Reflecting on suffering

aaron-burden-426280-unsplashJames, the brother of Jesus, opens the argument of his New Testament letter with these words…

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds
(James 1:2)

At first glance, this seems superficial—put on a happy face, smile, look on the bright side. At second glance, this seems a gloss or a pretence—things aren’t really that bad, there’s always someone worse off than you, you think you’ve got problems, luxury. At third glance, this seems to represent an asceticism or stoicism that’s detached from reality—pain is inherently good, no pain-no gain, harden up.

But if you only glance three times at this verse, then you will be ill-prepared to face the difficulties of this life, and you won’t have much that’s helpful to offer others.

I’m off to a funeral this morning. A young man, husband, father of two, son, brother, friend to many. Some will still be in shock. How could this happen? It’s so not right. Many will feel the pain acutely. Something tragic has taken place. Relationships have been severed. The grief will be palpable.

We will gather in a church—a building that many of us have gathered in many times. We’ve been there for weddings, baptisms, funerals. We’ve come looking for answers, searching to find hope, seeking to make some sense out of such horror. We will ponder two small children without their daddy. Not today, not tomorrow, not next year, not in this life. Our hearts will crumble as we listen to family sharing, friends praying, people crying.

What help does James 1:2 offer at such a time? Is it a verse for such an occasion? Will it only rub salt into our wounds? Is it best left for another time?

James 1:2 is a word for a such a season, because it is written specifically to brothers and sisters. Not flesh and blood, but spiritual siblings. Even though Jesus and James shared the same mother, it’s their spiritual bond that matters most. He writes for those who have been adopted into the God’s family through trusting in Jesus Christ. James has a word for Christians who call God their Father.

It’s a timely word for us today, for James is not saying to pucker up and smile. He’s saying first of all to think. That’s right, think. He doesn’t say ‘Be joyful’, he says ‘consider it pure joy’. He calls us to reflect, ponder, meditate upon, consider what’s really going on when we face trials of many kinds. When life is difficult beyond belief, when people are suffering, when there don’t seem to be answers, when it just hurts so deeply… at this time consider it joy. How so?

because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.
(James 1:3-4)

A Christian funeral is not a place for platitudes. It’s not a place for wishful thinking, for simply hoping for the best, and least of all for glossing over the pain and hurt. Death is harsh. It’s unkind and unrelenting. It’s devastating and cruel to all who are left behind. And yet, for the brothers and sisters, for those who hope in Jesus, for the ones who trust that Jesus has conquered death and offers forgiveness and eternal life to all who trust him—death causes us to reflect again on what matters most. We are reminded to refocus, to maintain our hope in Jesus, and to persevere in trusting him.

We might not feel much joy on this occasion, but we have reason to be reminded of the objective joy of resurrection hope. My friend is now with his saviour. His wife, his children, his family, his friends, you and I, will one day be reunited for all eternity if we persevere in our faith. Death and funerals will test our faith. As we look to Jesus, this faith grow stronger.

“Dear Heavenly Father, as we mourn today, fill our hearts with the truth, enable us to trust in your good and loving purposes, enrich our faith in Jesus Christ, and remind us to see the joy in being with you for all eternity.”

Serving without sinking

serving_sinkingOver the past year or so, I’ve read and reread a great many books on Christian leadership and service. This new book is seriously one of the most important books I’ve read. It is deeply, simply, and accurately theological. This makes it rich indeed. It’s not about technique or skill. It’s not about looking after yourself, so you last the distance without burning out. Serving without Sinking by John Hindley is liberating and empowering because it points above all to God’s grace in Jesus. It honours Christ by focusing on him, rather than you and I. It’s a thoroughly Biblical mindset that critiques and reshapes our whole perspective on Christian service. Instead of beginning with our service of Christ, it reminds us of these important words in Mark 10:45 that Jesus came first to serve us:

For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

If we’re finding Christian service a burden, if we’re miserable and joyless, then Hindley suggests we examine our motives for service.

It could be we have a wrong view of God. If we’re serving Jesus so as to be good enough for him, or to get something from him, or to repay Jesus in some way, then we have forgotten the heart of the good news. Jesus came to serve us. This is his free gift to us. We don’t have to measure up, earn our way, or repay the debt. Relationship with God through Jesus is a free gift to be received joyfully.

We might also have a wrong view of people. Perhaps we’re serving to impress others, to receive their thanks or praise, or so that we feel like we are accepted and belong.

Joyless service could also stem from a wrong view of ourselves. Maybe we feel we are indispensable, that somehow Jesus needs us if he is going to be able to accomplish his purposes. Alternatively, we might be feeling like we don’t need Jesus. We’ve become activists who do things on our own, rather than praying for God to be at work in and through us.

Serving without Sinking shifts the attention away from us and puts it back on Jesus.

The counter-intuitive truth I’ve come to realise—the truth that prompted me to write this book—is that the only way to get our service of Jesus right is to realise that supremely, we don’t serve him. He serves us. (p45)

The truth that Jesus came to serve us, to give his life to ransom us for God, means we’ve been given free access to God. It doesn’t depend on our performance and because of this we are liberated to serve in joyful response.

The truth that we have been reconciled to Jesus leads us to serve him, not because we have to or need to, but because we are his friends. This is not about duty, or obligation, or simply obedience—it’s about relationship.

The truth that we have been united with Christ as his bride, draws us into the intimacy of relationship with him. He has sacrificed everything for us and is preparing us for eternity. Jesus is working through our service of him to get us ready for that great day when we will be fully joined with him.

The truth that we’ve been adopted into God’s family as sons, with full inheritance rights, to join in the family business, means we have the privilege of working with God. He doesn’t need us to help him, but he loves us doing so.

Grasping these truths refocuses our Christian service. It opens the door to rediscovering the joy and freedom that come through the gospel. It takes the heat off us. If the Christian life is reduced to our service of God then we will fail miserably. But if we take hold of God’s promises then we cannot fail. Jesus has done it all.

Moreover, Jesus continues to serve us. He intercedes for us today. Because Jesus prays for us, we don’t have to!

So prayer, like other ways of serving, is not something we need to do—it is something we are able to do; an opportunity to enjoy, not a chore to endure. (p84)

Jesus has also served us by sending us the Holy Spirit to enable us to serve him. This is the best gift he has to give, and he gives the Spirit to each one of his followers. Through the Spirit he equips us to serve by giving us gifts. Serving is not jobs that have to be done, but gifts to be unwrapped. These gifts are not for our sake, but gifts to be enjoyed by the church body.

The Spirit of God enables us to serve God with love. Loving God is not something I will do naturally, but something God’s Spirit grows in me. We can mistakenly think that if we simply obey God, then we will love him. However, it doesn’t work this way. Love will lead to service, but not the other way round. Love makes service joyful and free. If our service of Christ has become a burden, or stopped happening, we don’t need to try to obey more. We should ask your God to send his Spirit to work in our heart so that we are captured again by his love and service of us.

Serving without Sinking is a breath of fresh air. I pray that it will reignite our desire to love God leading to joyful service of God and others. If you’re feeling despondent, battle weary, or disillusioned in Christian service—take the time to read this book. If you’re worried that your brothers or sisters are becoming like this, then grab them a copy and talk about it together. If you’re a pastor, looking for ways to thank and encourage your leaders, then invest in multiple copies of this book.

One quick word to the author:

You’ve done a good job of helping women to see how they are included in the category of ‘sons’ of God. I think you need to do something similar to help men to appreciate how they can be part of the ‘bride’ of Christ. Maybe in the second edition!

My own personal breakdown

I’m 50 years of age. I feel 70. My doctor tells me that my body is behaving like a 70 year old. It’s a little scary. Stage IV lung cancer and 15 months of non-stop chemo can do that to you.

The lightest of exercise elevates my heart rate. I get breathless quickly. It’s hard to suck in enough air. It takes nothing to raise a sweat. A crushing feeling in the chest. Shooting pains from the lungs.

I get pins and needles in my feet and hands. Aches in my ankles. Heaviness in the soles of my feet. The signs of peripheral neuropathy. So I only wear shoes when I have to – nothing new there! We reduce the chemo and add some antidepressants. Folic acid and daily cymbalta seems to do the trick.

Headaches are common. A band round the head. Pulsing pain in the temples. Light-headed, dizzy, a cloudy feeling. Couple of panadols, it is.

Blood pressure out of control. Topping the charts one day. Normal the next. Too high overall. Fears of heart failure, strokes, heart attacks. Not to mess around with. We’ll see if daily ramipil antihypertensives bring things down.

Fatigue is growing. I can’t seem to wake up. Some days I spend more time in bed than out of it.

Rashes and redness. Blemishes and acne. Sometimes I feel like a 70 year old going through puberty. The dexamethasone steroids help for a while (don’t tell ASADA), and then we can try some claratine antihistamines, or we can just wait for it to go away.

The weight coming on, then going off, then going on more. Metabolism out of control. Unable to eat. Unable not to eat. The cravings. Self control, diet, careful eating, not too much. Sometimes I think, who cares.

The blood sugar. Getting way too high. Diabetic levels. What next? No lollies, no soft drinks, no chocolate, no jams. That’s all the food groups. What’s left? Exercise more. Get the heart rate up. Burn more sugar. Use up the fuel. I’ll probably have to take a drug for this problem too!

Add an allergic reaction to the contrasts used in the CT scan. Because I came out in hives, they won’t allow me to take it any more, lest I have a more serious anaphylactic reaction.

And then there’s just the overall feeling of being heavily poisoned. Argh!

Where will it stop? When will it stop? I don’t know. But I have a choice.

I can dwell on my problems, be filled with self-pity. I can hide from others, ignore the good, forget God, complain and grumble. I can become a completely selfish pain in the bum. I’ve got a ticket that gives me permission to become a totally self-obsessed whinging prat. It’s called cancer. It lets you get away with all kind of stuff.

Or…

photoI can take responsibility. Get enough sleep and rest. Exercise even when I don’t feel like it. Show restraint with my diet. Be patient when the side effects are worst. Push on with what hurts knowing that it’s an absolute privilege to receive the medical care I have available.

I can rejoice. I can give thanks for my beautiful wife, my fantastic children, my supportive friends, my praying church. I can thank my doctors and nurses. I can praise God for life and hope. I can look outward and love. I can share and give. I can serve and support. I can wonder at the many doors God has opened, for every one that’s closed. I can stop wishing for change and change my wishes. Better still, I can fall on my knees and thank God for his amazing grace to me in the Lord Jesus Christ.

My life is not my own. It was given me by God and I was bought at a price. I’ve already died to myself so that I should live to God. And I can still do this, whatever bits of me don’t work! If God gives me days and months and years, then they are for him. To show perseverance in the face of suffering. To exercise faith in the midst of doubts. To offer kindness when I feel mistreated. To be a friend when I’m lonely. When I am weakest, God can shine through in strength.

I can learn from the Word of God…

Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. 9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:7-10)

Consider it pure joy

Sickness, loneliness, trouble at work, struggles in marriage, financial pressure, wayward children, car accidents, overlooked for promotion, slandered, mocked, imprisoned, persecuted. Who wants a piece of that… any of it? And yet James writes in the Bible:

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds…  (James 1:2)

What was he thinking?! And he doesn’t simply say, look on the bright side, cheer up, things will get better. He says to consider it pure joy (or all joy) whenever you face trials. And he doesn’t restrict the range of trials. I take it this covers pretty much the full spectrum of nasty things that could happen to you. How do you adopt such a view of life? And is this any different to the power of positive thinking?

Perhaps we need to consider the meaning of joy. The temptation is to equate joy with happiness or a bubbly personality or a permanent smile. But joy runs deeper than an emotional response. It has to do with contentment and trust and confidence. In James’ words he calls us to a thinking response more than an emotional response. He’s not telling us how to feel about the trials we’re experiencing, he’s telling us how to think about our circumstances, to consider it pure joy when we face various trials. But why?

…because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.  (James 1:3)

The experience of facing trials puts our faith to the test. It shows up what’s real and not real. Theoretical faith is no faith at all. Genuine faith is shown by it’s action, it’s fruit, the changes it produces. And the real test is perseverance, keeping on when things are tough, and finishing the race.

Sadly, I know a number of people who have claimed to have faith in God, who’ve claimed to be Christian, who have said most of the right things… but when pain and difficulties and trials have come along their faith has proved wanting. Perhaps they were presented with a false picture of God – one where he’d remove anything undesirable – and it didn’t stand up to their experience. Maybe they hadn’t really come to the point of trusting God at all. When life is good, when we’re healthy, wealthy and happy, it’s easy to think we’re in control and not bother trusting in God.

Trials of various kinds give us the opportunity to live out our faith, to demonstrate a faith that works. I would never have planned it this way, but my experiences with cancer over the past year have given me many reasons to examine my faith and look again to God. Will I trust God with what I do not like? Can I be contented and joyful in the midst of painful chemotherapy? Can I count it as pure joy to have an ‘incurable’ lung cancer? Please note, I’m not saying that the cancer is a good thing. God is sovereign over all, but he teaches me that cancer, disease and death is part of this cursed world that he will ultimately restore. I don’t go looking for trials, but they will come and the question is how I respond when they do.

I’ve had a number of people say to me that they’ve been observing my faith more closely since I’ve got sick. They’ve heard me preach and teach and counsel people over the years, but now they are watching how I respond personally? Is my faith really real? Does it stand up? Will I persevere or turn away? My prayer is that I will persevere as my faith is tested and consider it pure joy when I face these and other trials, because of what God is doing through them.

One of my problems is that I’m so short sighted. All I can see is the immediate trial. Right now, it’s the effects of chemo: the headaches and nausea and rashes and fatigue. Another time it’s the struggle of a difficult relationship, or the criticism of others, or my disappointment in myself. God is calling me to get the bigger picture, to grasp his perspective. James continues…

Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.  (James 1:4)

The God who reveals himself in the Bible doesn’t promise health and prosperity… in this life. He doesn’t say that he will remove all our suffering and take away all our pain… in this life. But we can be confident that God is at work in all situations. He is growing our faith muscles against the resistance of trials and difficulties. He is strengthening us to persevere through the trials, that we might become mature and complete in him.

Do I always have this perspective? Sadly, no. Sometimes the end is hard to see behind all the hurt and the pain. And at these times God promises to help.

If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.  (James 1:5)

This is a wonderful promise. When we’re blinded to the truth of God at work in our lives, we should ask God for wisdom to see things more clearly, to see things through his eyes. And he promises to give generously. God knows it’s hard, he knows it hurts, he knows we’re weak, and he doesn’t find fault. He gives us the wisdom needed to be able to count it pure joy.

When I was younger I remember singing the song, ‘What a friend we have in Jesus’. It’s a great song, but I think this second verse means more to me now than it did back then…

Have we trials and temptations?
Is there trouble anywhere?
We should never be discouraged;
take it to the Lord in prayer.
Can we find a friend so faithful
who will all our sorrows share?
Jesus knows our every weakness;
take it to the Lord in prayer.

And so I will pray…

Heavenly Father,
Please give me the wisdom to see things your way.
Please help me to look beyond my current circumstances,
to be reminded that you are working within me,
to strengthen my faith,
to enable me to persevere,
and grow into maturity.
I ask that you will help me consider it pure joy as I face my trials.
Amen