It wasn't easy for me to pick out something to speak about. I wanted to pick something that fit in with the whole idea of graduating and moving on, but no matter how hard I tried, one theme kept popping up in my mind. It didn't seem to fit as well, so I kept trying to ignore it, but finally I came to the conclusion that I wasn't going to be able to write about anything else. If it doesn't fit with what you think a graduation speech should be, I can only apologize. But I'm convinced that for some reason, God wanted me to share this, the most important thing I have learned this year. I call it, for lack of a better description, the redemption of pain.
The story of how I learned it is inseparable from the lesson itself. And consequently, in order to tell that story, I first have to explain the attitude that has controlled me for almost all of my nineteen years. Unfortunately, this attitude could be pretty accurately summed up by one ugly word: "arrogance." I hardly ever gave it any conscious thought, but looking back I can see that my approach to life went something like this. "I'm smart and tough, and I can handle just about anything that comes my way. For the few things I can't, I've got God to back me up."
And so began my senior year. It did not go the way I had expected. Never before in my life had I experienced such a high concentration of pain, stress, disappointment, and fear. I don't really have time to go into all of it, but the most threatening part was this: I couldn't deal with the problems by myself, and my backup plan wasn't working either. God didn't just step in and fix all the parts I couldn't handle. In fact, God didn't seem to be doing much of anything. That silence, in the area of my life that I believed had been going pretty well, shook me more than anything else. I can't say that the whole year was dark, of course; there were moments of encouragement, and even one or two resolutions. But every time one problem went down, a bigger one popped up to take its place; and what had started as a few shadows was developing into a frightening darkness.
I couldn't see it then, but looking back now at how my life was going from bad to worse, I can see that something else was growing. It was like I was finding the pieces of a puzzle, but I was too blind to notice them, or see that they might fit together. The first piece I found, of all places, in writing a college essay. It was about my favorite book, Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. I've read it so many times, I've lost count, but when I read it again back in November, something stood out that I had never seen before. I saw how the hero was transformed by his suffering. As he carried a terrible burden into the center of the darkness, he endured weariness, pain, and despair. He faced the betrayal of one friend, and the loss of others. He endured captivity, starvation, wounds that never fully healed, and pain that never completely went away. And yet, as he struggled on through all of these, a clear light grew stronger and stronger within him, for the trials stripped away all that had obscured it. In the end, he crossed over to the Undying Lands, for his victory was bought with sorrow, and his triumph came at the price of innumerable defeats. I sensed there was a lesson to be learned from this, and I suppose that in an intellectual sense, I understood part of it. But I never made the conscious leap from 'this is true about life' to 'this is true about my life.' And so a precious gift was thrown aside into the corner and forgotten, and I went about my merry way.
The second piece came from Windows of the Soul, by Ken Gire. After describing a time of disappointment and defeat in his life, Gire quoted the German poet Rilke's The Man Watching, "This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively, by constantly greater beings." referring to the story of Jacob, Gire went on to ask:
Had I been Jacob, longing for God's blessing, but in my own time, on my own terms, trying to pry it from His hand?
Is this how I was to grow. . . . by being defeated, decisively, by constantly greater beings? . . . by being thrown to the ground and held there, face mashed against the dirt, breath knocked out of me, gasping for air, ligaments straining at the joints, burning, popping, tearing loose.
According to the biblical story, Jacob, after wrestling till dawn, finally did walk away with God's blessing.
But he walked with a limp.
And he walked that way for the rest of his life.
To my shame, the first time I read this, I didn't give it much more than a cursory glance. I blew right by it and moved on to the next chapter.
These weren't the only signs I missed. God, in His patience, kept reaching down to me; and in my ignorance and blindness, I kept ignoring Him. But these lessons, buried deep in my memory, stayed with me, waiting to be drawn out when I was ready to receive them.
And then, one day everything that was wrong with my life all piled up; and I finally came to the unpleasant realization that my attempts to handle it on my own were an utter failure. I took a deep look at how I had been living, and whose strength had been the foundation of my life, and for the first time I understood. I had believed that God was the foundation; but, in reality, I was depending on myself, looking to Him only after I had failed. It was one of the pivotal moments of my life, and that night I wrote this.
In my pride, I've never really acknowledged my weakness; and in doing so, I have locked God's strength out of my life. How could He be my strength when I believed I was as strong as I needed? Stripping away the illusion of my own self-sufficiency was a painful thing.
The first lesson I learned this year was this: that I was in no way capable of triumphing, or even enduring, life's trials. I had held so tightly to the idea of my strength, that I was not able to let go of it until I was broken, lying on the floor, sobbing. And it hurt. But the Creator of the Universe was not content to be my backup plan; and neither was He satisfied to be the second line of defense. God's strength is either all or nothing.
So God met me in the middle of my deepest pain and taught me a lesson about humility. But He had more to teach that just that. I had found meaning for the failures of the past few months. But I knew that my learning was not yet complete. There was still something deeper to know. And so, reluctantly, because I didn't really want another lesson like the last one, I kept searching. And that's when I came back to a passage from one of the Apostle Paul's letters.
I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But He said to me, 'My grace is enough for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness.' Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
While I was still looking at Paul's approach to defeat, Tolkien's theme from Lord of the Rings came suddenly to mind. And as I saw the incredible parallel between these two, another image popped into my mind: a Blacksmith, working at his forge to craft a useful tool from a plain bar of iron. The metal faces both the furnace, to melt it down until it was soft enough to work with; and the hammer, to violently and painfully shape it, because that is the only way. And the three ideas fit together like the pieces of a puzzle.
God's power is strongest in us when we are at our weakest.
Those who triumph over the worst trials receive the greatest glory.
The furnace and the hammer are the only way to shape a stubborn bar of metal.
And as these pieces clicked into place, a lot of things began to make a lot more sense.
This was my second lesson: that God redeems our pain, turning great evil into even greater good. That is why Paul could declare, I rejoice in what was suffered. That is the power by which James said, Consider it pure joy, my brothers, when you face trials of many kinds. That is the truth that prompted Peter to write, Rejoice when you participate in the sufferings of Christ. These men knew that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him. They knew that somehow He was transforming failure into victory, sorrow into joy, and humiliation into glory. And, like in Lord of the Rings, the greater the trials, the greater would the victory be. For they had seen what had happened to Christ. He had died an unjust, agonizing death, abandoned or betrayed by His closest friends, and forsaken by His Father. But the greatest sorrow the world had ever known was only three days later changed to the greatest victory. It was through His death that salvation and hope were given to countless millions. And they knew that God would do the same for them.
The problem is, we can't see what is happening. In the middle of the pain, when I was being melted away in the furnace and then hammered out on the anvil, I couldn't see how any good could possibly come from it. That's where faith comes in. I once read a definition of faith as 'believing in advance what can only make sense in reverse.' In a book called The Paradise War, I found a passage that helped me understand by giving me a visual picture of this blind faith.
[He said, 'This] is the maze of life. It is trodden in darkness with just enough light to see the next step or two ahead, but not more. At each turn the soul must decide whether to journey on, or whether to go back the way it came.'
"What if the soul does not journey on? What if it chooses to go back?" [I asked.]
"Stagnation and death."
"And if the soul travels on?"
"It draws nearer its destination," he answered. "The ultimate destination of all souls is the Heart of the Heart."
. . . . As we moved along the curving walls to the sounds of rushing water all around, I felt like a lost soul stumbling along, steering by my fitful light, hoping to reach I knew not what. . . . It may have been my imagination, but it did seem as if every bend became both a literal and a symbolic turning point, a point of doubt requiring a decision. The way ahead was dark and uncertain, the way behind could no longer be seen. To go ahead meant to trust the Maker of the Maze that the reward sought at the Heart of the Heart would bless and not curse."
This is the double lesson I learned through my pain. First, I could not depend on God and trust in myself at the same time; and when it comes down to the choice, God is a lot stronger. Second, even as God strengthens us to endure, He allows us to face constantly greater defeats, because pain is the tool by which He perfects us.
Now we're moving out of the relative shelter of high school into what cynics like to call 'the real world.' And as we go out into this world of bitter, hopeless pain, we're going to get hurt. And when that happens, I pray that there is one thing we can remember. The world we are going into isn't the real world. It is only the testing ground, to make us strong, and the forge, to shape us. The real world is the eternal one, where the perfecting work is complete, and where we will be able to serve the Master in the manner for which He crafted us. And I firmly believe that if we can take to heart these two truths, trusting fully in God's strength and believing that He will redeem our suffering; we will one day pass through this darkness and into a great light.
Village Christian High School
Saturday, June 14, 1997
Author, Andrew Taylor
submitted by Rich Brahm
Rich in Christ (Ephesians 1:7-8)
*The opinions expressed in this testimonial are those of the author, who is solely responsible for content.* Editor, THE EDIFIER