Some days I feel as if I’m in the front lines of a battle where I’m outnumbered 1,000 to one. I’m fighting for truth, hope, and joy, but the fiery arrows of affliction continue to fly from every angle. I’m fighting the temptation to grumble, get angry, and stomp my feet defiantly at the daily pain and circumstances that seem too much to bear. I’m fighting for endurance, but a spirit of weariness tries to pull me under. I’m fighting the enemy, who wants to destroy my faith, distort truth, and keep me from glorifying Christ through my life.
Even though I’m confident in the truth of God’s Word and who I am in Christ, the effects of this battle are taking a toll on my mind, body, and spirit.
Our Impossible Circumstances
While some days the will to keep fighting this battle feels impossible, two things keep me in the fight: The first is the finish line where the glory of Christ awaits us for eternity. Along with that is the amazing truth that Christ has already won this battle for us! As his children, we simply need to hold firmly to him.
Yet, even though we are assured of victory in Christ, how do we persevere day to day when the reality of our trials makes us feel far from victorious? What do we do when our circumstances seem more like a hindrance to serving the Lord and living our life to the fullest?
Maybe your life has taken a detour, derailing your plans and leaving you unsure, or even afraid, of what your future may hold. Or maybe you were pursuing a goal, dream, or ministry opportunity when a devastating diagnosis or a strained relationship shut the door on where you thought God was leading you. Perhaps the loss of a loved one has sent you spiraling into unpredictable waves of grief, leaving you paralyzed and unsure of how to keep moving. There are countless circumstances that can leave us perplexed, afraid of the future, and feeling powerless to improve our situation.
However, despite how helpless we may feel in these moments, we are never truly helpless, and it’s never a surprise to God. In fact, it’s in these very moments that we are driven into a deeper trust in God’s sovereignty, goodness, faithfulness, and power, and have the opportunity to watch him work in ways that only he can.
Peter’s Impossible Circumstance
Take, for example, the account of Peter’s imprisonment in Acts 12:1-17. Shortly after King Herod killed James, the brother of John, he sought Peter’s life as well. Peter was arrested and handed over to four rotations of four guards, to be guarded until after Passover.
As the story continued, I began to see how Peter’s imprisonment, which seemed to be both a threat to his life and a hindrance to the advancement of the gospel was, in fact, quite the opposite.
Here are several encouragements we can take from Peter’s time in prison that can help us when we are tempted to give way to confusion, fear, anger, or weariness in own seasons of suffering.
1. God sometimes allows circumstances that make it appear as if evil is winning, but only for a time.
At first glance, it would seem that Peter’s imprisonment was getting in the way of the work Christ had given him. However, by the end of the account, we see how God used the enemy’s destructive attempts for his own purposes, to show the power of God to both his persecutors and the church.
At times, circumstances that may seem like a hindrance to the gospel and a threat to our lives may be the very platform God uses for the gospel to be displayed through us. As believers, we can be confident that even circumstances that perplex us are being sovereignly orchestrated for the purpose of growing us up in Christ and displaying his glory. Evil may appear to flourish for a time, but the Lord has established its boundaries and will ultimately wield it for the advancement of his purposes.
2. Some will see the power of God and turn to him in repentance, while others will see the power of God as a threat to their own power, and turn away.
Now when Herod was about to bring him out, on that very night, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and sentries before the door were guarding the prison. (Acts 12:6)
If Herod felt it was necessary to chain Peter to two guards, with two more protecting the gate, he must have seen Peter as a powerful threat. Although the gospel proclaims peace with God through repentance (not through violence or forced conversion), Christ made it clear that his message of salvation would not bring peace but a sword (Matthew 10:34). While Peter was not a man of violence, Herod feared the sword of truth that Peter was proclaiming, so much so, that he took every precaution to prevent his escape and the powerful influence he was having.
We need to remember that if our lives are marked by the light of the gospel, we too may be seen as a threat to others. However, just as the Lord strengthened and taught Peter in preparation for this trial, we too are being strengthened and taught to be prepared to live as sheep among wolves. Our pain is never without a purpose, but we must keep our eyes on Christ and the security we have in him alone.
3. No human means are powerful enough to silence the message of the gospel and restrain the power of God.
And behold, an angel of the Lord stood next to him, and a light shone in the cell. He struck Peter on the side and woke him, saying, “Get up quickly.” And the chains fell off his hands. And the angel said to him, “Dress yourself and put on your sandals.” (vv. 7-8a)
I love this picture. Shackled, naked, and facing imminent death; this is the true state of each one of us apart from the saving power of Christ. Just like Peter, we are powerless to save ourselves. By God’s grace, he came to us while we were helpless in the prison cell of sin. He shined his light into our darkness, broke our chains, clothed us in righteousness, saving us from God’s wrath and the imminent death that awaited us. What a Savior we have!
You and I need to remember this when we find ourselves in the throes of affliction, feeling helpless and afraid of what might lie ahead. No pain, suffering, evil, or persecution is outside of God’s control and power to save. He is never overwhelmed or surprised by what happens in our lives, and he will be faithful to work in it and through it for his eternal and loving purposes. If he is able to save us from the chains of sin and the power of death, he is able to do more than we could ever ask or imagine (Ephesians 3:20). No human means to silence our witness for Christ is strong enough to withhold the purposes and power of God. We can rest in his faithful hands.
4. The Lord does what we cannot do, but we must be willing to dress ourselves for action and follow him in obedience.
And the angel said, “Dress yourself and put on your sandals.” And he did so. And he said to him, “Wrap your cloak around you and follow me.” And he went out and followed him. He did not know what was being done by the angel was real, but thought he was seeing a vision. When they had passed the first and second guard, they came to the iron gate leading into the city. It opened for them of its own accord, and they went out and went along one street, and immediately the angel left him. When Peter came to himself, he said, “Now I am sure that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from the hand of Herod and from all that the Jewish people were expecting.” (vv. 8-11)
The angel removed the chains from Peter’s hands and feet, leading the way to freedom. However, he required Peter’s faith and cooperation to get dressed and follow him in obedience.
This is true for every believer. We have been freed from the power of sin and given the Holy Spirit, but we must take action in walking in the freedom we’ve been given. How foolish it would have been if Peter had responded to the angel’s commands with, “No, thank you for removing my chains, but I think I will stay and rest here a little while longer.” But don’t we sometimes respond that way in the choices we make? After we have been freed from the power of sin, do we sometimes resist the calling and responsibility that we have been given out of the fear of what might lie ahead or the comforts we may lose?
We must take action! We need to dress ourselves, to be daily clothed in the Word of God and prayer. We need to put on our sandals, to discipline and train ourselves for the hard road of following Christ by laying aside the false comforts that hinder us and embrace a biblical, eternal perspective of the circumstances we experience. God gives us power to do what we cannot do ourselves, but we need to follow in obedience.
God could have allowed this to be the end of Peter’s life, but he still had a purpose for him that had yet to be accomplished. No man could lay a finger on Peter until the Lord allowed it, yet Peter didn’t know what the outcome of this story would be. He had to trust the Lord in death, but also in life. In this moment, he didn’t even understand if what was happening to him was real, yet, he obediently followed. It wasn’t until after he was outside of the prison gates and the angel had left him, that he finally understood clearly what the Lord had done.
I find this to be so applicable to our lives, don’t you? Often, when I am in the throes of affliction and facing a threat to my life, I feel disoriented and unsure of where God is leading me. Yet, as I obediently follow, trusting him when nothing makes sense at the time, I am almost always able to look back and see his faithfulness to save me from that which threatened to destroy me. Sometimes God delivers me from my circumstances, but when he doesn’t, he always equips and carries me through. Either way, it causes me to look back with an awe, trust, and deeper love for my Savior.
5. The Lord’s powerful work in our lives is also meant for the strengthening and growth of the church.
So Peter was kept in prison, but earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church. (v. 5)
When he realized this, he went to the house of Mary the mother of John…where many were gathered together and were praying. (v. 12)
When Peter knocked, a servant girl recognized his voice and, in her joy, she didn’t even open the door but ran to tell the others that Peter was free! What an amazing opportunity this body of believers was given to be part of God’s redemptive plan. These men and women who’d been praying for Peter’s release must have grown immensely in their faith as they saw the mighty hand of God act on behalf of their prayers. Of course, God didn’t need their prayers to save Peter, but he allowed them to be intimately part of his purposes.
God’s powerful act to save Peter was not only used for Peter’s growth, but for the growth of those praying for him, and for the revelation of God’s power to Herod and many others. No prison cell could prevent the advancement of the gospel through Peter’s life.
Let’s remember that the body of Christ is a gift. At times, we will walk in Peter’s shoes (hopefully not in prison) as the one suffering, while at other times we will be among those who have the privilege to pray for another. Either way, as we allow others to enter into our lives and walk alongside of us, even the messy and painful parts, Christ will use our lives both as a witness to unbelievers and to strengthen his church. What a blessing it is to be used in ways far greater than ourselves.
God’s Glory in the Impossible
Christian brother or sister, do you feel as though you are in your own prison cell in one form or another? Do you feel trapped in a habitual sin? Are you so burdened with grief that you feel helpless to even get out of bed? Do you feel paralyzed by suffering or a fear of the future? Do you feel stuck in a rut of dry devotions and a lack of desire for Christ and his truth?
Although we may feel like it at times, you and I are not hopeless! We serve a powerful God who loved us enough to sacrifice his own Son for our freedom and salvation. That doesn’t always mean that we’ll be rescued in the way we initially desire on this earth, just as Christ and his disciples were not spared from pain, grief, and struggle. But be encouraged that your suffering is never random or without a purpose. We are promised that as we trust his power and control over our lives, he will equip us for everything he calls us to. It may be unpleasant or even despairing at the moment, but Christ will ultimately use every moment of it for our good and for the joy of bringing him glory.
We will find comfort and hope in remembering that our chains have been broken, Christ’s light has driven out the darkness, and he will continue to lead us by his strong saving power.
This season of suffering in my life has felt like one that will never end. But it has given me constant opportunities to let go of my desire for control, and is teaching me to trust his leading and provision along the way. While our flesh never likes to feel powerless, it is precisely during those times that we can see Christ’s nearness, power, and provision in the greatest ways. When we feel overcome by the weight of our circumstances and the battle seems to be more than we can bear, we can wait, watch, and trust in the saving power of our God.
In my distress I called upon the Lord; to my God I cried for help. From his temple he heard my voice, and my cry to him reached his ears. He sent from on high, he took me; he drew me out of many waters. He rescued me from my strong enemy and from those who hated me, for they were too mighty for me. They confronted me in the day of my calamity, but the Lord was my support. He brought me out into a broad place; he rescued me, because he delighted in me. (Psalm 18:6, 16-19).