Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.

  —James 1:2-4

My Regional Pastor called recently to see how things were going. In the course of the conversation, I observed that, beyond the “normal” challenges we face as a local congregation, there seem to be an inordinate number of challenging circumstances for the families in my church. Individually, so many families, maybe the majority, are dealing with some very hard things, or have in the not-too-distant past.

His response was sympathetic. But he wondered if what we are fighting through is not so different from what many, if not most, of our churches are facing these days. Our society has changed so much in recent decades, the concept and experience of family life is in decline, and—with moral decay—young people deal with harder things at an earlier age.

Maybe that’s what’s going on. 

If the “normal” Christian family in your local church today is facing major trials, James chapter 1 becomes very relevant. “Consider it pure joy,” he says. This does not mean we will understand and be happy about our hardships and losses. Certainly joy is not the same thing as happiness. And while James points to the benefits of our trials, such as patience, wisdom, faith, and maturity, there is no guarantee of our understanding why. 

It is often a mystery known only to God. Our pain may be someone else’s gain, though we may never know or see how.

Ken Sundet Jones wrote, “This is why words like suffering and loss flow so frequently off the tongues of theologians of the cross. It is those moments in life where we come up against the limits of our own power and possibility, where we face the hard truth that our lives are truly and only in God’s hands. It is death itself that becomes the ultimate mirror to our helpless striving and asks, ‘On whom does your next breath, your next heartbeat, your next moment depend?’”

The theology of the cross. Suffering and even death for a purpose. We can’t always see it in our own experience; usually we can’t. But the cross of Christ is the clearest truth of all time: His pain and death, for our gain. Pure joy.

Rev. Brent Juliot is Pastor of Oak Ridge Lutheran Brethren Church in Menomonie, Wisconsin.

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