Spiritual Growth Through Tribulation

December 9, 2011

The fifth reason why individual Presbyterians must be equipped for stand-alone discipleship is to capitalize on the opportunity to grow spiritually through times of trial. Spiritual progress can certainly be made when things are going well, but the testimony of saints through the ages is that growth is accelerated when things are going badly, if one is open to it. Another observation must be made sadly. If one is not open to the work of God through suffering, suffering can become an obstacle to growing faith. The novel The Shack exposes this reality vividly, but any pastor will tell you stories of individuals who utterly rejected God because of some unexplainable tragedy in their lives. This is why great attention must be paid in discipleship ministries to learning the Scriptures, contemplating the character(istics) of God, building faith and trust in the long view of God’s purposes, and cultivating hope. Without these, it is all too easy to give up, to exit the difficult situation, and in the process squander a golden opportunity for spiritual development.

The testimony of saints through the ages is that God has met them in their pain and strengthened the bonds of covenant love and grace.  As an example, St. Thérèse of Lisieux suffered from tuberculosis as a young Carmelite nun, but saw her physical torment as an invitation to “the fellowship of sharing in [Christ’s] sufferings” (Phil 3:10). This way of interpreting what is an extremely unpleasant experience is counter-cultural and even suspect in the current environment.  Americans with access to health care expect that any problem encountered can be fixed, healed, or anesthetized.  Embrace pain?  Why?  By cultivating the attitude of avoidance, people buffer themselves against the very conditions that can draw them closer to Christ. 

For some, however, the pain itself is the wake-up call and God’s presence is recognized.  C.S. Lewis, in The Problem of Pain, wrote:

We can rest contentedly in our sins and in our stupidities, and anyone who has watched gluttons shoveling down the most exquisite foods as if they did not know what they were eating will admit that we can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.[1]

Madame Guyon (1648-1717) gives testimony to this dynamic, experienced in 17th century France.  She was born to wealthy and well-placed parents, and at a young age was impressed with spiritual things and desired to cultivate a relationship with God.  Her parents arranged her marriage in 1664 to a man much older, whom she did not love, and she played into the world of fashion, social contacts, and shopping to keep her spirits up.  During this time, the young woman was known for her exquisite beauty. Three children arrived in quick succession, but not before her life started experiencing severe reversal.  Her husband lost most of his wealth in 1666.  Mme. Guyon got deathly ill that year, and her sister and her mother both died.  In 1670 she contracted small pox, the scarring of which marred her face permanently.  Her youngest son died a year later, and in 1672 her father and her daughter died.  Two years later, a seven-year period of spiritual desolation started, during which time her husband also died.  She was imprisoned in the 1680s for her Christian teachings, was poisoned there and ill for seven years.  She was imprisoned again in 1695, including terms in a dungeon and banishment, until her death in 1717.  Her reflection of the calamities and afflictions that had befallen her led to this conclusion:  “Such was the strength of my natural pride that nothing but some dispensation of sorrow would have broken down my spirit, and turned me to God.” Later, she wrote this prayer, “Thou hast ordered these things, O my God, for my salvation! In goodness Thou hast afflicted me.”[2]

Fleeing into the presence of God when affliction persists is one way to practice the affirmation of the Westminster Confession, “Q1. What is the chief and highest end of man?  A.  Man’s chief and highest end is to glorify God and fully to enjoy him forever.”[3]  Affliction sorely tests one’s basic desire in life:  Do we desire comfort and ease more than we desire to glorify and enjoy the living Lord?  It is possible and necessary for Christians, despite pain, to find their satisfaction in the Lord and Giver of Life.

This new appreciation for spiritual fruit amid tribulation is one motivator for embracing the difficult life many conservatives experience in the Presbyterian Church. It may not be a sign of superior spirituality to leave the church that causes such deep pain, if in fact the point of leaving is to avoid the pain. Rather, to embrace the pain and allow God to shout to us (and through us, to the church) a call to repentance and a word of hope can reap huge spiritual benefit.

Paul spoke of the connection between trials and the experience of God’s love: “. . . we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Rom. 5:3-5). Let us seize the opportunities for spiritual growth through adversity— encountered far too often, I know—and be prepared for the trials ahead by the practice sessions we experience at our presbytery meetings. God will meet us there and strengthen us against all temptation to take short-cuts, if in preparation we have learned to trust God and enter the fellowship of Christ’s suffering.


[1] C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), 90-1.

[2] James Gilchrist Lawson, Deeper Experiences of Famous Christians (Uhrichsville, OH: Barbour Publishing, 2000), 84.

[3] “The Larger Catechism” of the Westminster Confession of Faith, The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Part I, Book of Confessions (Louisville, KY: The Office of the General Assembly, 2002), 195.

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