“By presenting to the soul the crosses, losses, reproaches, sorrows, and sufferings, which daily attend those who walk in the ways of holiness.”
Eighty-hour weeks. Endless classes, textbooks, memorization, and exams. The red tape and organizational frustrations of the health care system. Extreme competition for only a few fellowships. Student loans, sleeplessness, stress, and uncertainty. This is the life of a medical resident.
Up before dawn. Aching muscles. Tired brain. The same breakfast, again. In the pool, in the gym, on the track. Another workout. Pushing, stretching, sweating, gasping for air. Missing your goal by a split second. In the shower, then a quick meal, then you do it all again before dinner. This is the life of an Olympic athlete.
Three clean outfits. Three breakfasts, barely touched. Missing homework. Runny nose. Late to daycare, late to school, late to work. Angry phone call with the vice principal. Arranging rides home. Grabbing one more fast-food meal on the way to practice. Hurried conversations, hurried dinner, hurry off to bed. One moment of peace. This is the life of a single parent.
Why do we do it? Why do human beings push ourselves beyond our limits, beyond our desires and hopes, to accomplish something few will recognize and fewer will remember? Because of our hope of the reward, the prize. Only because the promise is greater than the sacrifice. The result is worth the pain.
- A medical degree
- A gold medal
- Three strong, healthy, well-loved kids
They all appear at the end of narrow paths, uphill climbs, leaving bits of ourselves along the way. For the prize. To see the clearing at the end that leads to the valley, the restful retreat by the quiet lake.
As Brooks further writes, once we have chosen the more difficult path our enemy will attempt to discourage us by focusing on the crosses we bear instead of the crowns awaiting us.
His remedies will help us keep our eyes on the prize, embracing hardship and welcoming sacrifice. The pain fades away when the prize at the end comes into view.
Embrace the stake
Stories of martyrs of the faith who died at the hands of magistrates and governments often relate the same, strange detail. The condemned person embraces and shows deference to the executioner, or speaks lovingly of his instrument of death.
Nicholas Ridley, Anglican bishop of London, was arrested for treason against Roman Catholic Queen Mary. He was burned at the stake October 16, 1555, along with Hugh Latimer, bishop of Worcester.
Ridley is said to have knelt and kissed the stake to which he was then bound, with wood piled up to his head.
John Huss, the Bohemian reformer whose writings and testimony inspired Martin Luther, was executed in Konstanz, Germany, July 6, 1415. As he went to the stake, Huss declared:
“In the same truth of the gospel which I have written, taught, and preached, drawing upon the sayings and positions of the holy doctors, I am read to die to-day … The combustibles were then lighted, and while the flames were licking up around the helpless body, Huss sang: ‘Christ, thou Son of the living God, have mercy upon me.’ And as he reached the line, ‘who art born of the virgin Mary,’ the flames were blown by the wind into his face. Almost stifled, he was still able to articulate, ‘Lord, into thy hands I commend my spirit’; and moving his head as if bidding farewell and in prayer, he died …”
There may be no better-known story among Christians that illustrates the refining power of suffering than that of Joni Eareckson Tada. A quadriplegic since her teens, she has matured into a giant of the faith with an encyclopedic biblical knowledge.
Tada has repeatedly credited her wheelchair as the instrument that shaped her spiritual condition.
“Jesus, do you see that wheelchair? You were right when you said that in this world we would have trouble, because that thing was a lot of trouble. But the weaker I was in that thing, the harder I leaned on you. And the harder I leaned on you, the stronger I discovered you to be. It never would have happened had you not given me the bruising of the blessing of that wheelchair.”
Affliction is a crucible, a refining fire, a surgeon’s scalpel. It strengthens like a physical therapist, pushing a patient to her limits while bringing healing. It stings like the guidance of a counselor, dredging up painful memories that force a troubled soul to forgive past hurts.
Thankfulness in the midst of trials is a good sign you have your eyes on the prize of a maturing faith. Being thankful for the trial, itself, is a stage of maturity to which we should all aspire. It evidences acceptance of its eternal value.
Stop seeing death as the end
It is impossible to avoid a reference to Braveheart here, the now-classic movie retelling of William Wallace, liberator of Scotland. Facing a much larger English army, with very little hope of victory or even survival, Wallace stirs his troops with one of the most memorable speeches ever filmed.
“Aye, fight and you may die. Run and you’ll live … at least a while. And dying in your beds many years from now, would you be willing to trade all the days from this day to that for one chance, just one chance to come back here and tell our enemies that they may take our lives, but they’ll never take our freedom!”
The apostle Paul called our bodies clay jars in which are stored heavenly treasures. He recounted to the Corinthians the multiple physical hardships and sufferings he endured for the gospel’s sake. He believed it all was worth the reward of his high calling.
C.S. Lewis is quoted to have once said, “You are a person; you have a body.” Not only do I doubt he ever said it, I think it’s wrong. Both Jesus and Paul clearly teach we will retain physicality in God’s eternal kingdom. But the bodies we strive in vain to preserve here become new ones fitted for eternal service to God.
These temporal bodies we may lose in service to our Lord are still temples of the Holy Spirit. When freed from them, we will reside with God in his new temple, on a new earth, with new bodies rewarded to us for faithfulness.
Let us pray that we would be freed from the fear that prevents us from seeing death, in Christ, is not the end.
Bear your afflictions as momentary and light
“Hold still. This will just take a minute.”
Every parent has said these words at least once. Children get cuts, bruises, slivers, and scrapes. “Lumps and bumps” are as much a part of a kid’s daily diet as peanut butter and goldfish crackers. We apply our bandages and kisses, smiling through our knowledge of how brief their pain will be.
But pain never seems brief to the hurting. This is why we need our brothers and sisters beside us when we are afflicted, to help us see through their perspective. We need a steady hand to hold us still as our loving Father applies the balm to our wounds. This is because it’s easy to forget that initial sting of pain always gives way to relief.
Let the potter work out the stones
Clay is not naturally pure. It tends to contain sand, stones, and other waste. A skilled potter will work the impurities out of the clay before creating a useful vessel.
This work requires hands-on effort. Kneading, turning, pressing. It is not random, but focused on each foreign object, one by one.
The Bible likens God’s children to clay in a potter’s hands. He made and formed us. As a skilled craftsman he applies pressure to work the stones of impurity out of our lives so that he may make us into useful vessels.
This hurts! Just as having a sliver removed from a finger or stitches sewn into a wound hurts. But this pain is formative and beneficial. It leads to better things.
My wife gave birth to three children. We took classes in a childbirth method that teaches focusing on, not away from, the pain. The instructor repeatedly told the expectant mothers to relax every other part of their bodies so that those parts involved in labor could have more physical energy.
I remember the day this teaching became clear to me personally, although of course I cannot ever bear a child. I had taken up running for exercise and stress relief. But I found it difficult to push past the pain I was experiencing. And then one day I remember what our childbirth instructor said.
So I consciously relaxed the rest of my body so my legs and core could do their hard work. I quit clenching my jaw. I stopped balling up my fists. My running became looser, freer. And the pain diminished.
Christian, stop fighting against the pain of God’s correction. Press into it. Push through it. Something better awaits you on the other side.
Focus on the fruits
Paul wrote the momentary, light afflictions his readers experienced were producing in them “an eternal weight of glory.” It’s hard to know just how much of a weight this is. But it is clear it massively outweighs the price of our God-ordained sufferings.
I flew across the country to meet my fiancee’s parents for the first time through a severe thunderstorm in Chicago. It was late at night and pitch-black outside, except for the white flashes of lightning.
Our wide-body jet pitched and tossed like a toy. The cabin lights were knocked out. Several times I felt total weightlessness as we suddenly lost altitude. People were screaming. I gripped the armrests of my chair in desperation. Never before had I truly felt like I might die.
And then we felt the thud of the aircraft touching down. The brakes applied. The jet slowed to a stop. The horror was over. Overwhelming relief and thankfulness flooded me like an ocean wave.
Once I saw the face of my bride-to-be the next morning, the terror gave way to happiness. It had all been worth it. Although I never want to experience a flight like that again.
As Thomas Brooks reminds us, God’s afflictions are like the dark path through the woods that lead to the warm, comforting, well-lit cabin, where the fires of affection roar and the host has set the banquet table for a feast. The pain of our trials is like the hunger we feel before that first satisfying bite.
You’ll bend, but you won’t break
In my work as a digital content manager I often collaborate with web developers. These are the “backend” engineers – the people who build web applications and sites with code. I cannot do my job without these talented professionals.
Sometimes a developer will send me a new script or web page and tell me, “Try to break it.” Behind this odd-sounding request is the assumption there are mistakes, “bugs,” in the code that must be discovered through testing. We know human error will creep in. We must account for mistakes. So we push all the buttons and click all the links until we break something. And then we fix it.
New automobile models undergo countless thousands of test-drive miles before appearing at dealerships. Random samplings of food products may detect pesticides and other harmful substances. No good author can live without the editor’s red pen.
Assuming a state of less than perfection is wise. An entire industry exists because of this reality: risk management. Skilled professionals earn high salaries looking for ways a company, its products and services, and its employees might fail. Managing risk costs less than correcting errors.
God tests us by affliction because he assumes less than perfection. He searches for weaknesses, pushes to see what will give, strains us just a bit beyond our tolerance levels. But it all takes place in his loving hands.
There is no verse in the Bible that teaches God won’t give us more than we can bear. Some verses explain what may seem unbearable is often his work to test and try us, for our good and his glory.
The afflictions of sin are worse
Speak all you want of the unfairness, the discomfort, the burden of God’s correction. The pain that accompanies a life of rebellion is far worse. The laugh of a sinner who is dead to the gospel will turn to a wail of hopelessness in the end.
It doesn’t have to be this way. In our bearing up under the weight of God’s trials, keeping our eyes on the prize, we can show the world what true spiritual strength is. Praising God in our afflictions we can help soften the hardened hearts of sinners. Through our joy in suffering we can prove how blessed it is to fall into the hands of a merciful God.