This sermon is part of the sermon series "Growing Great Families". See series.
The story is told of a farmer's donkey who stumbled into an old, dry well. For hours the animal cried piteously as the farmer tried to sort out what to do. Finally, the farmer decided that, as the animal was old and the dangerous pit needed to be covered, it wasn't worth it to retrieve the donkey. He promptly invited his neighbors over to help him fill in the well.
As the first shovel-loads of dirt pattered down on top of him, the donkey seemed to sense what was happening and cried out in panic. But then, quite strangely, the animal went silent. The farmer looked down the well and stopped in astonishment. As each spade-full of dirt struck his back, the donkey shook it off and shifted his feet, stepping up on top of the fallen earth. Many hours and shovel-loads later, the donkey rose up over the edge of the well and, eventually, trotted off!
Is there any parent or grandparent who doesn't hope that their children will prove to be creatures like that? Maybe the donkey comparison isn't too flattering, but most all of us pray that the people we love (and even ourselves) will somehow manage to rise above the pitfalls and the dirt-loads that all of us face along the journey of life.
There will come a day when she doesn't make the team or the play she'd set her heart on … when he doesn't get the glory, the grade, or the girl. There will be seasons when the job or investment doesn't pan out, or when the illness or infirmity doesn't go by, but actually gets worse. There may come a time when finances or failures are totally crushing and the creditors or critics come bearing big shovels—a period when marriage or parenting or caring for a parent feels like being buried alive.
What do you say then? What do you do then to help that beloved, and maybe yourself, become one of those remarkable creatures who, when they find themselves deep in life's hole, still manage to rise?
The hole counsel of God
When the apostle Paul wrote from Corinth his famous letter to the Christians in Rome, his family there was in need of some help. The emperor Nero regarded Christians as jackasses upon which he was free to heap dirt of every kind. When a massive fire tore through the city of Rome in A.D. 64, it was commonly thought to be the result of Nero's own partying excesses, but the Roman historian Tacitus says that "to suppress the rumor, [Nero] falsely charged with the guilt, and punished with the most exquisite tortures, the persons commonly called Christians." He shoved the Christians into a hole of his own making and tried to bury them to cover up his own neglect.
It would not have helped the Christians there to hear the kind of cotton-candy counsel that sometimes passes for comfort in certain circles. There are people who've rarely had more than a cold themselves who nonetheless dare to preach the power of positive thinking to someone terminally sick. But the apostle Paul was not someone like that. In 2 Corinthians 11, Paul reminds us of the places he's been:
I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.
In other words, Paul says: I know what it feels like at the bottom of a hole with dirt on my back.
What Paul goes on to say then to the Romans in chapter 5 is something we have to take seriously, I think. For he offers us here some principles that help to both shape and explain those who rise where others don't. And this is what Paul says: "[I tell you to] rejoice in sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope." Will you think about these words with me?
Suffering produces perseverance.
Let's begin by noticing what Paul does not say. He does not say, "Rejoice because of your sufferings." There is a word for a person who rejoices because he is in pain. It is not the word saint as some suggest; it is the word masochist. There is no biblical evidence that God takes any pleasure in your suffering, nor call you to.
While the Book of Hebrews says that "for the joy set before him, Christ endured the cross," it wasn't the cross but what lay beyond it that made Jesus smile. The Old Testament prophets repeatedly stress that God wants to see the suffering of people relieved, and his people to be agents of relief. The Book of Revelation says that God's final aim is "to wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away."
Those who rise above the losses and hurts of life don't do so because they've learned to enjoy the pain. They do so only by learning, as Paul did, that in our sufferings we are presented with vital opportunities to become who we can be that are accessible to us in no other way. And the first of those opportunities is the chance to develop perseverance. Perseverance is courage stretched out. Perseverance is moral endurance. Perseverance is the spiritual strength that only comes by pushing against obstacles.
A child once watched a butterfly beginning to emerge from a chrysalis. She saw the tiny creature struggling to free itself from the bonds of the sheath that held it. Moved by pity, the child retrieved a pair of tweezers and pried open the chrysalis. The little insect flopped out. Its wet little wings remained folded against its body as it lay wriggling vainly on the ground. What the child could not have known is that it was actually the struggle against the chrysalis, the struggle to get free, that was required to send vital fluids out into the vessels of the wings. Without the struggle, the butterfly could not develop the strength it needed to finally rise.
In their landmark book Cradles of Eminence, psychologists Victor and Mildred Goertzl describe their attempt to find a common thread that could account for the phenomenal attainments of 413 "famous and exceptional people." The Goertzl's expected the link to be remarkable intelligence, or extraordinary parenting, or even unusual opportunity. What they discovered, however, shocked them. They found that 392 of the 413 had been required to overcome great obstacles to become who they were.
Why do we so often long to remove from our loved one's lives the obstacles they face? Or give in to rewarding our kids before they've really labored long and hard for them? Why in America today do we so often conceive of life's goal as getting onto the fast-track, opening up the easier way, eliminating the struggle? How could we recover a sense of the value of perseverance, the call to perseverance that is presented as a blessed opportunity in the midst of the apparent curse of some suffering? Do you think it's possible that some of the suffering you or a loved one may be enduring is part of God's plan to help them rise?
Perseverance produces character.
The apostle James once wrote: "Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. And perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything." In saying this, James is also echoing the second principle Paul advances in his letter to the Romans. Paul implies: Remember, the suffering has value not only because it can produce the discipline of perseverance, but because when perseverance is habitually exercised, it tends to produce the fruit of character.
Did your parents ever say to you in the midst of some pain or struggle you were enduring, "It's character-building"? I wish I had an iTunes credit or airline mileage point for every time I heard that growing up. But I've come to see that my parents were right. A certain amount of suffering is crucial to the formation of healthy character in a number of ways.
For one thing, sometimes suffering produces greater wisdom. Do you think that donkey fell down the same well again? Possibly so. Along my journey, I have been such an assiduous learner, but after repeated missteps into the same holes, I do tend to finally walk in a wiser way. How about you?
Sometimes, suffering also produces greater grace and compassion toward others that can be gained in no other way. Who is the most comforting, caring friend to someone who has lost a child, a marriage, their health, or their job? You know the answer: Those who have suffered similarly. They become what Henri Nouwen once called "the wounded healers."
Sometimes, suffering produces greater valuing of relationships. It drives us into the arms of others as nothing else can. I have a friend who told me that he never really sought or treasured Christian fellowship—never fully cherished his family, never truly valued knowing God—until his cancer opened that door. But the wisdom, grace, compassion, and relational passion I see in him now remind me of the character of Christ.
Character produces hope
"We rejoice in our sufferings," said the apostle Paul, "because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope." I don't think I really got that last part, that part about hope, until Bruce Baker taught it to me. In the space of a few months, my friend Bruce lost the technology company that he'd poured out his life to build, and then watched his beautiful, 36-year-old wife wither and die—all with their three young children looking on.
In the midst of that suffering I resisted saying: "Look for the silver lining Bruce. Keep a positive attitude, buddy. All things work for the good, pal." I mostly just sighed and cried with him. But Bruce would later say to me and others: "I found that there is a place where joy and sorrow meet, and God is there, and it gives me hope." Bruce went on to run the division of Microsoft that gave us the Pocket PC. He eventually married a splendid woman, became a Presbyterian pastor, and is raising a pack of kids. "I miss Jimie so much still," he told me on his last visit here. "But I know she's safe in God's arms."
The question I want to ask you in closing is this: Can you and I dare to live this way too? Can we help make our family great by teaching and modeling this way? When the hole is deep and the dirt of suffering is pouring down upon us, can we do what too few people do? Instead of letting it disfigure and destroy us, can we treat this suffering as an opportunity for perseverance, as a pathway to character, as an invitation to a "hope [that] does not disappoint us" because it is founded on the love "God has poured … into our hearts by the Holy Spirit"? Can we shake and struggle and step up on it, and like Jesus before us, and Paul before us, and all the other donkeys Christ rode before us, thus become one of those who rise? Yes, I believe we can.
Dan Meyer is pastor of Christ Church.us, a nondenominational, multisite church with locations in Oak Brook and Lombard, Illinois.