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.
4 responses to “Surprised by Joy: The Joyous Defeat”
There is a saying that “beauty is only skin deep.” And maybe that’s also true of happiness. If indulgent people, raising a child, follow the inclinations to “keep it happy” via one gift or distraction after another, not only will they get extremely worn out themselves, but they will eventually reap a very “spoiled child” who is unable to be happy about anything for very long, having become addicted to repeated surface-y sensory stimulations, rather than deeper levels of perception and personal contentment.
Perhaps our whole society has veered off course, somewhat, in this direction, living in a comparatively shallow realm of appearances and acquisitiveness, compared to the “grit” and determination needed to simply survive in, say, the “pioneer days” of old,…or in farming, or lifestyles where many of the basics are still done “by hand.” For most of us, modern conveniences are a wonderful thing, — I certainly appreciate them! — but what would God be calling us to do with our so-called “liberated” time and energies in this way?,… and are we really doing it?
I think we “spoil easy” as a lot, us humans. We become quite easily contented with the surface distractions and entertainments,…babies, or otherwise grown! Well, as you are saying, pleasure and happiness are linked, but seldom do we realize how temporary and fleeting is this life and condition of our senses! We do not have the power to hold on to a sensory experience for long. I wonder, is this how many addictions begin?
“Life is good” and enjoying life is fine and natural. Giving God the glory for our blessings is wise, as is pausing to “go deeper” in study and prayer and meditation,… and truly seeking God’s guidance. But do we give the “deeper things” as much attention as they deserve? As the modern society we’ve become, “I don’t think so.” We’re unbalanced. We’re surface-y, glitzy, self-indulgent, thinking that we’re a whole lot smarter (and deserving) than we really are. If we’re not “up”/ (“happy”), we can be downright miserable or desperately UN-happy, and vulnerable to begin “seeking (continuous) fulfillment” in dangerous areas. Our “sensory” appetites may go into “overdrive.”
Well, we weren’t meant (designed) to live solely in our senses. Our senses, our “flesh,” out of balance, can become a realm of bondage, a prison. Christ’s sacrifice of His own flesh, on our behalf, was a powerful moment in history, but represents also a continual “point of view” that we need to be reminding ourselves of: our lives are MORE than flesh, than senses, than ephemeral “happiness” or sorrow.
Unless, until, we learn to turn away from the “pull of our sensory lives,” — (we have to admit, it can be quite magnetic!) — we will not be able to find the deeper joys of the more permanent and substantial realms within us. God knows our “condition.” Christ knew it. They considered it a fully appropriate “sacrifice” to ENDURE THE PAIN that would bring about the liberation from our bondage to the senses, a bondage that satan so easily manipulated for his own destructive purposes.
It seems that some level of this pain is to be our necessary and legitimate inheritance also, in our experience of life, as we face — (and “see through”) — our inordinate blindness and captivity to the flesh, the senses, (and satan’s hold on these things, and our souls, as well).
When an adhesive bandage is removed, often we hear, “this will only hurt for a moment!” But we have to expect and endure the pain, to be free of the bandage, and on our way to enjoying the healing. In life, God knows that things will hurt us. But He also knows that this is a necessary part of things, to free us from inordinate attachment to the implications of sensory bondage, and open us to the joys of spiritual healing,… and our deeper, more permanent lives and reality within,… with Him.
4 “Sing praise to the LORD, you saints of His,
And give thanks at the remembrance of His holy name.
5 “For His anger is but for a moment,
His favor is for life;
Weeping may endure for a night,
But JOY comes in the morning.”
8 “I cried out to You, O LORD;
And to the LORD I made supplication:
9 “‘What profit is there in my blood,
When I go down to the pit?
Will the dust praise You?
Will it declare Your truth?
10 “‘Hear, O LORD, and have mercy on me;
LORD, be my helper!'”
11 “You have turned for me my mourning into dancing;
You have put off my sackcloth and clothed me with gladness,
12 “To the end that my glory may sing praise to You and not be silent.
O LORD my God, I will give thanks to You forever.”
When God rescues us, we are rescued indeed!
7 “’For a mere moment I have forsaken you,
But with great mercies I will gather you.
8 “‘With a little wrath I hid My face from you for a moment;
But with everlasting kindness I will have mercy on you,’
Says the LORD, your Redeemer.
9 “’For this is like the waters of Noah to Me;
For as I have sworn
That the waters of Noah would no longer cover the earth,
So have I sworn
That I would not be angry with you, nor rebuke you.
10 “‘For the mountains shall depart
And the hills be removed,
But My kindness shall not depart from you,
Nor shall My covenant of peace be removed,’
Says the LORD, who has mercy on you.”
I feel that I speak as one who has drunk deeply from the well of God’s Love and ability to lift the suffering “out of the pit.” Life really is not the easy-street illusions of entertainment fantasy. We are quite capable of bringing on our own sufferings, or also suffering at the hands of others. In any case, we need to be rescued by something (Someone!) from a Greater Dimension!
This time of year, I “get” to see — (and remove!) — the spiders’ webs at work around the plants outside. Such a parallel image to how satan “works!” All these sticky nets, some almost invisible, carefully positioned to catch unaware, unsuspecting, and juicy insects for hungry Spidey’s dinner! I usually only arrive on the scene when the now useless, dessicated shell of the hapless victim remains dangling and abandoned, in the deserted and ugly net, that would drape my porch in very unwanted “haunted house” effects if I were not to remove them all.
Along with you, I couldn’t attempt to “explain” the hows and whys and wherefores of this dimension of a spiritual battle going on between “good and evil,” appearances and Truth, but I think it’s obvious enough to most that it does exist. Certainly, if we look at nature, we are amazed and perplexed all at the same time. The great beauty, extremes of vastness — large and small, the “balance” where everything feeds on something and feeds something, the miracle of the reproduction of life, the instincts that “know” so much, the “stories” we can “read” in a cloud or a flower or a butterfly or a bird nest,…the peace, the violence,… the beginnings and the ends and the new beginnings,… Some things in life that we “can’t explain,” we nevertheless see portrayed “before our very eyes” in nature,… like Spidey’s web and instincts and habits,…
Personally, I think that God is letting US know that He knows ALL about it, and that we will find our own realm of Peace within it all by trusting fully in Him,… There are realms of Truth that seem to only begin where words leave off,… God knows us better than we know ourselves:
1 Peter 5:5-11
5 “ … ‘God resists the proud, But gives grace to the humble.’
6 “Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time, 7 CASTING ALL YOUR CARE UPON HIM, FOR HE CARES FOR YOU.
8 “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour. 9 Resist him, steadfast in the faith, knowing that the same sufferings are experienced by your brotherhood in the world. 10 But may the God of all grace, who called us to His eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after you have suffered a while, perfect, establish, strengthen, and settle you. 11 To Him be the glory and the dominion forever and ever. Amen.”
I’ve noticed that “the avoidance of pain” — certainly a “natural” instinct — is also very strong psychologically. But I’ve also found, by inadvertent experience, that this can be very self-defeating (or healing-defeating), psychologically and spiritually.
I’ve never really tried to put words to it, to a process that I’ve become accustomed to doing “in prayer,” but it seems that the more I face the issue or “source of pain” in prayer, trusting God and asking for help, the swifter and better are the results.
Being “in denial” often hinders even getting to “square one” in many situations,…again, it is the “truth that will set us free.”
As with removing a nasty barb that has penetrated the skin, there will be pain experienced “on the way out” — (as it was “on the way in”) — in the removal process, but it will be followed by much greater relief and eventually complete freedom from the unwanted invasive effects. I think we end up “holding on” to too many of our hurts and sorrows and difficult situations, because we’ve never really learned how to “let them go,” in God. We may fear “revisiting” some painful issues, preferring the on-going “numbness” and avoidance of confrontation.
But God is our Healer, our Deliverer, and our Strength. I think it takes some Courage to face difficult questions and issues, to get beyond the limiting effects of our common fears. But our God can and will strengthen us to face and deal with and overcome many obstacles, that we instead tend to hide or shrink away from in ourselves.
I remember some very difficult circumstances surrounding a couple of Church funerals that we were playing music for. Your story brought this back to mind. My normal human mind could not comprehend how we would get through this, but in fact, we did. And I’m sure we touched on some greater realms of God’s vast Strength, Sovereignty, Power, Mercy, Omnipotence, and Omniscience in the process — beyond our normal human “comfort zone.” Probably we are a little “changed” as a result, and for the better.
I’m glad we can leave a lot “in His Hands,” because He IS Able, even when we’re not able. And He can and will “bring us through” if we let Him help us, even if we cannot understand the beginning from the end. He can and does.
I have had a happy 32 year marriage. But the times of deepest joy in those 32 years were also painful. To know that God created me–in part–to walk with my best friend through some really tough times (and her with me) have been the highlight of my marriage. And that joy of perseverance now is overflowing as we see our first grandchildren and that God is faithful in all things.
Thanks for a good reminder.
It seems to be so true about the way we sense God’s blessings on our lives, when He has been with us through thick & thin over an extended period of time! It’s almost indescribable the way even the most basic words/(concepts) — love, trust, faithfulness, blessing, honor, worth — deepen and change and grow in personal meaning. We almost don’t see it happening, until we stop & look back once in awhile! Maybe even a bit like water or juice becoming wine — good things already, but such an amazing transformation. Thank you both for the reminders!