This has been a hard year, but James at the beginning of his epistle tells us to welcome hardship: "Consider it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness."
Does it seem oxymoronish to have "joy" and "trials" in the same verse, and for the joy to be not half-joy but "all joy"? Maybe, but the Bible presents a counterintuitive notion: that people who suffer for other people are the most joyful in the world. And if that's true, in 2007 we should run out of our comfort zone as fast as we can and take on the huge risk of loving someone whom others consider unlovable, maybe for good reason.
Think of all the people, ranging from volunteer foster parents to volunteer soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan, who this year willingly took on tasks that others shirked. The givers among us have been neither foolish nor merely altruistic. In my own experience, the most difficult and draining task I've had has also been the most spiritually productive.
Maybe a "no pain, no gain" realization is creating a trend among corporations and other organizations that hire speakers for conventions. According to The Wall Street Journal, these groups are moving away from hiring celebrities to booking people with inspiring tales on overcoming hardship and suffering. When those who have had trials speak, people listen.
If any of you saw the movie Cool Hand Luke, made in 1967 and now considered a classic, you'll see a filmic example of how a person who can take a beating and come back for more gains respect from the persecutor. In the movie Luke, played by Paul Newman, is beaten and badly bloodied by a big, hulking prisoner called Dragline, played by George Kennedy.
After a while the other convicts sensibly advise him to stop and survive: "Just stay down, Luke. He's just gonna knock ya down again, buddy. . . . It's not your fault. He's just too big." But Luke won't give up. After a time even Dragline is telling Luke, "Stay down. You're beat." Luke replies, "You're gonna have to kill me." By not submitting, Luke becomes the moral leader of the convicts, including Dragline.
If suffering makes a person eligible for convention bookings and movie heroism, how much more does it create openings for the gospel? J. Oswald Sanders told about a native missionary who preached the gospel in India by walking from village to village. He traveled many miles. He had much discouragement. At one village people refused to listen, so in dejection and exhaustion he lay down under a tree and fell asleep. While he slept people from the village came and looked at him, perhaps to jeer. Then they saw his blistered feet and decided that if he was willing to suffer to come to them, they should listen.
"All joy," James insists. It's weird to finish singing, "Joy to the World" and then pick up Suffering and the Sovereignty of God, a new book edited by John Piper and Justin Taylor. The book includes a chapter by quadriplegic Joni Eareckson Tada, who writes, "Do you know who the truly handicapped people are? They are the ones-and many of them are Christians-who [go through their morning activities] on automatic pilot without stopping once to acknowledge their Creator." Suffering makes us turn to Him.
Psychologist David Powlison writes in another chapter, "When God says, 'Fear not,' his aim is not that you would just calm down and experience a relative absence of fear. He does not say, 'Don't be afraid. Everything will turn out okay. So you can relax.' Instead he says, 'Don't be afraid. I am with you. So be strong and courageous.'" Christ is a true friend, the kind who comes alongside those whom everyone else is abandoning.
What do we celebrate in this season? The beginning of a process that culminated in-as John Piper puts it-"the slaughter of the best being in the universe for millions of undeserving sinners." God the perfect Father gave this present to His often-barely-grateful children. We should be thankful, and then be willing to give painful presents to others.