Dearest Rachel –
It seems like a very long time ago since I last felt this way, but there was a time when I thought life was good… too good. We were happy together, both as a couple and as a family. We had plans to enjoy this or that, and whatever problems we were dealing with at the time wasn’t really all that big of a deal. Even the awful situation at work we knew was only temporary; sooner or later, I’d be able to leave, and we’d have the rest of our lives to enjoy together with all that behind us.
And every so often, I wondered if there wasn’t something wrong with that contentment:
The only ·temptation [or trials] that has come to you is ·that which everyone has [L (common to) human life]. But ·you can trust God [God is faithful], who will not permit you to be tempted more than you can stand. But when you are tempted, he will also give you a way to escape so that you will be able to ·stand [endure] it.1 Corinthians 10:13, Expanded Bible (emphasis added)
Looking at that verse one way (at least how I’ve emphasized a certain section), he would suggest God gives us no more in the way of trials than He thinks we can handle. And if things are going too well, I’ve concluded, it’s because either a.) God doesn’t think I can handle any more adversity than what I already have, or b.) Satan doesn’t feel the need to tempt me, because he has me in his back pocket already. Either way, it’s almost insulting.
At the same time, of course, the last thing I would ever ask for in such circumstances is more adversity. Why in heaven’s name would anyone ever ask for worse times to come upon them?
And yet, it would seem that suffering was more a part of the Christian experience than prosperity and comfort. There was never any guarantee of the latter, more pleasant outcome, but the former was all but guaranteed by Jesus Himself.
In this world you will have ·trouble [persecution; suffering], but ·be brave [take courage/heart]! I have ·defeated [victory over; conquered; overcome] the world.John 16:33b, Expanded Bible (emphasis added)
So if you’re not having trouble, doesn’t that call your faith into question?
But it’s not like the prosperity gospel is new to living memory; Jesus also felt the need to point out how riches did not necessarily translate to holiness, and indeed, served as an impediment to true service to God. But this was because the religious leaders taught (based on various passages in the Proverbs) that righteous living would be rewarded by prosperity, and therefore, prosperity was proof of righteous living.
It makes me wonder if these leaders ever bothered to teach their congregations from Ecclesiastes – written by the same man who wrote most of the Proverbs – lamenting the fact that this was not always the case; that sometimes, the wicked would prosper and the righteous did not. And if they did, how did they reconcile that to their audience?
My brothers and sisters [C fellow believers], when you have many kinds of ·troubles [trials; testing], ·you should be full of joy [L consider it all/pure joy], because you know that these troubles test your faith, and this will give you ·patience [perseverance; endurance].James 1:2-3, Expanded Bible
So apparently, God feels that I am capable of dealing with this, and at some point in time because of it, I (and hopefully, Daniel as well) will come out stronger in my faith because of it. Somehow, He has determined that I am qualified enough that I can endure this suffering – and maybe set some sort of example to others going through something similar.
And because of these things, I should be happy about it all. But I have to tell you, I’m not, really. It’s not a pleasant experience, after all – which should stand to reason, I suppose; suffering by its very nature isn’t. Presumably, the results are worth it; if not for me, for those who observe it.
We still speak of Job and his (almost literal) legendary endurance throughout his trials – including and especially the accusations of his so-called friends (and they did get called out for it by God Himself, no mistake – although the young bystander, Elihu, raises certain questions that are completely ignored by everyone else in the book, which I may talk about another time), so what he went through has been of benefit and perhaps even comfort to so many in the intervening centuries.
Additionally, he even received as much back afterwards as he had before – although that’s certainly not guaranteed to the suffering Christian, and in any event, the idea that a new crop of children makes up for those previously lost seems to me to deny the individual humanity of his original, unnamed, progeny. Do those souls count for nothing? And for that matter, were this second generation borne of the same woman who insisted that her suffering husband “curse God and die”? Why reward her as well, despite a lack of faithfulness (however humanly understandable) on her part? Of course, perhaps it could be argued that going through childbirth that many times might be considered punishment enough… but that’s imposing current values on an ancient story, most likely.
So, yes, suffering is to our own benefit, but not entirely; it can benefit others in turn, and sometimes in ways we will never know, nor be around to see.
All of this began to come to mind this last week, as Pastor Joel’s Wednesday evening classes resumed in-person instruction, and began the series on I Peter. One of the first passages he seized upon was this:
These ·troubles [trials; testings] come ·to prove that your faith is pure [to test and prove the authenticity of your faith; C a test that proves the genuineness of a valuable metal]. This ·purity of faith [or tested and proven authenticity] is ·worth more [more precious; more valuable] than gold, which can be ·proved to be pure [tested and proven authentic] by fire [Ps. 66:10; Prov. 17:3; 27:21; Zech. 13:9; Mal. 3:3] but ·can [or will] be destroyed. But the ·purity [tested and proven authenticity] of your faith will bring you praise and glory and honor ·when Jesus Christ is shown to you [L at the revelation of Jesus Christ].1 Peter 1:7, Expanded Bible
The morning after the accident – and you have to understand, I was on the phone with the organ donation organization at around two in the morning, going over what details I could remember of your medical history to confirm that you were in good health and disease-free at the time of your death – Daniel and I were awake and out the door and attending the first service at church, much to the shock of a number of people, it would seem.
I’m not saying this to try and win kudos or brownie points – who would I get them from? God doesn’t give those sorts of things out, and you are in no place to do so either – but just to point out that this was all the two of us could find to do at that point, or any point since. I’ve said it before, but if I couldn’t actually praise God in this, my “lowest valley,” I should lose all right to ever sing those words honestly again. Maybe it was as much out of habit as any real perceived need – and I will acknowledge being somewhat numb at the time, both from shock and the lack of sufficient sleep the night before – but it was what we both felt we should do.
It still isn’t easy, honey. It’s strange, being the one to be diligently taking notes, now that you aren’t, because it seems like somebody ought to (Oh, didn’t I let you know? They’ve started printing bulletins out again these days; so yeah, I’m filling them out, to add to those boxes of your sermon notes Jan and I dug up throughout the house and now have essentially consigned to a single place in the basement for future reference for a lifetime’s worth of Sundays to come). I’m not entirely sure that I’m really getting anything out of the process, but maybe it will come to me, however slowly, as I build new habits into my routine (which in itself has to be rebuilt from the foundations). Maybe the house of my psyche will indeed be stronger for it all.
Until then, honey, wish me luck. As always, I’m going to need it.