Sometimes in history a population suffers a major crisis that everyone must deal with. Obviously, our current pandemic and lockdown constitute such a predicament. But, when we consider how we should deal with it, or view it, the lessons are not just for global or national emergencies. Even in “normal times,” each of us often suffers personal trials that are serious—even if they do not make the news cycle. A spouse is unfaithful; a child gets in trouble; cancer or freak accidents strike; a career reaches an unexpected dead end; the list goes on.
The question is: What do we do about it? How do we face it?
Any time one claims that bad things happen for good ends, one is in danger of downplaying evil and disaster. Really bad things happen. That is undeniable.
But it is also undeniable that human beings were meant to deal with life’s hardships. We hope that, in many cases, to “deal with” means to overcome them and to reach a better situation in which the hardship has ended. Sometimes, it merely means adapting to the situation and achieving a better situation with the hardship. We know, for example, that it is good for children to outlive their parents, and that means there must be a path forward for someone when a parent dies.
We were made not to just conquer what frustrates us, because sometimes we cannot. We were also designed to endure frustration. Some obstacles that seem insurmountable turn out not to be so. But the only reason one will reach the point of realizing that one can overcome is because one refused to give up in despair when one truly believed that victory was out of reach. The capacity to endure trials is undeniably a strength that makes a person better at life.
Human beings are limited, constrained. So, learning how to survive and to thrive as much as possible, despite such limitations, is a necessary component of maturing as a human being.
A secular appreciation of this truth is found in an often-quoted statement by the Stoic philosopher, Lucius Annaeus Seneca: "A gem cannot be polished without friction, nor a man perfected without trials." I really like that quotation (though my appreciation was reduced a good deal when I read Seneca’s promotion of suicide).
Solomon said something similar: "The crucible is for silver, and the furnace is for gold, and the LORD tests hearts" (Proverbs 17:3 ESV).
Tests, in this context, can be both analytical and transformative. A crucible can demonstrate the purity of a metal and be used to purify it. Consider a later message from a prophet in the Bible, "He [God] will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the LORD" (Malachi 3:3 ESV). Solomon’s statement is similar to Seneca’s (and, since Seneca came later, in a first-century Mediterranean culture with a lot of Jewish cultural influence, perhaps Solomon’s wisdom had an impact on him). Solomon is saying that God brings events that are hard on people just like one purifies metal with heat.
After Jesus, James wrote to Christians a similar message: "Consider it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its full effect, that you may be mature and whole, in nothing lacking" (James 1:2–4). He then goes on to discus how one gains wisdom. The apostle Peter wrote something similar: "Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ's sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed" (1 Peter 4:12–13 ESV).
Whatever crises we face, public or private, global or personal, God wants us to face them as human beings He designed to deal with adversity as well as give thanks for blessing. How we respond both reveals and forms who we are.