But, we ask, precisely how do the trials and adversities of life bring about the growth that makes us spiritually mature and complete? To answer this question we have only to look at the fruit from the fruitful branch, that is, the branch vibrant with Jesus' Spirit. "The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control" (Gal 5:22-23). Only in the womb of adversity can fruits of the Spirit be developed.
It is easy to say we have love for others, for example. But what happens when that love is tested? What happens when someone offends us by theft, injury, rape, or embezzlement? In the face of such adversity does love for the thrive undiminished in Our soul? If so, the trial produces enormous growth. Try the test of joy. What happens when we meet with unexpected tragedy or a big disappointment? If our soul-based joy perdures, then this very climate of adversity is yielding marvelous fruit. What about inner peace? Is it undisturbed by irksome and worrisome trials? Then such trials are working as a strengthening agent.
If we were never tempted to impatience, could we ever develop the virtue of patience? Does our kindness flourish in the face of harshness directed against us? Does our goodness grow in the face of evil that surrounds us as we follow Paul's injunction, "Do not overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good" (Rom 12:21 Do we remain faithful when surrounded by faithless people at work or elsewhere? Are we self-controlled in dealing with the allurements of gluttony, addictions, or lust? If so, then all these hardships redound to our spiritual growth.
Even when we are not fully cooperative with God's plan to use adversity in our lives—that is, if we fall low on the six-level scale of faith—still his plan is not altogether frustrated. We may fail God, but he does not fail us. Even the very painful awareness of our faith-weakness can be used by God to help us grow in humility. God is faithful, and he will build on even a miniscule bit of good will: "He who began a work in you will carry it on to completion" (Phil 1:6).
Our spiritual growth is in the hands of a loving God who knows us intimately and has designed tailor-made plan for our good. Another example from nature comes to mind here. A hen has four different sounds to call her brood: one at dusk to warn of approaching nightfall; one to call them to feed; one to alert them to impending danger; and one simply to call them to herself. All of these calls are designed for the chick's ultimate benefit. So too, all of the multiform afflictions sent or allowed by God are our ultimate benefit ultimately, each is engineered to fit a given situation, time, personality, or spiritual need. Our custom-designed sufferings reflect God's consummate respect for our unique individuality.
A doctor does not prescribe the medicine for every patient; each patient has health needs. God chooses uniquely afflictions for each of us. My cross is not the same as your cross; yours fits your needs most perfectly, mine fits my needs. But no one is cross-free. "We all must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God" (Acts 14:22).
Again, every single hardship—from the annoyance of a traffic jam to a death in the family—is designed to help us grow in some way. If it were not beneficial medicine, God would not prescribe it, "for he does not willingly bring affliction or grief to the children of men" (Lam 3:33). God allows only those sufferings he deems necessary. Like a parent subjecting a child to painful surgery, he does not hesitate to subject us to hurts designed for our spiritual health or growth.
So let us not try to be affliction-resistant souls! (Such people remind me of the patient who followed only that part of the directions on his medicine bottle that said, "Keep bottle tightly closed.") On the contrary, let us determine to benefit as fully as possible from God's medicine, distasteful though we may find it. -These directions may be helpful:
1. Submit to any part of the suffering that is unavoidable—not reluctantly, as a defeated general might submit to his conqueror, but voluntarily, as a patient eager for health submits to the prospect of surgery. Submit joyfully, like a woman awaiting childbirth even though she dreads the birth pains. If God's plan in your pain is evident, respond with humble obedience; if not evident, respond with humble faith.
2. Bring the word of God to bear on the situation. The Scriptures teach us how to respond to adversities; conversely, adversities can help us to respond to the insights of Scripture. In this way, "head knowledge" about the art of suffering can become "heart knowledge." God's personal loving concern for you may becorne meaningful as you ponder passages such as Isaiah 43:1-5: "I have summoned you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters I will be with you.... When you walk through the fire you will not be burned.... You are precious and honored.... I love you.... Do not be afraid, for I am with you."
3. Trust God blindly through hardships. Be like Job, who said, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust him" (Jb13:15). In trust too, there are degrees. Dwight L Moody, the celebrated preacher, once said, "You can travel to heaven by either first or second class. Second class is for those who say, 'When I am afraid I will trust.' First class is for those who say, 'I will trust and not be afraid" (see Isaiah 12:2).
4. Remember the lessons learned from past suffering. Don't simply endure trials; call them to mind—not only as past sorrows but as disciplines. Moses told the Israelites, "Remember how the Lord led you in the desert these forty years to humble you and test you. causing you to hunger... to teach you that man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.. As a man disciplines his son, the Lord disciplines you" (Dt 8:2-5). This kind of memory-freshening is vital when our cross gets heavy.
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.