Believers, churches and pastors especially have certainly experienced many pressures in recent times. The natural tendency is to be at least worn down by it. It may seem like every grace is tested to its limits by complex challenges, difficult choices, fears and divisions. We learn a great deal about ourselves and others as a consequence. It can be hard to see the spiritual growth despite the weakness in the midst of it all. Yet our growth is God’s purpose in it all. We may shrink from this through fear of a guilt trip about our personal growth but it shows us how to grow despite the greatest pressures. Even if you cannot see it yet, this should inform our prayers.
One picture of such growth is the palm tree: “The righteous shall flourish like the palm tree: he shall grow like a cedar in Lebanon” (Psalm 92:12). Joseph Caryl speaks of how this growth is despite some of the greatest pressures. When believers meet with the greatest pressures in the world, they thrive and grow heavenward. When the world would crush the righteous and press them down to the earth, like the palm tree, they grow up more and more. Palm trees are top-heavy and endure a lot of pressure from the considerable weight of their leaves and fruit. Some palm trees can grow up to six feet per year in the right conditions despite this. They are more resilient in storms than other trees by bending up to 50 degrees without snapping. Joseph Caryl shows in the following updated extract how this is also true in spiritual terms.
1. Pressures Can Help Spiritual Growth
When Pharaoh put the weights of very heavy oppression on the people of Israel, the more they afflicted them, the more they multiplied and grew (Exodus 1:12). Surely we are to understand this, not only of their multiplying in number but of increase in goodness – they were more fruitful in their lives. This has been said of the Church at all times when under pressures and burdens. They were bound, they were beaten, they were burnt, and yet they multiplied and increased. The more persons were added to the Church; and those persons that were added, advanced more in ways of grace and holiness. The blood of the martyrs was the seed of the Church.
Those who have a spiritual and holy understanding may indeed fall (Daniel 11:35). But it will try them and purge them, to make them white. It will purge out their corruptions and make their graces very conspicuous. Zechariah 13:9 teaches the same thing: “I will bring the third part through the fire”. Shall they be burnt there? No, “I will refine them as silver is refined, and will try them as gold is tried: and they shall call on my name, and I will hear them, I will say, it is my people; and they shall say, The Lord is my God.” Faith will grow to an assurance.
Paul says that his troubles and afflictions worked out for the furtherance of the gospel (Philippians 1:12). He says that many were willing to speak the gospel without fear (1:14). They grew up like the palm tree; they grew in confidence and boldness. They had not only integrity for Christ, but a great increase of strength for Christ.
In Romans 5 Paul shows that tribulation and trials do not hinder graces but rather further them. Tribulation works patience which works experience, and experience hope. Here is a flourishing, and a growing up in all Graces, even in a time of tribulation. The same thing is in 2 Corinthians 4:17, light afflictions work a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory. We grow more up into heaven and glory. Our hope rises up to glory by our affliction. This is flourishing like the palm tree. Afflictions will make us the fitter for heaven: they will make us better than we were, and so fitter for heaven, fitter for glory.
2. Pressures Wean Us From the World
The pressures and weights from the world that are on the righteous wean them from the world. The love of the world, cleaving to the world, and desires going after the world, are great impediments to our growth in grace. In Matthew 13:22 we are told that the cares and pleasures of the world choke the Word and make it altogether unfruitful. Sufferings for Christ which are the weights laid on us for Christ’s sake make us more crucified to the world and the world to us (Galatians 6:14). When the soul is delivered from this evil world, it must flourish upwards towards the other world.
3. Pressures Help Us Grow in Understanding
By the afflictions and troubles we experience in this world we get much light and grow into a clearer knowledge of the things that help us increase heaven-ward. Affliction gives an understanding of:
(a) the vanity and wickedness of the world
(b) the mind of God and the Word of God (Psalm 119:71).
(c) the worth of grace
(d) the excellency of Jesus Christ Himself.
In 2 Peter 3:18, we are told to grow in grace. How does this happen? We must also grow in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. In proportion to our growth in the true knowledge of Christ that comes from experience (not mere brain knowledge) we increase and grow in grace. As we grow in the knowledge of the vanity of the world, the Word of God, the worth of grace and Christ; we must grow in grace.
4. Pressures Draw Us More into Our Own Hearts
The weights and pressures which on these palm-trees, the righteous, draw them more into their own hearts. They commune with their hearts more and are more acquainted with them, they search themselves more. This will make us flourish, and grow upwards. The reason we grow up so little in acquaintance with Christ is that we grow so little in acquaintance with ourselves. In an afflicted condition the soul returns to itself (Lamentations 3:40). They search themselves for their corruptions and lusts in the secret corners of our hearts. They search for grace; what faith we have, what love we have, what patience etc. Afflictions bring believers to assess what condition they are in, how they fare. The troubles we meet with in the world, give us this advantage for spiritual growth, of growing heaven-ward like the palm tree.
5. Pressures Drive Us Nearer to God
These afflictions and pressures we have from the world drive us nearer to God, to more acquaintance with God and more communion with Christ. They force us to Christ. When the world flatters and embraces us we begin to forget and to disregard communion with Jesus Christ. There may be greater communion with God in a time of pressures (Isaiah 26:16). But in times of outward peace, and when all is well, we are very ready to neglect communion with God.
6. Pressures May Bring God’s Presence
While the righteous are under weights and pressures like a palm tree, they have the special promise of God’s presence with them. This makes them flourish. It is not our being in affliction, which makes us better and grow heaven-ward; but it is Christ being with us in affliction. It is God manifesting Himself to us in affliction which makes us grow, and flourish like a palm tree. There are many such promises (e.g. Isaiah 43:2; 1 Peter 4:14). When the weights are upon us, we have promises of more of the presence of God, and the presence of His Spirit. We shall therefore flourish, flourish spiritually, flourish in our inner man.
This shows us how God is able to make all things work for the good of His people. It should also bring us to praise the power, wisdom and goodness of God who over-rules these things for His people. It should also prompt us to seek how we can flourish under pressure. Afflictions, whether for righteousness sake or fatherly chastisements from the hand of God are for our good. We must submit to the will of God because these things are for our good and growth if we respond to them in the right way (Hebrews 12:10-12). They are ways that we may be made “partakers of the holiness of God”. This does not mean that afflictions bring joy in themselves, they are indeed painful but they can result in the abiding fruit of righteousness. They help us live better and make us more prepared to die and to glorify God both living and dying. This hope can help us “lift up the hands which hang down, and the feeble knees”. Rather than discourage us it can encourage us by helping us to see how these things can work for our spiritual growth.
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