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Trials for Unbelievers

Our pastor recently finished a series on trials. He did a fantastic job of unveiling the hidden beauty in suffering. The series was focused on the trials we face as Christians, obviously a pretty standard approach. So I was delighted and challenged by a question I received. Simply, if God’s purposes in trials for believers is for their good, can the same be said for unbelievers? Or are there different purposes at work/or is it even right to call them ‘trials’? I tried to answer simply and Biblically, here is what I said:

First, here are a few questions which I think say what you’re trying to say: that God’s trials for believers are out of love.

  • Hebrew 12:6 because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son
  • Proverbs 3:12 because the Lord disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in
  • James 1:2-4 Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance
  • Job 23:10 But he knows the way that I take; when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold

All of these, when summed up, give trials a purpose. They work in some way to grow us. Whether as punishment, trial or seemingly random mishap – Christ is in control all the time and is working all things for good, “for those called according to his purpose for them.” (Rom 8:28)

Now, can we say the same is true for unbelievers?

I searched and thought for a little while about this – and the only answer I can think of, and actually support, is no with one exception.

There is common grace over the world, meaning that God treats both unbelievers and believers the same in some situations “He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:45) Furthermore, God loves his enemies (Matt 5:43, 48), which was everyone (Rom 5:8) and is everyone before salvation.

For non-believers, discipline and spiritual maturity are not possible purposes for trials – they requires the Holy Spirit. From what I see in Scripture there are only two possible purposes for trials in the lives of unbelievers: wrath and salvation.

2 Thess 1:8-9, Nahum 1:2, 1 Thess 5:3, Prov 11:23 – these all discuss the wrath of God and how God will punish all those who are not his (there are many more, these are just a few). For the believer, the wrath we deserved was paid for in Christ.

The last option, then, is that God uses trials to bring unbelievers to himself. I think one of the clearest examples is Paul. God used his journey and blindness to reveal the truth about Christ. Likewise, God uses trials to open up the eyes of those he calls to salvation. And salvation is first and foremost God’s move towards us, rather than us moving towards God on our own (Rom 8:29-30, Eph 1:4, 2 Tim 1:9).  Another example would be the city of Nineveh and the story of Jonah. Jonah’s trials were to discipline him for disobedience and to grow his maturity, Nineveh’s trials were to help them see their need for God.

Back to the original question, in summary God does not send/allow trials for the same reasons in the lives of unbelievers as he does in the lives of believers. Though God loves his enemies, the trials they face have only two purposes – destruction or to help bring to salvation. For the believer there are more options: punishment (but not destruction), discipline, refinement/sanctification, or just consequence of living in a sinful world (and probably more I’m missing).

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2 thoughts on “Trials for Unbelievers

  1. It’s interesting to think about “both sides of the coin” (as cheesy as that may sound). Often I think I don’t look at things enough from the non-believers point of view… which I’m sure if I did, that would greatly help in mine (or anybody’s) ministering to them. Bringing up Nineveh, and Jonah’s less than gracious attitude/mentality towards them… exactly where my mind wandered to first.

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