This month, our meditation has been excerpted from the book entitled Extreme Devotion, compiled by the Voice Of the Martyrs. In the following passage, a widely used parable provides us with fodder for reflection and perhaps application:
Not only that, but let us find a cause of glorying in our troubles; for we know that trouble produces fortitude; and fortitude produces character; and character produces hope; and hope does not prove an illusion, because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given unto us. (Romans 5:3-5)
In a forest one day, three young trees all agreed to pray that they would be used for some noble purpose rather than decay from old age.
The first tree wanted to become a manger where tired cattle could feed after a long day's work. God rewarded the tree for having such modesty. It became a very special manger--the one in which the Son of God was laid.
The second tree prayed that it might become a boat. The prayer was answered, and soon its fine wood sheltered a very special passenger--the Son of God. It heard Jesus calm a fierce storm by saying, "Peace, be still." The tree counted its life as worthwhile in order to witness such a scene.
The third tree, however, was made into a large cross to serve as an instrument of suffering. The tree was initially deeply disappointed in its fate. However, one day Jesus of Nazareth was nailed to its limbs. Strange, but the cross did not hear groaning and cursing as on other crosses. Instead, it heard the Son of God offer words of love and divine forgiveness--words that opened paradise to a repentant thief.
The tree then understood that its part in the crucifixion of Jesus provided for salvation of humankind.
A moment of consideration: How does the world perceive suffering and troubles? William Barclay (in his Daily Bible Studies selection, The Letter to the Romans, 1975) tells that when Beethoven was threatened with deafness, that most terrible of troubles for a musician, he said: "I will take life by the throat." When Scott was involved in ruin because of the bankruptcy of his publishers, he said: "No man will say 'Poor fellow!' to me; my own right hand will pay the debt." Someone once said to a gallant soul who was undergoing a great sorrow: "Sorrow fairly colours life, doesn’t it?" Back came the reply: "Yes! And I propose to choose the colour!" When William Ernest Henley was lying in Edinburgh Infirmary with one leg amputated, and the prospect that the other must follow, he wrote "Invictus".
"Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul."
The Greeks had a word for such fortitude: hupomonē. Hupomonē is not the spirit which lies down and lets the floods go over it; it is the spirit which meets things breastforward and overcomes them.
"Fortitude," Paul goes on, "produces character." The word he uses for character is dokimē. Dokimē is used of metal which has been passed through the fire so that everything base has been purged out of it. It is used of coinage as we use the word "sterling". When affliction is met with fortitude, out of the battle a man emerges stronger, and purer, and better, and nearer God.
"Character," Paul goes on, "produces hope." Two men can meet the same situation. It can drive one of them to despair, and it can spur the other to triumphant action. To the one it can be the end of hope, to the other it can be a challenge to greatness. "I do not like crises," said Lord Reith, "but I do like the opportunities they provide." The difference corresponds to the difference between the men. If a man has let himself become weak and flabby, if he has allowed circumstances to beat him, if he has allowed himself to whine and grovel under affliction, he has made himself such that when the challenge of the crisis comes, he cannot do other than despair. If, on the other hand, a man has insisted on meeting life with head up, if he has always faced and, by facing, conquered things, then when the challenge comes, he meets it with eyes aflame with hope. The character which has endured the test always emerges in hope.
Then Paul makes one last great statement: "The Christian hope never proves an illusion, for it is founded on the love of God." Omar Khayyam wrote wistfully of merely human, worldly hopes:
"The Worldly Hope men set their hearts upon
Turns Ashes--or it prospers; and anon,
Like Snow upon the Desert’s dusty Face
Lighting a little Hour or two--is gone."
When a man's hope is in God, it cannot turn to dust and ashes. When a man's hope is in God, it cannot be disappointed. When a man's hope is in the love of God, it can never be an illusion, for God loves us with an everlasting love backed by an everlasting power.
This is the difference between worldly responses and Christian reactions based on our hope in God and His love for us. So, how do we as Christians understand and perceive persecution or suffering? The account of the Three Trees continues, from above: "In underground churches across eastern Europe, the parable of the Three Trees was often told as an encouragement to those suffering for their faith. These believers needed to see purpose in what they endured. They must have had such high hopes and aspirations when they originally said they wanted to be used by God for His glory. Yet, oppression seemed to have cut them off from God's plans. How could unjust suffering play into such a plan? Like the tree that formed the cross, they realized they were also being shaped into God's ultimate purpose for their lives. From this perspective, suffering is not seen as an interruption of God's plans for your life, but an integral part of the process."
We Believers have been born for times like these (Esther 4:14), and our times are in His sovereign hands (Psalm 31:14); the apostle James wrote his contribution to the New Testament, practically and faithfully reminding us how to live in our times. He wrote: "Dear brothers and sisters, whenever trouble comes your way, let it be an opportunity for joy. For when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be strong in character and ready for anything." (James 1:2-4) Paul wrote to the church at Rome, encouraging them to have fortitude--for he possibly remembered the Old Testament Proverb (Proverbs 24:10) that says "If you faint in the day of adversity, your strength is small." He wrote to the church in Ephesus, "...I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being" (Ephesians 3:14-16) May this be our prayer for ourselves and for others. And may we be fortified in our spirits to the conquering of our fears and trepidations. May God grant us the strength to "seize the day" and overcome, "For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world--our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world, except the one who believes that Jesus is the son of God?" (1 John 5:4-5) By His strength, we too shall overcome!