Question: Bob in reading your study (Coming Tribulation Part 3A), I have a question on the great falling away. Do you suppose that a believer who dies in this present time without a severe testing of his faith would make it to heaven, as opposed to the great tribulation when severe testing takes place and the person could fail because of the severity? I know when I met the Lord he tested me the next day, and I did not even hardly know Him. For four months He tested me with the most severe testing of many different sorts, then the morning came when I started reading his word and He took away my vices and my conceited attitude away. When I met the Lord I was really a lump of clay. I would suppose that one time in a believer's life at the right time the Lord will see where the heart is.
Response: You have quite a testimony! I think there is a lot of truth in what you say. I do indeed believe that there are many cases in which the Lord takes believers out of this awful world for their benefit (cf. Is.57:1-2). In fact, from my own personal point of view the only thing that makes me reluctant to meet my Lord now is the two sided concern about my own performance: on the one hand, I don't want stand before the judgment seat of Christ with empty hands, and on the other hand I do want to finish what I feel called to do on this earth. Beyond that twin consideration, the world is not something I love, though I have loved it in the past to my shame. In my personal experience it has nothing to offer that is of any intrinsic good apart from God because nothing is permanent, so that the more one enjoys something (good or bad), the more pointless that enjoyment is since it won't last. God, Jesus Christ, our relationship with Him, the resurrection, the true work we do for Him, however, will last forever (cf. Phil.1:21-24).
The point I'm trying to make is that God knows things about us and our situation that we could never hope to know. Just as we have to trust Him in all the exigencies of life, so on the issue of when that life ends we must be ready to put ourselves totally in His loving hands, whether it is to leave before we are ready, or to stay on when we are sick to death of living. We belong to Him, and we are His to do with as He wills. To use your "lump of clay" analogy, that is precisely Paul's point (and Isaiah's and Jeremiah's point: Is.29:16; 45:9; 64:8; Jer.18:4-6; Rom.9:21). We have to start this discussion by accepting God's total sovereignty over all human life, and especially over believers' lives. He has the right as God to do with us whatever He wants because He made us, so that there can never be any true ground for complaint or grumbling since He is our Creator - and that would be true even if could be demonstrated that we had been treated "unfairly" by our lights.
But that brings me to the second point which is that God never treats anyone unfairly by definition (He is holy, perfect, and completely righteous and just in His immutable nature), therefore whatever treatment we actually receive from Him has to be, again by definition, "fair". It takes no more than a reminder that He gave His one and only beloved Son over to suffer and die for our sins to prove that He is so much more than just "fair" (for He would have been absolutely just to allow us to die in our sins, sinners that we all are). Since He has mercifully done the most for us in our sinful state, we have to conclude that, especially as believers, He will continue to do even more now (Rom.5:8-11), more than we could ever even ask or think (Eph.3:20), and this is the universal testimony of those who have believed (at least when we not under some severe pressure from testing that makes us forget these obvious facts).
This is the background for answering your question. No doubt, God will take some believers out of this world to preserve them, and leave others here in full knowledge that they will fall away (just as He has always left some in the world who eventually did fall away: Lk.8:13). And this is not and cannot be "unfair". I would say that God in His matchless grace and complete omniscience is well aware of the true intrinsic worth of the faith of every person. When we think of Abraham and Isaac on Mt. Moriah, or Daniel in the lion's den, or his three associates in the fiery furnace, we can say of a certainty that there always have been believers for whom anything, even death, even the loss of what they held most dear, was preferable to giving up their relationship with Him. And in the Great Tribulation, many who do not fall away in the Great Apostasy will have that honor of actually giving up their lives for the One who gave up His perfect life for them. We cannot know the human heart, even the hearts of those most dear to us, not even our own hearts completely. We have to trust the goodness, the grace, the mercy, the justice and the sovereignty of our God, believing that all His decisions on this score are good and right and for the best in every way and in every case.
As to the issue of the burden and testing of particular believers, I can tell you that I have always been impressed by the fact that some seem to be tested more severely than others. For many believers, there seems to be a sort of a "honeymoon" after believing that lasts some time before the testing begins. For others, like yourself, it seems to be a case of personal tribulation right from the start. Other believers seem to live lives of relative ease, while still others seem never to "catch a break". I would emphasize the word "seem" here, because we cannot really know all the facts. "Each heart knows its own bitterness" (Prov.14:10), after all, and we cannot really know the private strains and struggles that are faced individually and privately, even if the more public ones are obvious for all to see. Then there is the point that some are appointed for more than their share of "load" as a witness to demonstrate the sufficiency of God and His grace, and that may constitute an important part of their ministry, graphically illustrating their faith for all the world to see (Paul certainly fell into that category). And there is also the point that God is preparing us for different events in our different lives in different ways (and none of us really knows what is coming next, but He does). And there is the point that not everyone is truly willing or able to go down the road of "sharing the sufferings of Christ" as far as some are: to take the case of Paul again, the Lord used the almost unimaginable suffering he experienced to develop his spirituality to a peak and degree that has probably never been exceeded (even if a few great believers like Abraham and Daniel equaled it). We can see why our Lord in His mercy and compassion would not heap the same weight of suffering upon those of us who are unable or unwilling to bear it to that same extreme degree. If Job's example teaches us anything, it is that extreme personal tribulation is a compliment from God rather than a sign of unworthiness. These are just a few of the more salient reasons why Christian suffering and personal tribulation is so varied and variable. But one thing we can count on as Christians: we will be tested and we will know personal tribulation for Jesus Christ (Jn.16:33; Acts14:22; 1Pet.4:12-13; 5:9). Only the timing, the form, the content, the degree, and the specific purposes and effects will differ. Our job is to make it a point to receive our own particular testing with the right attitude and with complete faith, so that we may reap its maximum benefit and witness as effectively as possible to the overwhelming grace of God.
You are absolutely right – our Lord knows our hearts, much better even than we do (1Cor.13:12). It is up to us to trust Him that we are in fact not being pressured beyond our limits (1Cor.10:13), and that He is dealing with us in a way that maximizes our production for Him to His glory in our Lord Jesus Christ (Jn.15:1-2; Rom.8:28).
Perhaps the following links may also be helpful for you in this matter:
The Peter Series: Coping with Personal Tribulation
Fighting the Good Fight of Faith.
Faith and Encouragement in the midst of Fiery Trials.
Encouragement, Isaiah 6:11-13, and the Hope of Repentance.
Encouragement in Christian Sufferings.
In need of encouragement.
Waiting on God.
Sharing the Sufferings of Christ.
The Importance of Spiritual Resiliency.
In the only wise God our Savior.