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Hardships, suffering and spiritual growth

(This is part 3 of an 8-part series reflecting on the book, Resilient Ministry: What pastors told us about surviving and thriving.)

Hardships are the most important element in leadership development (Burns, Chapman & Guthrie, p.47).

The Oxford dictionary defines hardship as something that is difficult to endure and one of the causes of suffering.

In the school setting difficulties or hardships may include difficult students, demanding parents, sensitive Board members, challenging staff relationships, restrictive budgets, unreasonable lawsuits, zoning restrictions on development opportunities … to mention a few. There are no shortage of challenges or hardships in the school environment, but how often do we see them through the lens of opportunities for growth? How often do they cause suffering?

The Bible teaches us that we can rejoice in suffering because suffering produces perseverance, perseverance produces character, and character produces hope (Romans 5:3).

It is not unusual to see challenges in any setting as an opportunity for learning and personal growth, but can we, as Christian educators, also see the suffering caused by some of the challenges that we deal with at school as growth opportunities that produce the hope Paul describes in Romans? Or alternatively, is the Bible referring to a different kind of suffering that produces these positive outcomes?

Bible commentator Douglas Moo (Moo, p.302-303) answers this question when he says: “What are these ‘afflictions’ (that Paul talks about in Romans 5)? Some would confine them to those sufferings caused directly by the believer’s profession of Christ. But Paul’s use of the word ‘affliction(s)’ makes any such restriction questionable. Indeed, in a certain sense, all sufferings are ‘on behalf of Christ’. This is so because all the evil that the Christian experiences reflects the conflict between ‘this age’, dominated by Satan, and ‘the age to come’, to which the Christian has been transferred by faith. All suffering betrays the presence of the enemy and involves attacks on our relationship to Christ. If met with doubt in God’s goodness and promise, or bitterness toward others, or despair and even resignation, these sufferings can bring spiritual defeat to the believer. But if met with the attitude of ‘confidence and rejoicing’ that Paul encourages, these sufferings will produce those valuable spiritual qualities that Paul lists in v.3b-4 (endurance, character and hope)."

Guthrie also sees hardships as useful for training in maturity and outlines four kinds of lessons that can be learnt through hardship:
1. Self-knowledge with a clarifying of values;
2. Sensitivity and compassion towards others;
3. Limits of personal control over circumstances or an awareness that we are not ultimately in control of what happens to us;
4. Flexibility - the ability to understand and respect varying perspectives.

He goes on to explain that these lessons can only be learned, when the people experiencing hardships have support systems that sustain them emotionally, give an objective perspective, and encourage them to reflect on the experience (Burns, Chapman & Guthrie, p.47). This is because hardships often evoke powerful and painful emotions, and an inability or unwillingness to face and reflect on this pain prevents learning (Burns, Chapman & Guthrie, p.47) and growth.

Isolation can even turn these hardships into damaging experiences rather than ones of growth (Burns, Chapman & Guthrie, p.47). Navigating hardships or suffering alone is a dangerous solo journey! Instead of tackling hardships in isolation, consider the opportunity of spiritual growth that recognises our need for one another. We need to find intimate friendships in which 'iron sharpens iron' (Proverbs 27:17) and where we are held accountable. It is vulnerability in safe relationships that makes most learning possible.

For those higher up the leadership ladder, finding safe relationships becomes more challenging. Guthrie’s description of the difference between ‘allies’ and ‘confidants’ is helpful here. He explains that in the school setting we may find allies who share our values. They may operate across the same organisational boundaries, but this shared space gives rise to possible conflicting loyalties - so there needs to be wisdom about how much information can be shared. Confidants, who can be found outside of the school space, allow a complete honesty because there are no conflicting loyalties.

Facing hardship as opportunities to learn and grow produces Spiritual growth. This is a learning process and this learning requires a disequilibrium that comes through failure, which may be emotionally painful. Pain is ’futile’ unless we learn through it! So, we need to extend grace, humour and freedom to ourselves if we fail, and if we are the confidant, we need to extend the same grace, humour and acceptance to our colleague (Burns, Chapman & Guthrie, p.47). Godliness is modelling repentance and faith. Godliness is not ‘I have it all together’ (Burns, Chapman & Guthrie, p.55).

Reflection time:
Q: How has God used hardships to develop you spiritually?
Q: How and with whom do you process hardships?

References:

Burns, B, Chapman, T.D., & Guthrie, D. C. (2013). Resilient Ministry: What Pastors told us about surviving and thriving. (Downers Grove, Il: InterVarsity Press).

Moo, D.J. (1996). The Epistle to the Romans. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing).

Resilient Ministry is available for purchase from The Wandering Bookseller

Disclaimer: The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of EdComm or the Anglican Diocese of Sydney. The intent  is to promote thinking and discussion.




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