One of my favorite stories is Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. It’s primarily a story of grace and new life. The main character, Jean Valjean, spends nineteen years in jail for stealing a loaf of bread for his starving family. The experience in prison caused him to become a bitter man. By the time he is released, he is hard, angry, cynical, with nowhere to go. In desperation, he seeks lodging one night at the home of a Catholic bishop, who treats him with genuine kindness, which Valjean sees only as an opportunity to exploit. In the middle of the night he steals the bishop’s silver and runs. The next day, however, he is caught by the police. When they bring Jean back to the bishop’s house for identification, the police are surprised when the bishop hands two silver candlesticks to Valjean, implying that he had given the stolen silver to him, saying, “You forgot these.” After dismissing the police, the bishop turns to Jean Valjean and says, “I have bought your soul for God.” In that moment, by the bishop’s act of mercy, Valjean’s bitterness is broken.
Jean Valjean’s forgiveness is the beginning of a new life. The bulk of Victor Hugo’s novel demonstrates the utter power of a regenerated and redeemed life. Jean chooses the way of mercy, as the bishop did. Valjean raises an orphan, spares the life of a parole officer who spent fifteen years hunting him, and saves his future son-in-law from death, even though it nearly cost him his own life. There are trials and temptations for Valjean throughout his life. What keeps him pursuing his new life is mercy. Whereas before, Valjean responded to mercy with a brooding melancholy and inner anger, now – after being shown grace – Valjean responds to each case of unjust suffering with both mercy and joy, deeply thankful for the chance to live a new life full of grace.
Suffering and joy. Those two words, at first glance, may seem to be opposites. Yet, Christianity views suffering as an occasion for joy, and not as empty meaningless grief. Followers of Jesus imitate their Savior through walking the way of suffering. We are told in Holy Scripture that these sufferings are trials to our faith, that is, they are the means by which our faith is developed, used, and strengthened. Just as gold is refined by being put through fire, so our faith is refined and proven genuine through the purging fires of life’s trials and troubles. Walking in the way of our Lord Jesus, adversity becomes our Teacher, helping us to know Christ better and appreciate the great salvation we possess in Jesus. (1 Peter 1:3-9)
Back in the first century, the Apostle Peter wrote a letter to Jewish Christians living in a Gentile society. They were strangers and aliens in the ancient world. These were people who responded to the preaching of Peter at Pentecost and gave their lives to the risen Christ. When persecution broke out after the stoning of Stephen, the church was scattered, and many Jewish Christians went to live in Gentile nations very different from their home in Jerusalem. In that Gentile environment, they were often looked down upon simply because they were Jewish. What’s more, they were alienated from their families because of their commitment to Jesus. They were alone and faced both the social and economic hardships that came with being Jewish Christians. So, Peter wrote to encourage these suffering believers in their hardship. He reminded them of what they possess and to use that precious possession rather than focus solely on their poverty and difficulty. Peter let them know that their adversity has the positive effect of making their faith genuine.
Every generation of Christians needs to see that their faith is not only a matter of confession with the lips; faith is also proven primarily through suffering. Faith is much like a new car – it is meant to be used. It’s not just something we own and possess – to only sit in the garage and be admired. A car is meant to be on the road, and if it does not perform well, we say it’s a lemon and we get another car. Cars are the vehicles that get us from point A to point B. And, hopefully, we enjoy the ride without being frustrated and having road rage. It is unrealistic, as drivers, to believe we will never have to drive in adverse road conditions. We recognize that it is silly to believe the weather must always conform to our driving habits. We will have to drive through snow and thunderstorms. We will need to deal with traffic and road construction. We will have to drive defensively and continually be vigilant to the other drivers on the road. We might always have a plan for how to get from point A to point B, yet, we must deal with whatever conditions we find along the way. This isn’t optional, unless we decide to let the car sit in the garage and never use it.
Good drivers are good drivers because they drive a lot and have driven in nearly every type of road condition. Mature Christians are those followers of Jesus who allow their faith to take them places, have seen all kinds of adversity, trials, and suffering along the road of life. What makes them mature is that they have learned through all their troubles and trials to enjoy what God is doing in their lives instead of being frustrated and have faith-fury. Such Christians have the confidence that they are receiving the goal of their faith, the salvation of their souls. They understand that their faith grows and develops as they face the challenges of life every day with a firm commitment to their Lord Jesus.
The most miserable people are those who have not been taught by mercy, and, therefore, do not know the joy of extending mercy to others. Peter could praise God because his life was transformed by the grace and mercy of Jesus. Peter went from an impulsive and fearful fisherman who denied the Lord three times, to a confident and courageous witness of Christ because he was regenerated, restored, and renewed by grace. He joyfully endured suffering and opposition because his faith was precious to him.
There is a tendency for many Christians to show a stoic attitude through the trials of life. We try and keep a stiff upper lip and simply endure. Taking the approach of “It is what it is” only works for so long. Eventually “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” is a more appropriate response to trouble. It is precisely during those times when human hope fades that we rejoice – even though the rejoicing is through tears – in the living hope kept for us. This gracious inheritance of hope is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading. That means we can live through a difficult day or week or month or even, dear God, a year or longer with spiritual endurance. We can do this, friends. We can persevere through our worldwide trial of pandemic. We can even do more than survive – we can thrive through having our faith muscle stretched and strengthened. We are not alone. We all suffer together.
Our shared value of the risen Christ is the fuel that keeps our car of faith running. It is what transcends the stoic attitude of unfeeling endurance to a joyful flourishing of faith. Suffering is central to living for Jesus Christ. Suffering is not something to continually avoid, go around, or bemoan because it is God’s means of forming us spiritually to be like Jesus. I can say that the sufferings I’ve experienced in my own life I never want to go through again. I can also say that I would not change those experiences for anything because they have formed and shaped me in ways that would probably not have happened apart from adversity.
Our goal in this life is not to escape the world. There is a time coming when our salvation will be consummated, heaven comes down to earth, and both are joined forever.
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Now the dwelling of god is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:1-4).
This is our inheritance in Christ. First, however, we must come prepared for the future by undergoing grief in all kinds of sufferings in the present. These trials to our faith are a sort of pre-marital session that prepare us for our marriage with Jesus.
Eventually, suffering will have done its work and we will be with Christ forever. Until that day, let’s not stay in the garage of life. Let us explore all that God has for us, embracing both the meaning and the mystery of faith. Since our salvation is assured, let us live with confidence and run the race marked out for us. Let us not be complacent or slow in doing the will of God, but work for God’s kingdom purposes on this earth. And let us allow our trials to do their work in us, responding to them with joy knowing that our faith is being strengthened for the benefit of blessing the world. Even in suffering, God is good all the time; and, all the time, God is good. To him be the glory.