Have you ever heard, read or noticed that a baby bird must peck its way out of its egg to emerge into the outside world where its mother awaits it? It seems to struggle hard to do this. It’s not very coordinated or strong, yet it does succeed if it is at all healthy. The mother bird does not assist, but waits and watches. The moment the baby bird is free from the shell, its mother starts to feed it and care for it. Why doesn’t the mother help the baby by pecking open the shell with her big strong beak? I have read that this is because in the pecking to get free, the baby bird builds strength that is essential for its life in the open world.
In the world of humans, we too must struggle. Everyone struggles in one way or another… at one time or another. Some people see this as evidence that there is no God or that, if there is a God, He doesn’t care about us. He must be a cruel and a harsh God to just stand by and watch us struggle, they would reason.
But what if our struggles produced in us something of great value? What if the only way we could mature in our characters is through the way of suffering? I’m reminded here of how a pearl is formed: an oyster detects an irritant of sand or gravel in its flesh and then biological forces within the oyster spin a protective layer around the irritant, resulting in a pearl which is of great value to humans. No irritant, no pearl.
I’ve recently come across some stories of suffering that have really caught my attention. It is not just the suffering, but how the person reacts to the suffering, that seems to hold a great lesson for us.
One of these people is a man named Willie Stewart. As a boy growing up in Northern Virginia he was a gifted athlete, a champion wrestler and rugby player. On his construction site one day during his summer job, a friend threw him a rope from above which he was to wrap around his body for safety. In the toss, the rope happened to wrap around Willie’s arm and simultaneously got caught in the spinning blades of an industrial air conditioner on the roof. Yanking Willie upward with huge force, the rope ripped the skin and muscle off of his forearm, breaking bones as well. His arm had to be amputated just above the elbow and, as you can imagine, his life and future plans changed forever. How could a one-armed man be an athlete of any sort? He fell into deep depression and slipped into a life of drugs, alcohol, anger and huge self-pity. Who could blame him?
A few years later, a friend invited him, or rather, challenged him to run a 5-kilometer race with her. For a reason he couldn’t understand at the time, he accepted the challenge and, while not doing very well in the race, something of his old competitive spirit awakened in him. He kept up running. Sometime after that he watched an Ironman triathlon on TV and something stirred in him again. How would he ever swim with one arm? Ride a bike? The challenge and the fight arose in him and, to make a long story short, he developed a way of swimming and biking with one arm. He trained and trained. He entered the Ironman and finished in the top 1/3 of all participants, and was the first of the disabled division. After the race, someone asked him to just imagine what he could have done if he had had both arms. Willie replied, “I wouldn’t have done any of it.”
Something about the struggle to overcome adversity gave Willie the energy and the drive to do much more than he would have ever tried to do, had he had an easy go of it.
One more man to look at, and whose story has to do with his faith, is Richard Wurmbrand. Born as a Jew in anti-Semitic Romania, he was subjected to persecution from an early age. He became a genuine believer and follower of Jesus Christ as a young man. Romania at that time after World War II became communistic, and being a Jew or especially a Christian was a threat to the state and punishable. He was imprisoned for 14 years for his beliefs and spent 3 whole years in solitary confinement as well. This man’s struggle was extraordinary in every way. His autobiography, however, describes a man full of hope whose constant prayer was not for freedom from his struggles, but for the faith to live through it with integrity and even love. He shared his faith with his prison guards and some came to the Lord because of it. It can be said with certainty that Wurmbrand had a profound impact on the prison system he was in. After he was released, he began a ministry still active today, which focuses on prayer for the persecuted Christians around the world. He has encouraged people to pray, as he did for himself, for faith.
There are so many extraordinary and inspiring lives for us to read about, how people have overcome adversity to benefit themselves and others through their actions and the sharing of their stories. What wisdom can we gleam from them? I think the words of Paul, James and Peter are best:
Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.
In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith – of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire – may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.
1 Peter 1:6-7
Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.