Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Let Perseverance Finish

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. (James 1.2-3)

Virtue Heightens Visibility

The book of Job gets off to a rip-roaring start. There’s a lovely, bucolic prologue, in which we see Job, his wife, and 10 children living prosperous, faithful lives. They celebrate birthdays with great feasts and, on the outside chance someone’s said or done something amiss during the festivities, Job makes a sacrifice on his family’s behalf. Then we cut to Heaven, where angels report their activities. Satan—a former angel who knows the drill—gets in line. God asks, “Where have you been?” Satan answers, “I’ve been roaming around, looking for trouble.” (No surprise there.) Reading between the lines, God hears: “I’ve been bullying your people—picking on easy targets.” With that, He challenges the Adversary to pick on someone stronger. “Have you considered my servant Job?” he asks. (Job 1.8) Satan, like all bullies, makes sarcastic excuses. “Job honors You because You protect him. If You didn’t, he’d be no different than the rest.” (v9-11) So God decides to test Satan. “I’ll lift Job’s protection. Let’s see what you’ve got.”

We’re witnessing the birth of the Job Probability—a correlation between honoring God and being tried. As believers, we remain mindful our commitment and faith will be tested. Once we get that, we can view our tests as tests, not punishments, failures, or indicators of God’s absence. That’s an overarching theme in Job: virtue heightens visibility. Being a humble man, he’s unaware he’s chosen for this test because he’s done no wrong. Yet confidence his troubles aren’t judgments enables him to turn his thoughts from why he’s being tested to what he will gain from it. In chapter 23, he says not finding a reason for his turmoil confirms his faith in God’s goodness: “He knows the way I take; when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold.” (v10)

This consummately virtuous man has presence of mind to trust he’ll come through his test all the more virtuous. When he does, his visibility increases to the point the earliest writer to record Scripture tells his story. The man whose friends insist God forgot him is ultimately lionized as the Bible’s epitome of persevering faith. Of course, the story ends just as it should. Job’s trust is honored with all he lost restored to him. He’s privileged to intercede on his friends’ behalf when God condemns their ignorance and doubt. That’s the secret tucked inside the Job Probability. The costs exacted by our tests are always repaid, allowing us to do for others what they wouldn’t do for us.

A Glaring Contradiction

To doubters, the Job Probability sounds completely nuts. If the degree to which we’re tested is directly proportional to our faith and commitment, why believe and persevere at all? What they don’t factor into the equation are the rewards tied to the outcome. David sounds this note repeatedly in Psalm 34: “I sought the LORD, and he answered me; he delivered me from all my fears.” (v4) “Taste and see that the LORD is good; blessed is the one who takes refuge in him.” (v8) “The lions grow weak and hungry, but those who seek the LORD lack no good thing.” (v10) “The righteous person may have many troubles, but the LORD delivers him from them all.” (v19) These truths are embedded in the Job Probability. Blessings, provision, and freedom from fear are joys it promises. They will not fail—provided we do not fail to trust and persevere until they come. God’s purpose for tests is always good. Patience to endure them is what He requires to make His goodness known. And since the whole equation operates on a counterintuitive principle, it should come as no shock to unearth a glaring contradiction in the process.

No one breaks this down better than James: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever your face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance,” he writes in the opening passage of his letter. “Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” The pivotal phrase leaps out: Let perseverance finish its work. Our faith is tested to teach us we outlast crises, topple barriers, and defeat foes by relying on patience we don’t have to build patience we need. How is that even possible? There’s no earthly reason why that would work. But that’s the point, isn’t it? Our trials are designed to liberate us from logic, leading to unnatural conclusions that open our hearts and minds to God’s ways. When, like Job, we can find no rational cause for our struggles, we conclude they’re tests. Questioning why hardships happen to us is moot. We focus on what happens to us in hardship. By faith, we perceive God’s purpose for tests. He knows where we are and how to bring forth our gold. Completing the lesson—letting perseverance finish—is how we pass the test and reap its rewards.

God’s Faith in Us

A central feature of Job’s story many ignore is he isn’t a Jew. He resides in Uz, a region eventually called Edom, homeland of a Semitic tribe that revered God on par with other deities. Religious and cultural clashes caused the Jews to hold Job’s people in contempt. Israel’s first king, Saul, declared war on Edom, and David subjected its citizens to Jewish rule. Yet despite deeply instilled prejudice against his ethnicity, Job becomes the Jewish Bible’s paragon of faith, patience, and virtue. We who are marginalized and rejected possess the same potential. Impatience for hateful, unjust barriers to fall is understandable. But patience in our all of our trials expresses our faith in God’s faith in us. He knows the way we take. When He has tested us, we will shine like gold. Virtue heightens visibility. Let perseverance finish its work.

James teaches us to rely on patience we don’t have to build patience we need. Job teaches us letting perseverance finish its work expresses our faith in God’s faith in us.


Sherry Peyton said...

"Our faith is tested to teach us we outlast crises, topple barriers, and defeat foes by relying on patience we don’t have to build patience we need."

Nailed it! Gosh I hadn't thought of that Tim, but it's exactly true. What tried me as a young person is laughable by what tries me now. But if I had not learned patience, and continued to grow in it, I'd be one sorry mess.

Thanks for pointing out the obvious! lol...most of us need reminding.

Tim said...

Sherry, like you, I hadn't thought this through until very recently. Being one of my favorite passages, James 1 is often where I go (and send others) when I'm in the depths and swimming with questions. I've always focused on the steps: trials -> patience, patience -> maturity. A few days back I turned to it, and voila! the "let it happen" phrase conked me on the head!

It's not easy to do, but it's much easier than losing patience and trying to fix the problem before the lesson is finished. And you're so right. If we only looked over our shoulders at how many times we grew impatient, had no choice other than waiting until the lesson ended, and saw the good intended in our trials, we'd be far more patient with those we face now.

Thanks for your comment. It makes me smile and gives added clarity to the thought!


Jan said...

Tim, you and Sherry amaze me with your prolific wordsmithing. Good expression to your thoughts and faith. I'm in a slow, quiet phase with little to say these days, so I'll just thank you.

Tim said...

Jan, a touch of flu has me in a slow, quiet phase as well. I'm rebounding quickly, however, and should be up to speed in no time.

It's an honor to be compared with Sherry, who's ability to turn a phrase and produce a cogent thought daily astounds me. That alone makes me feel much, much better!

Thanks for the comment, and have a glorious weekend!