I don’t like trials. No one does. Or at least no one that I know.
Though I am grateful for what I have learned through hardship, I always approach new trials with dread. I wonder if I will survive them with my faith intact. I wonder how long and how difficult they will be. I wonder if the pain will be worth it in the end.
This blog is often about suffering, because God has used struggles so profoundly in my life. But personally I don’t want to be the expert on adversity and I’d be thrilled if my major trials were all behind me. But recently, some friends shared an experience which once again made me grateful for the blessings of suffering.
Greg and Mary Kaye had been in ministry for years and were seeking to discern the Lord’s calling. At the prompting of their church, they decided to attend a conference to help them both assess where the Lord was leading them.
At the conference, they were each given a large piece of paper and were asked to chart on a chronological timeline what they considered to be their life’s high and low points. Connecting these points then yielded a graph with peaks, such as moments of accomplishment and times of great delight, and valleys that dealt with loss, rejection and loneliness. After they finished their graphs, each spent extensive time with a counselor exploring what they learned about themselves. They examined what themes ran through their peaks and valleys. They reflected on what God had taught them in their lowest points.
Then the counselor did something surprising. He turned their graphs upside down. “Take a long and hard look at this picture,” he said. “This is God’s perspective on your high points and low points. It’s the opposite of your perspective. God sees our lowest moments as our spiritual highs, because that is when He is doing the deepest work in us. And it is out of those valleys that God gives us our platform for ministry. These low points are essential for us as we discern our calling and our walk with Christ. From them come our most significant growth and our greatest dependence on God.”
From our lowest emotional points come our most significant growth. Our greatest dependence on God. Our platform for ministry. It is in these low points that God does His deepest work in us.
Of course. How simple and yet how profound.
These truths matched what I’ve read and experienced firsthand for years, yet there was something curiously powerful about experiencing it graphically. About turning the page upside down. About acknowledging that God’s perspective is wholly unlike mine. The graph enabled me to see how the Lord’s hand has been on my life and ministry. That He is using all things for good. That He will use the struggle that I’m going through right now to build my faith.
This exercise was eye-opening for me since I still shrink from suffering. I’d like to eliminate all the valleys on my graph. Left to myself, I wouldn’t have any low points, only high points. That way there would be no more tears, no more crying, no more pain. Just happiness. In my ideal world, I’d have a flat line graph for my life story, with upward peaks for rewarding experiences.
But in turning that one-sided graph around, I would see a boring, unexamined and unfruitful spiritual life. An untested life marked by superficiality. A life with happiness but little joy because joy is carved from sorrow.
Suffering and trial are gifts. They refine my character, draw me to God, deepen my faith. They have shaped my theology and given me deep capacity for joy.
Many years ago, I was talking to a friend who had not experienced many trials in her life. She was financially prospering, had a solid marriage, good health and obedient loving children. By her own admission, her life lacked for nothing. She talked about the struggles that she had in her faith, however. God seemed distant and vague. She wanted to be passionate about Him but never was. She said she envied those who had been through major trials because she saw the way their suffering had transformed them. They had something inexpressible that she wanted, but seemed to elude her. She was sure that there was something in her experience with God that was missing.
We talked about this several times, and I wanted her to see that feeling close to God is not the only thing that matters. Sometimes we need to have faith in the dark, without having strong emotions of being drawn to Him. Faith is much more about consistently walking with the Lord and trusting Him than it is about feeling His presence, or spiritual “experiences.”
But at the same time I understood what she was saying. Faith seems easier for those who have suffered. It is as though suffering is a strange sort of gift from God, a gift that we reluctantly receive and constantly want to give back. But it has extraordinary power to change us. It changes our outlook, our faith, our walk with God.
When we have walked through trials, we are never the same again. Academic learning can be forgotten or discarded, but the lessons we learn from suffering are woven into our very fabric. They become part of us.
In the midst of trials, I rarely feel that spiritual growth is happening. Often I’m depressed and I’m just trying to hang on. Life is gray and I don’t see God’s work at all. But in retrospect, it is in the hanging on, the trusting in the dark, the waiting patiently for God, that real growth occurs.
I want a life of depth and meaning, a life that reflects Jesus above all else, a life that is marked by faithfulness and joy in Him. But those qualities are hard won, and for many of us, to get there we must take the hands of Suffering and Sorrow, as Much Afraid did in the allegory Hinds Feet in High Places.
The valleys of my life have unquestionably been lonely and painful, but they have yielded fruit that the mountains never could. In those dark valleys I have learned to trust God, and in the end, that has made all the difference.
For the summer, I plan to post bi-weekly instead of weekly. So I'll be back here with a new post in two weeks!
photo courtesy of Jonathan Davidar