Suffering and Thanksgiving

If there is one thing that characterizes every epoch of human history, and all of life at one point or another, it is testing through suffering. Suffering brings out what is truly inside us, whether bitterness or gratitude, anger or forgiveness, anxiety or peace. Even as an orange reveals the juice hidden inside as pressure is applied, a person’s character is revealed as suffering is applied, testing what is inside. More often than not, the character revealed by suffering is disappointing… in need of transformation.

I can imagine James’ gnarled hand shakily tracing his letter with the images of all those he has seen suffer and die flash before his mind’s eye. It began with his big brother. The one he mocked. The one he thought was full of himself or even insane. He saw his big brother tortured and eventually nailed to the cross. The vice of the pressure of the cross was screwed tighter and tighter and tighter until the pressure revealed his brother’s character as he gasped “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

James’ view of his brother was forever transformed. He was not arrogant or insane. He truly was the Son of God. The ultimate test revealed the ultimate truth.

When James speaks of the suffering that tests us, he says to “rejoice.”

This context of rejoicing seems to be almost directly tied into the testing that James is referring to, but not only the testing, what the testing produces, and that is a desire for wisdom. What is wisdom? Later on in chapter 3 we see James define wisdom in terms of the fruit of the Spirit: “the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere” (3:17).

This rejoicing is not because of the testing itself, but where the testing pushes us, what it presses us into, and that is to cry out to God, pleading with Him to transform us, make Him more like His Son… the fruit of the Spirit.

This can almost be seen as a parallel to Paul’s words in Romans 5: “We also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” We rejoice not because of the suffering, but because that suffering produces a hope in us that was not present prior to the suffering.

One can almost see James’ eyes, lined by suffering, as they begin to fill with tears of love and compassion. As he gets up to read in front of those who have suffered so much, he says to them “rejoice, for the testing in the form of suffering is transforming you. You are becoming like Christ.”

Suffering has no value of its own. There is no redemptive power in suffering itself. There is no reason to seek suffering. But when we do suffer, as children of God, as heirs, there is the possibility that we will be transformed, if we ask Him to transform us, that we will become more like Christ, more and more prepared to take that final step, that step into Christ’s presence.

Suffering can prepare us for that day, if we allow Christ to use suffering in our lives for this purpose.

Paul spends chapters and chapters soaking in these truths: the resurrection, the joy to come, the death of death, the victory of Christ, the glory to come.

There is also this mystery about sharing in Christ’s suffering. When we do, we will also share in His glory. This suffering will one day end. It will. And what is to come will be so unutterably beyond what we can ask or imagine, the suffering we experience here will fade in comparison.

Adoniram Judson, missionary to Burma in the mid-1800’s, a man who suffered terribly all his life, put it this way:

“Nor does [Jesus] intend a happiness eternally stationary. It will be eternally increasing… As their capacities will be eternally enlarging, the quantity of happiness they enjoy will be eternally increasing; and not merely eternally increasing in the same ratio, but eternally increasing in an eternally accelerated ratio. So that there will unquestionably arrive a moment in the ages of eternity when the additional happiness, that instant superadded to the happiness already enjoyed by each glorified spirit, will almost instantly outweigh the whole sum of human happiness enjoyed in this world. To all this may he aspire who is a lover of Jesus. Blessed Jesus, thou art no “[miserly] provider.” When thou givest, thou givest like a God.

– Adoniram Judson

Oh God, may we take every step on this earth with Your glory in view, never forgetting what You suffered for us, that we may one day share in Your glory.

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