The first big word I can remember knowing how to use was the word “perseverance.” I was a child in Sunday school and it was the correct answer to some question that I now can’t recall. But even though I knew the answer, I’m pretty sure I didn’t know the deep meaning and existential cost of the word.
When I think of perseverance, meaning “steadfastness in doing something despite difficulty or delay in achieving success,” I think of athletes, students, or entrepreneurs as they must persevere to achieve their goals. But something about the word’s definition troubles me: there isn’t a description of the nature of the difficulties. As I think about it, it seems that difficulties fit in three general categories: natural difficulties, difficulties arising from our own stupidity, and those coming from others deliberately seeking to delay us.
Natural difficulties are merely the normal stresses required on route to achieving any goal, and thus, nothing about which to complain. For instance, if you wish to be a runner, you must run: you can’t sit on the couch all day and eat bonbons. The very act of running produces a difficulty as our body would rather rest than work.
Difficulties arising as a result of our own stupidity are a little bit different, but still nothing to complain about. For example, I had to take Calculus twice in college because when I took it the first time I failed to study or turn in assignments. Even though the material was difficult, the blame for my failure rested solely on my shoulders because I didn’t study or seek help. When encountering these sorts of difficulties, we can look nowhere else but the mirror.
But difficulties arising when others actively seek to thwart our goals seem to the sort for which we have the right to be upset. On our good days, we would call such a person a nuisance, on our more human days we might describe them with words inappropriate for polite company. It is this last sort of difficulty that I think the psalmist describes in Psalm 66.
At first glance, Psalm 66 seems to be full of praise for God’s wonderful deeds: turning the sea into dry land, ruling the nations, preserving lives, answering prayer, and pouring out his steadfast love. But in the middle of this praise, the psalmist describes how God tested the Israelites: testing that seems very much like the third type of barrier to perseverance.
You brought us into prison
and laid burdens on our backs.
You let people ride over our heads;
we went through fire and water.
At first glance one might be tempted to think this refers to the numerous times when Israel rebelled after they had been living in the promised land, but due to the reference of crossing the sea on dry land (66:6), these claims seem to best fit with the time of Egyptian rule and the Exodus. This is important to know because it means that this testing did not arise from the natural course of things nor did it come by the Israelites particular stupidity: it was brought about solely because God saw fit to test the Israelites. But we must note that the psalmist does not complain. Rather, he sings praise to God for the testing itself and not only for the outcome of the testing.
Such words are easy to write, but far from easy to live. For my part, I become angry and bitter toward the person who is the cause of my difficulties, even when that person is God. But this psalm encourages me to find a way to praise him, not in spite of his role, but because of his role in bringing the obstacles, no matter how long they must be endured.
The Israelites were in bondage for hundreds of years quite simply because it served God’s purpose of refining the Israelites. And even though it was a long time, the psalmist still counts their exile as one of God’s awesome deeds worthy of praise.
But merely waiting for 400 years in bondage is not the full story of the Israelites perseverance, the psalmist also says, “If I had cherished sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened” (66:18). This is something I never understood about the word “perseverance” as a child: its full cost. Enduring trials means one must learn to trust God in the midst of pain and suffering, regardless of the source of trouble. But we must also persevere in holiness, keeping ourselves from sin, not allowing hate and bitterness to grow. Additionally, saying “to hell with it all” and diving into numbing sin is not an option. We must choose another way, that of trusting and praising him for the troubles into which he has seen fit to place us.
Looking back to that classroom in church so many years ago, I certainly didn’t realize when I gave my clever answer of “perseverance” that I would actually be naming the defining struggle of my life. I wonder if it’s the same for anyone else…