Nice weather in Houston has meant lots of time playing in the park with my 17-month-old son. One sunny day, my son decided that he wanted to crawl up the slide of the toddler playground set. The metal slide was too steep and too slippery. Then, he walked over to the plastic slide shaped like a tube. He motioned and grunted for me to lift him up to the base of the slide. And then he started climbing.
His first attempt up the slide was unsuccessful. So were his second, third and fourth tries. Rather than give up or throw a temper tantrum, my son dug in his heels and kept trying. Time after time he nearly reached the top, only to lose his grip and come sliding back down. Time after time, he grunted with determination and tried again. Boredom crept into my bones, but I sensed that I should not stop this activity, either by giving him a final push or taking him to the swings. Instead, I cheered him on: “You’re so close! Try again! Keep going, bud!” And he did.
My son’s perseverance won the day… eventually. I felt a surge of pride overtake boredom as he reached the top. Call it stubbornness or determination, he accomplished what he wanted to do despite the challenge of being a one year old.
I recently taught a class on Reformed theology to a group of newcomers in our congregation. While I would not personally identify as a “TULIPist,” I still talked about these five distinctives drawn from John Calvin’s writings by later Reformed thinkers. P stands for “perseverance of the saints” (i.e. “once saved, always saved”). This concept was intended to give comfort to believers that nothing they could do could cause them to lose their salvation.
It strikes me that Scripture’s understanding of perseverance goes well beyond a person feeling good about their standing with God. I recall Romans 5:3-4: “We also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” Persevering through suffering has a hard edge; very few of us relish facing pain. Suffering – whether personal or large scale – often calls into question God’s goodness and power… and rightfully so! If God is the loving creator of the universe, then why is God’s creation so [insert favorite explicative here]?
When faced with suffering, with grief, with pain, with injustices large and small, my temptation is to retreat into self-absorption and cynicism. If our best efforts to make this world a better place always fall apart, then why try? In Christian terms, borrowed from Anglican pastor and scholar N.T. Wright: Why build for God’s Kingdom? Why fight racism and global poverty? Why work to honor the humanity of all people? Why not retreat into the hateful rhetoric and selfish power-grasping that seem to be winning the day?
Perseverance is God’s gift to the “communion of saints” to keep building for and witnessing to God’s Kingdom, no matter the challenges or the cost. I imagine God standing at the bottom of the slide, cheering us on as we push our way up toward justice, beauty, peace and all the words that describe the world the way it should be. No matter how often we lose our grip and slide back down, God whispers, “Dust yourself off; you can do this. I’m right here, and I won’t let you fall.”
Rachel Young is the associate pastor of spiritual formation at Clear Lake Presbyterian Church, in Houston, Texas. She is married to Josh, who also serves on staff at Clear Lake Presbyterian as the director of contemporary worship and media.