And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, establish, and strengthen you. (1 Peter 5:10 RSV)
I am notorious for making New Year’s resolutions that never quite get off the ground, but which somehow manage by the grace of God to leave their mark on my body, mind, and soul. What I mean by this is that, while I neglect to carry out a disciplined, biblically-based, Church-sanctioned program of New Year’s life renewal, God, in his infinite goodness and perfect timing, allows my resolutions to unfold nonetheless over the course of the year and find their fruition through trial and painful transformation until I become a little more the man I was meant to be.
This year, however, God elected to make a preemptive strike in my life by turning a little Christmas overindulgence into a full-blown medical emergency, literally knocking me off my feet and causing me to step back and reevaluate both my life choices and the attitudes that had inspired them. While I thought that my little ordeal would excuse me from my regular writing obligations, I became convicted that God was making me painfully aware of the necessity of letting his divine discipline lead to a thorough and open confession of my greatest needs and his greatest love.
Light and Momentary?
My Christmas started off with a wonderful Italian dinner with my wife’s family at our home. Following the appetizers, we feasted on antipasto, chicken parmigiana, stuffed shells, and desserts galore. There were quite a few trips to the glass Christmas tree filled with candy as we opened presents and shared good times. After my family left we had some friends over to play games by the fire. I remember thinking – as I always do at this time of year – that this minor bit of intemperance was only for a time, and once the New Year was upon me, I would gradually get back to the business of watching my weight, spending more time with God, and growing as a godly man.
It was then that I noticed I was not feeling too well. After a night of intense abdominal pain, and a day spent going from the walk-in clinic to the Emergency Room, I found myself admitted to the hospital with an acutely inflamed gallbladder that needed to come out. I must confess that one verse that did not come to mind during my festival of unrestrained bodily agony was this beautiful passage from 2 Corinthians:
So we do not lose heart. Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed every day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, because we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen; for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16-18 RSV)
While I tried to maintain my composure throughout the entire tribulation, I freely admit that at the time I saw my extreme discomfort as neither light nor momentary, though I was keenly aware that my outer nature was no longer what it used to be. But as I accepted the inevitability of my fate and sank under the influence of the anesthesia, I slowly began to view this divinely-enacted respite from a more eternal perspective, surrendering my control to the One who holds all things in his loving hands.
Suffering, Endurance, Character, and Hope
While it may seem that most of the passages in the Bible that speak of suffering relate more to persecution for the faith than to personal trials like physical distress, financial hardship, or spiritual sickness, there is a transformative nature to our pain that leads to a greater awareness of our fallen nature without Christ, our need for God’s care, and the true heavenly goal we should be seeking. Look at these words from Paul’s letter to the Romans:
Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God. More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Romans 5:1-5RSV)
Being knocked on one’s backside by a medical emergency is certainly not akin to the persecution that so many Christians suffer for their faith, but it does force us to fix our eyes upon the only One who can see us through our trials to our eternal end. This little temporary ordeal allowed God to refine me in the fires of pain and harsh realities, burning off my casual selfishness and my petty schemes, my self-important pride and my self-pitying attitude. I became keenly aware that life was not to be taken lightly, and that even the simple and silly lies I so often told myself were giving way to a disciplined and persevering faith that would build my character and open the doorway to hope revealed.
A Message of Glory from Memories Gone By
That first night home, I remember not wanting to take the prescription pain pills the doctors had given me, but was in quite a bit of discomfort and desperately needed sleep. But as I expected, within a half-hour of taking the medication, I could feel its effects on my mood. I drifted off into a very long night of strange visions, intense images, and disheartening dreams.
At one point I saw my long-dead mother walking through our old house in her bathrobe, smiling at me. I ran up to her, somehow knowing she had died and wanting to spend time with her. I remember her saying to me, “You need to go out and play; don’t stay in here with me!” and I desperately tried to explain to her how life goes by all too quickly and then it is gone. I woke up with tears in my eyes, but understood the message I had received.
As I meditated on the meaning of my restless sleep, my changed physical condition, and the future considerations it would demand, I thought about how fleeting is the nature of this life and the trivial temporary resolutions we make in comparison to the glory that awaits those who believe in Jesus. I thought about this verse from 1 Peter:
In this you rejoice, though now for a little while you may have to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold which though perishable is tested by fire, may redound to praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 1:6-7RSV)
I came to realize that the “slight momentary” troubles we experience here on earth are meant to remind us of the glory that we experience now by faith and will experience fully when Christ is revealed. Yes, our lives are fleeting. Children all too soon grow up and the shape of our families changes as the years go by. But we are called to go right on playing – to enjoy life, to endure our trials, and to live and laugh and love will all our might as these wonderful realities point us to the greater glory that will be ours in the end.
You Can’t Keep a Good Man Down
There is a calm that comes after a storm such as this, offering a moment of clarity so profound that time seems to stand still. In my weakness, propped up in my recliner with a cup of tea and my family around me, I gladly yielded to my helplessness and my need for recovery. And when I think about it, that is really what making resolutions is all about. Life throws so much at us, and we who are faithful must push through the days of joy and pain and seek that holy place of recovery where we allow the renewing power of the Savior to pour itself into our lives once more.
New years come and go and we continue the cycle of spiritual transformation from sinner to saint, from the fires of suffering to the glory of the vision that shapes our souls. As I step into the days to come, I rejoice that God is loving enough to allow the afflictions we experience to cause the love and life of Christ to manifest itself in our words and deeds as we continually offer our lives to him. Consider this thought from St. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians:
We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. (2 Corinthians 4:8-10 RSV)
What a joy it is to know that, through my suffering, the life of Jesus is being displayed in this fallible, fallen man who has been redeemed by grace. It turns my yesterdays into treasures, my tomorrows into hopeful dreams, and my present into an experience of eternal satisfaction and immeasurable joy. I think that is worth a little bit of belly pain, after all. It is overwhelming to think that the One who has overcome the world is working out that same song of salvation in my battered body and the soul that is being transformed from glory to glory, day by precious day.
Resolutions and Real Resolve
I spent New Year’s Eve alone this year. My son and older daughter went to be with some young adult friends and my wife and younger daughter spent time with a few families, laughing and sharing some happy memories. But I wasn’t lonely at all. As I sat watching a movie and listening to the rain fall softly outside my window, I thought about the great gifts and eternal blessings I had been given. Their power is what has fueled my unspoken resolutions with true divine resolve and allowed them to unfold over the course of my life.
I have a wife who has walked this journey of ups and downs right alongside me and is still there to share the road of trials and triumphs with a glad heart. I am father to three incredible children who still love to spend time with each other being silly and carrying on family traditions that remind us of who we are. I have my health and heart and sense of humor and all those little giftings and idiosyncrasies that make me who I am.
Most of all, I have the grace that Jesus has given me that has rescued me from sin and the worst of myself. I have a relationship with the God who is wise enough to guide me, strong enough to move me, and loving enough to drive me to my knees and occasionally my back in order to teach me the wonder of conversion.
As you travel the narrow path this new year, may the spiritual surgery that the divine surgeon performs in your life empower you to demonstrate the joy of salvation and the power of transforming love to all you meet. May we surrender our less-than-careful prayers to the One who delights to make all things new as each year rolls around to carry us home!