Count it pure joy, brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, for the testing of your faith develops perseverance. And perseverance must complete its work, so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.
This is a hallmark of our approach to building character – the deliberate and purposeful embracing of adversity and difficulty in order to forge a life that is a reflection of the character of Jesus Christ. We have a number of choices to make in this:
- Do we stop and welcome difficulty into our lives as a potential friend that can be used by God to transform us – or do we grumble? It is not for nothing that Paul, in Philippians, says “do everything without complaining or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in the midst of a depraved and crooked generation, in which you shine like stars…” (Phil 2.14-15)
- Do we consciously make the link between difficulty and perseverance? Or do we relegate difficulty to something that has to be endured, and imagine that our reaction to it is somehow “neutral”?
- Do we teach our children to embrace and deal with difficulty, or do we spend our time trying to protect them from it? I watched a teacher today returning to her class only to be met with a barrage of girls moaning about little things that had happened over lunchtime. As she dealt with their concerns carefully, I wondered how these children had managed to get to the age they had without ever learning the skills of dealing with difficulty themselves, or learning that difficulty is an opportunity. What have their parents taught them in this regard? Anything? Enough? Or maybe they themselves have not accepted the truth of James’s words.
- Is there any other way to maturity, completeness, wholeness other than by persevering through hardship? The writer of the Hebrews urges us “Embrace hardship as discipline – God is treating you like sons….no discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those that have been trained by it” (Hebr 12.7, 11)
I mention this because in collective worship we are starting a serious look at perseverance as a value worth acquiring, both in learning resilience and in the way we persevere in the day-to-day making relationships work. The daily sharpening of iron against iron as we grow in character requires us to have the skills as teachers to allow opportunity for perseverance to grow. We need to allow it to finish its work. We will also need it now as, having hauled ourselves to a place where we can view a greener and richer landscape, we do not lose heart as we go.
The best way of doing this, of remaining in good heart, is the conscious celebration of all the little things we do, sharing them and building small steps for improvement. Thankfulness is an accessory to perseverance, reminding us of our own reliance on others and reminding others of the great part that they have played in the success we have had. The other thing we can do, that is of immediate benefit, is to cultivate the habitual unwillingness to remove responsibility from each other. We each have a load to bear, and whilst we can share it and be companions on the road, support that takes away the responsibility for action and for growth is no use at all to the other person. We often talk about Carol Dweck’s work on children (and teachers!) who have a fixed or a growth mindset. We need to be aware of the acceptance of responsibility as a mark of maturity, of perseverance, and encourage each other in perseverance – that is where the true support lies. We keep going towards the goal, surrounded (Hebrews again) by a “great cloud of witnesses” (12.1).
This has implications for everything from parenting, to teaching, to health and safety policy. Are we planning the actions, allowing the risk, that will lead to the greatest maturity in our children? This will mean planning for some failure so children learn to cope with it, but also some wise and focused feedback to children who do fail so they can grow again. An implication for teaching, and one that OFSTED, amongst others, commented on to us, is that for children to learn perseverance in learning they must be required to complete work as a basic expectation of their starting it. And work that is well below their known capability should be repeated in their own time until it iextends or meets what they are known to be capable of.
Two years ago, almost to the day, I was in Norway with three teaching colleagues, studying outdoor education with colleagues from Trodlahaugen Barnehage. On the way back from a short excursion with the 5-6 year olds, we stopped at a park in the small part of Leirvik where the school was (we had been having a day out at the fjord! Like you do, in Norway!). The fjord had been fun, but quite predictably Norwegian (“we only intervene when they fall face down in the water”), but in the park the children were asked to climb all over a small shelter, about 3.5 metres tall, including the steeply pitching, corrugated roof. They crawled all over the thing, and quite often fell off. This was not too serious except one time when a 5 year old slid off the apex all the way to the earth below. The immediate reaction of teachers was to question him as to how to do it better next time. The comfort, though important, took second place to the opportunity for a child to learn. Perseverance completing its work. Riches not attainable any other way.
A postscript to think about. Bruce Cockburn, in a song called “Call me Rose”, in which Richard Nixon is re-imagined as a mother of two living in poverty in urban America, writes about:
“the poor, having no power but the strength to endure”.
Sometimes, in the mysterious ways of God dealing with man, it becomes necessary for people and nations to learn endurance and perseverance through difficulty. Plenty of adults in school have walked hard ways recently – they have no choice but to endure, with their families and with their children. It is no joke, but even this, handled aright and accepted as grace, can lead to life, to growth, to beauty in character. As a not-so-famous politician from Witney said recently, we are all in this together.