Endurance: Bending Not Breaking
When the storms rage, the boughs of the weeping willow tree blow with the breeze. They do not break. They endure. And their strength lies in bending.
Is there anything we need to endure? Are there any storms raging in our lives? Have we signed up for activities that demand physical and mental endurance?
We can be like the willow. We can bend instead of break. We can endure, or "bear with patience" (Webster's Student Reference Dictionary) whatever storms or challenges come into our lives -- the loss of a family member, broken relationships, poor health, fatigue, etc. Some of the qualities that help us to endure are:
- an understanding of God's promise
- and a loving trust in God.
Examining how others have endured major hardships can give us the confidence to endure our struggles. If they could do it, we can do it. James advises:
Take the old prophets as your mentors. They put up with anything, went through everything, and never once quit, all the time honoring God. What a gift life is to those who stay the course! You've heard, of course, of Job's staying power, and you know how God brought it all together for him at the end. That's because God cares, cares right down to the last detail. (The Message, James 5:10, 11)
We could easily call what Job endured unendurable, unbearable, and even unbelievable. Job lost his source of income, his house, his children, his health. Of course his faith was challenged, but he never lost his faith in God. He questioned God, but he never gave up. He didn't collapse under the hardship. And he was rewarded. Everything he lost was restored in abundance: "So the Lord blessed the latter end of Job more than his beginning" (Job 42:12). We can take comfort in knowing that God deeply cares for us -- "cares right down to the last detail."
The KJV of this passage reads: "Behold, we count them happy which endure" (James 5:10). "Happy"? How can we be happy in the midst of troubles? If we are going to endure -- truly endure with dignity and grace -- we must be happy. And we can be happy. We can trust that God loves us and is always present, working things out in the best way for each of us. We can find a joy that can't be wrested away from us. We can maintain our sense of humor.
Casting director, Michael Shurtleff, explains in his book, Audition, that humor is an "attitude toward being alive," which "makes it possible for us to get through the day," through life, which can be "deadly serious" if we didn't have humor. Shurtleff insists: "Humor exists even in the humorless." It's in "every situation in life" (53). This does not mean that we have to laugh when something awful happens (although we might); paste a smile on our face; or try to force humor through jokes. To me, this means that despite all the pain, we can still find the good. We can appreciate the sun shining on our flowers, the fire keeping us warm, the birds singing after a snowfall, the hug we can still give and receive. We can be grateful simply for life.
Being grateful is key to helping us endure. It means that we're not giving into misery, pain, or sorrow. We're not allowing a situation to get the best of us, to defeat us. Endurance means "continuing under pain or distress … without sinking" (Webster, SRD). Gratitude and joy keep us from sinking. They elevate us. Paul tells us to "glory in tribulations" (Rom 5:3):
We continue to shout our praise even when we're hemmed in with troubles, because we know how troubles can develop passionate patience in us, and how that patience in turn forges the tempered steel of virtue, keeping us alert for whatever God will do next. In alert expectancy such as this, we're never left feeling shortchanged. Quite the contrary -- we can't round up enough containers to hold everything God generously pours into our lives through the Holy Spirit! (The Message, Rom 5:3-5)
No wonder "patience is a virtue!" Patience makes us stronger. It prevents us from being defeated. Without patience, we might start complaining about our situation, might let sorrow get the best of us, might let physical exhaustion cause us to stop a right activity. Such mental states prevent clarity of thought and action. If we're so busy feeling sorry for ourselves or feeling utterly wiped out, we're not in a receptive state. Patience enables us to be alert to God's direction and expectant of good -- fully able to experience the blessings that God "generously pours into our lives."
There may be times when we feel like we've been patient for long enough, when we don't feel like enduring any more, when we'd rather just give up. At those times, we can feel the encouragement in these words: "Cast not away therefore your confidence, which hath great recompence of reward. For ye have need of patience, that, after ye have done the will of God, ye might receive the promise" (Heb 10:35-37). God doesn't make promises and not keep them. God promised Abraham that he would "be a father of many nations" (Gen 17:4). The 25 years or so that he waited to become a "father of many nations" was difficult for him. Nevertheless, "after he had patiently endured, he obtained the promise" (Heb 6:15).
So before we decide to give up, we may want to think a little more clearly about what we're giving up and what God promises us. We can also look to Abraham and realize that just as God fulfilled the promise to Abraham, so God will fulfill His promises to us. One of the promises God makes to all of us is found in Jesus' parable of the Prodigal Son. The father represents God, who says, "Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine" (Luke 15:31). We are all God's sons and daughters, ever with God. All that God has is ours. What a promise, an inheritance, that is! We certainly don't want to give that up.
James also affirms:
Blessed is the man that endureth temptation: for when he is tried, he shall receive the crown of life, which the Lord hath promised to them that love him. (James 1:12)
Eugene Peterson paraphrases:
Anyone who meets a testing challenge head-on and manages to stick it out is mighty fortunate. For such persons loyally in love with God, the reward is life and more life. (The Message, James 1:12)
Another word for "blessed" is "happy." There's that happiness again, that joy, that gratitude which allows us to "run with patience the race that is set before us" (Heb 12:1). We run the race "set before us." We may not like the race. We may prefer to run another race. But we often don't have the option to choose which race to run. The only option is how we run. Are we going to run with happiness, humor, gratitude, patience? Or are we going to slow down with complaint, fatigue, pressure, or pain? There's really only one choice -- to endure.
Love of God
How do we endure the hardships and challenges "head-on" and receive the promise of the "crown of life"? By being "loyally in love with God." Are we in love with God?
- Is God most important in our lives?
- Are we focusing on God's strength, love, power, and all-presence in our lives?
- Or are we making a god out of the struggle, the challenge, the hardship by focusing on the hardship, loss, weakness, exhaustion, or pain?
- Do we trust God completely?
- Are we yielding up every aspect of our lives to God and bending to God's will?
- Or are we holding on tight to our own wills, wants, and fears, feeling as if we're going to break?
Sometimes it feels as if we're just trying not to break. We're scared of letting go because we might lose everything. But rather than try to hold on so tightly, endurance requires us to let go of the pain, let go of the fatigue … and let God hold on to us.
It's not hard for the willow to bend with the breeze. It's natural. And it can be natural for us to bend, too. But it takes trust. And it takes roots. To endure, we often need to dig down deep and spread our roots like trees searching for water and nutritious-rich soil. We, too, search for water, the water of which Jesus speaks when he says, "But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life" (John 4:14).
With such a promise, we don't ever need to fear the storms. We know that we have the joy, gratitude, patience, and love necessary to withstand them and endure. So let the winds howl. We're firmly settled underneath, "rooted and grounded in love" (Eph 3:17). And God's love is the most enduring promise and blessing of all. The psalmist echoes this truth again and again: God's "mercy endureth for ever" (Ps 106, 107, 118, 136). So let's rejoice as we endure God's mercy.
Shurtleff, Michael. Audition. New York: Walker, 1978.