My five year old is enrolled in a holiday swim program. He’s not a great swimmer so he’s learning how to master freestyle with a bunch of other primary school kids.
At the moment, his strokes are clumsy, and he lacks confidence and rhythm. His instructor walks in front of him, calling out the steps, “One, two, three, breathe!” But he struggles to listen and move simultaneously. The second she steps away or lets go of his torso, he starts to panic, loses buoyancy, and what started off as him moving determinedly across the pool ends up in panicked thrashing.
The other kids in the class are a bit older and they’re much better. They glide through the water with confidence and purpose, while my kid shivers at the pool’s edge, watching them with awe and a touch of envy. I watch him from the bleachers, amused. I’m grateful because his instructor is patient. She lets him struggle in the water for a few seconds, giving him a chance to make his way to the surface, catch his breath and try again, before she slips a supportive hand under his belly and guides him back to the starting line. I’m grateful, because she understands that he needs to struggle to gain strength. He doesn’t like the process, but she needs to let him recover from his own mistakes in order for him to gain confidence in his own abilities.
Watching him during these lessons is a humble reminder that I too need to accept struggle as a necessary part of my growth. Just as my son wishes I’d pluck him out of the pool when he gets too cold or the instructions seem too difficult, I too find myself wishing for someone to rescue me from the challenges I face in my marriage, family life, friendships, health, or career. When something horrific happens in our world or in the lives of the people I love, I find myself thrashing around in panic – just like my kid does in the pool – fearful that these struggles carry so much weight that they’ll somehow drown me.
In these moments I get frustrated at God, expecting him to rescue me, wishing that he’d erase these challenges, not just from my life, but the whole world. But he won’t. And that’s ok. I’ve just got to remember that just as my kid needs to struggle first before he can swim, just as resistance is a necessary part of strengthening any muscle, suffering is also a necessary part of strengthening my faith.
This isn’t a popular way of thinking – suffering isn’t a welcome concept for many people, especially in the developed, modern world. We’re so used to making life as comfortable as we possibly can; we expect to travel in comfort, eat in comfort, work in comfort, sleep in comfort, and many are even fighting to ensure we die in comfort, on our own terms. Comfort is prized above so many things and considered by many to be a fundamental right; a right that even trumps the rights of others. To be uncomfortable in our society is unacceptable.
There are many reasons our Church is waning in popularity right now, but I’m almost certain one is because it teaches us to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. We’re taught not to just accept our struggles, but to embrace them. We’re taught to pursue and understand the strength that comes from sacrifice and suffering. We’re taught to pursue more from this life and this world than comfort.
If I pulled my son out of the pool whenever he got uncomfortable, he’d never get better at freestyle (actually, if comfort was our priority, we wouldn’t even be attempting these 9am swim classes in the middle of winter). If my son’s instructor valued comfort over learning and carried him across the pool for every lap, my son would never learn how to swim on his own. And if God rescued us every time we suffered instead of allowing us to carry our own crosses, we’d miss the opportunities to develop resilience or trust in his grace.
Having faith demands we leave our comfort zones, jump into an unfamiliar environment, and trust we have what it takes to swim. But if leave the pool, we miss out. If we stop trusting our “instructor” when the time comes to work through the difficult stages of learning and strengthening, we’ll find ourselves overwhelmed and thrashing around in panic.
As my son works through each lesson, his strokes get smoother and stronger. I see in him a confidence borne from perseverance. I hope that like my five year old, I learn to work through the challenges and trust that my own instructor – God – knows when to let me struggle in the water for a while, and when I need him to slip a hand beneath me and guide me back to shore. I hope that, like my son, I learn to accept that while the lessons are cold and difficult, what I gain in return makes them worth it.