I remember visiting a man in the hospital. His liver was failing, and he was about to die. He had been an alcoholic his entire adult life, and now that he was dying, he had begun to blame God for his condition. On one visit I couldn’t stand his ranting any longer, so I stood up in the hospital room and yelled, “You know what? I’ve been coming here every day for two weeks, listening to you moan about how God did this to you. Well, you know what? You were the one who went to the bar night after night for the last thirty-five years. You shoved whiskey, vodka, and beer down your throat, not God! So give me a break and quit your whining. God didn’t do this to you. You did this to yourself.”
Actually, I didn’t say that. I was too chicken. But the thought did cross my mind.
I believe God takes even our bad decisions and works to help us overcome their negative consequences. Thank goodness. I’ve done things unbecoming of a Christian, let alone a pastor, things that would have shocked my friend in the hospital. And those actions have created painful consequences in my life. But I don’t usually blame God for those consequences. Deep down inside I know I did those things. In my experience, what usually causes people to struggle with their faith is the kind of events the Bible discusses in James 1:2-4:
Consider it pure joy, . . . whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.
“Trials of many kinds.” That’s specifically what we’re talking about. Events allowed or orchestrated by God. That’s what God uses to shape us into the image of Jesus. In fact, James says, those things “complete” us.
Now James says something else in those verses that, at first glance, seems quite odd. He tells us to consider such trials “pure joy.” Does that sound unrealistic or awkward to you? It does to me. I can think of a lot of things that bring me pure joy, and “trials of many kinds” don’t make the list.
Peanut butter milkshakes. Pure joy.
Fishing for rainbow trout on a mountain stream. Pure joy.
Hitting a golf ball three hundred yards. Pure joy.
Playing soccer with my kids in the backyard. Pure joy.
My wife picking out a Victoria’s Secret outfit. Definitely pure joy.
Finding out my father has kidney cancer. Definitely not pure joy.
Why do we react so negatively to God’s strategy of using trials to help “complete” us in our spiritual lives? Why is this idea so foreign to us? Most of the time, it has to do with conflicting agendas.
In 1902 William James published his landmark book The Varieties of Religious Experience. It was the first exhaustive study ever performed on the psychology of religious behavior. His goal was simple: to share what he thought were the inner psychological motivations for why religious people act the way they do. In that study James observed:
If we were to ask the question: “What is human life’s chief concern?” one of the answers we should receive would be: “It is happiness.” How to gain, how to keep, how to recover happiness, is in fact for most men at all times the secret motive of all they do, and of all they are willing to endure.
Later in the passage he concluded:
With such relations between religion and happiness, it is perhaps not surprising that men come to regard the happiness which a religious belief affords as a proof of its truth. If a creed makes a man feel happy, he almost inevitably adopts it.
That’s the root issue. I don’t understand the “trials of many kinds” agenda because I have a different one: I want to be happy. It’s that simple. And pain doesn’t make me happy. Trials hurt. Trials outstay their welcome. I want to be happy today, right now, this minute.
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