Sunday, April 27, 2014

Suffering and Joy

Easter is not only one Sunday on the calendar, but is a season in the Christian Year spanning seven weeks, or fifty days, until Pentecost.  In the Easter season the church explores the theme of resurrection and new life in Jesus.  Our Lord Christ did not only die so that we might have forgiveness of sins; He also died so that we might live a new life with a clean slate to follow him daily.  God saves us and forgives us, regenerates us, in order that we will live a new life in Christ.  This regenerated life is not really a matter of making new resolutions or turning over a new leaf – it is a faith response to the grace of God displayed in Christ by dying on the cross and rising from the dead for us.

            One of my all-time favorite stories is Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables.  It is primarily a story of grace and new life.  The main character is Jean Valjean, who spends nineteen years in jail for stealing a loaf of bread for his starving family.  The experience in prison caused him to become a bitter man.  By the time he is released, he is hard and angry at life.  Since ex-convicts were not treated well in 19th century France, he had nowhere to go.  In desperation he seeks lodging one night at the home of a Catholic bishop, who treats him with genuine kindness, which Valjean sees only as an opportunity to exploit.  In the middle of the night he steals the bishop’s silver, but is caught by the police.  When they bring him back to the bishop’s house for identification, they are surprised when the bishop hands two silver candlesticks to Valjean, implying that he had given the stolen silver to him, and says, “You forgot these.”  After dismissing the police, the bishop turns to Jean Valjean and says, “I have bought your soul for God.”  In that moment, by the bishop’s act of mercy, Valjean’s bitterness is broken.



            But that is only a small part of the story; his forgiveness is the beginning of a new life.  The bulk of Victor Hugo’s novel demonstrates the utter power of a regenerated and redeemed life.  Jean Valjean chooses the way of mercy, as the bishop had done.  Valjean raises an orphan, spares the life of a parole officer who spent fifteen years hunting him, and saves his future son-in-law from death, even though it nearly cost him his own life.  There are trials and temptations for Valjean all along the way, but what keeps him pursuing his new life is mercy.  Whereas before being shown mercy Valjean responded with a brooding melancholy and inner anger.  Now, after being shown grace, Valjean responds to each case of unjust suffering with both mercy and joy, deeply thankful for the chance to live a new life full of grace.

            Suffering and joy.  They seem to be opposed to each other.  And, if we conform to this world’s thinking, they are taken as opposites.  Only Christianity has the worldview perspective that sees suffering as an occasion for joy, and not just senseless, random, and empty grief.  Followers of Jesus imitate their Savior in going in the way of suffering.  We are told in Scripture that these sufferings are trials to our faith, that is, they are the means by which our faith is developed, used, and strengthened.  Just as gold is refined by being put through fire, so our faith is refined and proven genuine through the purging fires of life’s trials and troubles.  Walking in the way of our Lord Jesus, adversity is our teacher, helping us to know Christ better and appreciate the great salvation we possess in Jesus (1 Peter 1:3-9).

            The most miserable people I know are those who do not know grace, have not been taught by mercy, and, therefore, do not know the joy of extending grace and mercy to others.  There is a tendency for many Christians today towards being stoic through the trials of life.  We try and keep a stiff upper lip and simply endure.  Taking the approach of “It is what it is” only works for so long.  Eventually “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” is a more appropriate response to trouble. But it is precisely during those times when human hope fades that we rejoice, even though the rejoicing is through tears, in the living hope that is kept for us and not by us. This spiritual inheritance of hope is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading. That means we can live through a difficult day or week or month or even, dear God, a year or longer, and not add to the weight of our troubles by blaming the failure of faith.   
        
            Our goal in this life is not to escape the world because at the end of time when our salvation is completely consummated, heaven comes down to earth and both are joined together.  “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea.  I saw the Holy City, the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.  And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Now the dwelling of god is with men, and he will live with them.  They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.  He will wipe every tear from their eyes.  There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:1-4).  This is our inheritance in Christ.  But we must come prepared for this encounter with God by presently undergoing grief in all kinds of sufferings; these trials to our faith are the pre-marital sessions that prepare us for our marriage with Jesus.


            Eventually, suffering will have done its work and we will be with Christ forever.  Until that day, however, let us not hunker down and stay in the garage of life.  Let us explore the open road that God has for us, embracing both the meaning and the mystery of faith.  Let us live with confidence and run the race marked out for us.  Let us not be complacent or slow in doing the will of God, but work for God’s kingdom purposes on this earth, in this age, while it is still called Today.  And let us allow the trials of this age to do their work in us, responding to them with joy knowing that our faith is being strengthened for the benefit of loving the world.  Even so, come Lord Jesus.

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