John Hannah, a professor at Dallas Theological Seminary, tells a story about Martin Luther, the father of the Protestant Reformation:
Early in their marriage, Martin Luther’s wife watched him battle bouts of depression, even question God’s willingness or ability to help him through a difficult trial. Without saying a word, she donned a black dress and veil, reserved for times of mourning. When Luther asked why she was dressed that way, she commented, “Because God is dead. It’s obvious by the way you're acting.”
Paul writes in Romans 5:3-4 that “we know that suffering produces perseverance.” On the face of it, his words seem to make little sense. In my experience, suffering tends to produce quitting. Several years ago as a professor in a
Christian college I witnessed incoming freshman students stand up in chapel and give glowing testimonies of their certainty that they had arrived in the center of God’s will by coming to a Christian college. A few weeks later I was not surprised to counsel the same students as they nearly wept in my office over the results of their first mid-term exams and questioned if perhaps God’s will for their life was for them to leave the college and get a job flipping burgers instead.
Quitting is easy, and becoming discouraged is easy. Martin Luther and college freshman are not the only people who have thought that maybe they should just give up. Moses received a calling from God of the sort that most of us can only dream of: God appeared in a burning bush, gave him a couple of miracles to perform, and ordered him to rescue the enslaved Israelites from
Egypt. Although reluctant to go, he finally got back down in Egypt and enthusiastically announced to the slaves that he’d come to rescue them. They were under whelmed, but willing to feel a bit of hope. Moses then performed for the pharaoh, telling him that God wanted his people set free. He did his tricks with the staff turning into a snake and his hand into a leprous, diseased thing.
Pharaoh responded by oppressing the slaves even harder, so that they denounced Moses for having increased their misery.
Miserable now himself, he complained to God that everything that God had instructed him to do was only making things worse.
God comforted Moses by simply telling him to be patient.
Moses would experience one failure after another in the next nine attempts to free the people of
Israel. Only after the tenth attempt—a plague that slaughtered the firstborn of Egypt—did the pharaoh finally relent and release the people.
Moses had to persevere. It might have been easy after the plague of hail, for instance, to just throw in the towel. “Look God, there’s been blood in the water, frogs everywhere, annoying gnats, clinging darkness—and has even one Israelite been set free? The pharaoh hates me, the people of
Israel hate me, and we’re not any freer than when I started all of this. It’s just the same thing over and over again and no payoff. I give up.”
Our human reaction to trouble sometimes makes about as much sense as the man just hired to a new job. The first day he’s excited, goes about his work with enthusiasm, and heads home happy. Same with the next day. But on the third day, he starts wondering, “You know, I haven’t seen any sign of a paycheck from all this work. I thought I was supposed to be getting paid like fifty thousand dollars a year, but my bank account’s still just as empty as it was three days ago. I check my mailbox every day and there are no checks, just more bills. What gives? Why do I keep coming?” And so he asks himself the same questions the next day and the next. Three weeks go by and still nothing. On the twenty-ninth day of the month he wakes up, looks at his alarm clock, and just shuts it off. “They say I’ll get paid at the end of the month but here it is with only one day left to go and still nothing. No sign of that pay check! Why go on?”
It is so easy for us to become discouraged in life, to imagine that the current struggle is an indication that somehow all our suffering has been pointless. Naaman had to dip himself seven times into the
Jordan before his leprosy left him (2 Kings 5). Do you suppose after six dips without a change he was wondering whether there was any point in dipping himself yet again?
Someone once wrote that the definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results. But if you’re pounding on a rock with a sledge hammer trying to break it, what happens if you stop one blow short of making it shatter? What about the Israelites who walked around
Jericho over and over and the walls just kept looking as strong as ever? (Joshua 6)
Perseverance in the face of obstacles and trouble and repeated failure is not insanity. Suffering can produce perseverance if we can recognize that suffering is just the road to hope. Suffering is not an end to itself; it’s a journey. Why quit before you reach the goal? Is the goal unworthy?
Remember something else. They don't build statues to those who say, “It can't be done,” “it’s not worth it,” or “why don’t you quit?” There aren’t any monuments memorializing Job’s wife who told him “curse God and die” when everything hit rock bottom for him (Job 2:9). They don't build monuments for those who tried to stop people from being great, who told the struggling artist that “surely you can find something more productive to do with your time.” They don't name streets after those who don’t take risks.
When the first colonies are built on the moon and distant planets, the only thing that might be named for Senators William Proxmire and Walter Mondale who did everything in their power to stop NASA and cut its funding will be the latrines. But cities and statues named Werner Von Braun, Neil Armstrong and John F. Kennedy will be common, don't you suppose?
There is no glory for those who play it safe, who always want to be careful, who never risk anything, who quit. God did not call us to an easy life, a life where everything happens quickly and without trouble. If you think God’s will means life runs smoothly and you’ll never hurt, then you’ve not been paying much attention to life or the Bible.