Friday, February 13, 2009

Suffering: What Does it Take to Forge Our Character?

Dear friends,

This morning, my husband Thad and I were reading together in the The Message of Hebrews, a commentary that our pastors at Metro Life Church recommended for home study during our current sermon series. There was a certain passage that he thought might be really encouraging to our 19 year old daughter Julia (who is growing through adversity on her three month mission trip to Bolivia). He put a star by it and asked me to send it to her. As long as I have it typed in, I thought you all might like to see it, too. Here it is, along with an essay I wrote a few years ago called "What Does it Take to Forge Our Character?"

"Sufferings introduce a new perfection, a perfection of testedness... For Christians, as for their Master, there is a perfection in suffering. Little as we may like them, the fires of affliction are the place in which qualities of Christian character are forged. No one wants to suffer. No one looks forward to suffering. But the Christian cannot regard suffering as an unmitigated evil. He can agree that it is an evil, but he knows also that, borne in the right spirit, it is the means of an increasing Christlikeness." (Leon Morris, as quoted on page 62 in The Message of Hebrews by Raymond Brown.)


A few years ago, I wrote an essay called "What Does it Take to Forge Our Character?" for my English students when our literature selections focused on the theme of growing through adversity. Here it is:

"What does it take to forge our character?" Does that seem like an odd question? Well, let's think about our goals in life. If the goal in life is to have an easy, fun time and to please ourselves, then we have no hope. There will always be things that get in our way, and we will be continually frustrated and angry. But if the goal of life is to grow to be strong, solid and mature in our character, that's another story, and it's filled with hope. You see, we have all the opportunities we need to help us grow up this way. These opportunities come in the form of troubles, trials, and other tough stuff like work and relationships with family and friends. That's what it takes to forge our character! So we can really see our difficulties as gifts that are custom designed by the Lord to make us strong. However, our response makes a huge difference. We must respond well to our challenges in order to make the most of them. If we fight against them or get bitter, it's not going to help at all. In fact, God is likely to "increase the heat" even higher until we get the message to rely on him and accept what he is doing in our lives. If you think about it, the natural physical world provides so many examples of how difficulties bring about strength.

Diamonds are born from lowly carbon, transformed by years and years of intense heat and pressure dozens of miles under the earth. Diamond-bearing rock is brought to the surface by volcanic eruptions, not exactly a happy occasion. But a "diamond in the rough" is not worth much until it is chiseled and shaped by a master craftsman. Then the facets radiate with beauty.

Gold, silver, and iron must be hacked out of the ground, then liquefied over fire until the dross floats to the top and is burned or skimmed away. The process is not done until the refiner can see his face reflected in the molten metal. Then it is pounded and pounded and pounded with the hammer on the anvil until it takes on the shape of what it is destined to become. Not a pleasant process, is it?

An athlete must exercise and practice, straining his muscles and training his reflexes just when he would rather be back home in bed or eating Twinkies. He undergoes discipline so he can compete and win.

When we talk about writing, we discuss the revision process. Think of yourself as a rough draft, and God as the author. He is going to make many changes in your life before you reach the final version. The Bible says he is "the author and the perfecter of our faith" and that "he will be faithful to complete the work he has started in you" (Philippians 1:6). So, think of yourself as in the revision mode!

In the novel Johnny Tremain, several things happen to test and transform Johnny: a hand injury, his relationships with others, trying to find suitable work, living in wartime, and even learning to ride a skittish horse. Even the symbolism of silver smithing reminds us of the process used to break his pride and bring him to manhood.

The poem "The Village Blacksmith" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow includes many references to the process of growing strong through adversity. First, we see the blacksmith has strong sinewy muscles, developed through the hard physical labor of swinging his sledge. Second, we see that he has endured the grief of his wife dying, yet he still faithfully worships God in church with his children. (Remember that Longfellow himself lost two wives to tragic deaths.) And third, we see the picture of iron that is forged and formed by fire and anvil. The last six lines sum it up:
Thanks, thanks to thee, my worthy friend,
For the lesson thou hast taught!
Thus at the flaming forge of life
Our fortunes must be wrought;
Thus on its sounding anvil shaped
Each burning deed and thought.
The Bible, too, reminds us how suffering shapes our character:

"Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing." James 1:2-4

"More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us." Romans 5:3-5

"Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another." Proverbs 27:17

I hope that these thoughts have been an encouragement to you to not only endure, but actually embrace the hard times in your life – as gifts from God for your good and his glory. Perhaps this will even help you to be patient with other people (who are in the forging process, too) as God uses them as tools to chisel away at your character.


One last little word of grace from Scripture...

"In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. " 1 Peter 1:6-7


Virginia Knowles

P.S. If you have kids, you may want to read a related post called Preparing Children for the Storms of Life, which I wrote a while back.

P.P.S. Here is a little more complete information about the Hebrews commentary I mentioned above, along with a blurb from the Christian Book Distributors web site.

The Message of Hebrews, The Bible Speaks Today By Raymond Brown / Inter-varsity Press Times were hard for the first readers of the letter to the Hebrews. Many had been exposed to fierce persecution. They had been assaulted, their homes plundered, and some had been cast into prison. To such people this letter came as an encouragement. The writer of the letter turns their eyes to Christ, shows how he fulfills the hope expressed in the Old Testament sacrifices, and calls his readers to a steadfast faith that will take them through the hard times they now face. Blessings, Virginia

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