It’s a Sunday and I have just come back from preaching at the main central United Reformed Church in town. Arriving early, I was shown into the minister’s office. It was a well appointed comfortable room into which the morning sun shone. It had a desk, computer, filing cabinets and bookshelves in one half of the room, and then two comfortable armchairs and a low table in the other half of the room. As I sat in one of the armchairs, looking over my sermon, I suddenly noticed that there on the low table was a framed ‘text’ featuring some inspirational words by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross (1926-2004), a Swiss-American psychiatrist who wrote a ground-breaking book On Death and Dying (1969) in which she outlined her understanding of the five stages of death. The ‘text’ in the frame, however, came – as I later discovered – from a later book, Death: The Final Stage of Growth (1975):
“The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known struggle, loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion and gentleness and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.”
Two things went through my mind as I read this quotation. In the first place, I thought, ‘What a great idea to place a text like this in a place where troubled people might come for counselling’. When I was a pastor of a local church, there was always a box of tissues at hand in my office for those who suddenly became over-wrought – but I had never thought of placing an inspirational text on a table that might perhaps be read by visitors experiencing difficulty of one kind or another.
My second thought was: ‘These words are truly inspirational – and how true both to life and to Scripture they are’. Over many years, for instance, my experience has been that the most effective pastoral work has always been conducted by ‘wounded healers’, men and women who have gained an understanding and an empathy precisely because they have been through tough times themselves.
As for Scripture, I was immediately reminded of James 1.2-4 rendered so superlatively by J.B. Phillips as “When all kinds of trials and temptations crowd into your lives, don’t resent them as intruders, but welcome them as friends! Realise that they come to test your faith and to produce in you the quality of endurance. But let the process go on until that endurance is fully developed, and you will find you have become people [literally, ‘men’] of mature character with the right sort of independence”.
The Arabs have a saying, ‘All sunshine makes a desert’. And that’s true of those who have only experienced life the sunny-side up. Trouble-free people are for the most part shallow people. They tend to be very immature people. If you’ve got a problem, then the last person you need to go to is somebody who has lived life in a cocoon. By contrast those who have gone through the fires of testing and have come out successfully the other side tend to be rich, deep people. This is surely what James is saying: the struggles we experience in life can help us become “mature” (NRSV) or ‘fully-grown-up’ people – the Greek word James uses here (teleios) literally means ‘perfect’.
Significantly, James also used another Greek word (holokleros), which in the context of animal sacrifices offered to God could be translated as ‘unblemished’ but in this context is perhaps best translated as “complete” (NRSV) or ‘fully-developed’ people. James seems to suggest that the trials of life can be used to knock off our imperfections and to excise our ‘warts’ – leading us to become truly wise godly people.
Nobody likes difficulties. Certainly none of us would ever wish difficulties upon ourselves or indeed upon anyone else. But rightly handled, difficulties in life can be productive in terms of personal growth and spiritual development. Or in the words of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross: “Beautiful people do not just happen”.