by Michael Gallup
There are few things harder than to preach the funeral of a convicted murder who committed suicide. Not just that he was a criminal but that he was a father of an eight-year-old boy I befriended. This young boy with his father in prison latched on to me at camp and I began to find myself filling some of the hole left by an absent dad. I saw the boy come to follow Jesus. He was so full of life despite his difficult circumstances.
But then I received a phone call I will never forget. It was his mom telling me the horrible news and asking me to preach the funeral of a man I never met. There have been few times in my life when I have cried harder than that evening. Not so much over the loss of the man’s life, although tragic, but for the intense suffering my young friend was now in the midst of. I began to become angry and angry at the only one who could handle such rage, God. Hadn’t the boy had enough? Why does he have to suffer so much? Why does one so young have to face such harsh realities? Why, God, why?
While I will never pretend to know the full answer of those questions, God has shown me a part of the why. For joy. It seems ludicrous to insist that joy could possibly come out of such pain, but I am coming to believe that it may be ludicrous to think that joy could come out of anything but pain. One of the most perplexing pieces of scripture is James1:2, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trails of many kinds.” We are to somehow find joy in our suffering? Because it leads to perseverance? Yes, God says.
As I have asked God hard questions, He has kindly revealed to me some answers. Last week I described how He showed me what joy wasn’t: happiness. And I am beginning to see why. Happiness is the product of pleasure. When something happens to us that is pleasant we become happy. But now I am seeing that joy is the product of pain. And rightfully so, the process from pain to joy is much longer and arduous than the one from pleasure to happiness.
One of the biblical authors compares the life of a Christ-follower with that of an athlete, suffering the agony of preparing to run the race. This metaphor still rings true when we watch the Super Bowl winners crying tears of joy at the victory they achieved. And that joy is not birthed in the winning but in the months and years of hard work that led them to this moment, that made it even possible. In that passage in James, the reason to consider it joy to suffer is because our suffering is not the end of us and our stories but a catalyst for change. Our suffering refines us, pushing us forward in the race of redemption in the story of our ultimate victory.
This picture is most clearly seen in the death and thus victory of Jesus Christ. It was only through his defeat that the world could know victory. The biblical book Hebrews says that he was able to endure the sufferings of his murder because of the joy set before him. He knew his death, which at the moment it occurred seemed like the biggest train-wreck in history, was not the end of his story. He knew what only he could know, that his pain was giving birth to the joy of the world. That his defeat brought true victory.
Ultimately, it is a defeat we must each embrace because it is the only path to victory, the only path to joy. Our very lives are found in the death of ourselves.
But what about my young friend? That funeral was not the end of his story. Just as Jesus’ and our funerals are not the end of our stories. God began to redeem that situation that was never his will in the first place and in that redemption I saw that boy’s life changed. He learned to let go, if only a little, of his father and to find acceptance in a new father who was there, not in jail but with him, in a man who also knew defeat but also knew life in Jesus.
Our suffering is not the end of our stories but in some ways the beginning.
Michael is a student at Denver Seminary. This is part three of a four part series.