In fourth grade we had an incubator in class filled with eggs. Day after day we looked into the incubator to see if there were any tell-tale signs of cracks in the eggs that would be the sign that the chicks inside were beginning to hatch. When that first chick started to peck its way out of the shell we gathered around, mesmerized. Bit by tiny bit the opening got bigger. With its miniature beak the little chick worked and worked to get out. As more of the shell was broken away we could see the chick breathing heavy and straining to get out. One of the students asked if we shouldn’t help it and take away some of the shell. Our teacher told us that even though we thought that would help, in the long run it would actually harm the baby chick. She said that it was critical that the chick do this for itself because that helped it to develop the muscles and strength it would need to survive in the future. Our desire to help the chick so that it did not have to struggle and suffer as it worked its way out of the shell, while commendable, would actually harm the chick in the long run.
That lesson never left me. To my amazement, years later I came upon that same lesson in Paul’s letter to the Romans. He talks about the positive nature of facing hardship and struggles and how God uses them to shape our character.
1Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. 3Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; 4perseverance, character; and character, hope. 5And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us. Romans 5:1-5
How different is that from the common cultural value we have that says any and all hardship, suffering, struggle, or pain is bad and to be avoided at all costs? We cannot avoid hardship. We cannot avoid pain. It is part of life in a world infected with sin and rebellion against God. Being a Christian does not save you from hardship. In fact the opposite is promised. Follow Jesus and you will be persecuted, you will be called on to sacrifice. You will be called to pick up your cross and follow Jesus. The question is not, “How do I avoid hardship?” but rather, “How does God want me to grow as a result of hardship?”.
Paul says that God uses the struggles we go through in order to shape our character. It makes us people who are able to persevere in the midst of struggles. It will eventually shape our character into something that looks and lives more like Jesus everyday. Finally it will make us into a people of hope. That hope is the result of our relationship with Jesus. It is a relationship that will bring glory and honor to Him. It really gets us back to 1 Peter 3:15 that tells us we are to always be ready to explain the reason for the hope that is within us. If life is always wonderful, free of hardship, and filled with worldly abundance, you don’t need to explain the reason you feel so good. But if life is hard, and you still have joy and hope, then people want an explanation. They want to know why you are able to press ahead, be joyful, have hope. The answer should always point them to Jesus.
You see, when you have struggled in some way and Jesus helped you have victory, then the next time you face a struggle, you have developed some spiritual muscles that will give you the strength you need. Each time that happens, you get stronger. The strength is in many ways a stronger faith in Christ. You know that he saw you through before and you have the assurance, what the Bible calls hope, that He will see you through again. He won’t do all the work, just like as fourth graders we couldn’t do the work for the baby chicks. But Jesus will be with you in ways that give you the encouragement and strength that you need.
If he did everything for us in such a way as to remove any and all obstacles from our lives, removing all hardship, then we would never mature. We would never grow up and be spiritually strong. You see this in the way some parents work overtime to make sure that their children never experience any struggles in life. It is well meaning but in the long run it produces adults who are unable to handle hardship when it comes. And it will come. It is hard to watch them struggle, but it will be harder to watch them act like a twelve year old when they are thirty or even older. Colleges have a term for such parents. They call them Helicopter Parents because the are always hovering around their 20 year old to the point of making excuses for them to their professors. I would have been embarrassed beyond belief I my parents had done that. And I would never have matured to any degree.
We don’t like hardship or struggle and that is understandable. However we can not avoid it and God will not remove it from our lives. So we need to embrace the upside of it like Paul suggests and ask how the struggles of life can make us more like Jesus, more joyful, more hopeful, stronger, pressing ahead for the glory of God.