A number of years ago, a friend invited me to do a Bible study on Job. ‘Oh, thanks so much, but I just don’t have time right now,’ I said, shushing my inner woman, who was screaming, ‘Are you kidding me? Life is GOOD. Doing a study on Job is practically asking God to rain down suffering and loss and pain. You knock yourself out. I’ll be over here sipping lemonade and reading Philippians.’
Within a fairly short time span, my husband was laid off, I miscarried, and I had two major spine surgeries. Then for the encore, the aliens came and abducted my sweet, toothy 12-year-old and replaced him with a teenager.
I wish I had just done the study on Job.
There’s something about suffering that makes us want to run, isn’t there? But as David did when he faced Goliath, I’m betting on you to run toward the battle the next time you face one.
Trust me, we’ll get there. And joy is waiting.
FIRST, THE BAD NEWS.
I won’t sugarcoat it. There’s no path to being Christlike that doesn’t go through the cross. It’s the place where our brokenness—our broken mess—meets His broken body. To be like Christ is to suffer as He suffered. Andrew Murray, in his masterful 31-day devotional Abiding in Christ, put it this way: ‘There is fellowship between Christ’s sufferings and your sufferings. His experiences must become yours.’
Why? The answer is found in a single, hard-fought word: More.
Suffering makes us more like the Son. We become more dependent, more obedient, and more yielded, as Murray writes, ‘to the entire surrender of self-will.’ Suffering is a vital, brutal ingredient to abiding with Jesus as our Savior and friend.
This is such a tricky idea to navigate if you’ve suffered abuse, abandonment, or rejection. What kind of divine plan could possibly include these things? This is such fragile territory, but may I encourage you to pause at this critical fork in the road? You can push Jesus away and become bitter, or you can allow Him to draw you near and make you better, knowing that in the abuse, abandonment, and rejection He suffered, He uniquely understands how awful it was for you, too. Others delighted in His hurt, too. Someone He loved betrayed Him, too.
Even when our suffering is self-inflicted or simply rooted in the realities of living in a world where hatred, furious free will, illness, and death seem to be winning—trials take us into deep waters.
Jesus Himself invites us into this depth in John 15:5 when He says, ‘I am the vine, you are the branches.’ I used to picture a soft sunset illuminating a Tuscan vineyard when I read this passage until Murray jolted me into what Jesus was really saying. The grafting of a branch into a vine is achieved only through wounding. ‘In the death of the cross, Christ was wounded, and in His open wounds a place prepared where we might be grafted in,’ Murray writes.
Vinedressers know that the grafting of a branch is traumatic to a vine. They also know that for the graft to take hold, the vine and the graft must be cut to fit each other. In other words, we are compatibly wounded with Christ so that we might be intentionally fused together with Him in order to grow.
All that cutting.
All that pain.
BUT HERE, FINALLY, IS SOME GOOD NEWS.
A successful graft into a healthy vine yields health and abundance and fruit. If we accept His offer—if we cut away from our old lives to graft our lives into His, and if we abide in Him and bear fruit—the result, according to Jesus Himself, is joy. ‘I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.’ John 15:11 (NIV)
I wonder if this is what James was referring to when he urged fellow believers to consider it pure joy when they faced trials of many kinds.
CONSIDER IT PURE JOY? SURE.
James was my kind of writer. A no-frills straight shooter, James was the guy who said faith without works is dead. End of story. Done. So we can be sure when he wrote ‘consider it pure joy’ he wasn’t just giving us a sounds-nice slice of self-help or a poetic embellishment of pop wisdom. No, James was offering us a survival guide for suffering.
‘The joy of the Lord is your strength,’ (a passage from the Old Testament book of Nehemiah) would have been familiar to James. He would have understood the context. In that Nehemiah passage, the people rejoiced even though they knew hard days were coming.
In other words, they considered it pure joy when they faced trials of many kinds.
We can’t muscle our way to joy, but we can joy our way to strength. Our joy in the Lord is what makes us strong. We get so hung up on the ‘consider it pure joy’ phrase, because who actually does that except the people who study the book of Job for fun? But here’s the reality: joy is our strength and strength gets us through trials. I love how Eugene Peterson renders James 1:2-4 in The Message:
“Consider it a sheer gift, friends, when tests and challenges come at you from all sides. You know that under pressure, your faith-life is forced into the open and shows its true colors. So don’t try to get out of anything prematurely. Let it do its work so you become mature and well-developed, not deficient in any way.”
Do you see what’s waiting there at the end if we don’t try to squirm away from the struggle? We step out mature. Complete. Not deficient in anything—including, it’s safe to assume, joy. So joy is not only what propels us through pain, it’s also the prize waiting on the other side. Our response to suffering begins and ends with joy.
READY TO RUN?
Are you feeling a shift here? Do you feel encouraged to run toward the battle? With joy. Toward joy.
If trials and the testing of my faith are the processes that will make me mature, complete and not lacking anything, my whole perspective changes. That’s the direction I want to lean. Even if it’s hard.
I love the image of a mature oak tree standing alone in a field. It’s the kind of tree that casts broad shade, inviting young couples to carve their initials. What makes such a tree so beautiful? It has withstood. It has suffered hard winters and unforgiving summers. With no grove to shelter it from howling winds, it has plunged deep roots into the ground. It is beautiful because it is strong.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t love facing howling winds. But if I had never known physical pain, the grief of loss, or the sting of rejection, I’d know less of the compassion that my Savior so sweetly demonstrated to those who were hurting. I’d know less of grace under pressure. I’d never trust His plan because I’d be working my own. I’d fall over when the winds came because my root system would be shallow. I’d be forever immature. I’d be forever incomplete. I’d be lacking in many things.
And I don’t want that.
The knowledge that I am hurtling toward completion makes me want to take a fresh look at abiding with Jesus as a grafted branch abides in a vine. It makes me want to place the pruning shears into the careful hands of a loving Father who cuts me back so I can bear more.
There’s that word again. More.
If I’m fruitful, He’s going to prune. It’s a given. So let’s choose to embrace it. Let’s run toward the battle. Let’s arrive at a life marked by more. And let’s do it with joy in His unassailable goodness.
Because that’s what makes us strong.
SUFFERING DANCES MYSTERIOUSLY WITH JOY
I know some of you are battle-ready. I’m with you. I’m in a storm-the-gates-of-Hell season of life.
I know also that some of you are beaten down, weary. Maybe you’re running from enemies, or ailments, or worry over whether your purpose has passed. Remember David, who in his youth ran toward Goliath? He knew what it was like to run from these foes, too. ‘O, God, who is like you?’ he penned in his old age in Psalm 71:20. ‘You who have made me see many troubles and calamities will revive me again; from the depths of the earth you will bring me up again. You will increase my greatness and comfort me again.’ (ESV)
Three times he uses the word ‘again’. Your again will come, too.
Maybe some of you are in a trial so thick or dark or ugly that you cannot imagine ever seeing the sun. Keep your eye on the horizon. That’s what Jesus did. For the joy set before Him, He endured the cross. If we look to Him, He will set joy before us, too.
Suffering does a mysterious dance with joy, and God wants us to learn the steps. I’ve seen this beauty firsthand during my years on the worship team at my church. Some Sundays it’s all I can do not to weep as I look out at friends raising their voices to heaven while their earthly lives are crashing down. They have buried children. Or husbands. Or dreams. In every instance, the common denominators are suffering and joy.
The beauty of joy born from suffering is all over the pages of Scripture, too. 2 Corinthians 4:17 reminds us that our afflictions are producing ‘an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.’ Psalm 126:5 promises ‘Those who saw with tears will reap with songs of joy.’ And, of course, the crowning act in all of history: The stone was rolled away! The joy of the resurrection overshadowed the suffering of the crucifixion.
YOUR LIFE IS UP AHEAD
God is pretty serious about this stuff—and with good reason. Just as vinedressers know that the grafting of a branch is traumatic to the vine, God knew that the grafting of sinners would be traumatic to His Son.
In our seasons of trials and suffering, we have some choices to consider. We can torment ourselves with questions: Did He cause the suffering or allow it? Does He care? Is He there? God is big enough for these questions and patient as we work through legitimate emotions of anger or despair. But if we wrestle with the questions without ever looking to Him, we can grow unkempt, out of control, and fruitless. We may even become ingrown, unhealthy, critical and bitter.
Let’s go a different route. Let’s draw upon deep reserves of joy, releasing the white-knuckle grip we have on His pruning shears and trust the careful hands of a loving Father to prepare us for a season of more.
Let’s be real and agree that it hurts. And let’s feel free to exhale in relief when the trial has passed and we’re sipping lemonade and studying Philippians. But let’s also learn the steps to the dance between suffering and joy. Let’s show a hurting world that it’s just as sweet to be in fellowship with a suffering Savior as it is to rejoice in a risen Savior.
The joy we exude when He’s pruning—because we know what He’s producing—may be the only glimpse of Jesus some have ever seen. And that may be all they need to see in order to realize that they, too, want to know Him.
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