One of the hardest and most cruel-sounding pieces of advice to those going through grim times is to ‘consider it joy’. I can remember when one of the worst times in my life coincided with Matt Redman’s song Blessed be your name. How I loathed that song! And how I loathed it being used as a weapon against me to try and make me feel guilty because I wanted to smash God’s divine teeth in rather than lifting my hands to him in grateful praise. Only later did I discover the tragic circumstances in which the song had been written, and its life-setting as anything but glib advice.
The Bible is full of stuff we’d much rather not hear on the subject of suffering, very little of which comes into the category of ‘You poor sausage!’. To be told, when your life is in pieces, that you ought to be rejoicing, can feel like being kicked where it hurts while you’re already down. Throughout my ministry I’ve tried hard to avoid such glib-sounding and patronising advice to people for whom I’m trying to care.
But as I’ve been going through the mill myself, I have gradually found that Bible passages like these, far from being the final straws which crush me, have become glorious promises of hope. I guess this might not be the kind of thing you’ll be able to hear easily from me, as I didn’t in the past hear it easily from others, but the greater the depth of my despair, the more important to me it has seemed that there might after all be some point to it all, that the Divine Potter is indeed moulding and shaping me through the pounding and pulling apart of who I am. As I seem to spin out of control, the idea that some skilled and loving hands are actually using the nauseating motion to shape who I am seems about the only hope I can muster.
Two passages have become important for me. James 1 invites us to ‘consider it pure joy’ when life kicks us in the teeth. If we survive not only will we learn perseverance, but we’ll also become ‘mature and complete’. I love the word ‘consider’, which means ‘treat it as though’. Of course suffering isn’t joyful, but to live through it as though it were is the path to maturity. I think I’m learning this by keeping one eye on the big picture, realising that in spite of his apparent absence God is actually at work for my ultimate good. That doesn’t make life any easier, but it does on a good day help to rob it of its greatest downer, the apparent meaninglessness of it all.
I also love Hebrews 12:11, another verse in a passage about the value of hardship and discipline. The writer acknowledges that ‘no discipline seems pleasant at the time’. This is no glib grit-your-teeth-and-keep-smiling passage: by admitting that it hurts much credibility is given to the call to endure it anyway, believing by faith that it is doing you good.
Missionary doctor John White tells the story of being with the family in a remote area and having his son fall and split his face open. He had no instruments, no anaesthetic, but only a small sewing kit, and he recounts the horror of having to hold down his screaming son while he stitched up the wound. It was desperately painful for all concerned, but for his son’s healing it had to be done. I guess the time came when he grew up and could realise that, and even thank his dad for doing it, but probably not immediately.
Having surgery and radiotherapy for cancer was no picnic, but I got through it by believing that it was doing me good, and would lead ultimately to health. In fact a doctor who decided to do nothing just because it might hurt me would be in serious neglect of his duties. I’m coming to realise that a God who doesn’t let us suffer would be just as bad, and I’m learning, not to enjoy it, but at least to consider it joy by trying to see through to the ultimate purpose of it all.