“Consider it a great joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you experience various trials…” (CSB – Read the chapter)
Years ago I read Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. The book was a combination of science fiction and medieval adventure. It should have been an easy sell for a great book. And it did end strong. But it took me just shy of forever to get into it. The beginning was as slow and dry as anything I’ve ever read. Most often, an author starts a book with some kind of compelling, attention-grabber that will get you quickly engaged and hungry for more. Similarly, if you’re going to include something hard in the book, you save that for later after the audience is already engaged with you. Not James. He socks us in the nose from the moment we get started. What are we supposed to do with this?
Now, if you’ve been keeping up with me since at least this summer, you might remember that I’ve touched on this passage before. In fact, I’ve looked at it twice with you: here and here. I’m going to approach it from a slightly different angle this time. What caught my attention this time as I was preparing a Bible study for our mid-week teaching time was the fact that James tells us to count it great joy whenever we experience various trials. Suffering, in other words, is not a matter of if, but when.
If we live in this world for long, we are going to experience suffering of some kind. We cannot avoid it. It may take any one of a whole number of different forms, but it will come. This has nearly always been the case too. As long as there have been people in the world–at least, since the Garden–suffering has been a part of the normal human experience. No one makes it through life without at least a little bit of suffering along the way. Most of us experience a lot of it.
Think about this fact for a second. If suffering is this common–indeed, we don’t need James to convince us of that fact–then why should it bother us? Why should we react with surprise when it comes our way? If suffering is simply the way the world works, why get upset about it? Why call it “suffering” in the first place instead of just calling it…life?
The simple answer to all those questions? Because we know that’s not how things should be. Sure…but how do we know that? This isn’t exactly a rigorously philosophical answer, but we know because…well…we know. We just do. There’s something inside of all of us that has always been inside of all of us that recoils from the vileness of sin and the suffering it causes and not simply because it is inconvenient. We recoil because it’s wrong. Again: it’s not how the world is supposed to be. And this recognition is not just a Christian thing. Every worldview has an explanation of the creation of the world that starts without evil and then it later enters the picture.
Here’s the point: This awareness of the evil of suffering, this inherent sense that it does not belong in this world, is an indicator. Of what? That suffering doesn’t belong in this world. But, for us to even comprehend that suffering doesn’t belong in this world demands that we have a concept of the world without suffering. And what would the world be without suffering? In a word, good.
Yet how do we even know what good is? There has to be some kind of a standard that is objective to the issue to which we can point to even justify this sense that the world isn’t how it should be. So then, what do we call this thing that is external to the world and of a sufficiently noble character that we could use it to justify this sense of the world’s brokenness? How about God?
You see, far from serving as any kind of a meaningful argument against the existence of God, suffering and our awareness of its inherent evil turns out to be one of the strongest pieces of evidence in favor of His existence. Not only that, but it points to His being good and loving and powerful. It is only if He is all of those things and more to the utmost degree that He could serve as a sufficient counterpoint to suffering and evil to allow us to clearly define them.
It is only right, then, that our most intense brushes with suffering drive us to ask questions of Him. Don’t be ashamed or afraid of this. At the same time, don’t simply lob the questions His way like hand grenades without sticking around for the answer. If you stay long enough, if you keep pursuing, if you keep asking, you will eventually get an answer. Now, like Job experienced, may not be the answer you want, but it will be the one you need. Turn to Him when things are at their hardest. You won’t find the hope and relief you seek anywhere else.