I’ll never forget the first time I saw an ancient bristlecone pine. Sculpted by wind, sand, and ice, its trunk and branches had twisted into gnarled beauty that transcended millenniums of struggle. I placed my hands on its fissured bark and wept.

What spoke to my heart was its survival–the triumph of life in the harsh subalpine region of the White Mountains of California where little else grows. Winds can rage over 100 miles per hour; temperatures can plummet to ﹣30°.

Yet the ancient bristlecone pines survive. Tenuously. Over thousands of years, they grow so slowly that their rings are visible only through a microscope. And sometimes they self-prune, letting parts die to keep a sliver alive. When conditions improve, a new trunk and bark grow over the dead. The result is a mix of gray and golden wood, lovely and poignant.

Enduring bitter hardship creates beauty.

The same is true for believers.

If you’re like me, you’d much rather take the scenic route through life, avoiding the wasteland, the battles, the losses. But struggle, pain, and grief have a purpose, a way of weathering and shaping us into stronger, more beautiful followers of Christ:

  • Some trials strengthen our faith because we experience miraculous moments and feel the presence of God.
  • Some teach us patience and trust as we wait on God.
  • Some make us more dependent on God by forcing us to realize we can do nothing on our own.
  • Some teach us how to pray because we have no other options
  • or how to hope when all seems hopeless
  • or how to forgive the unforgivable and the unrepentant.
  • Some humble us, stripping away pride we didn’t know we clung to.
  • Still others enable us to minister to someone else going through the same trial
  • or give someone else the opportunity to minister to us.

And some trials? We may never know what God is doing!

But what if, as Laura Story asks in her song “Blessings,” “What if trials of this life–the rain, the storms, the hardest nights–are [God’s] mercies in disguise?” Seeing ourselves as Christ’s bride helps us believe this possibility. Because the Bridegroom adores us, we know He has our best at heart, even when we’re suffering.

However, God promises we won’t suffer alone: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze” (Isa. 43:2). We can trust God to be present in the trials, to weep with us, to renew us, and to protect us from being consumed.

Like it or not, the floods of life will come and the flames will blaze. But trusting in the promise that God will be with us can soothe our fears and ease our sense of abandonment. As we rest in assurance, the waters can cleanse us, the flames can burn away the dross.

What’s left is pure, golden beauty. If only we can trust.

Has God ever worked to bring beauty through the pain and suffering of your life? What lessons have you learned in the process?

Check out this folk song about bristlecone pines, accompanied by images of the trees.