For years a sentence in the Bible puzzled me: “when troubles of any kind come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy”(James 1:2). I couldn’t make sense of it. How could there be joy in suffering? Since then I have come to see I was looking through the eyes of my culture and that the Bible was inviting me to understand suffering in a different way.
Cultures handle suffering differently.
Some years ago a tsunami struck Japan and a visitor noticed the phrases: “I’ll do my best!”, “I’ll stick it out!” and “It can’t be helped” repeated constantly. But when he got back to his home in the U.S. he said: “I heard much more lamentation and panic in California than among the people I know around Kyoto”.
Author, Tim Keller, argues that Western cultures are far more traumatised by suffering than other cultures. Why is this? Keller says modern secular society has abandoned all thought of an afterlife and purpose in suffering. The only meaning in life, is the life you have now. According to Keller there has never been a culture in the history of the world like that in the West today that believes the meaning of life is only found in this one life!
Other cultures consider suffering is but a chapter in a person’s life story, a help on the way to an eternal goal; a means to an end. In contrast, for Western society suffering is an obstacle to the goal, because the goal of life is happiness in this life (this life is all that you have).
The consequence is that suffering for many in our society today has no meaning and has to be denied or avoided. However, life is full of suffering so if you’re Western and secular where can you find hope?
Let me return to the phrase I started with: “consider it pure joy my brothers whenever you face trials of many kinds…. Because the sentence goes on to explain itself.. because the testing of your faith produces perseverance.
A Christian worldview offers so much more. Of all the religions it presents God as a suffering God. He knows our suffering because of what Jesus went through on the cross. Christianity offers hope that this life is not the end. Hope to see loved ones again. Hope for a new earth and new heaven with no suffering. Not a spiritual existence but a new physical body.
Suffering can help us produce character and hope in the face of all sorts of obstacles. We can get through it.
Maybe you need to hear that today. You can get through whatever trouble you face and can be stronger for it.