When you glance back over the course of your Christian life, it becomes easy to identify the mountains and valleys.
From my thirties, it’s easy to look back and see that my years in graduate school were not the best, spiritually-speaking. Oh, nothing drastic happened: I kept up with my Bible study and my prayer life, and I was even over-busy with church stuff, but a lot of it felt dutiful and static. I was, to some degree, going through the motions—stuck in a dull rut where I’d stopped growing.
But God changed that. I went through a period of profound conviction, and then a period of intense renewal that, perhaps unsurprisingly, coincided with the start of this blog. I felt myself growing. God woke a spiritual hunger in me that was intense, and it became clear to me that my Christian life had received a much-needed kick in the pants.
That’s why, when God spoke to me in a clear way in January that this was going to be a defining year in my Christian life, I assumed He meant that the year would be awesome. I mean, it only made sense. Renewal follows repentance, and after renewal is…well, the reward, right?
I didn’t think of it in terms that were quite so bald, of course, but I will admit that I expected good things to follow this season of intensity with the Lord. After all, he who is responsible with little gets to be responsible with much, right? In gamer-speak, I felt like I’d leveled up: I assumed delightful challenges and long hoped-for dreams would follow this period of flourishing.
I’m bearing fruit, God! I’m ready for life in the vineyard!
As it turns out, the year of paradise didn’t come, but the year of inconveniences, trials, and minor disasters walked in right on schedule. Nothing “major” has happened: no deaths, illnesses, or loss, and I am grateful to God for that. But these six months have been full of job conflict, unsettling life changes, and fears fulfilled. Although initially I kept waiting for everything to settle down into something more pleasant, I’ve come to accept that it’s simply going to be that kind of year.
And for a time, I viewed that as a bug in, rather than a feature of, God’s plan for me.
I have been waiting these past six months for all of those things to end so the good stuff can finally start. The season of promise and opportunity that I expected after renewal was, I assumed, merely postponed until these trials were over. And then last night, while I was talking to God, it hit me:
This is the good stuff!
The notion is absurd on the face. But the more I consider it, the more I realize it’s true. This is exactly what my growth has earned: the ability to face a possible whole year of trials, inconveniences, and things not turning out exactly as I planned. This is the “more responsibility” I expected—just not, perhaps, in the package I planned on.
I am a fairly mature Christian. But it surprised me to realize that I still apparently buy into a merit-based theory of Christian growth where I am rewarded with things I desire in proportion to my efforts and God’s approval. But God’s rules make a laughingstock out of human systems, and I had forgotten that His values aren’t mine, His ideas of growth aren’t mine, and His idea of what constitutes a reward isn’t mine.
When I think back to my graduate-school years, I realize that I wasn’t equipped then to deal with what I’m handling now. I would have crumbled, or grown bitter, or impatiently sought out my own solutions instead of God’s. Perhaps my Christian walk would have suffered. Who can say?
It’s not that I’m enjoying this year of struggle. I really am not and, if I am honest, would like the not-so-great stuff to be over sooner than later. But I am realizing daily that, with God’s help, I am capable of handling more than I thought I could. That God’s Spirit has made me pretty resilient, and given me a surprising amount of peace about the things that I can’t control. I am testing new spiritual muscles I’ve never used before, and all of them have developed because of the time I spent growing prior.
So if you’re in a time of trial, don’t automatically look to it as a flaw in the plan: as a punishment, problem, or postponement. Sometimes, it might be. But maybe the trial itself is the gift: God’s acknowledgement of what He knows you can handle and what He knows you need, more than all the other things you think you want.
Maybe this is the good stuff.