Tuesday, November 22, 2011

"Count it all joy" -- no, really

At this weekend's services at MPPC , USC philosophy professor Dallas Willard addressed several questions on the topic of pain and suffering. One was, "How do we find God in the midst of suffering?"

The answer was a call to something proactive: to be turned toward God before suffering comes, so that you're not in a position to have to go looking for him when it comes. This is also a clue to following James’s command to "Count it all joy" when you meet various trials (James 1:2 NKJV). Now the text says that since trials test our faith, and this produces perseverance and maturity, therefore we can rejoice in the trials. Paul also writes something similar but it seems to me that this perspective itself requires wisdom most of us lack. Perhaps this is why James tells us immediately afterward to pray: "But if any of you needs wisdom, you should ask God for it. He is generous to everyone and will give you wisdom without criticizing you." (James 1:5 NCV)

Dallas shared some of his wisdom: that if my life is oriented toward God, if I have faith in God—who's big enough to take care of things—then trials give me an opportunity to see him in action; I'll even greet them with anticipation! (I confess I'm not writing this from first-hand experience, but I can appreciate the theory.)

And what is joy? How can we have it in the midst of sorrow and pain? Joy, Dallas said, is a pervasive sense of well-being. It's like peace, not an action but something in the background.

Well-being in the midst of pain and suffering—how does that work? Dallas said we need to have a big vision of a big God. Two illustrations come to my mind: the first is from Anne Lamott's book Operating Instructions, where she writes about feeling vulnerable in a new way, shortly after her son is born. Before this, she says, she felt she could survive anything. She writes something like, "I could die, and somehow survive even that"—which is not logical, but it made emotional sense to me: a sense of strength and well-being beyond any circumstance.

Another example that came to mind is due to Larry Crabb, Jr., who talked about deep longings that we all have, and the wrong strategies we often use to fulfill them. Depending on our perspective, he said, painful events can be to us like a five-foot fall from a platform (something that will hurt, may cause injuries, but probably won't kill us), or a five-mile fall from an airplane (which probably will).

With that background, here's the example I was thinking of, which I think was presented in a 1987 lecture. There was a guy who often spoke of wanting to ride in a hot-air balloon; his wife bought him tickets for his birthday, and early one morning, she watched the balloon take off with her husband and I think one of their kids. But in a freak accident, the balloon met some power-lines; it literally crashed and burned, killing all aboard. Because she was deeply connected to Jesus, this tragedy was a five-foot fall; she had that pervasive sense of well-being in the midst of terrible tragedy.

Now there's an inner strength to admire—not an inner strength of the "self-made" tough-guy, but the strength of one who knows their own weakness and clings to Jesus. May the Lord so strengthen us, that we have the power to count it all joy when we meet various trials, and to rejoice in our tribulations.

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