These days, I am following a training plan to prepare for a half marathon that I would like to run in September. The training plan is progressive. You start with running 4.8 km, then after a few weeks, you move up to 6.4 km. When running 6.4 km is no longer a big challenge, then the training plan asks you to run 8 km. A few weeks later, when 8 km becomes relatively easy, then you are asked to run 10 km, and so on.
There are no shortcuts. This is a 20-week plan and slowly builds capacity up to 21.1 km as you faithfully follow the plan. Other training plans for half marathons may be shorter, but they all follow the same principle. You run longer and longer distances as your capacity increases over time.
I have also been reading the book of James these days and reflecting on the relationship between crucible experiences (trials) and our personal growth. James 1:3-4 reminds us that “the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”
James clearly says testing produces perseverance. But then just a few verses later, he seems to contradict himself by saying that perseverance is required to stand firm in a time of testing.
“Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.” (James 1:12)
So, which comes first – the perseverance or the trials? Do we need trials to develop perseverance or do we need perseverance to withstand trials?
The answer is “yes!”. I believe that the biblical pattern is that trials develop our capacity to withstand harder trials in the future. What was overwhelming for me as a young man (preparing a message, leading a ministry) is no longer as intimidating. But God has other challenges before me, stretching me and building my capacity. Just as in physical training, we experience the training effect in our spiritual lives as we follow God and his personal training program of problems, challenges, opportunities and suffering, carefully and uniquely designed for us. The program, if we follow it, will bring us to an ever-higher level of maturity and fruitfulness.
Don’t think that the training effect happens automatically. James says, “Let perseverance finish its work.” This is a third-person imperative in Greek, and is stronger than just saying “allow perseverance to do its work”. James has more imperatives (commands) per 1000 words than any other book in the New Testament, and this is no exception. We are commanded to cooperate with and not stand in the way of the training that God has designed for us in the crucible experience.
Albert Barnes in his “Notes on the New Testament” comments on this verse:
Let it be fairly developed; let it produce its appropriate effects without being hindered. Let it not be obstructed in its fair influence on the soul by murmurings, complaining, or rebellion. Patience under trials is fitted to produce important effects on the soul, and we are not to hinder them in any manner by a perverse spirit, or by opposition to the will of God. (p.17.)
There are no shortcuts to maturity. We need to allow the training effect to complete its work in us so that we can be ready for the big tests (opportunities or challenges) that are coming. We should not expect life to become easier as we grow older, but rather we should expect that our capacity to handle challenges should become greater. Are you seeing your capacity growing? Are you persevering and allowing the crucible experience to finish its work in you? Or are you complaining and giving up before you realize the benefits of the training?