by Joe Leavell
Pretend with me for a moment that you are on a reality TV show. This is a game where you get to make a simple choice. In front of the entire nation, a camera crew records a crew member bringing in a wheelbarrow full of $100 bills into your living room. The man dumps the entire hoard of cash into a nice pile at your feet, and a spiffy host gives you your choice that everyone will watch you make: your offer is to trade in all of the struggles and the difficulties that you have gone through in your life in exchange for all of the money on your floor. The only catch is that you would no longer know for certain whether you were really a follower of Christ. Option two is to reject the deal entirely. You can simply hang on, endure your struggles, and continue to live a thankful life to God with joy that your faith is changing you to be more like Jesus. Which would you choose? Think about it a moment before giving what you think is the ‘correct’ answer. Some of you reading this have faced real loss. Others have faced seemingly more than their fair share of pain. Countless believers have faced rejection and even physical persecution for their faith. If they could trade in all of the pain and sorrows for those things to be erased, and in exchange, they become instantly wealthy?
From God’s perspective, which option is more valuable? Biblically, whichever selection produces the purified faith that is demonstrated to be genuine is most precious. 1 Peter 1:6-7 puts it this way: “In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” James even goes so far as to tell us to “count it all joy…when you meet trials of various kinds.” Why would he say that to those who were suffering persecution? It is because the endurance through suffering would produce a steadfast patience.
C’mon! Really?! Are these guys sadistic?! What kind of a person would look at suffering and jump up and down for joy and say that it produces something more valuable than gold? Who would actually look at suffering and call it a season of “joy?”
Think with me of a woman who is nearing her due date in her pregnancy. Is there a woman alive, who, when they think of going through labor, celebrates with a happy dance when thinking through the pain that she is about to bear? Unless they are mentally unstable, I would think not. Even if there is an epidural in the picture, I don’t think I’ve ever met a woman who looked forward to childbirth. Yet, when women think of the emergence of their precious baby that they will soon snuggle, nourish, and love, women instinctively know that enduring the pain of labor for that baby is worth more than a pile of cash dumped on the floor of their living room. Why? It is because of the joy of the coming baby. It is certainly not because of the pain of labor. In this way, a woman knows that when the first labor pains begin to come that the baby will soon be born. It is that understanding of pain that gives a woman anticipation and endurance, not because she enjoys the unspeakable pain, but because she knows that on the other side of the pain she will hopefully hold her precious baby in her arms.
It is in this light that the pain we endure in our lives produces a precious endurance of faithfulness within us that money cannot touch. It is the genuineness of knowing from experience that Jesus is better than anything else that is worth more than the pile of cash. Jesus, the one described as the “man of sorrows” and someone “acquainted with grief” looked at His beyond his own suffering on the cross through this lens. Hebrews 12:2 tells us that Jesus, “who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame…” Jesus did not look at the cross itself as joy, but rather, He despised the shame of the cross. Yet it was for the joy that awaited Him beyond the cross that He endured the anguish of crucifixion. In the same way, it is not the sorrows and difficulties of our lives that we are to look upon with joy. It is when God demonstrates His close presence in the midst of our pain, when our faith in Him is demonstrated to be genuine, and when we move closer to the arms of Christ that they become truly priceless. It is what lies beyond our suffering that we are to look to with anticipation.
This doesn’t mean that we should look fondly at our suffering, or worse, that we actually go looking for suffering. Going out of our way to experience pain does nothing to move us towards our God anymore than trying to get an upset stomach to produce a baby. Purposefully seeking suffering reflects a belief that we can evil from within us through forms of self harm, such as cutting, or other forms of self mutilation. This is not the God we serve. God does not hand out suffering for its own sake but rather allows it in our lives out of a loving heart to show Himself better than anything else that would seek our affections. In this way, we can see suffering as valuable. It is because we know that if we trust Him, God promises to use our painful experiences to produce a steadfast patience, a deep reliance on Him, and to show us that our faith in Christ is genuine. That is truly a priceless gift from a good and loving God.