I’ve been in a reflective mood this week, because it has been nearly one year to the day since COVID turned our world upside down. A year ago, I was on a Go Week trip with our seniors in Washington D.C. Little did I know that when we landed back home at Love Field, and I got in my truck to drive back to Tyler, I wouldn’t see many of them again in person until nearly nine weeks later, when I would hand them their diplomas at commencement.

To say the past 12 months have been challenging would be a gargantuan understatement. Perhaps for the first time in my life, everyone I know would agree. Pandemics, racial strife, political turmoil, and freak snowstorms have conspired to sear our collective conscience. In addition, most of us who have lost friends and loved ones to COVID and other diseases, suffered job loss, frustration, anxiety and/or depression. And, yet, I perceive God’s hand at work now in my life and in those around me more than perhaps at any point in recent memory.

James 1 exhorts us to “consider it all joy, brothers, when you encounter various trials, for the testing of your faith produces perseverance. And, let perseverance have its perfect result: that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”  The joy that James exhorts us toward isn’t joy in the trials and suffering; he’s not calling us to long for pain. The joy is in the perfection, the development of godly character it brings.  In My Utmost for His Highest, Oswald Chambers says that perseverance is different than endurance. Perseverance “is endurance combined with absolute assurance that what we are looking for is going to happen…perseverance is our supreme effort of refusing to believe that our hero is going to be conquered.” Spiritual perseverance, according to Chambers, is “a call not to hang on and do nothing, but to work deliberately, knowing with certainty that God will not be defeated.”

In the process of persevering, God moves. He molds and forms and shapes us, like iron in the forge, into tempered steel. In a lot of ways, I think the American church has had it easier over the past 40-50 years than any branch of Christ’s church at any point in history. We have lived through a time of tremendous prosperity, religious liberty, and cultural acceptance of our faith. That season is ending, creating a context not unlike any believers before us have faced for thousands of years. But, in order to prepare us for this new season, we’ll need to be both harder in ways, and softer in ways, than ever before. For many of us, I believe that shaping is happening now, and God is using the challenges around us to do it.

The other day, a group of friends and I listed all the ways God had grown us over this past tumultuous year. We found that, by his grace, we had become a harder people, in lots of good ways.  We are more resilient. Whereas, small things used to set us back for days on end, they no longer do. We take them in stride, and move forward. The way most of my friends responded to the snowstorm last week was a picture of that resilience. Some had no power, some had no water, some didn’t have either. Watching them huddle up in sleeping bags, build fires, melt and boil snow, and take care of those who needed help worse than they was a sight to behold. In a world where people never knew their neighbors before, COVID and SNOVID have brought us together, and caused us to look out for each other.

But, that’s not all. My friends and I have become more flexible, more agile and able to change plans or make adjustments quickly. Constantly changing governmental recommendations and making plans that are obsolete two days later have made us more innovative and creative, forcing us to make due with what we have, and to create new from what’s lying around. We were joking the other day that our school is a juggernaut, not letting pandemics or blizzards deter us from charging through the school year. We’ve developed a strong resolve to move forward. We have a growth mindset, and we have become a “people of try”- willing to experiment with new things.

At the same time, we’ve become softer where that was needed. Struggling through trials together has deepened our trust of each other, and our love for each other. Because we find ourselves crying out to the Lord more often on behalf of others, we have become far more intentional in our prayers. Intentionality in prayer has heightened our awareness and sensitivity to others’ needs; we’ve become more willing to look around us. Seeing our friends caring for each other and persevering has increased our respect and appreciation for each other.  Increased trust and respect have made us more willing to have hard discussions, and to be more transparent with each other.

As our worlds have spun beyond our control (or, really, the illusion of control-we never actually had control), we have found ourselves in a state of deeper reliance on the Lord.  In trying to manage tremendous amounts of stress, we’ve engaged more deeply with the spiritual disciplines, which have led us into a deeper understanding that God is Lord, and we are not. Since we realize He is God and we are clearly not, we take ourselves less seriously, and we’re more appreciative and grateful when we realize we’re not promised tomorrow, or even hot showers and toilets that flush.

In what ways has God made you harder-more persevering, able to face life’s challenges with joy and to let them perfect you, by God’s power and grace? In what ways has He made you softer-more attuned to His presence, His work in and around you, and His love for you? In what has been the most eventful year of many of our lives, God has been even busier in our lives.

Jay Ferguson, Ph.D., Head of School at Grace Community School, writes regularly on his blog, JaysBlog.org.