From Troubles (Symptoms) to Causes in Sifting

In our previous posts in the Sifted blog series, we’ve looked at (1) why its important for us to understanding sifting, (2) what sifting is, (3) what Jesus said about sifting, and (4) what the Apostle Paul said about sifting.

In a nutshell, the journey of sifting can be boiled down to:

Sifting – Worldly trouble producing increased surrender to and trust in God.

Where we often seek to avoid or run from sifting, God intends it for our good.  To embrace it is to grow, and mature, and become more like Jesus.

In today’s post, we look at the types of worldly troubles church planting leaders often face in their journey.

Each year, an estimated 4,000 new churches start representing thousands of church planters. Many of these planters struggle not just with the logistics and dynamics of birthing a new church, but with other challenges and difficulties that have brought them to a place of sifting. The reality is that regardless of the church model, approach or heritage, ‘in this world we will have trouble’ and most church leaders will exhibit symptoms of sifting.

Asking Why:  Discerning Causes from Symptoms

You visit the doctor for a physical.  They measure your height, weight, pulse, body temperature, blood pressure, do blood work (for cholesterol, sugars, etc.), and listen to your heartbeat.  There are standards for each indicating normal versus abnormal.   You return to your car to drive home.   The dashboard includes measures of temperature, oil pressure, battery charge (voltage), speed, and RPM.  There are normal and abnormal ranges.

These measures give us insights into health.  When measures are abnormal, we pursue an understanding of causes.  It’s important to distinguish in life between symptoms and causes.   A 101F temperature coupled with aches and pains are symptoms.  The doctor uses the symptoms to diagnose underlying causes.   Often we take temporary measures (e.g. pain reliever, cough medicine, heating pads, etc.) to alleviate symptoms.  These temporary measures simply help us tolerate the symptoms until the root causes work their way out our systems.

When we are sick, the body has natural defenses to deal with and resolve the underlying causes of our symptoms.  Sometimes in life, the troubles we face (the symptoms) naturally take care of themselves without us needing to address root causes.   However, in many cases we continually struggle until we address the underlying causes of our troubles.  God often chooses the symptoms (troubles) to get our attention to address underlying causes.

Consider the Apostle Paul.   In 2 Corinthians 12:7-9 he says, “in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me.  But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”  The symptom (visible trouble) was the thorn on the flesh. Why a thorn in the flesh?  To keep Paul from becoming conceited; to keep him reliant on God.   Like many of us, Paul was driven in a way that makes it easy to get ahead of God and trust in our own power.   Just as a small “thorn” can cripple us, God allowed Paul to have the physical trouble to give him a continually reminder of his human weakness.

In a similar way, the doctor (or auto mechanic) checks our vitals (the symptoms) and then asks “why” is this abnormal.   The symptom (or visible abnormality) simply points us to the underlying causes.  Our challenge is to continue asking “why” until we get to the root cause.  In seasons of sifting, it’s particularly important that we slow down, reflect, and consider whether we are dealing with root causes.  What if our prayers changed from “please take away the trouble (symptoms)” to “please reveal to me the underlying causes of my trouble.”

Root causes typically cut right to the heart of our character.   In most cases, dealing with root causes produces heart transformation and increased surrender to God.  Its not uncommon for root causes to be rooted in either personal character issues and / or unresolved family of origin issues.

It’s important as we look at our own stories and journeys of sifting to distinguish between troubles (symptoms) and underlying causes.   The symptoms are often visible and a great place to start (just as a doctor starts with our easily checked vitals).  However, once we identify specific troubles, its important to keep asking “why” until we get to the core issues that God may be wanting to deal with in us.  Dealing with the deeper rooted issues related to our character and family of origin will inevitably take more diligence and work; hard work that may be at the root of God allowing your season of sifting.

Starting with Symptoms (Common Worldly Troubles)

Below are some of the more common symptoms of sifting that pastoral leaders face. Of course everyone has a unique story, and every story may not fit into one of these categories. The list is not intended to be exhaustive but rather representative.     The list is simply a tool for filtering your own experience.   In which areas have you experienced “trouble?”  What is missing from the list?  (we’d love to get your feedback)

  • Discouragement
    • Financial hardship and struggle (draining savings, retirement, etc.)
    • Loss of key friends / friendships
    • Inability to get momentum and growth (hitting barriers and walls)
    • Failing / Quitting (death of the dream)
    • Isolation (lack of peer fellowship, friends, team, etc.)
  • Mental Health Issues
    • Depression / Bipolar
    • Anxiety
    • Sleeping Problems
    • Abuse recovery
  • Family Tragedy and Challenge
    • Death of a child / spouse
    • Infertility
    • Rebellious / wandering kids
    • Disease / Serious illness of family members
  • Marriage
    • Infidelity and marital unfaithfulness
    • Marriage tension
    • Verbal abuse
    • Neglect
    • Lack of respect
    • Conflicting schedules / lack of quality time
    • Conflicting personal values (e.g. money management, boundaries, raising children, discipline, priorities, etc.)
  • Personal Character
    • Pride / Arrogance
    • Humility
    • Narcissism
    • Teachability
    • Idols
    • Coveting / Comparison
    • Unresolved family of origin issues
    • Control issues
  • Workaholism
    • Burnout
    • Boundaries
    • Adrenaline Disease
    • Accountability (lack of)
  • Addictions
    • Pornography
    • Prescription Drugs
    • Illegal Drugs
    • Alcohol
    • Technology / Internet

Over the coming weeks and months we will highlight real life stories of leaders who’ve wrestled with these issues.  These stories include over 20 profiles of leaders from the Bible.  Our hope is that these stories will provide inspiration and encouragement for church leaders to discover, embrace and grow in and through their own stories of sifting.

Like the “thorn” in Paul’s flesh, the troubles are simply the means to God working on our hearts to yield increased surrender to him.   In most cases, the bridge from “trouble” to “surrender” passes through “root causes.”   Consider reflecting on the “troubles” that my seem to hinder your ministry.  Do they represent a season of sifting?   Are there more fundamental root causes that need to be identified and addressed?

In our next post, we will take a look at how spiritual warfare fits in the mix of sifting.   Visit to join the conversation or subscribe to the Stories of Sifted feed at