There is a sifting taking place in the souls of the people within the true Church, those who are pressing for holiness and righteousness. The Early Church (pre 325 AD) taught that after 6,000 biblical years from the creation of Adam, the Lord will restore all things (1, 2). Given this is the time we are in now, it is only fitting that the Church is going through an intense sifting- to prepare Herself as a Bride without spot, wrinkle, or blemish (Ephesians 5:27). The Lord has been sending His consuming fire to ready His children for what is to come, the glory of God. Too often we give Satan the credit- blaming him for the ‘bad’ in our lives, whether it be the trials and tribulations that we experience, or the battle in our minds (Romans 8:7). The Early Church believed and taught something completely distinct to what most denominations teach today. These true believers, faithful to the revelation of the Word of God, understood that God allows everything for the beneficence of His people; it is the ‘bad’ that perfects us in the good.
For too long, the Church has adopted a ‘rapture mentality’, in which we want to escape our battles, when in fact, there is a divine purpose in all of the trials and tribulations we experience. We may not believe in the rapture doctrine (as per what most denominations teach the rapture to mean), but do we still have mindsets of wanting to escape adversity? Numb ourselves? Avoid facing the things within our soul? The Early Church understood that the greatest battle we go through is within our soul. In the gospel of Mark, he states that “tribulation and persecution arises for the word’s sake” (Mark 4:17), so as disciples, or students of the Word of God, we should expect tribulation as a result. Not only is tribulation external, but it is also an internal battle, between flesh (the carnal nature) and spirit (God’s nature).
Exhorting his brethren, concerning the testing of their faith, James writes:
My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing. If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for he who doubts is like a wave of the sea driven and tossed by the wind. (James 1:1-6) [Emphasis added]
James states that the trials we endure are the very thing that test our faith, and it is through these tests that the Lord perfects us, to be holy as He is (1 Peter 1:15-16). The Lord provides freely to those who ask for guidance, where we lack wisdom to overcome the trials we face, whether they be external, or internal. Notice James does not say ‘God takes all our problems away’, rather, He provides the means for us to overcome.
Later James continues,
Blessed is the man who endures temptation; for when he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him. Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He Himself tempt anyone. But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed. Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death. Do not be deceived, my beloved brethren. (James 1:12-16) [Emphasis added]
James reiterates that it is those who endure the temptations of the flesh, who will receive the crown of life, not those who simply say a ‘sinner’s prayer’, or attend Church on Sundays; and certainly not those who hear the revelation of God’s Word and do nothing with it. James points out something very profound, that our own desires are what draw us away from God, when we do not resist the temptation of the flesh. We are not to be deceived, blaming Satan for our own desires and decisions. Does this mean temptation is a bad thing? Certainly not- the Lord uses everything! Temptation is purposeful, in that it refines us and highlights the things in our souls (our desires, thoughts, intentions, etc), that are not of the Lord.
Regarding the value of temptation, second-third century Church Father Origen writes:
What is this, that even where the soul is making marvelous progress, its temptations are still not taken away from it? This reveals that temptations serve the soul as a kind of guard or protective wall. For just as meat, no matter how big and beautiful a piece, goes bad if it is not sprinkled with salt, so the soul, unless it is somehow salted by constant temptations, immediately goes soft and comes apart. This is the reason why it is written that “every sacrifice shall be seasoned with salt” (Lev 2:13). And this ultimately is the reason why Paul said: “And to keep me from being too elated by the abundance of revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to harass me” (2 Cor 12:7) (3)
Origen highlights that temptation is purposeful, as it guards and protects our soul. He likens temptation to salt, a preservative; thus, the temptations of the flesh, the trials, and tribulations we face, are the very means to preserve our soul from perishing. This leads us to our premise, that even the things that man terms as ‘evil’ or ‘bad’ (within the soul), the Lord sees as good, for the purpose they serve. In his Homily on Genesis, Origen discourses the account of creation, so eloquently illuminating that it also relates (at a deeper spiritual level) to the creation of our soul. He writes,
But someone asks how the great whales and creeping creatures are interpreted as evil and the birds as good when Scripture said about all together, “And God saw that they were good.” Those things which are opposed to the saints are good for them because they can overcome them and when they have overcome them they become more glorious with God. … Consequently, in accordance with those things which we explained above, God wishes such a man as we described to have dominion over the previously mentioned beasts, birds, creeping creatures, four-footed creatures, and all the rest. We explained how these ought to be understood allegorically when we said that the water, that is, man’s mind, is ordered to bring forth the spiritual sense and the earth to bring forth the carnal sense, that the mind might rule them and not they rule the mind. For God wishes that man, that great “work” of God on account of whom also the whole world has been created, not only be unstained by these things which we mentioned above and free from them, but also that he might rule them. (4)
Origen articulates something so powerful, that the things we struggle with (our opposition) are good, because by overcoming those things, we obtain the glory of God. The things we battle within our souls, are the very things that will perfect us in God’s image and likeness . Origen explains that God’s creation, the birds, creeping creature, four-footed creatures, water and so on, all have a deeper, symbolic meaning. The water being symbolic of man’s mind, and the things a natural ocean brings forth, are symbolic of the thoughts that arise in our minds. These are the very things the Lord wants us to overcome and rule over – the carnal mind.
Indeed when the devil requested that power be given to him against Job, the adversary, by attacking him, was the cause of double glory for Job after his victory. What is shown from the fact that he received double those things which he lost in the present is that he will, without doubt, also receive in the same manner in the heavenly places. And the Apostle says that “No one is crowned except the one who has striven lawfully.” (2 Timothy 2:5) And indeed, how will there be a contest if there not be one who resists? How great the beauty and splendor is of light would not be discerned unless the darkness of night intervened. Why are some praised for purity unless because others are condemned for immodesty? Why are strong men magnified unless weak and cowardly men exist? If you use what is bitter then what is sweet is rendered more praiseworthy. If you consider what is dark, the things which are bright will appear more pleasing to you. And, to put it briefly, from the consideration of evil things the glory of good things is indicated more brilliantly. For this reason, therefore, the Scripture says this about everything: “And God saw that they were good.” … God saw the usefulness of those things and that way by which, although in themselves they are as they are, nevertheless, they could perfect good men. (4)
Notice Origen points out that the devil had to request God’s permission to ‘attack’ Job. So often, we as believers blame Satan for the issues in our lives, when really the Lord has allowed it for our perfection. Take for example the Apostle Peter, when Satan asks to sift him (Luke 22:31), Jesus does not pray against the sifting, rather he tells Peter, “I have prayed for you, that your faith should not fail; and when you have returned to me, strengthen your brethren.” (Luke 22:32). The same goes for Job- God allowed the battles he faced, in order that Job would receive double glory for what he lost. Origen highlights that what is ‘bad’ is useful to contrast what is good within us. We see the divine purpose in why the Lord allows us to face adversity, that is, to form His goodness in us, so we can declare: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me.” (Galatians 2:20). When we have overcome our carnal mind, we have the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:16).
Concerning the discourse at hand, third-century Church Father, and prolific author within the first 300 years of the Church, Tertullian writes:
Now, if that which comes from God is good indeed in its natural state (for there is nothing from God which is not good, because it is divine, and reasonable), but seems evil only to the human faculty, all will be right in regard to the former; with the latter the fault will lie. In its real nature a very good thing is chastity, and so is truth, and righteousness; and yet they are distasteful to many. Is perhaps the real nature on this account sacrificed to the sense of perception? Thus persecution in its own nature too is good, because it is a divine and reasonable appointment; but those to whom it comes as a punishment do not feel it to be pleasant. You see that as proceeding from Him, even that evil has a reasonable ground, when one in persecution is cast out of a state of salvation, just as you see that you have a reasonable ground for the good also, when one by persecution has his salvation made more secure. Unless, as it depends on the Lord, one either perishes irrationally, or is irrationally saved, he will not be able to speak of persecution as an evil, which, while it is under the direction of reason, is, even in respect of its evil, good. So, if persecution is in every way a good, because it has a natural basis, we on valid grounds lay it down, that what is good ought not to be shunned by us, because it is a sin to refuse what is good; besides that, what has been looked upon by God can no longer indeed be avoided, proceeding as it does from God, from whose will escape will not be possible. Therefore those who think that they should flee, either reproach God with doing what is evil, if they flee from persecution as an evil (for no one avoids what is good); or they count themselves stronger than God: so they think, who imagine it possible to escape when it is God’s pleasure that such events should occur. (5)
Tertullian explains that nothing evil is of God, for God alone is good (Mark 10:18), rather evil is only deemed so by man’s interpretation. Make no mistake, Tertullian is not referring to the evil we see taking place in the world, at a larger scale, rather he is referring to the things we deem evil in our own lives. He explains that those who view persecution as a bad thing, misinterpret God’s divine reason for allowing it. By overcoming persecution, just as Jesus did, our salvation is made more secure. Tertullian even intimates that it would be considered sin, to dismiss persecution, as it serves a divine purpose. Those who think they can escape persecution avoid what is good, making themselves out to be stronger than God. We see the same insight fluid within the believers of the Early Church; like Origen, Tertullian understood that trials, tribulation, and persecution were all for the perfecting of the soul.
We have only used a few examples, highlighting that the Early Church (pre 325 AD) were in alignment with the Apostles, and the Lord Himself, pertaining to the battles we face. Throughout the whole account of creation, we see God saw that it was good, meaning nothing He created in our lives should be deemed ‘bad’, as there is a greater purpose to everything God permits. The Lord is calling His people back to the garden, before the fall of man, therefore we should not lose heart in our tribulations, as they are for our glory (Ephesians 3:13). It is time to take back the credit that we have too long attributed to Satan for ‘attacking us’, and realize the goodness that trials and tribulations produce in us, for “the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force” (Matthew 11:12).
- Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Bk. V, Ch. XXVIII.
- Barnabas, The Epistle of Barnabas, Ch. XV
- Origen, Numbers Homily 27 (c.f. Origen, Spirit and Fire, pg. 71) [Emphasis added]
- Origen, Genesis Homily 1 [Emphasis added]
- Tertullian, IX. De Fuga in Persecutione (On Flight in Persecution) [Emphasis added]
All scripture references from The Holy Bible: New King James Version: NKJV. Thomas Nelson, 2010.