When you became a follower of Christ, experiencing trials was probably not at the top of your list of expectations. We often talk of the peace and the hope and the strength that comes from our relationship with Him, but we forget to acknowledge some hardships that we will endure because of – or sometimes “in spite of” -- our faith. Jesus warned his disciples in John 16:33 that “Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows,” but he reassured them by adding, “but take heart, because I have overcome the world.” So we know without a doubt that we WILL face some hard times, even as Christians. What separates us from the world is not a lack of hardship, but how we face and respond to that trouble.
The way I see it, we’ve got a couple of choices when it comes to responding to adversity. One, we can allow it to break us. We can blame God for our troubles and turn our backs on him while we sit and lick our wounds. Or, two, we can allow God to use those experiences to mold us and shape us into the people he wants us to be.
James 1:2-4 says, “Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing.” Our trials, no matter how big or small, provide an opportunity for our faith to grow. Indeed, without those opportunities, what would produce strength and endurance in our faith?
I remember a few summers ago I attempted for the first time ever to grow tomatoes. I do NOT have a green thumb, so to speak, but I was doing my best to grow a little vegetable garden in my back yard. That summer was especially hot and dry. My tomato plants were doing quite splendidly as far as plants go, but they weren’t producing any tomatoes. In fact, they weren’t even budding out. My mom advised me to go out with a stick and literally beat the plants, saying that they needed that distress in order to grow the way they’re supposed to. So I did – I felt a little silly – and eventually my plants started to grow fruit.
Sometimes we, too, need to experience times of distress in order for our lives as Christ-followers to begin to produce fruit.
Sometimes when we talk about faith and about how to deal with difficult times, we use the word "resilient" to describe the characteristic that we're working toward. To be resilient means that when adversity strikes, we can be stretched and twisted and pressed in, and yet we are not broken. It means that we can “bounce back” from trials and not be destroyed. 2 Corinthians 4:8-9 describes this perfectly: “We are pressed on every side by troubles, but we are not crushed. We are perplexed, but not driven to despair. We are hunted down, but never abandoned by God. We get knocked down, but we are not destroyed.” Yes, resilience seems to be the perfect description of a quality that we must have in the midst of adversity.
However, as I think about that word, I feel like maybe it falls a little short. You see, the idea of being resilient conjures in my mind the picture of a piece of elastic. You can stretch it and stretch it, and for the most part it will return back to its original state. You can stretch it over and over, and still it pops right back to where it used to be. And I wonder, is that the kind of person I need to be? When I am stretched by the trials of life, do I want to simply return to the place I started before I encountered those trials? My answer to that – as I hope is yours – is “no.” If my trials and struggles leave me exactly where I was when I started, then they have served no purpose. And if my trials serve no purpose, then I want nothing of them.
If the passage from James that we read earlier is true, and I am to consider my trials an opportunity to find joy, then those trials MUST serve a purpose.
We want to keep this idea of elasticity and pliability. We don’t want our trials to simply break us; we want to allow ourselves to be stretched by them. But we don’t want to just “bounce back,” either. So instead of thinking of ourselves as elastic, let’s think about ourselves as Playdough. Playdough is soft, somewhat stretchable, and certainly pliable. With just a gentle squeeze, you can easily shape it however your imagination leads you, and when you let go, it stays the way you left it.
We, too, should be somewhat stretchable and pliable, and when difficulties come our way, we should allow our Heavenly Father to use those experiences to shape us into the people He wants us to be. We may start as a simple lump of clay in His hands, yet unformed into anything recognizable. And then difficult times come, and He begins to press in on us, changing us. That experience passes, and we notice we have been shaped into something new. And then another difficulty comes our way, perhaps several at the same time, even, and God begins to use those experiences to change us into yet a different form. Time after time throughout our life we confront trials, and when we allow God to use those experiences to mold us instead of allowing them to make our hearts hard or bitter, we ever so slowly begin to resemble Christ Himself, each experience shaping us a little more into His image.
In this, our trials have great purpose.