giving pain full play

When it comes to trials, I am sobered to examine the events in my life that have caused the most sorrow, for many seem like slight and silly things that, in my eyes, reveal the fragility of my heart. But perhaps this is how such things go: from a distance, we can examine pain with plenty of sterility, saying all sorts of pesky platitudes/niceties/clichés; without being in the midst of it, the gravity of the impact and severity of the reality can be easily dismissed. Distance develops a callous.

“Consider it wholly joyful, my brethren, whenever you are enveloped in or encounter trials of any sort or fall into various temptations. Be assured and understand that the trial and proving of your faith bring out endurance and steadfastness and patience. But let endurance and steadfastness and patience have full play and do a thorough work, so that you may be [people] perfectly and fully developed [with no defects], lacking in nothing.”
(James 1:2-4, AMP)

We may glorify some hardships and trivialize others, but when you yourself are “enveloped” in the midst of an “encounter” with something painful, the rankings don’t hold true, nor do they afford relief.

I’d like to remind us (and firstly, myself), that there is no standard of how hard something has to be in order for it to be a “valid” trial. A lonely season, a hope unfulfilled, the death of a beloved, a devastating illness, financial strain, persistent insecurity; we like to try and rank these things according to their weight, but maybe… let’s quit all that. Let’s call each one a valid trial. For, in reality, almost anything at all is able to wreak havoc on the human heart.

In these verses, James is writing to exiled, dispersed people; in my spoiled, entitled way, I imagine that I can somewhat sympathize. Living in a place I didn’t particularly choose, at a distance from people I love, without pieces of life that I consider “must-have’s” (canna girl get a decent city park?), there are days upon days that this season seems like a very strange form of exile & dispersion, even if it is only a temporary kind.

Consider it pure joy  – NIV
Consider it wholly joyful – AMP

Oh James. As if counting trials as joy wasn’t a monstrous enough task on it’s own, I am to count it pure joy? It seems like some degree of joy may be a possibility, but even a heap of joy still seems to come ridden with doubts and fears and hesitations. It’s almost more acceptable (a.k.a., safe) to our cautious and stubborn minds for pure joy to be left out of the chapter, for being wholly joyful seems irrational and bizarre. But so was a perfect King on a shameful cross out of love for spiteful rebels. And that irrational fact is the precious route by which pure joy can be found.

Grace doesn’t follow after our “rational” mind’s expectations, and it is so, so much better that way. In the same way, it is so, so much better that in hard things, that same grace allows us to experience joy that blows the lid off of what we expect. We expect survival, he offers a chance to thrive. We expect to merely weather the storm, he gives glorious light even as winds blow all ’round. We expect a paltry portion of joy, he offers a chance at pure, whole joy.

…when you encounter
         trials of many kinds – NIV
         trials of any sort or fall into various temptations – AMP

I had to pause (for days) on this one. So… I am to count even the experience of temptation as pure joy? It is easier (though, not easy) for me to go along with James when he says that trials are to be regarded as joy. After all, he (and many others) have given strong and intellectually sound reasons why this can be so. But for temptations to be given the same reception? It is like a hesitant breath of fresh air – tentatively hopeful. The words come upon a new wind, whispering at the possibility of joy in those things as well.

It resonates with my experience of graduate school, where sometimes the most difficult part is not even so much that the time and place and responsibilities are taxing, but that the temptations feel especially heavy and oppressive: the temptation to complain, wallow, withdraw, put up walls, blame-shift… the temptation to be selfish, angry, passive, impatient.

I feel a current’s pull towards an increasingly bland existence, numbed mind, sedated soul. Sometimes the pull is simply from being… tired. Sometimes it’s from a terribly narrow focus (school, school, school – me, me, me). I’m still discovering from whence it comes, but I do know this: the force against my flesh as I gaze longingly upstream is heavy. I am weak, in this fight against complacency.

Be assured and understand that the trial and proving of your faith bring out endurance and steadfastness and patience. – AMP

It feels awfully ironic when something that is supposed to to “bring out” patience in me makes me feel so…  impatient. It feels like it’s not working for me, this flowchart James describes, when in the midst of it I feel not very steadfast or patient at all.

“God will have no strength used in His battles but the strength which He Himself imparts. Are you mourning over your own weakness? Take courage, for there must be a consciousness of weakness before the Lord will give thee victory. Your emptiness is but the preparation for your being filled, and your casting down is but the making ready for your lifting up.”
– Charles Spurgeon

As I am tried and tempted, I come face to face with all I lack in myself, and I am forced to acknowledge the emptiness. So yes, I feel weak, impatient, wimpy. But that’s me. I am those things, and many, many others.

But let me tell you about Jesus. He is patient, kind, steadfast and true. He holds fast when I let go, he reveals beauty when I pout and complain, he has claimed me and paid for my freedom in his own blood. He looks at my failures and weakness, and invites me closer instead of shunning me away. He knows in advance all the ways I will, quite frankly, suck at following him, and he rejoices that I am his anyways.

The steadfastness, it will not be mine. The patience will be nothing for me to place a boast in. Any endurance is not of my own doing. And that is a good thing – because it frees me to boast in someone must more reliable and steadfast than I.

He gives good gifts (verse 17), and he is leading me along a path that mysteriously allows for pure joy –  and that path ends in the place where Joy itself resides.

But let endurance and steadfastness and patience have full play and do a thorough work – AMP

Full play. Freedom to run about, covering all ground, getting into all nooks and places and spaces. Play. Hints of the joy possible in the process; hinting at laughter and freedom. Phillips version even puts it this way: “Don’t resent [trials] as intruders, but welcome them as friends!”

Welcome the friends of trial and temptation, and to those friends, give full play. Trust that there is no need to fear what comes, when He is the one who holds us. Trust that the wild rumpus will bring wholeness, and has pure, pure joy along the way.

…sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death. – James 1:15, NIV

“But then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue? What’s happened to the world?” – J.R. Tolkien, Return of the King

I thought I was dead myself. But if, by what Christ has done, death no longer marks me, then the world truly has been turned upside down. If, though I was dead, he gave me birth (verse 18), then the deepest concern has been resolved. Yes, things are still hard and broken, and more hard and broken things will come. But there is joy even now, largely because He is making everything sad come untrue, starting with the death sentence that our pride bought us, and moving out to the rest of our lives and to the world itself.

I’m learning, slowly, to say yes – yes to the mystery of redemption that gives pure joy, even before every single sad thing gets made untrue, because the saddest part (my separation, my death) has already been reversed.

Ships broken at Ezion-Geber
I’ll thank the Lord
For this ship broken
I’ll praise him
For grace that got me to the shore
For the bitter wind that drove mercy in
And this praise, surprisingly so,
will come from a heart increasingly made whole.


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