Jeremiah 18:1-6; John 15:1-8
When thinking about his son, General Douglas MacArthur wrote this prayer: “Build me a son, O Lord, who will be strong enough to know when he is weak, and brave enough to face himself when he is afraid; one who will be proud and unbending in honest defeat, and humble and gentle in victory. Build me a son whose wishes will not take the place of deeds; a son who will know Thee — and that to know himself is the foundation stone of knowledge. Lead him, I pray, not in the path of ease and comfort, but under the stress and spur of difficulties and challenge. Here let him learn to stand up in the storm; here let him learn compassion for those who fail. Build me a son whose heart will be clear, whose goals will be high; a son who will master himself before he seeks to master others; one who will reach into the future, yet never forget the past. Give him, I pray, enough of a sense of humor, so that he may always be serious, yet never take himself too seriously. Give him humility, so that he may always remember the simplicity of true greatness, the open mind of true wisdom, and the meekness of true strength. Then I, his father, will dare to whisper, “I have not lived in vain.”
In short it’s a prayer that his son, Arthur, would grow to be a person of character. MacArthur prays for his son not to have a path of “ease and comfort” but one in which he would experience the “stress and spur of difficulties and challenge”. MacArthur knew that character was not built in smooth, comfortable times but “in the storm” of life. Kahlil Gibran wrote, “Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.” God uses the bad things that happen to us to build our character.
We don’t have to go far to discover this truth. Nature reveals it to us. Beautiful jewellery is made from pearls that are organically hard, wonderfully smooth and often perfectly round. What causes a pearl to be made? From time to time a bit of sand or some other irritant gets into an oyster. Such an intrusion is a wound of sorts creating discomfort in the tender flesh of the oyster. The oyster secretes a fluid which in time heals the wound and creates a pearl. This tiny jewel, in the words of Charles Swindoll is “conceived through irritation, born of adversity, and nursed by adjustments”. Without discomfort, there’d be no pearl.
Since joining the gym I’ve had two occasions where my thighs have been so sore, it’s been difficult to stand from a sitting position. You’d think that having done this once I’d have learned. But the adage is true – “No pain, no gain”. Not only is that true for my body, it’s also true for my spirit – in sticking it out and pushing through the pain, I feel better about myself as a person. I may not be able to walk, but I’m not a quitter.
Difficult times have a way of pealing off the fluff and revealing the core of our souls and psyches. I’ve discovered it’s in the tough times, the bad seasons, when everything is stripped away and there is only myself and God, that I get a first hand view of who I am and what’s really important to me. I learn something about my trust in God. I discover the degree to which I am a person of character. Dr. David Jeremiah, a pastor and cancer survivor has written, “We live in a skin-deep world. Our culture glorifies clothing, fashion, make up, and nose jobs. There’s nothing wrong with any of these, but in the end they’re only cosmetic. Character and substance are shaped in the crucible of adversity. Show me someone who lives a carefree life with no problems or trials or dark nights of the soul, and I’ll show you a shallow person.”
If we take a quick tour of the lives of Biblical heroes we discover that all of them had bad times in their lives. There is nothing ‘charmed’ about the lives of any of God’s saints. In fact, they often suffered a lot more than we do. Sarah was mocked; Jacob the swindler, lived in fear of being killed; Joseph was enslaved and wrongfully imprisoned; Moses lived with blood on his hands. All went through some pretty dark valleys in life and through it their characters were broadened and their beliefs forged into a deeper trust in the God who gave them the courage to do some pretty awesome things.
The prophet Jeremiah recorded this experience, “I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him” (Jeremiah. 18:3-4). Have you ever seen a potter at a wheel working a lump of clay? Clay coloured water is splashed everywhere softening the hard edges of the mud. The potter’s hands, covered in mud, gently but firmly work the clay, smoothing and rounding it. The lumps have to come out in order for the clay to be formed into something beautiful. These imperfections don’t disappear or magically evaporate. It’s a lengthy process. The potter needs to apply the right amount of pressure at the right time to the right place to smooth out the lumps so that a unique object is created. An object that is both delicate and strong. Jeremiah, of course, was speaking of the way that God interacted with the people of Israel.
Each of us is like a lump of clay in the hands of the Divine potter. Our life sufferings cause us to get dry and lumpy in our spirits. Spiritual lumps, emotional hurts and scarred thoughts don’t just go away. They create the raw material of our personalities. We need the Potter to form us. It takes time. It takes just the right touch. In difficult time our clay gets worked on pretty thoroughly. The Potter shapes our spirits on the wheel of life, moulding us into what we are to become. Sometimes it’s quite uncomfortable as the Lord uses life pressures to sculpt us. Sometimes his hand is quite strong and forceful as it forms us into the shape we are meant to be. But in the end the Potter is forming a work of art. He is moulding us into the image of Christ.
This isn’t easy work – not even for God! We can be resistant and hard. We can be soggy, sloppy and hard to mould. We can fall over, fly off the wheel or get bent out of shape. Sometimes we’re full of impurities – little stones that need to be removed before we’re workable. So sometimes the potter takes the entire lump, folds it back in and starts over. This often seems harsh to us. Is God giving up on us? Haven’t we suffered enough? Are we being punished? In these times we feel a loss of self – we’re not sure who we are any more. We’re disoriented. Really it’s a sign of God’s grace. A sign of God’s unfailing confidence that we can become something better. God gives us numerous opportunities to start over. With each opportunity we become not less, but more – stronger, smoother, more beautiful in nature. We become more like Christ himself.
Jesus used the metaphor of a vine. He said “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit…” (Jn 15:5). Two things are apparent: first we find our life in the vine that is in Christ. As Christians, we have no life outside of Christ. We get our life from him alone – both our life here and our life in heaven. Being a Christian is about living in Christ – being connected to Christ. As a branch gets its food from the trunk, we get all we need to grow from Christ. His teachings feed us. His Spirit, the Holy Spirit, nourishes us. Secondly, the purpose of being in the vine is to bear fruit. In regards to bearing fruit, the more a vine is pruned, the better and more plentiful the fruit. To make a vine more productive requires it to be cut back to a certain degree. Things are lopped off, cut away, cleaned out, so that new, fuller growth might have bud. This was a hard lesson for me when I began gardening; I always thought that I’d kill the plants if I wasn’t gentle. However, I have learned that aggressively cutting a bush back helps it to grow back full and healthy. Pruning may be drastic but in due season it reaps great rewards.
Well guess what? God uses the tough times of life to prune us back as well. The events of our lives which God uses to prune us hurt. This pruning is essential, however, not just for our well being but also for God. Jesus said, “This is how my Father shows who he is—when you produce grapes, when you mature as my disciples.” (John 15:8) We often think God shows himself in miracles or in nature or by the influence of his Spirit – and he does. God also shows who he is in and through each one of us. Isn’t that amazing? When we mature in faith and live accordingly – God is honoured and glorified. In Galatians we read about the fruit of the Spirit, “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control”. (Galatians 5: 22 & 23) Those fruits are born as the old, lifeless parts of our souls are cut back so new life can grow, making us more beautiful and useful for God’s purposes. Pruning hurts because we have become attached to old ways of thinking, of being and of doing things. Old habits that are unhelpful have to go. But pruning is essential if we’re going to grow and mature into all we were created to be. What is God pruning in your difficult times? What are the lumps God’s softening and shaping into something new? Tough times are God’s pruning shears which he uses to develop character.
As we develop in character, dealing with life on its terms , we learn to trust God in more mature ways. As our character develops into something beautiful and fruitful – something which reflects God’s goodness – God brings good gifts into our lives —things like affection for others, exuberance for life and serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things and a sense of compassion. We grow in integrity and humility. We’re able to see God’s holiness present in our world. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments. We’re able to marshal and direct our energies wisely. And as we bear such fruit God is revealed!
Like a loving Father, God’s hope for us is that we’ll grow to be people of character. He does not pamper us with ease and comfort but brings us through life’s storms where we become more like Christ. When we do, we hear God whisper, “I have not lived – or died – in vain”.