"As an example of suffering and patience, brothers,
take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.
Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast.
You have heard of the steadfastness of Job,
and have seen the purpose of the Lord,
how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.....
Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray."
James 3: 10-13
The idea of patience and steadfastness in God's compassion and mercy amidst suffering is truly a foreign idea in our western culture today. In fact, most people spend their lives, striving everyday towards the goal of comfort and security. Suffering is something to be avoided at all costs. Amidst suffering, people may exhibit patience and steadfastness, but it is the hope that if they keep holding on, eventually the suffering will be gone, and they will return to their 'good life'. However, we see in these verses from James that our patience and steadfastness in suffering should be in God's glory. We should be patient and steadfast in suffering, not because we are consumed with ourselves, in the hope of a cushy life again, but because we are consumed with our God, and know that through our suffering, his purposes are being revealed, and his mercy and compassion are being displayed to us. The glory of our Creator is primary. This is the difference between worldly patience in suffering and Christian suffering. Suffering is not to be sought, yet it is to be expected, and embraced when encountered. James gives us every reason to embrace suffering with a steadfast hope in God. In verse 13, he exhorts his readers to look to the example of the prophets which came before.
Throughout the Scriptures, most of the major players in the Bible story encounter some form of suffering. Why does this happen? Isn't suffering just a punishment for our mistakes? In Tullian Tchividjian's 'Surprised By Grace', the author dissects the story of the prophet Jonah, certainly someone from whom we could learn a thing or two about suffering. One thing that is clear from reading the book of Jonah, along with Tullian's book, is that God is sovereign over our situations, especially our sufferings. But this begs the question, why? Why does God allow suffering? Further, the even tells Christians that they in fact will suffer, not might suffer.
Jonah was swallowed by a whale, and spent three days in the whales belly. What was it like in there? Well, I've never been inside a fish, so I can't say for sure, but I imagine it was terrifying. Surrounded by darkness, and filled with uncertainty, Jonah indeed was suffering. But this brings us back to the question of 'why?'.
Taking heed from James, as we look back at the prophets, it is clear that suffering has a purpose. Suffering brings us to a posture of desperation. Desperation leads us to turn our eyes to God. Desperation shatters all of our false hopes. When we are stripped of everything, we are left only to cling to God. Through our suffering, we are able to taste God's compassion and mercy in a fresh new way. We are able to know God's grace, and to trust in his purposes in ways in which we would not have otherwise. Suffering leads to desperation, and desperation leads to us crying out to God. Take a look at these examples. (these are taken from Tchividjian's 'Surprised By Grace')
In desperation, Jonah prayed. "I called out to the LORD, out of my distress, and he answered me" (Jonah 2:1)
In desperation, David prayed. "This poor man cried, and the LORD heard him and saved him out of all his troubles" (Psalm 34:6)
In desperation, Hannah prayed. "She was deeply distressed and prayed to the LORD and wept bitterly" (1 Samuel 1:10)
In desperation, Jeremiah prayed. "Water closed over my head; I said, 'I am lost.' I called on your name, O LORD, from the depths of the pit; you heard my plea, 'Do not close your ear to my cry for help!'" (Lamentations 3: 54-56)
And with Job. "My relatives have failed me, my close friends have forgotten me. The guests of my house and my maidservants count me as a stranger; I have become a foreigner in their eyes....My breath is strange to my wife and I am a stench to the children of my own mother. Even young children despise me; when I rise they talk against me. All my intimate friends abhor me, and those whom I loved have turned against me......For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God." Job 19: 14-25
And lastly, with Jesus, who like Jonah, faced three days and nights in the darkest of places. "And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground" (Luke 22: 44).
In sum, in our times of suffering and affliction, we are to be patient and steadfast. We are to trust God. We can trust God because we have seen throughout history his faithfulness to his children. He may bring times of suffering, but it is not the end of the story. Our present suffering and afflictions reveal God's glory. In our desperation, we are able to see God's goodness, and plentiful redemption that is in Christ.
Like James says, those who are steadfast and patient in their sufferings are blessed. They are blessed because through their situations, they come out knowing God's grace in a radical new way. Through our sufferings we are made more acutely aware of our sonship