Over the last few months we have embraced being outdoors more as a family, enjoying exploring a whole variety of forests, mountains and trails. Recently, while walking in a forest we came across a section of trees that had been cut down. What used to be an area packed with hundreds of trees was now a wide-open, desolate space with nothing else in its place. However, my eyes were drawn to a number of trees immediately beside this area that seemed to have fallen down by themselves. Was this just a coincidence?
Was it just a coincidence that these trees, which had stood for decades, had suddenly fallen around the same time as the others next to them? Might it have been that these trees had been sheltered for years by the other trees around them, protecting them from the wind and giving them nutrients from the root system? Was it that they hadn’t needed to develop strength while they were surrounded by other strong trees, but whenever those things were stripped away they found themselves exposed to the elements, suddenly not strong enough to survive on their own?
For me, these fallen trees represented the cultural moment in which we currently find ourselves, as the rapid secularisation of society, combined with the devastation of a virus, has the potential to weaken our root systems and push our faith to fall. As many of the normal things we might have relied on in our discipleship have been stripped away, perhaps faith has weakened with lack of worship, floundered in the absence of fellowship and drifted as they experienced difficulty.
Growing through trials
Conversely, however, I’ve also been reflecting on how our faith might actually be strengthened through these days as we learn how to cling more to Jesus, seek his presence and rely on his grace. What if our present difficulties are refining our discipleship and strengthening our souls? Pulling a caterpillar out of its cocoon will damage it, because what forms the butterfly most is the struggle. In the same way, what if we are most shaped by God as we learn to follow him through suffering and struggle?
Was this what James was meaning when he told his brothers and sisters to:
“consider it pure joy… whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance” (James 1:2-3).
That’s an incredible perspective and it might be hard for us to comprehend, but remember the trees. Perhaps the moments of testing are a gift that produces perseverance, prepares us to face future storms and helps us endure to the end.
Refining discipling in difficult days
This season shows us why the whole area of discipleship is critical as we struggle to make sense of our own circumstances and help others to navigate theirs. It’s why we need gathered worship that points us upwards, small groups that give structures of support and disciplers who offer a companion in the crisis.
On a personal level, how then can we embrace the crucible moments of testing and trial and use them as opportunities of growth and stretching? In the lives of those we lead and disciple, how can we walk with them in their trials, gently recasting them as learning moments or refining experiences?
Let’s be a companion who walks in the valley alongside those who are floundering. Let’s be a teacher for those who need help understanding God’s sovereignty and goodness. Let’s be an encourager to those who are weakening. Let’s be an inviter to those who find themselves on the fringes. And most of all, let’s continue to lean on our Lord as we trust him to strengthen and sustain us in these moments of refining.
To further reflect on this and offer some practical insights of discipling others in these difficult days, check out the latest PCI webinar on Wednesday 21 October.
Content will include an example of a congregation growing their discipleship groups through this season of church life, as well as developing our thinking on how to bring a pastoral discipleship lens to bear on those experiencing difficulty.
To register, click here.
Rick Hill is PCI's Discipleship Development Officer.
This blog is part of the digital programme series, Refined, to help move our denominational conversation on from what was needed to initially respond to the Coronavirus pandemic, to seeking God’s leading and guiding for this next season of church life together.
Visit the Refined hub here.