After playing the last note to their duet, our then eight-year-old daughter shoved the music sheet back toward her big sister and forced herself to take a bow before stomping off the recital stage. As her sister proceeded to play her solo piece, our little girl cried in my arms, defeated and disappointed.
Though both girls performed their solos flawlessly, their duet didn’t go as well as they had hoped. After the recital, my husband and I tried to revive them with encouragement. We reminded them that it wasn’t about a one-time performance but about celebrating all they had accomplished throughout the year.
For weeks I had observed our girls practice their duet, watching them push and pull as they figured out their rhythm and flow together. The entire process was a symphony of struggle. Trial and toil harmonized with surrender and accomplishment. Conflict and strife played bass while fun and entertainment played treble. Tears were our low notes, and laughter were our high notes. There were days when notes and personalities clashed, and days when music was made. I cheered them on on the days when they got it right and coached them to persevere on the days when practice wasn’t making perfect.
But when my girls were deflated by their less-than-perfect performance, I realized I had taught them to celebrate success and had failed to teach them to appreciate struggle. I hadn’t emphasized the value of commitment to a challenge — the challenge of learning something new, of enduring through frustration, of resisting the urge to attack each other, of co-laboring, and not giving up. Come to think of it, acknowledging struggle is common. Less common is noting and appreciating all the gifts that challenges provide along the way.
I wish I had thrown a parade for my girls after each practice to mark the accomplishment of a struggle. I wish I had helped them understand that though the process is ugly, it is the perfect way to help them cultivate all kinds of beauty — beauty that looks like persistence, surrender, patience, grace, teamwork, and sisterhood regardless of their talent.
I wish I had taught them what I had learned when the church plant my husband and I had dreamed, planned, and toiled for failed. Planting a church had been the most grueling work we had ever done together, and after three years of struggling, we had very little to show for all that we’d given and all that we’d given up. In the trailing dust of defeat and discouragement, we couldn’t see how immensely the struggle had gifted us.
But now we can look back and clearly see God present and working through the struggle, providing immeasurable depth and breadth to our marriage, securing our foundation, and binding us together even more. While it has felt counter-intuitive (and probably socially unacceptable) to celebrate the struggles and failure of a church plant, I have learned to do just that!
When Israel was doubtful and discouraged during their struggle, through Isaiah the prophet, God encouraged them:
So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.
Isaiah 41:10 NIV
Sometimes, in the midst of struggle, we lose sight of God’s presence, of what God is showing us about ourselves, of the divine purpose in the process. We don’t have to be afraid of struggle, nor do we have to struggle in fear. God has auspiciously entwined struggle, reward, and fruit. They are inseparable. I have learned to express gratitude for each. In so many of life’s circumstances, struggle can be the more significant and enduring reward.
I am getting better at celebrating in the midst of the struggle, and I am teaching my children to do the same. Fortunately, I’m sure life will give us many more opportunities to practice.
We all know struggle. We all know the disappointment of failed expectations. And we all have felt discouraged, defeated, and deflated when an outcome isn’t what we had hoped. But we can know that because God is with us in the midst of our struggle, we don’t have to be afraid and our labor is not in vain. We can face the struggle expecting to learn, grow, and gain immeasurably.