Part of a series of articles, entitled 20 years a Christian, recalling some of the important lessons I have learned in nearly two decades as a believer in Jesus.
Some people seem almost to be born into suffering. Others of us grow well into adulthood before stumbling upon any really difficult times. Some, in fact, who read these lines are still waiting for the day of severe trial to come upon us. But all of us, if we simply live long enough in this fallen world, will eventually face what James calls “various trials.” It is part of living under the curse that has been brought upon the world by sin.
And yet James says that we should “consider it all joy” when we find ourselves caught up in these thorns of sin’s curse. “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials.” What? How can that be? Well, God has many purposes of grace which, like roses, come attached to our thorny trials. But in this brief space, let me just mention one, in the words of the psalmist:
“Before I was afflicted I went astray,
But now I keep Your word.”
Suffering, says the psalmist, made him more obedient to God! And this is one of the great lessons I have learned in my nearly twenty years as a believer in Jesus Christ. Suffering, in the hands of a gracious and kind God, can be like sandpaper, smoothing out the parts of our character that are still a little too rough hewn. I had heard this preached from Psalm 119, of course – even preached it myself, from this very passage! But until a little over a year ago, I am not sure I had learned it by experience. For, up until last February, I was still in the category of those who had not yet lived long enough to fall very far into life’s “thorns and thistles.” I had lived 35 years with very little of what might be called real tribulation.
But one winter Wednesday morning, for reasons that are too much to detail in this space, I found myself tumbling head over heels into a deep and long bout with what may only be called severe anxiety. Every day was a battle not to panic over some fear or other. And some days, if I could have painted myself in a word picture, I was reduced to nothing more than a puddle of emotions on the ground. Still to this day, I wrestle with anxiety and fear (albeit, thanks be to God, on a very low level, comparatively). But through this suffering, God really has helped me to better keep His word.
For one thing, He has shown me how weak and fragile I really am; how easily I will crumble if not upheld by His grace. And that has been one blessing of my struggles – being shown my weakness, and truly humbled. “Before I was afflicted” I thought I had my life basically together. I thought I was one of those ‘mature’ Christians … the kind who help others, but don’t need a great deal of help themselves! In short, I was not anywhere near as humble as I ought to have been. And I am still not. But I hope that my suffering has ever so slightly increased my obedience to the scriptures’ commands concerning humility.
And that humbling has, I hope, made me a more obedient follower of Jesus in another way as well. I have been brought, I think, to a much fuller obedience to the biblical teachings concerning compassion – and particularly with those who just can’t seem to get it together emotionally or mentally. God let me live, for a few months, inside the dungeon in which many people spend years or decades … so that, when I came out, I might love those people a great deal more like Jesus does. And love is really important. “Before I was afflicted” I did not know how to love fully; I did not have an appropriate level of compassion toward certain people. And I still have a lot of learning to do … and perhaps some more sandpaper to endure. But through my suffering, I definitely grew to better keep God’s word in this one area.
So in some small way, I have begun to be able to say with the psalmist: “Before I was afflicted I went astray, But now I keep Your word.” And that has been another of the most important lessons of my almost two decades as a Christian.