How do we grow in our faith? Does it require some secret knowledge, a lab-tested program, or devoting ourselves to the right priest, pastor, or guru? It seems like there is always a new off-the-shelf solution to spiritual immaturity or lethargy; a new book or curriculum or conference that is guaranteed to transform your life and fire up your faith. In some Christian communities these trends are as common as diet fads, and like pop diets the also promise miraculous results with virtually no sacrifice. These messages appeal to our consumer sensibilities even if they contradict our Christian heritage.
Dallas Willard said the divine curriculum for spiritual maturity is the “trials of ordinary existence.” In other words, we grow by suffering. That’s not a message that will grow a megachurch or launch a book onto the best seller’s list, but popularity was never among Jesus’ priorities. He came that we might have life to the full, and he taught that such life was achieved by taking up our cross—by denying ourselves and discovering a new life in God.
This is not a call to seek extraordinary suffering, but simply welcoming God into the everyday challenges of life and facing our ordinary sufferings from his perspective and with his grace. This process doesn’t require an elaborate program, expensive church curriculum, a celebrity pastor, or the fleeting euphoria of a well-produced conference. Instead, it simply means entering each day expectantly—welcoming the mundane annoyances of life, as well as the sudden difficulties, as divine appointments where God is to be encountered and his grace discovered to be sufficient.
As Dallas Willard wrote:
“It is absolutely essential to our growth into the ‘mind’ of Jesus that we accept the ‘trials’ of ordinary existence as the place where we are to experience and find the reign of God-with-us as actual reality. We are not to try to get in a position to avoid trails. And we are not to ‘catastrophize’ and declare the ‘end of the world’ when things happen.”
And as the Apostle James instructed, we are to “Count it all joy, my brothers when you meet trials of various kinds.” Joy, really? Yes, because it is through struggle that we grow in faith and experience the goodness of God more deeply. We have so lost a theology of suffering in the contemporary Western church that we assume any discomfort or trial must be the work of the enemy. Yet even when evil is the source of our pain, as the Apostle Paul discovered in 2 Corinthians 12, there too God uses it for our good and as a conduit for his grace. Such is the extent of his redemptive power. As Joseph declared to his scheming brothers, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:20).
In Jesus’ culture, as in our own, it was assumed that those who suffer were forsaken by God or even being punished by him. Christ and his apostles, however, turn this assumption on its head. Those who suffer are experiencing the blessing of an opportunity to encounter the power of God in a way those who are comfortable never can. Chris Armstrong, in his book Patron Saints for Postmoderns, shared this in his chapter about the struggles of Gregory the Great: “A wise professor of mine once said that the great spiritual divide between people runs not between rich and poor, female and male, young or old, or the like, but between those who’ve enjoyed good health and those who’ve had serious physical ills.”
There are deep forms of suffering beyond the physical, of course, but the professor’s point is still valid. Those who have been submerged into the depths of pain and find God there are gifted with a faith those on the comfortable surface cannot replicate. This reality has been verified by Scripture, tradition, and experience, yet we insist on expressions of faith predicated on the idea that God is encountered best through comfortable, entertaining events rather than in the messy trials of mundane life. And our pastors, who in generations past were trained to bring God’s presence into the venues where life’s struggles happen— homes, hospitals, fields, and factories—are now trained to stay cloistered within church buildings to orchestrate weekly “celebrations” where those who weep are made to feel their faith is abnormal rather than blessed.
Gordon MacDonald, a pastor for over 40 years and author of dozens of books, pondered why our churches are filled with so many immature Christians? Given the abundance of resources available why aren’t there more mature men and women of God to emulate and celebrate? “What our tradition lacks of late,” he wrote, “is knowing how to prod and poke people past ‘infancy’ and into Christian maturity.” MacDonald never advances a definite reason, but wonders “what’s been going wrong? Bad preaching? Shallow books? Too much emphasis on a problem-solving, self-help kind of faith?” Could it be that the consumer value of comfort, both inside and outside the church, that forms the uncontested foundation of our preaching, books, and ministries is fundamentally designed to promote puerility and oppose maturity?
As we enter into the season of Lent, consider how you see the role of suffering in your faith. Do you frame it as an abnormality to be avoided by any means and do you catastrophize trials when they do come into your life? Rather than looking to our consumer culture for how to respond to suffering, consider turning your eyes to Jesus who endured unimaginable pain as he journeyed to the cross. On that road, he faced the very worst our world can muster. Jesus knew the depths of spiritual, relational, physical, and social suffering. Still, he entrusted himself to his Father and did not lose sight of the joy that was set before him.
The Apostle Peter said, “Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2:21). As you face the trials of ordinary existence, look to Jesus and follow in his steps. By entrusting yourself to God, you will not only discover the strength to overcome but also a deeper faith and more lasting joy.