Leading Our Students In Endurance and Hope
The past six months have felt like a search for the answer to one, simple question: What should I be doing? In an uncertain time, all anyone wants is a little bit of clarity and direction. However, any attempt I have made to answer this question for others has felt insufficient and exhausting. I mean, how can I possibly answer this question for others when I cannot even answer it for myself?
Recently, as I prepared for a virtual gathering of lay leaders, I plead with God for wisdom to help me answer this question. I knew all my leaders wanted was to know what they should be doing, and I desperately wanted to give them an answer. In God’s kindness, He did not give me an answer to this question; instead, He used His Word to show me that I was asking the wrong question. Through His words of grace in Romans 5, He invited me to stop asking: “what should we be doing,” and to begin considering “who are we becoming?”
Romans 5:1-5 is a well-traversed passage in times of suffering as it gives a vision for hope in the midst of trials. Yet, what is important to note is that Paul does not simply draw a line directly from suffering to hope. His words are meant to give a vision for the process of growth – a process that begins with suffering but ends with unwavering hope. In short, hope is not the absence of our suffering, but the fruit of it. Our suffering is meant to produce something deeper within us.
Suffering That Produces Endurance
“Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance.” – Romans 5:3
My initial reaction to this pandemic was a white-knuckle response. I was holding on for dear life. If I had to guess, I have not been alone in this response. Most of us have spent months simply trying to hold on – to our programs, our plans, and our people. We placed our hope in a “return to normal,” and we put all our strength toward holding on long enough to get there.
But this is not what Paul meant by endurance. The type of endurance produced by suffering is more like the conditioning of a runner. No one wakes up in the morning, says “I’ll run a marathon today” and then does it well. Instead, a runner must first train his or her body to endure each mile. Runners start small and over months, even years, they push themselves through longer periods of pain, teaching their bodies to persevere.
In our suffering, we are given the opportunity to actively trust God, over and over again for longer periods of time and through ranging measures of trail. As we do, we learn to endure.
Endurance That Produces Character
“and endurance produces character…” – Romans 5:4a
In the same way our suffering is producing endurance, our endurance is producing something in us as well – character. Yet, again, it is important to define this word. Character here is not merely referencing our personality. The original Greek word can also be used to mean proof, experience, or something that has been tried. The word here is really closer to the idea “proven character” – that which has been proven over time.
Paul is saying that our endurance in suffering will actually serve as proof of where we have placed our trust. Our endurance will be a witness to trusting in God rather than in ourselves as we respond to our suffering. And that proven character will finally, and fully, produce in us hope.
Character That Produces Hope
“… and character produces hope,” – Romans 5:4b
Finally, we have come to hope. Perhaps the best way to explain this hope is through Paul’s own words later in his letter.
“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience” (Rom. 8:18-24).
Do not miss that last sentence. The word patience here is the same word in Greek that was used in Romans 5:3 for endurance. So not only is our endurance used to produce hope in us, but it is this hope – the kind described here – that in turns spurs us on to endure.
Leading In Hope
If we desire to offer our people hope in this season, then we have to let suffering do its intended work in them. We have to stop asking, “what should I be doing for my students” and start asking, “what is the Lord doing in my students?”
In Jesus, we have been sealed by the Holy Spirit into the love of God poured out to us through Christ (Rom. 5:5). Jesus is our sustaining hope, and the only hope we have to offer teenagers in this present time of suffering. This means that none of our actions or plans can or will produce hope in our students.
This change of disposition won’t be easy either. None of us want to see our students suffer. Our first instinct is often to shelter them from it. We want to protect them from experiencing pain of any of life’s storms. Yet, what if the storm is the very thing they need to know Christ more?
In the late 1980s scientists in Arizona created Biosphere 2, a large, enclosed facility containing several different ecosystems in a controlled environment. Interestingly, the trees in the biosphere actually grew extremely rapidly. That was until one day when they began to break in half and fall over. Nothing in the environment had changed, but the trees were all too weak to grow past a certain height.
What the scientists realized was that the trees were missing one key element to their maturation – wind. Wind actually strengthens the trees as they grow. Storms and strong winds actually cause stress on the bark that in turns strengthens the tree – allowing it to be able to endure even more while still growing taller.
What if the thing we desire to protect our students from is the very thing they need to mature in the Lord? What if the best thing we can do for our students is actually not to protect them from the storms and suffering brought on by the pandemic, but instead, to simply stand with them?
Maybe the very thing we “should be doing” is to allow this current suffering to be what the Lord has promised it to be, a threshold of transformation for our students, and ourselves, to see Jesus more clearly.