Years took their toll until the great apostle described himself as “Paul, the aged” (Philemon 9). His life had been a dot-to-dot of constant difficulty. His labor is summed up in 2 Corinthians 11: stripes, imprisonments, and often near-death experiences that marked this faithful servant’s life. He faced even deeper trials when his work was challenged by Judaizers, and when some of his companions, such as Demas, abandoned him. He even faced the terror of the Roman Imperial Court – alone! He told Timothy, “At my first answer no man stood with me, but all men forsook me” (2Tim 4:16).
So, where did he find strength amidst his frequent trials? He joyfully shared his secret, “Nevertheless the Lord stood with me.” Not only did the Lord stand by him, but He also strengthened him. It was the presence and power of the risen Lord alone that sustained him. This is why he could triumphantly finish the course that the Lord had laid out for him and overcome the mounting difficulties of life. Thus, just as Paul was strengthened and comforted in his trials, we receive the same comfort and strength in ours.
Paul could say, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil 1:21). During Paul’s life, he always sought to be in the center of the Lord’s will. He gave up many of the comforts and pleasures of this life in order to be faithful to the stewardship that the Lord had entrusted to him. Paul subordinated his own will to follow the Lord’s will. God’s will led him to traverse thousands of miles across the ancient world to take the news of salvation to the Gentiles. This divine will led him into prisons, into mob encounters, and into the very jaws of the Roman lion. Yet, Paul sought and followed that will despite the difficulties to him personally. Now that he was older, that same devotion to the Lord’s will guided his approach to life, as he encountered the darkness and dankness of the dungeon where he was imprisoned in Rome. His life spent for Christ would soon end, and the gain that follows was soon to be realized!
When we observe older saints, we see that the greatest trials of life often come toward the close of the journey. Difficulties develop such as illnesses, loss of loved ones, family disappointments, financial pressures, or assembly troubles. Often, in the weakness that comes with an aging body, one must confront these serious and formidable trials. Patience easily wears thin and coping with the trial becomes a full-time job. This sometimes happens when a life partner has been taken home to glory, so that the one left must face the trial without a familiar and comforting confidant. Some are called to face wave upon wave of difficulties that never seem to abate.
Recently we visited an aged sister who had just lost her son to cancer. The next day she fell and shattered her shoulder. Trial upon trial, sorrow upon sorrow faced this dear saint. But as she lay in her hospital bed, she was confident of the Lord’s presence with her, and she was sustained by His faithful Word. She was a bright example to us as to how to face multiple and deep trials. She confessed that she didn’t know if she could ever return to her home, but was sure that the Lord was superintending every detail.
So how does one cope? And how does one triumph? The secret lies in what the apostle Paul found – the presence and power of the Lord both comforts and strengthens us. It was Paul who earlier said, “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me” (Phil 4:13). Throughout life, Paul understood his own weakness and depended upon the Lord for daily strength. Then, years later, at the close of his life, he could demonstrate this great truth, leaving us an example.
Did Paul draw strength from Isaiah’s writing, “When thou passest through the waters I will be with thee” (Isa 43:2)? Note that the Lord first brought the subject of redemption and ownership in verse one as a reminder of what He had already done. Only then did the Lord bring up the subject of trial. The Lord will not abandon His own, meaning the trial will have been worth it all. Experience has taught us that most of us will pass through some difficulty before we enter our eternal rest. The Lord Who is our Redeemer and has been our faithful companion through the years will not drop us when we need Him most. This knowledge cheers the heart!
David, when facing trial, found the Lord was his rock, his fortress, his deliverer, his strength, and his salvation. David found and enjoyed these wonderful characteristics because he was passing through the deep waters of trial. Could it be that we can only see the many shades of His variegated grace when we experience great difficulty? What precious secrets are learned in the dark times of life? Only those that have passed that way can tell us of their appreciation of the Lord during their deep trials. David could learn that it was the Lord Who drew him out of many waters and, similarly we find that it is the Lord Who delivers us.
These lessons apply at any age, yet often, the deepest trials seem concentrated on older saints of God. Hence, the need to know of how others faced their trials and how our faithful Lord sustained them through to the end. This is not to minimize the grief associated with a fatal illness or the sorrow at the loss of a beloved companion, but it is to strengthen us, so that we persevere despite the dark moments. Paul’s secret was the presence and the power of the Lord. It is the same in 2016 in whatever trials we may face.