When I was a child and a teenager, I had a concept of adulthood that assumed everyone who was a grown up physically was mature and responsible. Children were characterized by their levels of youth-li-ness (terrible two’s, irresponsible adolescents, etc), and often times I would hear testimonies and accounts of people who had “finally grown up” or who, through a series of terrible circumstances, “had to grow up too soon”. Being “grown up” meant, to me, being mature, responsible, having polished social skills, and good interpersonal relationship skills. Somewhere along my path of maturation, however, I realized that not everyone is guaranteed to grow in every aspect. Sometimes obnoxious children turn into obnoxious adults. Sometimes irresponsible teens turn into irresponsible middle-aged people. And sometimes the burden of life and mid-life crises turn what appeared to be responsible adults into fools or senile old people.
But while all of these things are glaringly true, we as a culture live by the motto,
“What doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger.”
In essence we cheer ourselves through hardships and struggles by chanting the mantra that we will grow and be stronger because of our current life situation. Have you found this to be true in your life? If you step back and make an honest assessment of your most difficult moments, did you grow? Or did you become hardened? Did you mature? Or did you set up walls to protect yourself from the world? Did you press into God and the Church? Or did you learn how to make it on your own because “people will always let you down”?
It has been said that the same boiling water that hardens an egg softens potatoes. And we, as Christians, should be the potato.
Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand; and we exult in hope of the glory of God. And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.
– Rom 5.1-5
God has sovereignly and purposefully given us lives full of trials and tribulation so that our faith can be tested and through perseverance we can obtain good character and ultimately hope. We do not by nature enjoy and rejoice in trials, we want life to be smooth, easy and comfortable. But God desires to make us people of deep and solid faith, and He does that by causing us to be more holy through the purification fire of suffering (James 1.2-4).
God also uses suffering and persecution to weed out false believers:
“The sower went out to sow his seed; and as he sowed, some fell beside the road, and it was trampled under foot and the birds of the air ate it up. Other seed fell on rocky soil, and as soon as it grew up, it withered away, because it had no moisture. Other seed fell among the thorns; and the thorns grew up with it and choked it out. Other seed fell into the good soil, and grew up, and produced a crop a hundred times as great.” As He said these things, He would call out, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
– Luke 8.5-8
The Gospel falls on all kinds of ears. Some people do not respond at all – the birds eat the seed away before it can take any root. Some people respond quickly and with joy, but as soon as persecution arises they die and wither away because they have no depth, no conviction, no hope. Some people respond quickly and spring up, but when the temptations and pleasures of the world come around, they take over and their faith withers away. They choose the world instead of God. And the others hear the Gospel, believe it, and when trials come they persevere and die to themselves. When the pleasures of sin tempt them, they turn away and choose the pleasures of God. These are those who persevere and develop character and hope. These are those who are softened by the boiling water. These are those who are saved.
“To this end also we pray for you always, that our God will count you worthy of your calling, and fulfill every desire for goodness and the work of faith with power, so that the name of our Lord Jesus will be glorified in you, and you in Him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
– 2 Thess 1.11-12
It is God who is at work in us, both to will and to work for His good pleasure (Phil 2.13). Trials and suffering will make us stronger in a worldly sense if we do not have the Holy Spirit at work within us: we will rely less on people, be more independent, we will be hardened and calloused. Strong like a rock. But if the Holy Spirit is at work within us, we will gradually be softened by trials. We will be humbled and die to ourselves. We will put one another first and seek to serve one another and God. When the Spirit is in us, He is doing the mighty work of making us worthy of our calling. Not that we would deserve our calling of salvation, but that He is continually making us more holy and Christlike. He is making us into what our calling demands of us. He helps us set resolves for holiness and then empowers us to fulfill those desires, and that all to the glory of Jesus Christ.
Our trials do not develop perseverance, character and hope so that we can have a better reputation. They do all of things to make much of and to glorify God. If Jesus has paid the penalty for your sin, He will also fight your sinful nature within you and make you more like Him in the process. He will not pay the penalty for your sins and leave you to act like the world. He will transform us to be representative of the glorious calling to righteousness and holiness.
So what does that mean, practically? Step back and look at your current trial or hardship. How are you responding? Are you pressing into God? Or are you ignoring Him? Are you putting your desires and emotions to the side and considering the other person involved? Or are you harboring bitterness and anger? Are you training yourself in “street smarts” for how to not be taken advantage of again? Or are you asking God to show you how to bring Him glory by your loss? Are you content in whatever life situation you are currently residing, giving glory to God and finding every opportunity to praise Him?
“Not that I speak from want, for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.”
– Phil 4.11-13
Let us be aware that trials and difficulty to not produce strength by their very nature. Many people revert, become hardened, or simply choose to play the victim and never mature. You must be an active participant and choose to grow through trials, and we do that by relying on the power of the Holy Spirit to obey the Scriptures and to become more Christlike. Be purposeful and intentional in your self-awareness and Spiritual growth. Growing up physically does not mean that you will mature Spiritually.