This summer, my husband scoped out his family’s farm in Michigan for interesting rocks. Combing through the fields and woods on his family’s land, he discovered several rocks of interest, carting them up to the house in a wheelbarrow. I’m not sure how he sees the potential in these drab stones. I look over the collection in his buckets and I raise a skeptic eyebrow. But after soaking the rocks overnight and giving them a hard scrub, I’m astonished at the beauty revealed.
The rocks he puts in our rock tumbler emerge jewel-like. But rock polishing is an exercise in patience: the process takes four to five weeks, with regular checks to swap out the grit in the barrel. The kids and I watch week after week as dull gray stones transform into something beautiful — each one unique with different colors, stripes, spots, even sparkle. When the whole process is finished, we marvel in amazement at the smooth, shiny, colorful assortment of rocks.
We like to talk about the transformed life of the Christian in terms of caterpillar and butterfly. This metaphor is appealing. The caterpillar eats and eats, finds a place to hang and sleep, then emerges a few days later a brand new creature.
In truth, our transformation is not as easy—our faith often grows as a result of pain and suffering, over long periods of time. Like rocks, it can feel like we’re submerged under water, then scrubbed with the stiff bristles of a brush. Or we tumble alongside the painful grit in our lives until our hard edges are smoothed to a shine.
As followers of Jesus, we are saved by what He did on the cross for us—our justification is a one and done deal. But working out our salvation—our sanctification—is an ongoing process of becoming more like Him.
This is why James encourages us to face trials with joy:
“My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.” (James 1:2-4, NRSV)
My first instinct when facing trials is anything but joy. In fact, I actively try to avoid trials whenever it’s possible (it often isn’t.) My nature is to want to skip the hard parts of my story and get to the pretty part. I want the glory without the grit. It’s much easier to look back on my suffering with the gift of hindsight than it is to walk through the valley with no end in sight.
Dealing with our discomfort, pain, and suffering is never easy. We want to rush through it; we want to know why; we want to find purpose and meaning in our suffering, we want to wrap it up in a tidy bow and move past it. But there’s no better time in which our faith can grow than when we are suffering through trials big and small. We are more likely to turn to God, seeking God’s comfort and wisdom and strength to get through it. Our hearts are more finely tuned to His movement in our lives, and we are more alert in looking and listening for Him.
Clinging to God in the hard seasons
Somewhere along the way, we have come to believe that suffering as a Christian means we’re doing it wrong, that trials and tribulations mean we don’t have enough faith, we don’t believe the right things, or we haven’t confessed the right sin. Somehow, we think that following Jesus will mean a life of ease and blessing and we point to all the Christiain boxes we have checked off to explain our comfortable lives.
But what happens to our faith when God doesn’t answer our prayers the way we want Him to? When He doesn’t bring healing, when relationships stay broken, when our financial safety nets fall through? When we are tumbling through our lives alongside painful grit, can we still cling to God even when we don’t understand?
Jesus faced the impending betrayal of his closest friends with these words: “Yet I am not alone, for the Father is with me.” (John 16:32, NIV) We can adopt the same posture through our own seasons of suffering, knowing that God’s love is already in our hearts through the Holy Spirit, and turning toward the Father to find comfort in His presence. And we can look to the grit in our lives with hope that God will use it to shape us into the beautiful creations we were meant to be.