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?
Copyright ©2014 by David C. Hughes