The Reverend David Stanton, Canon in Residence
Our New Testament lesson this morning tells us that "God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength" (1 Cor. 10.13). In today's world, Christians, and Christian societies, are being tested on many different fronts and at many different levels.
On the world stage, many are facing extremely tough challenges in the form of religious extremism, terrorism, homelessness, and war. Christianity is currently under siege in the very place where it was born. Over recent months hundreds of thousands of Christians have fled Iraq and Syria in the face of Islamic extremism and conflict. In the face of such sadness and horror, we can easily understand how resurrection faith may be severely tested.
Here in the UK, a recent poll suggests that we are among the least religious countries in the world. In a global ranking of 65 countries, the UK came six places from last, with 30% of the population calling themselves religious. Thirty-three per cent preferred the statement: "In modern Britain, Easter is rightly more about having two bank holidays together rather than anything religious." Even 18 per cent of Christians agreed. The Archbishops of Canterbury and York have openly warned that decline in the Church of England has to be reversed if it is to continue its nation-wide ministry.
The Church is certainly being tested and challenged on many different fronts throughout the world. We are all learning that faithfulness is hard; that inspiring, and infectious Christianity is not simply communicated through innovative actions, and not simply preserved through conservative retrenchment. It's much more than that. Committed Christianity focuses on the core values of Christ and his Church: commitment, spiritual development, and the combination of suffering and growth, pain and resurrection. At its heart, spiritual depth and resurrection commitment are what makes individuals and communities flourish, rather than languish, and here the spiritual challenge of growth and renewal is both personal and corporate.
At a corporate level the Western, relatively affluent, Church is being tested to move beyond society's beguiling goal of individually happiness, which all too easily perpetuates a rather cosy, self-centred, narcissistic approach to life. It must be again a place where people come to encounter God, to stand in his presence and to look with renewed awe on the troubling fact of their own existence. A place where we receive spiritual strength to do in everyday life what we do in church be humble members of the Body of Christ.
This inevitably means a constant rediscovering of how our personal wellbeing has a positive spiritual effect on others; how God works through each and every one of us. When St Paul talks about testing, he talks about constant growth in faith and closeness to God. In this sense faith is rather like a muscle, it develops by being used. The more you use your faith, the more it gets stretched. And the more it gets stretched, the more God is able to use your life. The trials that St Paul refers to are the circumstances that God creates to stretch our faith. "These trials will show that your faith is genuine. It is being tested as fire tests and purifies gold" (1 Peter 1:7).
There are four classic trials that God uses to test our faith.
Firstly the test of our priorities: This is perhaps the most important test, challenging us to look at what is most important in our lives. How do we know if God is really the first priority within our lives? We could ask ourselves three questions: What do you think about the most? Where does your money go first? How do you spend your time? Our answers will most probably reveal the priorities in our lives. Both scripture and church tradition tell us that God has eternal rewards in store for us if we pass these tests: "Blessed is anyone who endures temptation. Such a one has stood the test and will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him (James 1:12).
Secondly the test of our persistence: Deep down we all know that life is all about making commitments. One of the great problems we have today is that most of us are half committed to two dozen things instead of being totally committed to the one or two things in life that really matter. When we're weak we tend to give excuses. When we're totally committed we tend to find the time and way to do things. We all need to look at the sort of people we are.
Thirdly the test of pressure: How do we handle stress: Do we ultimately depend on ourselves, or do we depend on God? Do we turn to God when we're in trouble and not to other things? The words of Psalm 50 come to mind: "Call upon me in the time of trouble; I will hear thee, and thou shalt praise me". Do we understand how persecuted Christians have learned truths about God that the rest of us under less pressure need to hear? Do we recognise how the spiritual insights of the persecuted are vital to the transformation of the lives of the rest of the Body of Christ.
Fourthly the test of other people: God often uses other people in our lives to test and stretch and develop our faith. This test often raises the question, "How do we handle disappointment?" In many ways, life can be disappointing. Careers, marriages, and even plans often don't turn out the way we planned them. But perhaps the most disappointing thing in life can be people. Sometimes we get disappointed by people because we expect them to meet a need that only God himself can meet. The test is often how we response to others? How often do we actually expect them to act as our saviour?
In reality, we're all made up of conflicting and contradictory traits. For example we can be quiet and composed in church but fiery and unpredictable in our personal relationships; careful and controlling in one area but spontaneous and care free in another. Can the messy diversity of human behaviour ever be neatly classified and broken down into a bite-size set of spiritual guidelines?
The spiritual tests that God gives us are disarmingly similar wherever we are in the world, and whatever trials we are facing. At the end of the day, the really important things almost always come down to love and commitment and personal faithfulness, and we are all tested to varying degrees. Without faithfulness to God there is no Christian life. Christianity is based first on faith that God is, and then that through the risen Jesus Christ we can be forgiven and saved. The primary test is to ensure that our faithfulness is a secure commitment to God, who is true and supreme and to keep his commandments.