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Most of us have seen cross-sections cut from trees, and have marveled at the rings– light and dark– which mark the age of the tree. Scientists tell us that every year trees add a layer of growth between the bark and the older wood. But the stripes reveal more than a tree’s age; they also indicate when a growing season was good, producing a thick ring, or when disease or drought may have created a thin one.
And I wonder if there are similar markers in our souls, silent measurements of what we’ve been through. Scars and memories of harsh adversity might be there, as well as signs of joy and blessings. But in humans, I think the bands would be exactly the opposite of how they look in trees: The rings that make us strongest—perhaps the thickest ones that indicate growth—would be during our toughest ordeals.
None of us pray for problems or chase after adversity on purpose. Yet these are the moments when we most rely on our Father in Heaven, when we roll up our sleeves to work, when we struggle to overcome the natural man, when we triumph over sorrow. We look back later, and marvel that we endured some of those trials. Yet we did. And we are much stronger, wiser, and more mature for what we experienced. We’re improved. We’re better.
Those struggles are what we look back on with pride of accomplishment, as well. Nobody’s proud of climbing a tiny, grassy mound. But a huge mountain? That brings a feeling of victory.
When life is smooth and easy, we tend to fall back and relax. Our prayers are not always as fervent as they should be. Our attention to spiritual matters may lag. We risk complacency and even find ourselves slipping back in our testimonies and closeness to Christ. It takes an extra measure of awareness and then diligence, to avoid this common outcome.
Many of the people I admire, people who react with a higher view and see things from an eternal perspective, have also had the roughest challenges, the biggest losses. And yet, there’s unmistakable joy in their eyes. This is usually a very different group from the people I would say have yet to be tested. The happiest ones are the ones who have endured much. They may not talk about it often, but they’ve climbed many a rocky slope to get to the contentment they feel now. And they’ve done it with God’s help. They have sturdy spiritual trunks, if you will, and you can lean on them for help you may need when you face a similar journey.
Sometimes tree rings indicate crowding, then a sudden growth spurt if an encroaching neighbor died. We are the opposite. When we’re given stress or pressure, that’s when we usually learn the most from life: How to get along with others, how to move forward in faith, how to solve problems, how to serve those around us. When a burden is lifted, sometimes our progress disappears along with it.
Tree rings can also indicate insect plagues, floods, and fires. But while these may inhibit the growth of the tree, hazards in our own lives make us grow stronger.
Think about your life right now, and the challenges you’re facing. Are you experiencing a growth period? It’s tempting to indulge in a slice of self-pity, but maybe these trials are just adding to your value. Because of your hardships, you can now help others in similar situations. When I lost so many loved ones early in life, few of my young friends knew how to reach out and comfort me. It was the older, more experienced people who knew what to say and do. They had endured, and were now able to give from a well of wisdom. Likewise, I became better able to comfort others who were grieving, because I now had empathy and knew of their pain.
So, instead of focusing on the negative, feeling jealous of those less challenged, or wondering why God has allowed you to suffer, look for the lessons in it. Think of tree rings, but picture them reversed for yourself. Your hard times just might be making you the strongest tree in the forest.