accept the struggle

You have heard of the endurance of Job, and you have seen the outcome that the Lord brought about, for the Lord is compassionate and merciful.

James 5:11b

I don’t know about you, but there have been not a few times in my life when I felt like I was simply doing nothing more than hanging in there, wanting to bail out, but remaining. And more than once during such times I’ve found the Lord’s help as I simply endured.

Life is full of struggles and just struggle in general. From big things to little nagging things which add up, to everything in between. We might as well settle on struggle, because as human beings that’s where we live, and in a true sense, all the more as followers of Christ. We are in this struggle together, so we need to keep praying for each other. And we need to accept the struggle for ourselves, just as Job did. Job found God faithful, in his case in even looking back through the struggle, but all of that because there was a release from it.

We learn a lot from the struggle and gain from it in ways which we can’t imagine. But only if we hang in there, and not bail out. God will help us through every part of it, with a good ending if we only endure and not let up. In and through Jesus.

God behind and before us

For you shall not go out in haste,
and you shall not go in flight,
for the LORD will go before you,
and the God of Israel will be your rear guard.

Isaiah 52:12

Right before the “suffering servant” passages we have this promise for Israel in the midst of subjugation by the foreign world power of that time, Assyria. All the promises of God we’re told are yes and amen in and through Christ. So, there’s something we can take from this for ourselves this day and time.

God is behind and before us to guide and protect us. We need to live appreciating that. It might well be true for us and is as long as we have faith. But we may not much if at all have any sense or experience of it. This truth should help us not to be afraid or panic as the passage above tells us. Because we have a certain inward rest even in the midst of difficulty, trial, whatnot, just all the inevitable twists and turns that life brings.

God will take care of it. God has our backs and knows all that lies ahead. There’s a certain mysticism which faith in God elicits. We can’t explain or understand it fully, except we know there’s one that fully understands, and though much seems out of control, and is definitely beyond our control, we also know that God is at work in all things for good, somehow in control in the midst of it all. So that our full confidence is only in God. In and through Jesus.

refusing to be troubled

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me.”

John 14:1; NRSVue

The disciples had good reason to be troubled. Their Master who they had faithfully imperfectly followed for more than two years was soon to face execution. Not only would they ultimately feel threatened themselves, but their hopes seemed to be utterly dashed in what made no sense to them at all. But Jesus speaks into that mess with a message of peace, an inward peace that he wanted them to have even in the midst of that.

This word from our Lord was not only for them but is for us as well. We’re told to not let our hearts be troubled, but instead to believe in God and to believe in him, Jesus. That requires a commitment to act in that way. When Jesus originally said this, I’m not sure his disciples heard it well. Probably in varying degrees though surely none of them fully. They couldn’t help but see what was right in front of them, what was happening, and couldn’t see the good that could possibly come out of this. Although the Lord told them repeatedly that he would suffer, indeed be killed, but on the third day would be raised, they just didn’t get it. It made no sense to them. Jesus then gave them this promise along with what follows:

In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

John 14:2-7; NRSVue

I think a large part of not letting our hearts be troubled over the many difficulties and trials of life is in significant part accepting the reality that we’re just not going to understand it all. If we can just suspend, better completely drop the idea that we have to understand everything to have peace, then that might well be half the battle. The other half is that we’re simply to believe in God, to believe in Christ, which means we put our trust in them and in their word. That has to be our focus. Not on the trial or problem itself, but on our Lord and on our Lord’s promises to us.

It’s not like the trial is unimportant. What’s more important is our follow through on this, than on the resolution of the actual situation itself. Do we believe that God is in the works, including in that so that we no longer have to be troubled? That is a stance or movement of faith.

We’re told not to let our hearts be troubled meaning that we actually have control over that. We can’t change a troubled heart in a moment but must do what Jesus tells us here. Better yet is to do that before we become troubled, but I know that’s easier said than done but that should be our goal in the long haul.

But for now, let’s believe that God will help us in whatever we’re facing. We won’t get it perfect; we won’t get it all right. But God will and God will see us through. All will be okay and more than okay in the end. We must believe and act accordingly. In and through Jesus.

ratcheted up a notch

See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?

For he is like a refiner’s fire and like washer’s soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the LORD in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the LORD, as in the days of old and as in former years.

Then I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien and do not fear me, says the LORD of hosts.

For I the LORD do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, have not perished. Ever since the days of your ancestors you have turned aside from my statutes and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you, says the LORD of hosts. But you say, “How shall we return?”

Malachi 3:1-7; NRSVue

I’m not sure if anyone actually likes difficulty in and of itself. For other reasons, people might like it. To meet the challenge, to achieve some goal through it, maybe winning in competition, along with other reasons why people embrace what is hard. Hardship might be another matter, after all there’s surely a line drawn for each person, which they wouldn’t care to cross.

God was out to change the descendants of Levi, to purify them so that sin was being dealt with in their lives, and so that sin could be dealt with through their assigned task in the lives of others.

What about when we run into difficulty and what for us are impossible things to accept? Life won’t let us down that way. For some, especially who have plenty of material wealth, they may be able to glide through and pretty much avoid what are the common struggles for others. But even they can’t avoid everything, like possible sickness and eventual certain death. And difficulties will come their way as well, even if not so much circumstances, but disillusionment over emptiness in spite of being so well set.

God is active in people’s lives, and especially in those who name God’s name as those belonging to God and supposed to be the Lord’s followers. And part of that activity is not at all comfortable. “Refiner’s fire” and “washer’s soap” imagery above refer to purification and cleansing. We all need it. In the heat of life, what arises can be anything but pleasant, and not good. This can come through a multitude of small nagging things as well as a major concern which hangs over our heads.

But God is at work in that. It’s up to us to respond in being aware what sins need to be confessed, and the change that needs to come in our lives. And actually God is at work to ratchet us up a notch so to speak. So that we are becoming what before certainly was not the case. God is at work for great good, certainly including us. But we need to endeavor to accept that fully. So that we might be a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God (Romans 12:1-2).

In and through Jesus.

the unexpected, the new road, a new goal

There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job. That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.

Job 1:1; NRSVue

Then Job arose, tore his robe, shaved his head, and fell on the ground and worshiped. He said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.”

In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrongdoing.

Job 1:20-22; NRSVue

Then his wife said to him, “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God and die.” But he said to her, “You speak as any foolish woman would speak. Shall we receive good from God and not receive evil?” In all this Job did not sin with his lips.

Job 2:9-10; NRSVue

After this Job opened his mouth and cursed the day of his birth.

Job 3:1; NRSV

And the LORD restored the fortunes of Job when he had prayed for his friends, and the LORD gave Job twice as much as he had before.

After this Job lived one hundred and forty years and saw his children and his children’s children, four generations. And Job died, old and full of days.

Job 42:10, 16-17; NRSVue

The wisdom story of Job is as profound in the wisdom we might gain from it, as it is difficult and even perplexing in the story it tells. We who grew up in church and were taught this story as children became inoculated to the problem of the story. And to some extent I still seem to be. After all, God brags about God’s servant Job to Satan. Satan attacks Job’s character, and then God takes up Satan’s wager, and lets Satan take Job’s wealth then his children and after that Job’s health? Job first responds as one would expect since he is after all a righteous person. But when left alone and before three friends initially present with him and seemingly empathetic, but otherwise all alone, Job begins what amounts to a long dialog, more like monologue since he and his friends eventually enter into something more like a debate. And Job ends up not only debating them, but God as well, though God is not yet speaking. After all the bottom has fallen out of Job’s world. And when you think about it, how can you blame him? It is hard for us to put ourselves into the story.

What was Job’s perspective and view before that? I think we at least can see the influences afoot through the remarks and charges of his three friends. God steps in at the end and gives Job a perspective Job had never dreamed of, somewhat prepared just before that by a young man who had spoken, misspoken to some extent I think, but had pointed in the direction in which God would go. And in the end, it ended well. But was all really well that ended well? After all, Job’s first seven children were gone, all the love, hopes and dreams with them. Seven in the end with more and more children to come, but a hole, nevertheless. But for me this is simply a wisdom story, and not an actual event. And much, much wisdom for us in this book, a different kind complementary wisdom to the other wisdom literature in scripture, especially in the Hebrew Bible.

All of that said to try to say something like this. What about when new and unexpected events shake our world from the outside in, to the inside out? When we’re at a loss and are having a hard time coming to grips with what we see in front of us, what we’re experiencing.

I think that’s when we want to praise and thank God, but also come to God with our own honest thoughts. And then try to listen. And for us listening means plumbing the depths insofar as we can through going through a book like Job, as well as the rest of scripture. That is a lifetime endeavor, not something we can do in a day or a weekend or even in a year. But we start that journey and stay on it, even as Job blessedly does throughout this book.

We can be sure that there is a good ending, even if we never completely understand it. Part of our life now. In and through Jesus.

a resolution that can stick

My brothers and sisters, whenever you face various trials, consider it all joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance complete its work, so that you may be complete and whole, lacking in nothing.

If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you. But ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind. For the doubter, being double-minded and unstable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord.

James 1:2-8; NRSVue

I’m not much into New Year’s resolutions. I do have kind of a half-hearted one that I’m not sure exactly how to carry out, but that’s not really relevant here. I will say that not only would I break resolutions in New Years past (probably distant), but I would likely forget them altogether.

Scripture has a special pull and not only influence, but power in that it is inspired by God so that God’s word, especially in Christ and the gospel, but also in specific ways related to life can come to us. But we have to have ears intent on listening and hearing along with a heart set on doing whatever it is that we believe God is telling us.

In this case from the scripture quoted above from the book of James, we’re referring to a mindset, even a discipline in how we approach the inevitable trials of life. We’ve touched on this before. What is interesting is the recent revision of the NRSV telling us that we need to “let endurance complete its work, so that we might be complete and whole, lacking in nothing” (emphasis added). This actually seems to be quite true to the Greek, and clever when you think about it. Again, we’re to let endurance complete its work, so that we end up being complete and whole.

If we set ourselves to do this, committed to that, it’s actually one of the many things from scripture which can be fulfilled. I’m not talking about perfection, as if we’re always going to get it right, and never break it. So in that sense, not. But in the long haul, yes, this is a kind of resolution as we’re resolute to follow through on this, even when at times we need reminding. And life itself will remind us, when we’re up against it, and failing in this regard.

God will help us continue on and grow, so that we get better at all of this, even if it does seem painfully slow at times with numerous setbacks. But if we keep at this, in time we’ll begin to see the difference, so that it isn’t just more breakthroughs for us, but becoming more of a settled disposition in us for good. That indeed God did help us in this as we become more and more complete and whole, at least clearly on our way to that. In and through Jesus.

keep on going

…and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.

James 1:4

When we feel up against it, something akin to what is being described in the first part of James (click above link to see context), a natural reaction is to want to escape as soon as possible. To get the answer needed, and the relief that comes with that.

But when we do so, we essentially short circuit the process. And according to James, it’s a needed process if we’re to arrive to some full-orbed maturity.

So we need to hang in there in the midst of weakness. To go through it, looking to God for help both through prayer and through the help of others, particularly the church. We have to get out of the habit of bailing out. God will see us through, yes into some good relief. But most importantly increasingly into the person we were created to be. In and through Jesus.

not about getting through the trial

My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.

If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you. But ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind; for the doubter, being double-minded and unstable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord.

James 1:2-8

It’s not enough to simply want to get past whatever trial we’re in, then call it good. That is not taking seriously what James is telling us here. We’re supposed to count it as nothing but joy whatever trial we’re encountering, because the testing of our faith produces endurance in us. And to get the full benefit of this, we’re to let endurance have its full effect so that we might be mature and complete, lacking in nothing. The maturity spoken of here may not be so much a place of arriving in this life as much as an ongoing as it were cyclical growth, an analogy like rings on a tree, toward a larger, fuller, as well as more comprehensive growth.

It’s not like we might not get any good out of it, but often, or at least I can say so in my case, we tend to see it as all good, and that we’re in the clear when the trial is over. That’s as if the goal is for the trial to end well. But the real goal for us is not that the trial might end well as good and important as that is. It’s rather that the testing of our faith might end well, that the endurance with which we’re facing the trial will have its full effect. The trial itself in a way is beside the point compared to what’s at stake here: being mature and complete, even lacking in nothing.

And James’s word on asking God for wisdom is most helpful in this. Even with the rather seemingly harsh and blunt word on doubt which properly understood goes with doublemindedness and really concerns those who are not completely engaged if at all in the commitment and attention this needs, but who would be happy to be rid of the trial with really little or no care for spiritual growth. It is not about those of us who really want to press on to this maturity, but often find ourselves weak in doing so, and tempted with doubt along the way not only about our own lives, but God in our lives.

This isn’t easy, not for the faint of heart. On the other hand the alternative is not great, continuing to live in less than full maturity and all the problems which come with that. And paradoxically, as we press on toward maturity, we become more and more stable, able to weather the storms, that is go through the inevitable trials of life better.

A necessary, if not welcome part of our lives, which we are called to welcome fully since God can and will use every trial for our good if we trust God. In and through Jesus.

prayers matter and often make the needed difference

We do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, of the affliction we experienced in Asia; for we were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death so that we would rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. He who rescued us from so deadly a peril will continue to rescue us; on him we have set our hope that he will rescue us again, as you also join in helping us by your prayers, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many.

2 Corinthians 1:8-11

I think we often underrate just how important prayer is. Both the prayers prayed for us as well as the prayers we pray for others. And I’m not just talking about prayers that feel inspired, which I think or at least I can say in my own experience seem relatively rare. I’m referring mainly to the prayers that we continue to pray, regularly for others, as well as during times of special need. Usually I feel little or no inspiration at all, and am simply plodding along, lifting the person up to God, and going on to the next person and persons.

I do know by experience the difference prayer can make when others are praying for me. I’ll send out an SOS asking for prayer, and often immediately feel and sense, as well as eventually see results.

Paul did this, and it was in the context of his apostolic service with those who served with him. The prayers of the church made a needed difference. Paul himself was dependent on the prayers of the believers, of the faithful. Certainly true of us as well.

That’s the way God has made it. God makes us interdependent, in a certain sense depending on each other. While our full dependence is on God, expressed in prayer for ourselves and for others. In and through Jesus.

accepting and being willing to go through the trial, and doing so to become more mature: itself a sign and mark of maturity

My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.

James 1:2-4

Trials are an inevitable part of life. We would rather not go through them, not face them, somehow be able to bail out. Some people attempt to do that, sometimes in unhealthy, even destructive ways. Or else we melt under the pressure, and don’t respond well at all. Or we allow the trial itself to have an effect on us which is not healthy.

What James is calling us to here is much better, but that doesn’t make it easy. A trial is still a trial. And going through it, the experience is not going to be a cakewalk, or anything thrilling. It might be more like chilling, but God is with us in Christ by the Spirit and through others in Jesus.

We do well to accept and be willing to go through it. At the same time asking for wisdom, and God’s help, even deliverance from it. What often gets us in a bad way here is the desire to go through a good experience, and not to have to struggle. We think what we’re going through surely comes across to others badly, and there’s no question, it’s no good as far as we’re concerned. We want to feel the love, peace, and joy of our Lord.

But God’s help will break through to us, if we learn to settle into what we have to go through, seeking to let the endurance that the testing of our faith can bring take full effect. That doesn’t mean we don’t try to get God’s answer and help concerning the trial itself. That itself is an important part of the maturing process. But while we do so, we refuse to squirm and try to wriggle our way out of it. Instead we accept it, we accept the element of simply having to endure, not enjoy something. If we hold on to that, God will not only see us through the trial itself, but will bring much good out of that. Even if we’re left with a limp from the experience.

One last word. I remember an esteemed professor from my past tell us something like, he thought that God especially values the effort of those who hold on to faith and persevere in the midst of great struggle, as compared to those who seem to joyfully sail along with little or no care at all. Thankfully God does give us peace and joy along the way. But going through the trial, fears and our weaknesses can and at times will beset us.

But I want to go through what is inevitable anyhow in the way prescribed here, getting the growth God wants through the trial, maybe not unlike the caterpillar struggling to get out of the cocoon, as it becomes a beautiful butterfly. In and through Jesus.