We became statistics this week: data on grids; facts on a spreadsheet. We were among four million households for whom the lights blinked off when Hurricane Irene wheeled up the East Coast and, according to one television announcer, struck its ultimate “target,” Connecticut. I guess North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York, Massachusetts, and all points north could relax. We Nutmegers threw ourselves on this grenade so everyone else could party … except we walked the primrose path compared with Vermonters and those mourning a loved one’s loss.
Yet still, I can pause. I can use this experience and appreciate how the New Testament writers viewed hardship. They embraced it, harnessed it, and used it for God’s glory as well as their benefit. Redemptive hardship flows from the ultimate adversity, the cross: Jesus seized its agony and transformed it into an emancipating act. We see it again in Romans 5:1-5, which begins with Christ and ends with hope anchored in his character: “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.” And there’s James 1:2-4: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”
I once prayed evasive prayers because I misread the seventh word in James 1:2: “whenever” mutated into “if” (“… if you face trials of many kinds …”). If implied “maybe,” and “maybe” hinted “maybe not.” Thus my prayers: “Look at my past, Lord. I’ve been good. I’ve laughed at earthquakes. How about we skip the upcoming crash?” I missed James’ point. He wasn’t arguing over whether we suffer, but how. He revolutionizes the experience. We’re no longer fate-ruled Stoics or impotent combatants shaking our fists at the wind; our very trials are now “pure joy” because they lead to perseverance culminating in maturity and completion. Everyone suffers tribulations this side of the second coming. The relevant question: Will we be so tuned in to God that we’ll consider them “pure joy,” knowing that our Lord works through them?
I actually walked in James 1:2 two decades ago. Radiation was burning my entire mouth and throat to rid me of tongue cancer. I overheard a doctor telling a colleague: “I’ve never seen anyone go through this as well as him.” He motioned toward me. I was his little star. Of course, he hadn’t seen me banging my spoon in the high chair; but I still felt warmly gratified. Perhaps I had touched the reality behind the ever-mysterious Colossians 1:24: “Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church.” Philippians 3:10 suggests that a relationship with Christ bonds us to his suffering: “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death.”
It seems that Isaiah’s Suffering Servant, which was corporate Israel in at least one passage (Isaiah 49:3), came into reality in one person, Christ, the ultimate Israelite, and then fanned out into a community once more.* The current-day earthly Body of Christ, the Church, benefits from his suffering, fellowships in his sufferings, and ministers through suffering – which means there is no real tension between healing ministry and redemptive suffering. Both spur wholeness.
I needn’t be morbid, of course. I’m not praying that our entire house will soak in that dank basement smell longer than necessary. But I can still pause and reflect on the week in which we became statistics. I really can rejoice – because suffering can be harnessed, molded, and released for my growth and God’s glory.
*FF Bruce, The Epistles to the Ephesians and the Colossians, The New International Commentary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1957), p. 215.