It is remarkable to me that the man in the Bible with the most healthy perspective on suffering also speaks the most about joy. It’s like Paul had some secret reservoir of joy that carried him through the hardship of being a pioneer messenger of the Cross. Or maybe he discovered joy along the way, because he had learned how to speak truth to himself in suffering. He would probably answer Yes to both ideas. When you read his letters to the early believers, and see how instruction gives way seamlessly to worship and thanks-giving, you catch a glimpse of the inner streams of joy that energized him. And is it any wonder that the bulk of what we call the New Testament comes from this man? It’s like God laid out Paul, his life and experiences and all that wisdom for us, and said “watch and learn, people.”
Lately I have been pondering the way we avoid hardship and pain at all costs. We chase happiness as persistently as our neighbors, even while nodding our heads that this world doesn’t satisfy, and all we really need is Jesus. Wouldn’t you think that people who follow the One called “man of suffering, and familiar with pain” (Isaiah 53:3) would be a little more comfortable with it themselves? Paul seemed to take hardship as a matter of course– and sure the ancient world was a difficult place to survive, but maybe we rationalize his perspective away too easily as a function of his surroundings, and assume that if he grew up in America he would have more modern expectations for his life. Have we lost some valuable perspectives along the way, in our all-out pursuit of happiness and prosperity?
I know well that the gap between what our heads believe and what our hearts want can spread impossibly wide, and it isn’t until the hard times come that you have to choose which direction to leap. And I have found myself holding on for dear life to the words of Scripture, not so much out of certainty in what I believed, as in the knowledge that if I let go of this faith there was nowhere else to turn…nothing else that rings this true. The father looking for his child’s healing was in the same white-knuckled place when he cried out, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24) Here is stripped-bare honesty, a man pushed to his limits, and though he does not have the eloquence to say it in theological terms, he is hanging onto the same truth the famous Church-Planter learned. Paul wrote it out this way: “for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:10). Clearly he had learned some valuable secret in his life-struggles, and although it sounds like an absolutely terrible marketing slogan for a new belief-system, it does ring out with the authority of experience. Here is a man who has learned that when you hang onto the Savior, you have everything you need.
And it is strange but true– when you run out of your own ability and throw yourself upon the mercy of God, suddenly what felt like giving up becomes a solid place to stand. Not the kind of thing you learn while lining up your ducks in neat rows. I wonder, if our lives were all comfortable safety, would we ever even realize the fatal gap between the theology we believe with our heads and the theology we live out in the everyday? And isn’t that discovery, and the opportunity to grow up into what we believe, totally worth it, in the long run? No wonder Paul could write “But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord…” (Philippians 3:7-8) Considering that the only thing that will last in this world is our life in Christ, that kind of Ah-ha moment can turn suffering into priceless gain.
I remember the exact day I realized that Paul wasn’t just saying all the right things, setting up ideals and principles for people to follow. It was a grasping-onto-straws kind of day, and one of those moments when you read a familiar passage of Scripture and suddenly the light turns on. Paul wrote “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation….I can do all this through Him who gives me strength.” (Philippians 4:12-13) Somehow it stepped right out of the flat impersonal page and into the mess of everyday life. I do know what it is to cry out for help, to need wisdom, need patience. I also know what it is to have a happy day when everything is running smoothly. The one constant in both situations is the presence of Jesus’ Spirit and His power at work in me. This I know because I have lived it. Paul’s secret to getting through any situation was to live through both good times and terrible times, experience them fully, and find God standing there with him in the middle of it all. And when you can say honestly, because it is tried-and-true, “The Lord is my shepherd; I have all that I need” (Psalm 23:1), there is joy.
See, Paul understood that when you are desperate and at the end of yourself, you are in exactly the right place to experience the riches of the Kingdom of God. The same inexorable grace that washes the rags of beggars clean drives nails into the hands of God, and the same persistent mercy that heals the outcast lepers trims away our self-indulgence so that we can fall headlong into the Everlasting Arms. I am slowly, slowly learning how big is the over-arching power of God and how consistent is His attention to detail. How good are His intentions toward me, how seriously He takes them, and how little I understand what He is doing. But what I need to know best is His heart, and that He has already given me, laid bare at the Cross. That I can trust.
A wise man once told me that trust and fear cannot live in the same place. If I want to know the secret of joy in suffering that Paul talked about, then all I need is to release my death-grip on the life I think I need, and accept the childlike life of trust that Jesus died to give me. Let my hands simply open.
Because I AM is unbelievably with us, we can say even now: I am unbelievably safe.Ann VosKamp
Anyone who intends to come with Me has to let Me lead. You’re not in the driver’s seat; I am. Don’t run from suffering; embrace it. Follow Me and I’ll show you how. Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, My way, to finding yourself, your true self. What kind of deal is it to get everything you want but lose yourself? What could you ever trade your soul for?Matthew 16:25 (The Message)