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Feb 21, 2011

Stretched For Our Own Good

My pastor’s recent sermons on trials and suffering, taken from the book of James, reminded me of another way I’ve been stretched, literally, for my own eventual good. I’ve had years of karate training and before every class we began with stretching exercises. It’s every martial artist’s goal to eventually get into a full split with your legs. Not all of us reach that goal, but every serious student will at least try to stretch themselves to their greatest potential.

The interesting thing about stretching is how it accomplishes its goal. When you stretch your muscles to their limit, and a little beyond, the muscles fibers actually tear slightly. Of course, this causes pain. Yes, being stretched to your limits can hurt. But when the muscles recover, they grow stronger and more flexible. Over time, you find that you can stretch farther and more easily, but only after you go through the pain of pushing yourself to the breaking point.

So why would any sane person willingly stretch themselves like this every week for years? Likewise, why does God often stretch us through trials? For the same reason, to reach a necessary goal in our own growth and development. In karate, the physical goal of stretching muscles is to develop the ability to kick higher and stronger and to avoid injury. James 1:2-4 tells us the spiritual goal of God stretching us through ”trials of many kinds” and “the testing of [our] faith” is perseverance, which when finished, will make us “mature and complete, not lacking anything.” In both cases, we can learn two important truths which should inspire and comfort us. First, the pain has a purpose. What we go through, while painful, has a goal of accomplishing something in us for our ultimate good. Second, we can’t reach these goals without being torn, tested, and stretched. No black belt ever develops the ability to throw a kick to the head without hours and hours of laborious stretching and other difficult training. But no Christian will be ready to handle the difficulties of this life in a fallen world without God developing and sanctifying us through the perseverance of trails.

One other thing I learned through stretching in karate might also apply to our Christian walk, especially when we’re really being put to the test. In stretching exercises, we were taught to push ourselves to the point of discomfort and then hold in that position for 30 seconds. At first, this could be painful and difficult. I remember trying my hardest to get my legs just a little farther apart, sweating and having to focus and control my breathing just to stay in position that long. But sure enough, by the end of the 30 second count, my legs would be relaxed, even stretched as far as they had been. We would then push a little farther out and hold our new position again for 30 seconds. After several rounds of pushing, holding, and relaxing, we found that we had actually stretched much further than we ever could have when we first began.

I remember this lesson when I go through a tough emotional or spiritual test. Just hold on through the initial pain, try to relax and control yourself, pray, and after a little while, the pain will subside and you’ll suddenly find that you’re able to be stretched even a little more. God graciously gives us the strength to endure any trial or test he puts us through (1 Cor 10:13) and as Paul encouraged the Philippians, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

James tells us that God is stretching us towards the goals of spiritual maturity and wisdom. Paul also reminds us in his letters that, like any athlete who trains toward a goal, our strength to persevere won’t come without effort and even some pain. Perhaps when we remember that there is purpose in our suffering, that God is lovingly using our trials to perfect us, we can embrace and better appreciate the necessary pain that comes with it.

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