The cecropia moth struggles mightily to emerge from its cocoon, but this effort is essential to its growth. Snipping open the cocoon to ease its struggle would leave the moth crawling helplessly with crimped and shriveled wings. A mother eagle lines her nest with thorns, jagged bones, and sharp stones, which are then covered with feathers, tufts of wool, and animal fur. To encourage her fledgling eaglets to try their wings for flight, she removes the fluffy topping and exposes the uncomfortable underpinnings; thus the eaglets are forced to leave the nest and develop flight skills.
The whole physical universe is full of examples that speak of the value of sometimes painful discipline. No horse is useful until it is harnessed. No steam or gas ever drives an engine until it is confined. Niagara Falls cannot produce light and power until its power is harnessed.
Likewise, no human life can become great until it is focused, dedicated, and disciplined. Such maturity can result from trials in life, properly accepted. Just as the struggles of moths and eaglets provide for their natural development, so also our hardships are designed by God for our spiritual development. "The testing of your faith through trials develops perseverance... so that you may be mature and complete," James assures us (Jas 1:34).
You have probably noticed, however, that not everyone matures through the adversities and hurts of life. Pain can cause some people to turn against God in bitterness. For these, suffering is not a stepping-stone but a stumbling block; it's a grindstone grinding them down rather than polishing them up. Those who accept God's pruning, produce; those who reject it yow sour grapes. There's nothing like real tribulation to separate the faith-hardy from the faith-weak. (Appropriately enough, the word tribulation comes from the Latin word tribulum, which means a rod used to beat the grain to separate the kernel from the chaff). Tribulations sift the mature from the immature. And so we must make a careful distinction here. It is not suffering in itself that brings about growth. The essential element is to be intimately linked with Christ in the closest union of love as hardships come upon us. Pruning causes fruitfulness only in those branches which are nourished by grace-sap flowing from the Vine. As Jesus said, "No branch can bear fruit by itself, it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me” (Jn 15:4).
How do we know whether or not we are remaining in Christ? "If anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to [remain in] Christ," Paul answers (Rom 8:9). He intimates that those who are not in Christ include those who are "hostile to God” (8:7). Hence, anyone resisting God's will and plan because it involves suffering is a branch that does not remain in Christ, the Vine, and thus is not fruitful. Such a one has no future. "My Father... cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit," says Jesus. And further, "If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned" (Jn 15:2, 6).
This excerpt is from the book The Art of Loving God by John H. Hampsch, C.M.F., originally published by Servant Publications, 1995. This and other of Fr. Hampsch's books and audio/visual materials can be purchased from Claretian Teaching Ministry, 20610 Manhattan Pl, #120, Torrance, CA 90501-1863. Phone 1-310-782-6408.