counselors gathered together and saw that the fire had not had any power over the bodies of those men. The hair of their heads was not singed, their cloaks were not harmed, and no smell of fire had come upon them.
Talk about being burned alive! The text emphasizes that, miraculously, these men were perfectly untouched by the fire.
The deliverance Daniel’s friends experienced happened not before, but during, their execution. The Creator of the heavens and the earth, it seems to me, could have rescued these three earlier, by softening the penalty they faced, helping them to escape capture, causing the furnace to break, or any number of anticlimactic means. But instead, He demonstrated His glory by saving them from the fire in the fire.
Is God doing this for you today? Is He asking you to commit to Him in the fire?
In the New Testament, Paul and his co-travelers reflect on their total reliance on God in trials and difficulties:
2 Corinthians 4:8–10. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.
The picture these verses paint goes hand in hand with the image of the burning bush. Paul and his fellow travelers’ lived experience was that they were “afflicted in every way, but not crushed …struck down, but not destroyed.” Let’s look at an example of that:
Acts 14:19–20. But Jews came from Antioch and Iconium, and having persuaded the crowds, they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing that he was dead. But when the disciples gathered about him, he rose up and entered the city, and on the next day he went on with Barnabas to Derbe.
Paul and Barnabas had been teaching the gospel when Paul was inspired to tell a crippled man, “Stand upright on your feet” (Acts 14:10). The crippled man was stunningly, miraculously healed on the spot. The ensuing events culminated in violence, and these verses are all we have about the encounter.
Certainly, the text underplays the drama of the stoning, when a vicious mob surrounded Paul and threw rocks at him, determined to destroy his body and end his life. We can wonder: What was going through Paul’s mind while he was being beaten to death? Did God fill him with courage—even to die? Was he thrilled to partake in Christ’s sufferings? Was he terrified? Did he flash back to the Christians he had persecuted before he met Jesus, like Stephen, whose death (by stoning!) he had witnessed?
Perhaps Paul played dead to fool his pursuers, or the mob was too confused to do the job well; perhaps he was knocked unconscious; maybe he actually died—we only know that the crowd thought he did. But when the disciples surrounded him, verse 20 tells us that he got up and walked away. How glorious is the goodness of God who protected Paul!
From a mental health perspective, this record is shocking. Paul had seen and participated in similar violence, but now it was done to him. Whether Paul had mentally prepared for something like this or not, no doubt being beaten by a mob is a shocking experience. From a worldly, twenty-first century perspective, we would expect Paul to need years of therapy to cope with PTSD after an event like this.
The point is not that we moderns are snowflake pansies. It’s that God both delivered Paul’s body and protected his mind. Paul and his fellow-travelers had the choice to bow to intimidation and stop their journey, to buckle under the trials they were facing. Instead, they embodied James’ advice to leverage this difficulty and let the testing of their faith “[produce] steadfastness.”
Sometimes in life, God asks us to enter a situation that will be very difficult. Maybe you feel like Moses today, like God is asking you to take on a mission that will challenge you, an immense and difficult task. But other times in life, the fire takes us by surprise. We look back at the winding path that led to our current struggle and think, “How did it get to this point?” Whatever the circumstances of our trial, the instruction is the same: consider it a joy. Let the trying of your faith produce the fruit of steadfastness.
I pray you will be like the bush: in the fire—but not consumed.
1 What the ESV translates “various kinds,” is the Greek word ποικίλοις (poikilos), which means “many-colored, diverse, various kinds.”