Monday, 13 January 2014

A Journey through hardship to Joy

"...We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us" (Romans 5:3-5)

First light filters through a slit in the curtains. As the cat jumps lightly from her perch onto the bed, minuscule particles of dust take flight and dance in the sun. It takes a child's perspective to appreciate this, rather than to yank the blanket off the bed and drag it to the laundry basket. For ages and ages woman have waged war against dust, defiantly collecting on every surface as soon as we turn our backs. But a child will point out that even dust can momentarily be transformed into something magical. Like dew on web-covered spider's traps, weedy dandelion flowers in the morning sun, a rotting log with lichen and moss clinging to the crumbling bark.

We have the same urge when faced with hardships and suffering. We pray fervently for God to remove it, to let the cup pass us by. We praise God for His goodness, but can we trust Him for His faithfulness? Or perhaps I should rather ask - Do we trust Him to be faithful? Why does he allow trials to manifest in our lives? Or does it happen merely because we live in a broken world? Should we just grit our teeth and wait for the wheel to turn in our favour again? Or should we fight it with every ounce of strength, with every source available and as many possible allies cheering us on...?

At the very beginning of James, addressed to the twelve tribes (Jewish Christians) scattered throughout the world he writes: "Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds". This is a letter written by "James the Just", half-brother of Jesus, encouraging His followers far and wide with an opening phrase that carries quite a paradox. Trials are usually associated with a way of resolving a dispute or a trespass, but here the word translated as "trials" signifies affliction, persecution, or testing of any kind.

Would we ever think of trials as occasions for joy? My mom used to brush out my wispy knotted hair quoting the Dutch anecdote: "wie mooi wil gaan, moet pyn doorstaan". (You need to endure pain to be beautiful). James reminds us that the testing of our faith develops perseverance and that perseverance must finish its work so that we may be mature and complete, not lacking anything... That should be reason for joy, but not the joy associated with times of wealth and health, but with the deep deep knowledge that He loves us. As a redeemer, a shepherd, but also as a loving Father, wanting his children to grow, not remain spiritually stagnant.

Not all that long ago, when faced with a severe test of my faith, I found that my first reaction was to roll up into a little ball and feel betrayed. Engulfed in waves of self-pity I pounded my fists into my pillow, spat out bitter words against the God who dared to let me go through yet another nightmare. The sweet dream of "perfection" seemed so short-lived, so marred, the promise of a new beginning mockingly untrue. Joy seemed like a cloud that drifted past, allowing me a short passage afloat, before I tumbled back into reality.

"Reality" was not the nightmare I felt trapped by, and my perception of joy was self-centered and worldly. Being forced to my knees was reason enough for rejoycing, and after a time it became not only a life-line, but a time when the darkness would lift and the voice singing was my own. And when I could not sing, I would play music to His glory, cleansing the atmosphere of doubt and replacing it with trust. When I could neither pray nor sing, I had faithful prayer partners who waged this war in the spirit with me. But it required patience. The kind of patience that does not describe a passive waiting but an active endurance.

Faith is tested through trials, not produced by trials. Trials reveal what faith we do have; not because God doesn't know how much faith we have, but so that our faith will be evident to ourselves and to those around us. When trials are received with faith, it produces patience. Yet patience is not the inevitable result of hardship. If difficulties are received in unbelief and grumbling, trials can produce bitterness and discouragement. This is why James encourages us to count it all joy. "Counting it all joy" is faith's response to a time of trial.

"Patience must not be an inch shorter than the affliction. If the bridge reaches but half-way over the brook, we shall have but ill-favoured passage. It is the devil's desire to set us on a hurry." (Trapp)

If faith is tested, it shows that faith is important and precious - because only precious things are tested so thoroughly. "Faith is as vital to salvation as the heart is vital to the body: hence the javelins of the enemy are mainly aimed at this essential grace." (Spurgeon)

Trials, hard times and suffering can prove a wonderful work of God in us. I can so much relate to this quote by Spurgeon when he said: "I have looked back to times of trial with a kind of longing, not to have them return, but to feel the strength of God as I have felt it then, to feel the power of faith, as I have felt it then, to hang upon God's powerful arm as I hung upon it then, and to see God at work as I saw him then."

God's powerful arm is always there for us to "hang upon", His loving arms always there to hold us when we hurt, His face turned towards us when we cry out. We are not victims of circumstance, hapless and without hope. We are victors in Christ, reminded through each trial, that however hard it may seem, He endured more. He cares, He knows and He is faithful.

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