David C. Hughes, Writer

“Whatever you do, do from the heart, as for the Lord and not for others” –Colossians 3:23 NABRE

Archive for the category “The Epiphany of Joy”

The Epiphany of Joy, Chapter 16: Joy in Suffering (4 of 4)

In America, we’re raised to be independent—it’s our national hegemony, our motto, our pride, our mission statement; we worship the self-made man, we idolize independence.  Our programming tells us asking for help is a sign of weakness, especially for men—just look at all the jokes about men not stopping and asking for directions.  What does that ever get us except a disgruntled wife and a car running on fumes out in the middle of nowhere!  But life is all about suffering, and that suffering ultimately leads to joy, pure joy, joy unfettered, the fruit of the Holy Spirit.  Why?  Because God is our Comforter, and our suffering and our weakness allows His full Glory to be manifested through our trials.

I love the Apostle Paul’s confession in his Second Letter to the Corinthians regarding his thorn.  “In order to keep me from becoming conceited,” Paul confessed, “I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.  Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me.  But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness’” (2 Corinthians 12:7b-9a).  Paul never elaborated about what his thorn actually was, but whether it was a speech impediment, an adversary, or bone spurs in his feet, he pressed on in his mission to preach the gospel despite his affliction.  Despite the thorn, Paul persevered.  Despite the thorn, Paul became one of the most influential early Christian leaders in church history.  Despite the thorn, he prevailed because God’s power triumphed over Satan’s attempt to extinguish the fire of the Spirit in Paul’s heart.  As I mentioned at the beginning of this book, joy is despite . . . .

This anecdote about Paul is one of my favorites because I can relate to it so well.  When suffering with depression and spasmodic dysphonia after my first wife left me, I prayed for God to take away the physical and mental manifestation of the evil pervading my life, especially because it seriously affected my job, my pursuit of writing, and my personal life.  But in the throes of my suffering, in the pit of depression, in the rage, the whining, the wall pounding, I continued to clench an idol I didn’t realize had so much power over me: pride.  It wasn’t until God purged out that sin, as He did Job’s, that my heart was opened to the deeper healing He intended for me throughout the entire experience.

When I finally released pride and gave in to Daddy’s discipline, compassion, and comfort, I began to heal spiritually, mentally, and physically.  For six years I relied on His grace and His sufficiency, and at the end of those six years He released me, seemingly overnight, from my thorn, my messenger of Satan.  “It is amazing how full Scripture is of comfort for mourners,” C.H. Spurgeon preached, “because the Lord’s objective is that the mourner be comforted.”[i]  Even though most of the time I didn’t realize it, God held my hand throughout that entire ordeal, He pressed my head against His bosom, He sang songs to me and held me tight.  He comforted me.

It’s funny, I’m an engineer by education, a man well-versed in mathematics, from simple arithmetic to calculus and differential equations.  Even though I struggled with it during high school, I comprehend math, I understand numbers, I “get” mathematical concepts given enough time.  I’ve lived in the world of mathematics the vast majority of my half-century existence, but it wasn’t until I was 49 years old and homeschooling my daughter when I learned that math is the study of patterns.  Doh!  No one had ever explained it to me that way before.  And here it was, laid out in plain English in a first grade homeschool curriculum!  It was a true epiphany—if a teacher had explained that to me back in say, oh, first grade, I may have done even better at it.

And with that revelation I put two and two together and arrived at this: our experience of life is much like mathematics.  God has laid out before us a challenge called life here on earth.  From the beginning—even before the beginning—He graciously planted in our hearts a specific pattern to which we’re drawn: His will, our dream.  He desires for us to live out that dream from the start, but the antagonists—other people, our pride and selfishness, Satan, the world at large—get in the way.  And so we suffer.  But God doesn’t give up on us.  In fact, He allows us to go through those challenges to discipline us, teach us, hone us, and toughen us up.  As the Apostle Paul assured in his letter to the Romans, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).

So for those of you who are mathematically inclined, here’s a little equation I came up with to explain the meaning of life:

 

∑ Suffering(time) = JOY!

time=0

 

For those who don’t give a whit about math, it all comes down to this: when put into the proper frame of reference, the sum of all of our suffering over the timespan of life here on earth equates to joy.  Factorial!

When I asked Zac Chapman what keeps him going, his response was inspiring: “I believe that God has, as Dad said, fully restored me, so I look forward to that day and I work toward it.  But I want to be sure I’m happy where I’m at, not just looking forward to that day, but that I’m content where I am.  And being content in doing that gives me hope, being happy where I am now.”

And that’s something we can all count on.

 

[i]  Spurgeon, C.H. “The Oil of Joy for Mourning,” Sermon #3341. Spurgeon Gems & Other Treasures of God’s Truth. 13 February 1913. Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit. 19 June 2013. http://www.spurgeongems.org/vols58-60/chs3341.pdf.

 

Copyright ©2014 by David C. Hughes

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The Epiphany of Joy, Chapter 16: Joy in Suffering (3 of 4)

As Christ-followers we are not immune to trials.  Jesus said so Himself: “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33b).  Not we “might” have trouble, not we “may” have trouble; no, we “will” have trouble.  That’s part of the hardening process, part of the raising up as warriors for the Kingdom.  But when we do have trouble, our job is to endure, hope, and hold on to our joy as our Daddy transforms us from sinfulness to holiness, from flesh to glory.  God’s in the demolition and rebuilding business; He holds our hands as He turns ashes into beauty and weeping into dancing.

Jesus has already overcome the world, and in that truth we are urged to trust He knows what He’s doing and to seek out the lessons He’s revealing as we undergo trials, no matter how severe.  All trials are life-changing, but it’s up to us to put into perspective the direction, depth, and character of that change.  As my wife put it, “Just because we’ve already won doesn’t mean we won’t have to fight the battles.  It doesn’t mean the devil isn’t going to win sometimes!”  But even when the devil wins, he still loses, because, in our case, a scoreless inning does not result in a lost game but a chance to review the film, adjust our strategy, and come back out swinging.

In his exhortation to the Jewish Christians, James encouraged the first-century followers of Christ to hold on to their joy even as they faced various sufferings: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, 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 1:2-4).  And what is our reward for this persistence?  Heaven.  “Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him” (James 1:12).

Jesus suffered, and we followers of Christ would be arrogant to think we could be immune to suffering.  Nowhere in the Bible does God promise life on earth would be easy.  Or fair.  Or painless.  “But he was pierced for our transgressions, /” wrote the prophet Isaiah, “he was crushed for our iniquities; / the punishment that brought us peace was on him, / and by his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5).  The point: Jesus suffered a horrible torture and death, yet His death restored our relationship with God and allowed us to approach the Throne of Glory without shame.  Jesus’ suffering led to pure joy, for God and for us, and because He modeled suffering for us, we should not expect to be spared, even to death, because we can’t even begin to fathom what Jesus went through.

Just look at the apostles: of the eleven original apostles who remained faithful to Jesus, ten of them suffered horrific deaths as martyrs.  The Apostle Paul spent a good portion of his ministry chained up, a prisoner for his bold proclamation of the gospel, before being put to death.  And history flows with the blood of countless others who have sacrificed—and continue to sacrifice—their lives defending the Good News.  God expects us to take up our own cross and follow Him, even into the throes of immense suffering, for His glory and for our perfection.

But is it really possible to get to a point in your life where, like Paul, you can experience joy while chained to a prison wall?  Or to maintain joy while suffering persecution like the Thessalonian church and the other oppressed Christian communities he ministered to?  Or, as tradition has it, to be as joyful as the Apostle James the Greater appeared to be when he faced beheading?  He exuded so much confidence that a false witness who had testified against him became convinced of Jesus’ true nature and was beheaded along with the apostle with the same sword.[i]

“You can still experience joy through suffering because of what God heals you from,” explained Renee Crenshaw, Women’s Pastor at New River Fellowship.  Like many folks, I’d struggled to wrap my arms around James’ exhortation in his epistle to consider it pure joy whenever we suffer.  How could the pain, the depression, the rage, the overwhelming darkness of what I’d been through in the past be considered “pure joy?”  To me it was pure hell.  I couldn’t relate.  But Renee shined the light of truth on my exasperation: we can look back on the things of the past from which we’ve been delivered and experience joy now.  We can take what was created for evil and, with God’s grace and guidance, flip it upside down and use it for the benefit of the Kingdom.  Like Jesus’ death on the cross, joy, as Renee explained, “changes our perspective on what happened to us.”

When she was a little girl her parents turned a deaf ear to the fights between her siblings.  “My brothers had knock-down drag-outs where the big kid was always beating on the little kid.  It was a Sunday tradition,” she said.  The family would arrive home from church and her brothers would start fighting.  “I thought it was normal, that the biggest brother got to beat up the little brother, with the kids screaming for mercy.”  Because of this experience, Renee made a vow that her own children would never treat each other that way.  “And they don’t.  Our kids usually don’t speak ill of each other.  They just don’t fight.  So what the enemy tried to make for evil has turned out completely different.  Of course, we didn’t do it perfectly, but I still think we can experience joy after the fact.  He takes the ashes and turns them into beauty.”

As Renee related, my life has also been one of both joy and suffering, but along the way I’ve come to realize the only way to learn the really big lessons in life—the epiphanies—is to go through hell and emerge on the other side, not unscathed, but wiser.  One of the most effective ways to grow is to face suffering head on, not avoid it.  We need to suffer.  We need to fail.  Mary and I both tell Hannah there’s nothing wrong with failure, that failure is part of learning.  If I was successful at everything I did, would I ever learn?  No, I’d be bloated with pride, a lesson for others in how not to live life.  Worse, would I ever learn dependence on God?

 

[i] “The Apostle James (Son of Zebedee).” BiblePath.com. n.d. 6 November 2013. www.biblepath.com/james.html.

 

(continued)

Copyright ©2014 by David C. Hughes

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