Hello Hardship, My Old Friend

Do you believe in God? Did trying to live out your faith create hardships for you in 2006? If so, here’s some advice from the New Testament writer James: "Consider it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness."

It seems strange for "joy" and "trials" to be in the same verse, and for the joy to be not half-joy but "all joy." Nevertheless, the Bible presents a counterintuitive notion: that people who suffer for other people are the most joyful in the world. And if that’s true, in 2007 more of us should run out of our comfort zones as fast as we can and take on the huge risk of loving someone whom others consider unlovable, maybe for good reason.

Think of all the people, ranging from volunteer foster parents to volunteer soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan, who this year willingly took on tasks that others shirked. The givers among us have been neither foolish nor merely altruistic. In my own experience, the most difficult and draining task I had this year was also the most spiritually productive.

This "no pain, no gain" realization is becoming broader. According to The Wall Street Journal, corporations and other organizations that hire speakers for conventions are moving away from hiring celebrities to booking people with inspiring tales of overcoming hardship and suffering. When those who have gone through fire speak, people listen.

Some good current movies, like "The Pursuit of Happyness," "We Are Marshall" and "Rocky Balboa," also have heroes who inspire by perspiring. One classic film along these lines is "Cool Hand Luke," made in 1967. In it a big, hulking convict called Dragline beats and badly bloodies a prisoner, Luke, played by Paul Newman. After a while the other convicts sensibly advise him to stop and survive: "Just stay down, Luke. He’s just gonna knock ya down again, buddy … It’s not your fault. He’s just too big."

Luke, though, doesn’t give up. After a time even Dragline tells Luke, "Stay down. You’re beat." Luke replies, "You’re gonna have to kill me." By not submitting, Luke becomes the moral leader of the convicts, including Dragline.

The experience of Christian missionaries also has a lot to teach us about persevering through hostility physical and spiritual. J. Oswald Sanders writes of a Bible teacher who walked from village to village in India and encountered much discouragement. At one village people refused to listen, so in dejection and exhaustion he fell asleep under a tree. While he slept people from the village came to jeer — but they saw his blistered feet and decided that if he was willing to suffer to come to them, they should listen.

"All joy," James insists. If you sang "Joy to the World" earlier this month, you might want to pick up "Suffering and the Sovereignty of God," a new book edited by John Piper and Justin Taylor. The book includes a chapter by quadriplegic Joni Eareckson Tada, who writes, "Do you know who the truly handicapped people are? They are the ones — and many of them are Christians — who (go through their morning activities) on automatic pilot without stopping once to acknowledge their Creator."

Do you want to go off autopilot in 2007? Thank God for preserving you in 2006, and then take on the hard task of loving at least one needy person in your community in 2007. It probably won’t be easy and you may not be successful. As psychologist David Powlison writes in another chapter of "Suffering and the Sovereignty of God," God "does not say, ‘Don’t be afraid. Everything will turn out OK. So you can relax.’ Instead he says, ‘Don’t be afraid. I am with you. So be strong and courageous.’"

That should be our New Year’s resolution for 2007: to show resolution in doing what’s right.