It takes tribulation to make a Corinthian column. The mighty monarch of the forest in Wisconsin or Georgia felt the fierce blows of the ax, until at length it fell with a vast sigh to the earth, leaving a lonely place against the sky. Tribulation cast it into the river and floated it to the sawmills; tribulation sawed it and cut it and shaped it and hammered it.
But there it stands now, recalling the temple of Olympian Zeus and holding the dome over our heads as we worship the invisible God.
Trouble may be sent to us by God, but it is not necessary for us to know why. That old saint of Scotland, Samuel Rutherford, once in deep distress was tempted to murmur and almost gave up hope. But ere long he was given comfort and strength in his distress, and began to see the purpose of it. It was then he wrote that we must never try to read God's messages through the envelope in which they come. He meant that it takes time for God's purpose to be made clear to us. "Fool that I was," wrote Rutherford, "not to know that the messages of God are not to be read through the envelope in which they are enclosed."
Two men were once discussing why it is that you cannot see the stars by day. The stars are still there; the distance is not greater by day than by night; why, then, cannot these mighty lamps be seen by day? One man maintained that they could be seen if one went far enough down in a well. The other denied the proposition but permitted himself to be lowered into the well. After he had been lowered a certain distance, he was asked if he could see the stars, and said, "No." Still farther down the same question was asked, with the same answer. But when he had been lowered to a great depth, then, looking up toward the heavens, he said he was able to see the stars.
Go down deep enough into a well, and you can see the stars by day. So to those who are willing to cooperate with God, and to will for themselves the things which he hath willed for them, the deep well of adversity and trouble is a place whence they can see the stars of the spiritual heavens and know that in all and above all and through all is God, and that God is love.
Even the heaviest troubles will pass away. Lincoln used to say to himself so often in the midst of his many distresses, "This, too, shall pass away." That was the word engraved upon an emerald given to an Eastern king by his daughter. Unable to control his anxious moments, he asked his wise men for a motto suitable alike in prosperity and adversity. After many suggestions had been rejected, his daughter gave him an emerald with this inscription upon it, "This, too, shall pass away."
The tried man is the strong man, not the untried one. Thomas Guthrie, after he left Edinburgh, pursued scientific studies at the Sorbonne, in France. In the chemistry lecture one day the professor, lecturing on iron, produced a Damascus blade. "To put it to the trial, he placed the sword in the hands of a very powerful man, his assistant, desiring him to strike it with all his might against a bar of iron. With the arm of a giant the assistant sent the blade flashing around his head, and then down on the iron block, into which, instead of being shivered like glass, it imbedded itself, quivering, but uninjured." The lecturer stated that he believed these swords owed their remarkable temper to the fact that the iron of which they were made was smelted by the charcoal of a thorn bush that grew in the desert. The life that has had thorns in it, that has had its blade tempered with the ashes of the thorns—with trial, adversity, temptation—is the strong, the flashing, the penetrating, the conquering life.
There is an old Greek story of a soldier under Antigonus who had a disease that was extremely painful and likely at any time to destroy his life. In every campaign he was in the forefront of the hottest battle. His pain prompted him to fight in order to forget it, and his expectation of death at any time made him court death on the martial field. His general, Antigonus, so admired the bravery of the man that he had him cured of his malady by a renowned physician. From that moment the valiant soldier was no longer seen at the front. He avoided danger instead of seeking it, and sought to protect his life instead of risking it on the field. His tribulation made him fight well; his health and comfort destroyed his usefulness as a soldier.
Were you relieved of some burden, or healed of some disease, or set free from some worry, you might lose in moral and spiritual power and influence.
In a magazine article a prominent newspaper editor of the South tells what tribulation did for him. He was often bitterly attacked, and answered railing with railing and reviling with reviling. He was successful from a business standpoint, but he lived in an atmosphere of bitterness and scorn and belligerency.
One day he was taken sick, and for weary weeks lay at the point of death. In the great silence and quiet of the antechamber of death he had time to look into the heart of things. When he was convalescent, he saw about him the flowers that friends had sent, heard his wife real telegrams and letters and repeat messages that had come, and saw how the churches, which he had long attacked because he thought they had attacked him, had prayed for him.
He emerged from the shadow country a new man. "I still walk," he says, "down the streets of Elizabeth City, and to all appearances I may seem the same to all my neighbors. But I am not the same. My little excursion into the Valley of the Great Shadow, and the revelation of the beauty of human nature that it brought me, has softened me and made me a more humble, a more grateful, and a more reverent individual. There has come back to me a line which I read years and years ago, and which had little meaning for me at the time: 'In a world where death is, I have no time for hate.'"
Henry Ward Beecher, who himself came up out of the severest kind of tribulation which can befall mortal man, has a noble paragraph on the subject: "No man can enter into the Kingdom of God without strife. No virtue can be wrought out without strife. Our virtues are like crystals hidden in rocks. No man shall find them by any soft ways, but by the hammer and by fire. If there is anything which is to endure the fear of death, and the strifes of the eternal world, it is that to which we come by suffering. And we are to account nothing too heavy, nothing too sharp, nothing too long, in this life that shall bring us at last, crowned and robed and sceptred, into the presence of our own God to be participators of His immortality."
The English poet Southey, whose "The Inchcape Rock" and "The Battle of Blenheim" many learned in their childhood, illustrated in his life the purifying and uplifting power of tribulation. His life was bound up in his son Herbert, who died at the age of nine. When the tidings were first brought to him, and when he was first able to speak, Southey uttered the words of Job: "The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord" (1:21). The blow was a terrible one. "The head and flower of my earthly happiness is cut off," he wrote, "but I am not unhappy." In the Fragmentary Thoughts occasioned by his son's death, broken fragments without connection, we catch echoes of his grief, but also of his Christian submission and faith. Here are some of those fragments:
"Thy life was a day, and, sum it well, life is but a week of such days, with how much storm and cold and darkness! "
Come, then, Pain and infirmity—appointed guests,
My heart is ready.
But the key to his victory is summed up in this fragment:
My soul Needed perhaps a longer discipline,
Or sorer penance, here.
In the great grief that had overtaken him, Southey strove to find the meaning in the discipline and refinement of his own spirit.
One of the cousins of John Brown speaks in a letter of a remark made by his famous relative one day when the theory of human perfection was being discussed. Meaning that you could never judge a man's true character until you saw him in the midst of trial, he said: "We never know ourselves till we are thoroughly tried. As the heating of an old smooth coin will make the effaced stamp visible again, so the fire of temptation reveals what is latent even to ourselves."