Tribulation. It’s a strange word. It’s an uncomfortable word. It’s a word that spells trouble—severe affliction, suffering, distress, oppression. It’s not the kind of thing we welcome. It’s the kind of thing we actively avoid. We do everything we possibly can to keep it at arms’ length. We buffer ourselves. We protect ourselves. We install locks and bolts and alarms and airbags. We put money into superannuation funds. We take out all kinds of insurance. We dislike the thought of tribulation so much that we are prepared to pay handsomely to stave it off. Yet—we cannot.

We Cannot Avoid It

We cannot avoid tribulation, because it is inherent in our calling. When we look back over the lives of the many faithful men and women named in Scripture, we see how true this is. “They wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, tormented: of whom the world was not worthy” (Heb 11:37–38). Around the world, even today, we have brothers and sisters who suffer in this way. A family loses what little they have in a flash flood, and is utterly bereft, even of rice; another family battles on in the middle of an intractable civil war; others take on Christ in a hostile and intolerant Moslem religious state, suffer unemployment, social rejection and isolation, and risk worse—a brutal death; others battle with preventable blindness, and disease-laden drinking water, and malnutrition; others slowly starve to death in the desolate backblocks of Putin’s Russia; others keep their faith alive only underground, always at risk of infiltration by the authorities, or weird and dangerous cults.

It may be, brothers and sisters, that we ourselves have not experienced these great difficulties, exactly. It may be that the pressure comes to us in other ways, more subtle, but unrelenting, all the same: the dark secret of abuse, which we live with at the back of our heads; the loneliness of being single, with nobody else to fill the kitchen, or the dining room, or the lounge room, or the bedroom, with their presence; the constant unhappiness and friction of a mismatched marriage, or a difficult and selfish partner; the tiredness that overwhelms us as we battle on with a mentally handicapped child, or a parent with Alzheimer’s disease; the oppressive disappointment and anxiety of the son or daughter who has abandoned everything we taught them to love and honour; the partner who has walked away from the hope of life, and maybe also from a marriage that was meant to be for each other, and for life; the sickness stealing through our bodies, an execution date creeping nearer week by week, day by day; the struggle to find work; the daily grind of the job we loathe, but cannot afford to give up; the impossible boss; the business battling to stay afloat; the relentless pressure of deadlines to meet, and emails to answer, and phone calls to return, and bills to pay, and commitments to keep—and always more, more, more—these things in our day are also ‘tribulation’, particularly when they come to us because of our commitment to the Word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ.

Our Response

Some respond to these difficulties by simply giving up. The sun comes up. The day gets hot, very hot. Difficulties mount. They have roots in the Word of God, but it turns out that those roots do not go deep enough. They run dry. They wilt. They wither. They die. But there is another choice. “We are bound to thank God always for you, brethren,” Paul wrote to the Thessalonians. What makes their example of patience and faith truly extraordinary was that these things were not happening in the happy sunshine of a tolerant society which believed in freedom of speech, freedom of association, and freedom of religion; for Paul continues, “in all your persecutions and tribulations that ye endure” (2 Thess 1:3–4). In the middle of multiple troubles, this was their response; and it is no wonder that Paul boasted about them. They were a spiritual marvel.

Courage!

A response like that takes real courage, brothers and sisters, real courage. So easily, so understandably, so reasonably, so justifiably, they could have let their heads droop, let their shoulders sag, let their bodies slump—ceased to read, ceased to pray, ceased to love, ceased to hope, ceased to believe, ceased to live altogether. It would have been the easiest thing in the world for them just to give up.

But they responded in this remarkable way. And that same great-hearted courage is evident throughout Scripture. “In the world ye shall have tribulation,” said Jesus, as he paused for prayer in the deep shadows cast by Jerusalem’s Temple, within hours of a terrible death. “Be of good cheer; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). “Be of good cheer!” He was about to be flayed alive and pinned like an insect to a stick, to die a horrific death. “Be of good cheer!” That is spiritual courage at its greatest.

But Jesus’ followers have often responded in this way. “We glory in tribulations”, said Paul (Rom 5:3–5). We rejoice when we suffer—that is Paul’s response. Not that the suffering and trouble are in themselves enjoyable—of course not! They are frustrating and humiliating. They create anxiety, grief and fear. They are painful. But trouble resulted in patience, and experience, and hope, and a renewed confidence in God’s love, and Paul rejoiced in that.

And this response was not unique to Paul, either. “Ye endured a great fight of afflictions…”, he wrote to the Hebrews, “and took joyfully the spoiling of your goods, knowing in yourselves that ye have in heaven a better and an enduring substance” (Heb 10:32–34). They saw their enemies batter down their doors and raid their houses and smash their belongings and walk out with their prized possessions, and yet in the middle of that maelstrom they could find it in their hearts to rejoice because they knew that with their Lord in heaven was the greatest prize of all, and it belonged to them. That is courage, and courage is a keynote in “the patient waiting for Jesus Christ”.

“I John, who am also your brother, and your companion”

But there is another aspect to this. “I am also your brother”, said John, “and your companion. Spiritually, I am your next of kin. We have the same Father and the same mother. We live in the same house. We are peas in a pod. I am with you in this, and you are with me. I am here alone on Patmos, but I want you to know that I am thinking about you, and I want you to think about me, too. We are a band of brothers, and we are in this together.”

We see somebody suddenly hit with a terrible, crippling disease and yet accepting, dignified, trusting in God that whatever happens, His love cannot be defeated but will prevail. They press on with renewed focus, determination and energy, to forward the work of God. Where does this faith come from? How can a person be so courageous and so focused in the middle of such pain? How can hope and love be so strong that even the horror of a creeping death cannot undermine them, or erode them, but rather strengthens them, so that confidence in the promises of God is redoubled? That is true courage, brothers and sisters, and that is truly inspirational. Our response to tribulation can be a powerful shot in the arm for everybody.

We are not loosely or accidentally connected, brothers and sisters. We are not members of a club, or even of a denomination. We have not been thrown together by random events. We have the same Father and the same mother. We live in the same house. We are peas in a pod. I am with you in this, and you are with me. We are in this together, and we need to see it that way. That means we need to be at the meetings for each other. We need to go beyond the warm handshake or the kiss, to genuine interest in each other’s circumstances, words of real encouragement that lift our hearts, practical demonstrations of kindness, practical help.

So during the week, we need to make the time for the phone call; have the coffee; make time to have people home for tea; write the card or letter; take the flowers around; visit people in their home, or in hospital; provide practical help where we can. And that love and care needs to embrace not only those we know, but those we do not know; not only those who are similar to us in age, or circumstances, or background, or ethnicity, or upbringing, or values—but all of our brothers and sisters, and particularly those who are isolated or lonely, “the fatherless and the widows in their affliction”—in their “tribulation”.

The Kingdom and Patience of Jesus Christ

The time will come when tribulation will be no more. The Lord Jesus said that the day would come when we would not even remember it, because our joy would be so great (John 16:21-–22). He likened it to the joy that swamps a woman after giving birth, when the pain of childbirth is forgotten in the joy of new life.

That is how we will be. “The suffering of this present time” will be put aside, neglected, discounted in the face of the “far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory”, “which shall be revealed in us”.

That is how God will wipe away every tear. We will not simply forget. After all, we will need to draw on our experiences of tribulation to give strength and courage and wisdom to the people we serve. When we choose to remember, we will be able to remember. But our lives will be so flooded with absolute life and brilliant light and pure love, we will be so swamped with joy in a perfectly open and untainted relationship with God our Father, and with our Lord Jesus Christ, and with our brothers and our sisters, that the pain and anguish that we feel so sharply now will be gone. One moment we will be standing there. For a split second, we will blink; and in the next moment, what had seemed so impossibly real and overwhelming will have simply disappeared.

And then, perhaps for the first time, it will dawn on us that this is what we have been waiting for, and working towards; this is what we have read about and believed in; this is what we have hoped and prayed for; this is what we have loved and given our lives to. This is no longer a verse, or a picture on the wall, or a story, or a vision. And around us there will be hundreds of thousands of other people, our dearest friends, who are all suddenly waking up to the same magnificent fact. He is no longer coming. He is here. Our new life is no longer ahead. We have arrived. We are no longer changing. We have been changed. Christ is here, and we are with him, and we are his, and we have been changed, and this is how it is going to be—for ever and ever.