Suffering and the 'U-Curve' of Life
Suffering and the 'U-Curve' of Life
A story that I think about from time to time may also be one that you are familiar with. There was a wise man who lived on the northern frontier of China. One day, for no apparent reason, his horse ran away. When people in the community tried to console him, the man said, "What makes you so sure it isn't a good thing?" Some months later, the horse returned, bringing a splendid wild stallion. Everyone congratulated the man, but this man said, "What makes you so sure this is a good thing?"
The wise man's son loved to ride this wild stallion, but one day the wild stallion bucked, throwing his son off the horse, and the son ended up breaking his hip and he could not walk. People in the community tried to console him, but the father said, "What makes you so sure this isn't a blessing?"
Not long after, nomads from across the northern border invaded the land and every able-bodied man was called up to defend the country. This community ended up losing nine out of every 10 men, but because the man's son could not walk, he was allowed to stay home and care for his aging father.
This story illustrates that often we don't know whether something will prove to be a blessing or a curse, whether something is so-called "good luck" or "bad luck." Scripture goes even further. It teaches us that sometimes what we consider to be the best thing in the world turns out to be the very worst thing for us, and sometimes the things we consider to be the worst turn out to be the very best.
The U-curves of our lives
Scripture does not specifically use the image of the U-curve or inverted U-curve, but it often traces just such a pattern in the lives of people.
The life of a successful person may be described as forming the shape of an inverted "U." Success can lead to pride, which, according to Scripture, is the greatest vice, as it blinds us to our faults and causes us to blame others for our problems. We start to justify our excesses so that while our life seems to ascend to success, it is actually tailing downward as we become proud.
Conversely, we can see in the curve of a regular-shaped "U" a life that moves through experiences of failure, suffering, or humiliation. It can feel like the worst thing, but often it's through some kind of suffering and pain that we acquire, with God's help, the greatest virtue: humility. When we feel like our life has gone down, it may actually be going up and forming the shape of a right-side-up "U."
What we think may be the worst thing may be actually the best thing, so far as God is concerned, while what we feel is going to be the best thing may be the worst thing, where God is concerned.
As we study the Book of James today, we are going to look at how the inverted U-curve, as well as the regular U-curve, defines the trajectory of our lives.
The rich and the inverted U-curve
[Read James 5:1-11]
Our text today begins with James addressing rich people: merchants and landowners, people who own what we would describe as companies or businesses. They are not only rich; they are people of power and influence.
According to verse five, they are living in luxury. They are eating well, and they're eating a lot. There are a lot of people in our society, probably a lot of us here in our community, who would love to be rich and powerful and influential—to have luxurious things in our lives and to eat lots of good food.
In the beginning of our passage, James addresses people who have achieved these things. They are living the dream. In their world, they would be regarded not only as prosperous by many people because of their wealth and power, but blessed by God. Yet James clearly says they are living on what we might describe as an inverted U-curve. According to verse two, they have accumulated a lot of gold, silver, and wealth, but, according to verses four and five, instead of viewing their wealth and power as an opportunity to bless others, they are living lives of luxury and self-indulgence: in fact, they are proud. They regard themselves as better than the people who are working for them, and therefore they have no problem abusing them by failing to pay them. It seems their life is on the up and up, but their worldly success has actually proved to become a point of stumbling downward—the inverted "U."
We also see this dynamic work in our world. Paul Piff, an assistant professor in the department of psychology and social behavior at the University of California in Irvine, has done 50 studies demonstrating that rich people tend to behave less compassionately than others. Piff did a study in which a pedestrian was placed on a street corner, and Piff tracked the cars that went by and their drivers' behaviors. He found that the more expensive somebody's car was, the less likely the driver was to stop for pedestrians.
We might think that someone who was richer would be more grateful for their life: that because they had received much, they would want to give much in return. In fact, it's just the opposite. The person in the nicer car is more likely to think: It's my road. Don't slow me down. The worst drivers, according to the study, are BMW drivers. (I'm not saying you're a bad driver if you drive a BMW. I'm just telling you what the study said!) Mercedes-Benz drivers were the next worst. The third-worst drivers were Prius drivers—I'm not kidding! They might care about the environment, but Piff suggested they're so concerned with gas mileage that they don't want to sit idling in traffic while a pedestrian crosses the road. I'm getting great gas mileage, they're thinking. I'm reducing my environmental footprint. If I have to kill you to achieve that, I'll kill you.
Rich drivers are riding the inverted U-curve. The richer we are—as James points out—the more oppressive we are likely to become.
It doesn't have to be that way. If you are rich financially, or if you're rich in education, talent, or influence, don't become proud and oppressive. Don't be stingy, but be grateful for what you have been given, and understand what Jesus said: that "[f]rom everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked" (Luke 12:48). If you're not connected already, find a spiritual friend or a small group that can journey with you help you navigate the unique temptations and opportunities of being a rich person.
Guard against grumbling
Then James directs attention from the rich towards those in the community who are suffering, in some cases precisely because they are the ones who are working for the rich, powerful, unjust employers. James says, "Be patient then, brothers and sisters, until the Lord's coming" (James 5:7).
What he's talking about is what we might describe as a U-curve, where it seems like the people who are suffering are being pushed down, down, down. But James is letting them know that their suffering and hardship may lead to God's greatest good in their life, if—with God's help—they will persevere and keep their eyes and their heart on God.
For example, in the second part of verse seven, James says, "See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop, patiently waiting for the autumn and spring rains." James is suggesting that during times of suffering, just like a farmer's field before any harvest is visible, God is at work in the soil of our hearts doing something that we may not perceive, yet that is of great value; if we persevere with God's help, we will one day experience a great harvest.
Let me also say that just because a person experiences suffering and hardship does not guarantee that a rich harvest and deepened character will emerge. For example, people struggling with an illness can become very self-absorbed and self-indulgent. They can become bitter and grumble. This is why James says "be patient" in verse eight, and then continues in verse nine: "Don't grumble against one another, brothers and sisters, or you will be judged. The Judge is standing at the door!"
We don't tend to view grumbling and complaining as serious sins, but James specifically names grumbling because he regards it as a serious sin that will lead to God's judgement. If you have read the Book of Exodus, you will note that when God delivered his people, the Hebrews, out of the land of Egypt—where they had been slaves for 400 years—and led them through the desert en route to the Promised Land, they grumbled about not having meat, onions, or leeks. God regarded the sin of complaining and grumbling as being very serious.
Why is grumbling such a serious sin? Part of the reason is because grumbling distances us from God. It is also because of what grumbling can do to us.
C. S. Lewis, in his remarkable book The Great Divorce, describes a man in a dream going to the outskirts of heaven, where he has a guide. Busloads of people from hell have arrived on a kind of field trip to the borderlands of heaven. These people from hell get a chance to interact and talk with some people from heaven. One of the people from heaven encounters a ghost-like person from hell. In the conversation, the person from heaven can hardly get a word in edgewise because the person from hell is talking so fast.
The person from hell says, "I had a dreadful time down there on Earth. I don't know how I got here to hell. I am dying to tell you this because I know you will tell me that I acted right. I tried living with that dreadful woman Marjorie when I first came. It was all fixed. She was to do the cooking and I was to look after the house. She turned out to be absolutely selfish. I do think I am entitled to some sympathy … . I shouldn't be here. I was murdered, you know. That man should never have operated on me. They starved me at that dreadful nursing home."
The man having the dream says to his guide, "What troubles me, sir, is that it does not seem to me that she should not be the kind of person who ends up in hell. She is only a person who has happened to be a grumbler." "Ah," the guide says, "but the whole question is whether she is now a grumbler or only now a grumble." The man asked, "How can she be a grumble without being a grumbler?"
Says the guide: "But you have had experiences … it begins with a grumbling mood, and yourself still distinct from it: perhaps criticizing it. You in a dark hour, may will that mood, embrace it. You can repent and come out of it again. But there may come a day when you can do that no longer. Then there will be no 'you' left to criticize the mood, nor even to enjoy it, but just the grumble itself going on forever like a machine."
James says, "Don't grumble." You may become a grumbler, C. S. Lewis warns, and if you become a grumbler, one day you may not be able to get out of it and you may become a grumble.
A harvest of great character
Let's return to the image of verses seven through eight: "See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop, patiently waiting for the autumn and spring rains. You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord's coming is near." As I alluded to earlier, when a farmer is preparing a field in anticipation of the harvest, it may seem to an outsider that nothing at all is happening. Yet something is happening, unseen, beneath the surface.
Several years ago, my wife Sakiko and I visited a vineyard for insight into Jesus' teaching on the vine and the branches, recorded in John 15. When we got to the vineyard, the manager told us that we had come during pruning season. We were there in January. She took us to the vineyard, and we saw how the vines were bare and ugly.
In fact, we saw the men cutting all the branches except the two that were closest to the vine. When we looked at the vines that had been pruned, they looked pathetic. They looked terrible. And, of course, they had no visible fruit. As I said, all of their branches had been lopped off except for two. We were told by the manager that unless the vines went dormant, endured the cold of winter, and then were pruned, it would not be possible to produce good wine.
In the same way, if we want God to produce a harvest of great character within us, the character that we see reflected in his Son Jesus Christ—depth, wisdom, courage, patience, love, and joy—then we too may well go through seasons of darkness, of winter, of cold, of pruning. The end result, by God's grace, is good fruit and good wine.
If we are not familiar with the teaching of Scripture, I think we observe the reality of this U-curve, a new curve, in life. The people we know with the greatest character, wisdom, and courage (not to mention perseverance) are not usually people who have led a so-called charmed life where they have never experienced any real pain. Rather, they are people who have gone through some kind of deep suffering or loss.
When a person is going through suffering, sometimes they will ask, "Did I do something wrong?" Some people assume that if they are successful in a worldly sense, they are being blessed by God, but if they are suffering, they are being punished by God. But that is not the storyline of Scripture. In Scripture, we read about people like Jacob: a schemer and a liar who, nevertheless, prospered materially and financially.
Meanwhile, James points out that great prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Job led God-honoring lives and yet suffered greatly. Isaiah preaches and no one listens to him, according to tradition, and he ended his life dying a martyr's death by being sawn in two. Jeremiah preaches and is beaten up and thrown into a well. Job suffered great physical and emotional pain.
Jesus lived the only perfect life anyone has ever lived, and yet he is called a man of sorrows. At the end of his life, he's beaten up and nailed to a Roman cross. How do you explain that? And James comes along and says, "If you think you are suffering, don't necessarily think you are being punished because of some evil. It might be because God loves you and wants to produce something of greater value in and through you through your suffering."
Suffering from our own sins
If you have sinned and are suffering as a result of that, God can use even that pain to produce fruit in your life.
A couple of months ago, I was speaking at a pastors' conference and had an opportunity to reconnect with a Christian leader named Gordon. When I was attending seminary in the Boston area, Gordon was the pastor of a large, well-known church. From time to time, we would have breakfast together. At this pastors' conference, Gordon told me that he is now 76 years old and finds the season to hold some sweetest and most fruitful days of his life.
I didn't know Gordon when he was a younger man. One of his former colleagues tells me that he used to be arrogant. He was the kind of celebrity pastor who expected people to carry his bags for him. But then he experienced a moral failure, one that became well known—a scandal. He committed adultery, and he took a season away from ministry during which he repented and experienced restoration in his relationship with God.
As I spoke with Gordon at the conference, I remembered having breakfast with him when I was a seminary student more than 20 years ago. I had asked him at the time, "Gordon, you seem to be such a capable and competent leader, a CEO type. Is there anything that intimidates you, or that you are afraid of?" He looked at me with his piercing blue eyes and said, "You are looking at someone who had a ministry and who lost that ministry, but there is no one he could blame but himself."
He continued, "At that point, I was looking at help-wanted ads in the Wall Street Journal, and I realized I wasn't qualified to do any of the jobs. And then one day, God—in his grace, despite my sin—gave me back my ministry. There was such a feeling of being humbled, such a feeling of tenderness before God and immense gratitude when I realized that God in his grace had given me something that I didn't deserve. And my greatest fear is that I would one day lose that sense of tenderness, gratitude, and wonderment at the grace of God."
Twenty years later, I am listening to Gordon and he is telling me, "I am 76 years old and these are the sweetest, most fruitful days of my life." He hasn't lost a sense of God's grace and kindness in his life. His suffering, even though it was precipitated by his own sin, opened him up to the life-changing grace of God.
As James points out, sometimes our suffering is caused by the oppression of others. Sometimes, however, it's caused by our own sin, and yet God can use the suffering we bring upon ourselves to deepen us and make us beautiful.
Suffering beyond our control
Sometimes, of course, suffering is caused by circumstances beyond our control.
This summer, members of my extended family and I were at a family reunion on Cultus Lake, a small cottage community east of Vancouver. One afternoon, my four siblings and I sat on the sun deck of one of the cottages we were renting. We had a kind of family talk. Our father had been having some ongoing, serious health challenges. His kidneys were failing, and he was on dialysis. He had caught pneumonia some months ago, and we thought perhaps his time had come. That afternoon, we talked frankly about what Mom's life might look like if Dad should die before she does.
Mom and Dad have had a very close marriage for more than 50 years. Mom said, "I'm afraid of being left behind. Your dad has been my great treasure for all of these years, but I realize that one day I will lose him. I don't want to face that, but I also know when that happens, the only thing I really have is God. That's all that I really have. That would be the best thing that could happen to me."
If we live long enough, we are going to experience suffering a loss: probably directly, but if not, then indirectly, as a loved one experiences great suffering or a loss and—by extension—so do we. James is telling us what is true for the farmer: when it seems like nothing is happening in the field of our life, when things are being pruned and cut away and it feels like we are losing what we have, when things look as ugly as a severely pruned vine, God may be preparing us for something far greater than we can imagine. If you are suffering now, or entering into a time of adversity, remember the words of James: remember the law of the vineyard, the law of the harvest. It may seem dark, like nothing is happening, but God is producing something great beneath the surface of your life.
The apostle Paul, in 2 Corinthians 4:17 says, "[O]ur light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all."
Remember the U-curve. Sometimes God allows us to go down to suffering because he wants to raise us up and, in so doing, produce something of infinite worth in us.
Remember most Jesus Christ, who suffered horribly on a cross: he was stripped, bloodied, and bruised, mysteriously bearing in himself our sins and shame. When God raised him back to life on the third day, Jesus was dazzlingly beautiful in his resurrected body. One way we can guarantee that our suffering will not make us more selfish and self-absorbed is by joining our life to that of Jesus.
If you offer your life into the care of Jesus Christ, then no matter how bloodied or bruised you may feel on your Good Friday, you can know that you will rise again on your Easter Sunday, more dazzlingly beautiful than ever before.
The Scripture says that if we suffer with him, we will also be raised to life with him. This is why Paul says, "I want to know Christ deeply—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead" (Phil. 3:10-11).
Enjoy your life deeply, and walk with a spiritual friend or small group that can encourage you along the way, so that in your suffering you will also know his resurrection.
Ken Shigematsu is pastor of Tenth Church in Vancouver, BC and the author of the award-winning, bestseller God in My Everything