I spent last week sitting by my dad’s bed in a hospital in Charlotte, NC. I was there because my dad had been rushed to the hospital with acute pneumonia, and other issues. His recovery has been slow and complicated, and the result is that I spent a lot of my time at the hospital visiting with doctors and nurses and other folks who had family members there. It was a very real reminder that pain and suffering surround us in life. It is pretty much everywhere we turn.
As I was pondering that on my walk in to the hospital one morning, God reminded me of James 1:2-3, which tells us, “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.” This passage has always presented a conundrum for me. I know what James is getting at - suffering brings the opportunity for spiritual growth, and so we should not be upset by it, but instead, embrace it and see what God has for us. And that's all fine and good - until I find myself in the midst of suffering. I think I'm like most folks in that I don't like the difficult things in life, and so when they come along I'm eager to get past them. And therein lies the conundrum - how can we rejoice in something that's hard and that we really dislike?
Well, I think the first thing we do is remember that when we encounter difficult stuff, Satan's going to be working overtime to make sure we lose our perspective and forget that the battle has already been won. And he does this because he knows the same truth James knew - suffering offers us the chance to get to know the Lord in ways that pain-free living never can, as we experience His peace, His love, and His gentle care. Those are just a few of the many attributes of God that we can experience when we're suffering - things that will draw us in to a more intimate relationship with God. And that's exactly what Satan wants to keep us from.
The second thing we need to remember is that when we go through difficult things, it will produce good things in us. James puts it this way, “When your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow." So going through suffering will produce endurance in us. Which is fine, if we understand why that's a good thing. Fortunately, the Apostle Paul answers that for us in Romans 5:4, when he tells us that, “endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation.”
The message is simple - while none of us likes to suffer, suffering is an important part of our spiritual growth process, as it mirrors what Christ Himself went through. So if we want to be more like Him, then we must also suffer and persevere. Which means that, while we might not relish the thought of going through the valleys in life, we can enter in to them with great confidence that our walk with God will be strengthened, as He uses the challenging things in life to make us more like Him.
I once heard it described this way - nothing ever grows on the very top of a mountain. Instead, the most lush and beautiful plants are found in valleys. That's exactly how it is with our walk with God. The real beauty that God offers is most often found in the valleys because that's where we see most clearly our need for Him. This is a truth that's made clear in Hosea 6:3, which tells us, “Let us acknowledge the Lord; let us press on to acknowledge Him. As surely as the sun rises, He will appear; He will come to us like the winter rains, like the spring rains that water the earth.”
What a beautiful picture of God's faithfulness to us - and it's the picture I want to leave you with today. I don't know specifically where you are, or what's going on in your life, but what I do know is that no matter how challenging life might be for you, God is with you - walking with you each step of the way. So let's turn our eyes towards heaven, let's look full in the face of God, let's cast our cares on Him - and let's ask Him to help us persevere so that we can become more like Him.