Saturday, January 30, 2010

Joy in Suffering: A Paradox?

For as long as I have been a Christian (and certainly much, much longer even before I was aware of it) it has been my experience that the most common response when hearing of bad news (dire prognosis from the doctor, car accident, marital troubles, etc.) is the request to pray for God to quickly heal. Quickly resolve, quickly bring reconciliation and quickly comfort.

There is certainly nothing at all wrong with that, since our God is indeed the Great Physician, a God of comfort, mercy, reconciliation and restoration. Especially during the most difficult times in our lives, we find a tremendous amount of comfort and strength in those truths, and we find ourselves under the shelter of His love a great deal, praying for those very things.

However, I read a quote the other night that really stood out to me.

"I read of great men of God in the past and realize there are two common elements in their lives: suffering, and a love of the contemplation of God's attributes and works." - Dr. James White - The Forgotten Trinity

The more I thought about this statement, the more I realized just how true it is even in my own maturity in Christ. While I would never measure my own suffering with that of others (I know of so many Christians that have suffered far beyond anything I have experienced) I can say that there have been some very difficult battles in my life.

I had to ask myself, would I be where I am spiritually if every time a difficult trial came my way God would have just spared me of all suffering and smoothe it all over?

- If He immediately healed my damaged neck 18 years ago in the head on car accident?

- If instead of so many people I know and love rejecting Christ, they all embraced Him?

- If I had never fallen horribly into sin and suffered deep conviction to the point of weeping horribly for nearly 5 months non-stop?

- If instead of watching my first husband battle and lose the fight with cancer, God just took it all away and restored his health?

- If instead of suffering the pain of losing friends over something so monumentally petty, God just glossed over the whole thing and made it all better?

It's a rather rhetorical question because the truth of the matter is, these difficult and painful and heartbreaking things in our lives cause us to drop to our knees in prayer to seek His wisdom where we have none, His mercy where heartache or physical pain does not stop, His guidance when we feel utterly lost and His strength when all we want to do is give up, give in and stop pressing onward. It's in the praying for these things that we do in fact take great delight in contemplation of God's great attributes and works, exactly as the quote above states. We know He is more than able to give us the answers we lack, we know He is more than able to bring us direction and comfort, and we know that even if what we might be praying for is not His will for us at this present time, that He will also give us the grace to handle whatever it is we need to handle.

As we go through the suffering, we experience a great love for contemplating how amazing our God truly is. I can honestly say that were it not for the suffering of extreme pain I experience when I have my tummy troubles, I'm not entirely convinced I would have ever considered spending hours on end praising God for His goodness and His mercy in my life. While I certainly do not look forward to times of great physical pain, it's in those times that my heart and mind stay firmly fixed on God. I never think about tv shows or laundry or vacations or anything temporal, but I think about how Christ suffered far more than anything I will ever experience first hand, and how I have access to the Father because of the Son, and what He did. Truly, in suffering I find great and overwhelming joy.

When I think about some of the most mature, wise, full of grace and compassion brothers and sisters in Christ that I know, the above quote by Dr. White rings true again. Each of their lives have been marked with a great deal of suffering in some way. No, they are not the kind of people that have lived relatively comfortable, priveledged lives but instead they are the people who have suffered emotionally, financially, spiritually, physically or some combination of all of those. Those are the people who put their trust firmly in Christ and depend 100% on His grace to get them through whatever it is they're going through. When that trial is over they are richer for it, when they have spent time dwelling on the goodness of God, and they have grown far more than they would have, were it not for that trial.

James 1:2-4 says this:

Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.

Of this passage, Calvin had this to say:

"We certainly dread diseases, and want, and exile, and prison, and reproach, and death, because we regard them as evils; but when we understand that they are turned through God’s kindness unto helps and aids to our salvation, it is ingratitude to murmur, and not willingly to submit to be thus paternally dealt with."

I don't know about anyone else, but for me that's a hard truth to get my head around. I tend to murmur quite a bit when I'm afflicted with a trial, even though I know it's something that God will use to strengthen me. It's interesting to me how on the one hand I know full well that trials produce a stronger faith, and yet I will still find time to complain about being IN the trial.

I guess that's my flesh (and emotions?) rebelling against what I know is good for me.

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