Sunday, February 17, 2013

Considering Joy

 Consider it all joy when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance, and let endurance have its perfect result, that you will be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” (James 1:2-4) It sure sounds good on paper. When I consider potential trials, or better yet, someone else’s trials, it makes perfect sense.  I understand the concept of perfection by fire. Still, after all these years, I am not adept at standing on hot coals.

            I’ve been mulling this verse over since my early days as a Christian. Three decades later I’m still striving to come to terms with the consideration of joy. My first reaction to trials and suffering is generally panic; followed by anger, sorrow, heartfelt bouts of whining intertwined with stoic attempts to sacrificially “offer it up” - not always in that order. I came to the conclusion early on that the joy was something to wait for; something that would appear after the trial was finished. Joy was the fruit of hindsight, the knowledge that even though I’d been miserable, I was changed by the experience for the better. That has proven true for me: through suffering and loss I’ve grown in compassion and come to trust more intimately in the Lord. I no longer fear trials with such consuming intensity; despite my aversion to them, I trust that God uses all the things for good. Trials have a purpose and are a catalyst on my journey to heaven. So I thought I understood it, this consideration of joy; if I can tough out this misery without losing my faith and falling into serious sin I will eventually have joy down the road.

            Apparently, there is more to this joy than just “gutting it out”.

            Ironically, when all is well in life and I am joyful, I don’t give joy much consideration at all. Happiness is the status quo that our society leads us to believe we are entitled to. So in truth, I often don’t give joy more than a cursory “count my blessings” prayer addendum, unless I’m gritting my way through a trial. “ The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding(Phil 4:7) is a concept I understand conceptually, but rarely embrace. That would involve experiencing joy during my trials, during the pain, in the midst of the storm – I can’t say I’ve integrated that concept into my reality with consistency. I’m a legalist at heart, a true type A: trials are bad and they hurt – joy is good and it feels lovely – oil and vinegar. They just don’t mix.

            Sometimes, even to the best of people, God says “No”. Some trials have no foreseeable “happy ending” in sight. Whether physical or emotional, some afflictions are permanent. The longer I live the more these trials confront people I love. I pray. I try to figure out every possible alternative available and every conceivable outcome. I consult experts: scripture, doctors, holistic healers, psychologists, priests and self-help books and they lead me to the same uncertain conclusion; this trial isn’t going to end without going through the fire. People are hurting and no matter what, circumstances out of my control could throw them into upheaval anytime for any reason. There is no way to protect the ones I love from potential fallout. Fear and dread are readily available, joy must be sought out.

So once again I circle back around to the consideration of joy. Ultimately my hope is fully focused on heaven. This is a truth for all believers. But I have to trust that the truth of scripture is guiding me to perfection here - in the here and now - in the midst of my trials. Henri Nouwen, author of “Here and Now” defines joy as “the experience of knowing you are unconditionally loved and that nothing –sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war, or even death, can take that love away.” (Here and Now, Pg. 30) This is not exactly the magical “get out of this circumstance free” card I was hoping for. According to Nouwen, “My grief was the place I found my joy. Still nothing happens automatically in the spiritual life. Joy does not simply happen to us. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it, every day. It is a choice based on the knowledge that we belong to God and we have found in God our refuge and our safety and that nothing, even death can take that away from us.” (Here and Now, Pg. 31)

That rings a bell. St. Paul said something along those lines in his epistle to the Romans, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:37-38) I guess that pretty much covers “various trials”.

I had a beautiful example recently of a family who chose joy in the midst of great suffering. Michael Feder, 49, was a father, a physician, a loving husband and active member of his church community. He coached soccer, climbed mountains, and founded a charity in Uganda to bring shelter, provisions and medical care to villages in need. Two years ago he learned he had a brain tumor; the kind of brain tumor that needs a miracle.  Mike, Joyce and their three children had a deep, well lived, love for the Lord. They embraced early on the idea that our time here on earth is to prepare us for heaven. So the Feder Family continued to live well during “here and now” of Mike’s treatment; they shared their lives and this new journey with their many communities. They prayed and they worked and went to school. They continued to raise money for their mission work in Uganda and even traveled there together as a family. They climbed one more 14’er and last November, after one last brain surgery, they sent Mike home, to heaven.

Joyce and her children did not walk out of the hospital room after their final moments with Mike sobbing, in a state of despair. Joyce walked out proud, as she often did after a soccer game.

“We did it” she proclaimed “We got him to heaven”.

No one will ever say of this family that they merely endured their trials or considered joy. Even when they understood death was eminent, they chose joy. They embraced the depth of God’s love and demonstrated for all of us the peace that surpasses understanding.  I know that they are suffering, yet I also feel the perfection James encourages us to strive for in persevering through our trials.

I am praying throughout this Lenten season for the perseverance to seek Christ and the courage to choose joy.