Oprah Winfrey is credited with saying, “Where there is no struggle, there is no strength.” I don’t know the context of Winfrey’s words, but there is great truth in them. A muscle remains flabby unless it is pushed and pulled and stressed and strained. For a long time athletes have motivated themselves with the mantra, “No pain, no gain.” We know that steel often has to be tempered by fire in industrial applications. Gold and silver and other “precious metals” are often purified and made better through the application of heat. The brain of a student at the desk or in front of a computer screen does not grow without the discipline of applied mental pressure and exertion. Still, we are caught by surprise at times when Job–like stretches of adversity show up in our lives – seasons with lots of pain but no noticeable gain, more loss that profit, more hard times than good times, more hurt than happiness, and more sickness than health. Romans 5:3-4 is one of many places in the Bible that seeks to arm us with inspired insight into the high-stress, troubling times in our lives. In verses 1 and 2 the apostle Paul reminds Christians that faith in Jesus Christ and His work at the cross justifies us, gives us peace with God, and assures abundant and continual access into God’s grace, thus providing a secure standing and status and ample reasons to “rejoicein hope of the glory of God.” More positive, powerful, and hope-filled words of grace can’t be found in the book of ROMANS! Then, in almost the same breath, the apostle pens these thought-provoking words: “And not only that, but we also glory (New International Version ‘rejoice’) in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope.” This Bible passage makes us scratch our heads and mutter, “Say what?! Boast about burdens? Be happy when we hurt?”
How can trouble and pain in our lives possibly be a source of rejoicing? In his book The Prodigal Prophet: Jonah and the Mystery of God’s Mercy, author Timothy Keller told a story that provides insight. Keller re-told an old fairy tale about a wicked witch who lived deep in a forest. When travelers came through she offered them a meal and a bed. The bed was the most comfortable bed anyone had ever slept in. But it was a bed of black magic. If you were asleep in it when the sun arose you turned to stone, became a figure in the witch’s statuary, and remained trapped until the end of time. The witch forced a young maid to serve her. Though she had no power to resist the witch, the girl had become filled with pity for the witch’s victims. One day a young man came looking for bed and board and was taken in. The girl could not bear to see him turned to stone. She threw sticks, stones, and thistles into his bed, making it horribly uncomfortable. All night the painful objects dug into his flesh. He slept only fitfully and rose before dawn, feeling weary and worn. As he walked out the front door, the servant girl met him, and he berated her cruelly. “How could you give a traveler such a terrible bed full of sticks and stones?” he cried and went on his way. “Ah,” she said under her breath, “the misery you know now is nothing like the infinitely greater misery a comfortable sleep would have brought upon you! Those were my sticks and stones of love.” Could it possibly be true, friends, that some stress and strain is good for our faith? The message may not make us comfortable, but God’s word is clear – struggles can serve to strengthen our faith. May God bless you to be strengthened in your struggles.