This morning's Bible study was on the topic of joy: "I have inner contentment and purpose in spite of my circumstances." Joy is a "soul peace" that isn't based on external conditions, but based on what we know as the answer to three questions: "Who is God?", "Who am I?", and "What is God doing?"
Whenever I face difficulty, I begin by reflecting on who I know God to be. Too often, we start with the question "Why" instead of this fundamental consideration of "Who." But, joy is to be found in a person, not in a solution. As I think about the truth of God, I remember that He is sovereign, He is powerful, He is wise and He is good. While I might be surprised and undone by losing my job or losing my dog, God isn't. He remains on His throne, ordering the universe as He always has.
Next, I consider who I am---not who I was, but who I am. This is a reflection of identity. As a Christian, I remember that I am loved by God, precious to Him, protected by Him and forever safe by His grace. God is more concerned about my cancer diagnosis or missed flight than I am. Because I am His child, He will always [guaranteed!] look out for my best interest.
This leads me to the last question: "What is God doing?" The answer may be surprising. When God permits suffering in the life of a Christian, He is always aiming for one goal: Death. Every challenge, difficulty or obstacle is moving us one step closer to surrender, self-denial and...sanctification. This is why James commands us to have joy in the midst of trials [James 1:2-4]. Because, "you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance" and "perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything." Joy in suffering comes from the realization that God is using the hard stuff to help us become the people He wants us to be. He is ever-conforming us to the person of Jesus. And, to look like Jesus requires death. Not a physical death [though it could lead to that], but daily "deaths" where our pride, self-centeredness, control, perfection, etc. is chiseled away. I think this is what Paul meant when he wrote, "I die daily" [1 Corinthians 15:31]. In the trials of life, God is teaching us about giving up, giving in and becoming less and less like our old self and more and more like Jesus.
In this, I find joy.
To this point, one of the men in our Bible study countered, "I get this idea, but I still don't think I would ever be able to muster up 'joy' if the doctor told me I had cancer." To be sure, many people would collapse at the sudden, unexpected trial for which they had no preparation. Perhaps this is why God allows us ongoing challenges in life--fender benders, interpersonal misunderstandings, financial hardships, back problems and the like. These smaller sufferings are dress rehearsals for the larger trials that may one day come. So, rather than take the detour around these lesser difficulties, maybe God wants us to drive right through them, being confident in who He is, who we are and what He is ultimately doing.
We'll die a little. But, the benefit is that we will discover joy.