I remember watching a cicada struggle its way out of a shell when I was in pre-school. It seemed to take hours to make just a little bit of progress. The story is told of a man who tried to help a cicada in its struggle by opening the shell for it. When the cicada eventually made its way out, the wings failed to unfold properly. The struggle was an essential part of the process, enabling the muscle system to develop and pushing body fluids out into the wings so they would open and expand. By trying to ease the struggle, the man had actually doomed the cicada to a crippled existence.
The adversities we encounter in life are much like the cicada shell. God uses them to develop our spiritual “muscle system”. In our efforts to avoid adversity we often pray for God to “open the shell” we find ourselves in and release us. However, in His sovereignty, wisdom and love, He chooses not to remove us from struggle until we have grown from it and developed in the way He intended.
In James 1:2-4, we read:
2 Consider it a great joy, my brothers, whenever you experience various trials, 3 knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. 4 But endurance must do its complete work, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing.
Paul also speaks of rejoicing in our sufferings.
Romans 5:3-4 3 And not only that, but we also rejoice in our afflictions, because we know that affliction produces endurance, 4 endurance produces proven character, and proven character produces hope. 5 This hope will not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.
It’s kind of hard to connect with this when we are in the midst of a trial. Endurance – yes, rejoicing – hmmm, perhaps not so much. That doesn’t align with our experience. We don’t gain joy from suffering. However, Paul and James are not calling on us to simply rejoice in the trial, but to rejoice because of the results. The adversity isn’t the focus, but the expected growth in character as we endure, trusting in God’s good purposes.
God doesn’t call on us to rejoice that we have lost our job, or been struck down with cancer, or lost a child, or been afflicted with a mental health problem, or suffered under persecution. But He does tell us to rejoice because we trust that He is in control working out His purpose with wisdom and love for our ultimate good.
The Christian life is a life of growth. While we want to grow, we can also resist the process as we focus on the events which cause us to struggle rather than looking in faith to the outcome that God is working in our lives. In Hebrews 12:1-2 we read:
12 Therefore, since we also have such a large cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us lay aside every weight and the sin that so easily ensnares us. Let us run with endurance the race that lies before us, 2 keeping our eyes on Jesus, the source and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that lay before Him endured a cross and despised the shame and has sat down at the right hand of God’s throne.
Jesus’ death on the cross with its intense physical agony and incredible spiritual suffering as he carried the full weight of His Father’s wrath against sin was the greatest adversity to ever come upon a human being. Yet Jesus was able to look beyond His suffering to the joy that lay before Him. We are encouraged to follow His example, to look beyond our adversity to what God is doing in our lives and rejoice in the certainty that He is at work enabling us to grow.
When we trust God and submit to His will in suffering we find ourselves growing in a number of ways.
We grow in holiness.
7 Endure suffering as discipline: God is dealing with you as sons. For what son is there that a father does not discipline? 8 But if you are without discipline—which all receive—then you are illegitimate children and not sons. 9 Furthermore, we had natural fathers discipline us, and we respected them. Shouldn’t we submit even more to the Father of spirits and live? 10 For they disciplined us for a short time based on what seemed good to them, but He does it for our benefit, so that we can share His holiness. 11 No discipline seems enjoyable at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it yields the fruit of peace and righteousness to those who have been trained by it.
We grow in dependence on God.
2 Corinthians 1:8-9
8 For we don’t want you to be unaware, brothers, of our affliction that took place in Asia: we were completely overwhelmed—beyond our strength—so that we even despaired of life. 9 Indeed, we personally had a death sentence within ourselves, so that we would not trust in ourselves but in God who raises the dead.
We grow in perseverance.
32 Remember the earlier days when, after you had been enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings. 33 Sometimes you were publicly exposed to taunts and afflictions, and at other times you were companions of those who were treated that way. 34 For you sympathized with the prisoners and accepted with joy the confiscation of your possessions, knowing that you yourselves have a better and enduring possession. 35 So don’t throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. 36 For you need endurance, so that after you have done God’s will, you may receive what was promised.
We grow in service of others.
2 Corinthians 1:4
3 Praise the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort. 4 He comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any kind of affliction, through the comfort we ourselves receive from God.
We grow in our knowledge of God.
7 But everything that was a gain to me, I have considered to be a loss because of Christ. 8 More than that, I also consider everything to be a loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. Because of Him I have suffered the loss of all things and consider them filth, so that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own from the law, but one that is through faith in Christ—the righteousness from God based on faith. 10 My goal is to know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, 11 assuming that I will somehow reach the resurrection from among the dead.
We grow in our desire for the world to come.
1 Peter 1:3-7
3 Praise the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. According to His great mercy, He has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead 4 and into an inheritance that is imperishable, uncorrupted, and unfading, kept in heaven for you. 5 You are being protected by God’s power through faith for a salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. 6 You rejoice in this, though now for a short time you have had to struggle in various trials 7 so that the genuineness of your faith—more valuable than gold, which perishes though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory, and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.
1 Peter 4:12-13
12 Dear friends, don’t be surprised when the fiery ordeal comes among you to test you as if something unusual were happening to you.13 Instead, rejoice as you share in the sufferings of the Messiah, so that you may also rejoice with great joy at the revelation of His glory.
There are many more verses that could be used to support each of these points. There are also other areas of growth that could be referred to. However, the important thing for us is to look to how God is working in us through adversity. At times we will see clearly the benefits of our situation and at other times we will be left wondering what God is doing. We can be sure of this though, all adversity has purpose for the believer. God is at work, bringing about that which will be profitable for our good and His glory. So, rather than pray for Him to remove the struggle, pray for Him to enable you to endure, to look ahead to the outcome He is bringing and to rejoice in the knowledge that He is in control, He knows what He is doing and He loves you.