The new year is such a great time to reset. It’s a time when so many of us make resolutions, things we’d like to do better in the future. In When: Scientific Secrets for Perfect Timing, author Daniel Pink calls times like the new year a “temporal landmark:” a time that seems significant to us, when we can break from our normal behavioral patterns. In times like these, we take stock of what and where we’ve been (which is what the end of the year helps us do), we disassociate ourselves from our past negative behavioral patterns, and make a clean mental break with those patterns in the new year. We now have confidence to do something new and challenging, like resolve to lose weight, or visit the gym, or manage money better.
In fact, those are the types of things most people resolve to do in the new year. Some, like me recently, might even say they want to do something as heady as “loving others better.” Most people don’t, however, think, “I’m going to embrace and experience suffering more fully, count it as joy, and let it have its full effect in my life.”
That sounds like an awful new year’s resolution, way less fun than being thinner, more jacked, or richer! And, yet, how we handle suffering in our lives as believers is one of the most important aspects of actually being people of true joy, or simply chasing one dead-end road to happiness after another, fooling ourselves into thinking that peace and ease is–and should be–the default setting of our lives.
Without suffering we can’t truly experience the joy Christ has for us. In Phil. 1:29, Paul says that “it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but suffer for his sake.” Our unity with Christ, our being in Him and one with Him, consists of two things- believing in Him, and becoming like Him. They’re both part of the process; we can’t have one without the other. Paul Miller notes that this idea of becoming is a life-long practice, consisting of repeatedly joining Christ in death, and in rising from the dead with Him. This means that every stage of our lives has times when we will suffer difficulties and trials-whether illness, death of a spouse, loss of a job, tense or broken relationships. Walking through these phases of grief and struggle is “joining Christ in death.”
These seasons of “death” are followed by coming out of grief and struggle through healing, new work, and either restored relationships, or new, healthier ones. When this happens, Miller observes, we join Christ in His resurrection, in new life. In this time of resurrection, we come out stronger, wiser, more deeply and intimately connected to Christ, with a more enduring understanding of Christ and the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives. This cycle repeats itself again and again throughout our life and our walk with the Lord, as a continual process of becoming. Miller calls it the “J-Curve,” because it dips into death and rises into resurrection. At any given point in your life, you are either in a season of such struggle, coming out of one and into new life, or preparing for another.
If you think back on it now, you can probably map out seasons of your life when you faced these times: experienced grief and suffering, followed by restoration, healing, and growth, a season of relative calm, followed by another season of grief. This is the continual process of life. It is the absolutely normal, God-ordained and spiritually-healthy cycle for the follower of Jesus.
Unfortunately, we create conflict and anxiety for ourselves when we fool ourselves into thinking, rather than a “J-Curve,” life should just be one big “I”- no curve, no downward unity with Christ in death, just one continuous upward climb- one good thing after another, onward and upward, chasing constant peace and security. Deep in our hearts, we know that’s not how it’s supposed to work, because that doesn’t even comport with our reality. But, we lie to ourselves, and let all kinds of media and our ancient flesh lie to us, and become depressed because we feel like we’re suffering or grieving again when we “shouldn’t” be, that somehow we’re the problem, that we’re doing life “wrong.”
I’ve said this before, but my grandmother was one of the most joyful people I know. She was beautiful to begin with, and her eyes and smile and laugh would light up a room. She had also endured more pain, betrayal, and heartache than most of us will ever see. It’s always amazing to me how my friends and loved ones who most profoundly understand suffering and why Jesus allows it, what it means to truly be aligned with Him in His death and resurrection, throughout our entire lives, and have embraced it, are the most delightful and inspiring people I know. They’ve learned the secret of life- that the default setting of our lives is not peace and ease at all, but death and resurrection, grief and joy–and they’ve found rest in that.
In reflecting on the glad tidings of the angels at Christ’s first coming, and how they foretold of His second coming, Thomas Merton said, “What is needed then is the grace and courage to see that ‘the Great Tribulation’ and ‘the Great Joy’ are really inseparable, and that the ‘Tribulation’ becomes ‘Joy’ when it is seen as the victory of life over death.” What Merton means is that we’re all going to experience suffering and grief in the new year, no matter how great a year it is. The framework through which we view it, and how we use it to press deeper into Jesus, can be the thing that truly changes the game of life for us. Understanding and embracing where we are on the J-curve is a good resolution, don’t you think?
Jay Ferguson, PhD, Head of School at Grace Community School, writes regularly on his blog, JaysBlog.org.