It’s one thing to be robbed of health but it’s an altogether more horrible thing to be robbed of purpose and joy.
Monday was a happy day. Annie felt physically very well and strong. She was able to spend the day (and the evening) visiting others and in the afternoon we were even able to enjoy a lunch appointment together at one of our favourite little restaurants in town.
Tuesday was a difficult day. Tuesday felt like cancer furiously demanded payback for the day before. Annie spent almost the entire day laid out flat, exhausted and in discomfort. In one respect it was a very slow morning; the kind of morning where Annie was so weak that I needed to help wash and dress her. In another respect it wasn’t so slow as the afternoon was upon us before we’d really felt like we’d had chance to achieve anything significant. By Wednesday morning Annie’s frustration was quickly turning into despair and I just spent time sat on the bed holding Annie, the silence only broken by her crying.
On those Tuesdays and Wednesdays in life, it’s really hard to feel like you have purpose in life. I know that Annie feels more pathetic than purposeful on days like that. And while for me, on those days my purpose is to take care of my wife and take care of the things she usually does, it’s still really difficult for me. It’s not the extra work that is difficult for me as much as it is to see how Annie feels commensurately pathetic as she watches me take on these extra things in her weakness. I’m getting to understand the washing machine more comprehensively, write shopping lists more fluidly and navigate the labyrinths of Tesco more confidently; but I’m not celebrating this progress when it comes at the expense of Annie’s inability to gratefully and joyfully do so.
But thank the Lord for Wednesday evenings. Yesterday evening both Annie and I were especially grateful that we were able to make it to our home group fellowship together. Often we can’t predict that Annie’s good health will synchronise and coincide with our church-life calendar and on many past occasions she has been too sick to join us in our home group fellowship.
When I arrive at the home where our fellowship group meets, I always get a warm welcome and a hug from our host but when I arrive with Annie, there’s the added, almost tangible, sense of joyful surprise and thanks! I get that same feeling when I look across the room and see Annie with us.
Yesterday, we commenced a new bible study series on the New Testament book of James and started off with a timely study on finding joy amidst trials.
Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds – James 1:2
Nobody really welcomes trials.
Sure, you hear people say things like, “I love a good challenge!” but, having said the same thing myself, what they really mean is that they love a challenge that is just on the boundary of what they know they can find the resources to deal with successfully.
When I was married I came equipped with enough skill to fix a PC and barely enough to change a lightbulb (a poster boy for the computer-generation!). But over time I learned to build and construct and repair things with wood, metal, paint, bolts, drills, saws and hammers – things beyond my experience; I achieved those things simply through welcoming a good challenge and using what I did have to acquire the knowledge and skills to learn and do that which I had never done before.
I don’t believe that people naturally welcome a trial.
Sure, people will attempt Everest and bungee jump over crocodile infested waters but nobody without cancer welcomes cancer as a good challenge; nobody loves the trial that comes with the sickness or death of a loved one; nobody in their right mind warmly embraces a bout of deep, personal depression.
For Christians, the bible actually connects trials of all kinds (physical, mental and spiritual) with joy. The bible teaches that even in the midst of painful, difficult and unwelcome trials, a Christian can experience pure joy.
Speaking as one half of a couple going through trials, I know that this doesn’t mean we’re manically laughing and skipping each hour. We’ve cried more in the last few months than we have done in a long time and it’s been a good while since Annie skipped – some days she can barely walk. This morning, Annie got on the scales and discovered she had lost another pound and is now down to 8 stone 5.5 pounds (117.5 pounds); not exactly a moment that makes either of us feel light on our feet especially considering the fact that she’s been eating (and even tackled a donut at home group last night!) and nausea-free for a good week.
It’s neither my experience nor my belief that the joy James wrote about is a new default reaction that Christians are endowed with the moment they turn their lives over to Jesus. The very fact that James has to instruct believers to ‘consider it pure joy’ tells me that we discover this joy through a process, not programming. If, as Christians, we were pre-programmed to immediately experience overwhelming joy with every trial then would we really ever be able to distinguish the journey through a dark valley from a walk in the park? And consequently how would we be able to empathetically draw alongside struggling believers (and unbelievers!) and relate the sincere love, supreme power and complete sufficiency of Jesus?
What James writes in those verses is one of the many reasons I struggle with people who profess to follow Jesus but also insist that walking with Him means being free of trials. The idea that God wants Christians to be healthy, wealthy and cancer-free while they walk this earth wasn’t one that James or any of the other apostles shared. And was that idea what Jesus had in mind when He told His followers to take up their cross – an instrument of death – and follow Him?
But absolutely, God wants His people to find and experience pure joy during trials. And from what James writes, the bridge between trial and joy is wisdom that cannot be found in the world, or within us but can be given to us by God.
After writing about trials James immediately writes about wisdom.
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
Often, when trials come, we just wish for a way out but God encourages us to ask for wisdom. Rather than just ask for a change of circumstances He encourages us to (also) ask for a change of attitude towards our circumstances.
I don’t think this means it’s wrong to ask for a way out or a change in circumstances. The night before Jesus faced the horror of the cross, His prayer request also included a plea for a way out. But Jesus also knew that enduring the trial of the cross would lead to greater joy. Jesus knew His Father’s will. He understood the difference between a worldly wisdom perspective on trials and God’s wisdom, which knew and saw the bigger, greater picture.
We need wisdom that comes from God to help us perceive our trials in a way that leads to great joy, not great fear and despair. And after last night’s home group, Annie and I were encouraged again to ask the Lord for that wisdom; to see things the way He sees things; to see the bigger picture; to understand the purpose of this trial – even when at times, things look pathetic.
Even ‘The Big C’ will be robbed of its terror and bleakness when you look at it the way God looks at it. While we continue to pray that God would remove the cancer, we also pray that He would use it to do great things for His glory in this world.
Trial, wisdom and joy is not all James writes of in those first few verses. He also writes about perseverance.
because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. – James 1:3
For those of you that are cross-bearing, followers of Jesus, our plea is that you would continually pray that we would receive this wisdom daily and experience the joy that follows. Please also pray that in pursuit of that joy-destined wisdom from God, we’d be given the strength to persevere; that as we persevere we’d also see a purpose in what ordinarily seems to be pathetic.