If You Know Jesus, Your Suffering Isn’t Meaningless

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds . . .” – James 1:2

At first glance, James seems a little out of touch with reality. Who in their right mind would advise people to get giddy in the face of suffering? Trials are negative in nature, always bringing some affliction or pain into the life of the one they try. There is nothing pleasant about illness, relational brokenness, persecution, ongoing patterns of temptation, or the million and one other ways Christians can suffer. Yet James tells believers to count it all joy—why?

“ . . . for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” – James 1:3-4

Okay, so James isn’t crazy after all. He’s not telling his readers to find joy within trials themselves; he’s telling them to find joy in the fact that trials are opportunities for their faith to be tested and strengthened. Both Peter and Paul agree with James’ line of thinking when they write:

“In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” -1 Peter 1:6-7

“ . . . we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”- Romans 5:3-5

God working in our suffering to produce endurance, hope, and steadfast faith is a theme found throughout the entire New Testament. But let’s be honest, even though we know God is producing good things within us through suffering, it’s still less-than-easy to “count it all joy.” God may be working for our spiritual benefit within our difficulties, but that doesn’t alleviate the discomfort of those difficulties. The pain is real—and it can be poisonous to our faith, if we let it. I think this is the “testing” to which James and Peter refer. Will we respond to troublesome circumstances by shriveling up in bitterness, doubting God’s goodness, and falling away in faithlessness? Or will we endure the trial with Christ-centered joy, standing firm in faith that God is good and is working for our good?

If you read my blog semi-regularly, you are probably aware that same-sex attraction is an ongoing pattern of temptation I experience. Though I hate these sinful inclinations and wish God would zap them away, he hasn’t yet—he allows this trial to persist in my life. Yes, I called my same-sex attraction a trial. The Greek word James uses for trials in verse 2 is also translated as temptations at other times in the New Testament. I don’t think it is a stretch at all to believe struggling with the flesh is one aspect of what James is envisioning when he writes “trials of various kinds.” God does not tempt us with sin (James 1: 13-15), but he does allow us to endure temptation, testing and strengthening our faith through it.

I can honestly say that, most of the time, by God’s grace, I do have joy in the midst of this particular affliction. I don’t delight in the experience of being sexually attracted to the same gender; the desires are distorted and I hate them. And a particular implication of my ongoing repentance—celibacy (which may be a lifelong deal)—isn’t the most fun thing in the world. But I do believe God is good and lets this weakness linger for my benefit. I’m not aware of every specific reason he allows this trial to persist (and I may never be), but I do know, based on James 1:2-3, that it is serving to strengthen my faith and shape me into a steadfast follower of Jesus—and in that, I rejoice.

But I’m also aware that I have not yet experienced the full pain-potential of this trial. Right now, at twenty-seven years old, being a single guy isn’t all that shabby. The majority of people my age are just starting their careers or are finishing up grad school. No one really expects a guy in his mid-20’s to be married, have children, and be doing the whole suburban life thing. So at this point in my life, I am not an anomaly. But what happens if I don’t meet and click with a woman to whom I’m physically and emotionally attracted? What if I’m 40 and still single? 45? 50? What if I’m single and celibate for the rest of my life? I don’t feel much joy in the face of this possibility—actually, it terrifies me.

I don’t necessarily dread being alone—I dread being viewed as “that weird old man who never married.” Because it is the norm to get hitched and have a family, we view people who haven’t done so as abnormal. We look at elderly men who have always been single and tend to think something is wrong with them. I am so afraid of being looked at this way. It’s been pretty easy thus far as a young person to make friends and forge relationships in the church. But what if, when I’m older and really need meaningful friendship, people are less willing to open their lives to me because, due to their faulty assumptions, they are afraid of me? And don’t tell me, “Oh, that doesn’t happen, Matt!” I get emails almost every week from people who are suffering in this way right now.

Yeah, yeah—I know it’s unwise to assume what the future holds. But I do it anyway. And when I envision a possible life of social isolation, my faith begins to shake. I start feeling less-than-thankful to God for his mercy and grace. I start wondering why a loving God would allow some of his children to suffer in this way. I start feeling like maybe he doesn’t love me—like maybe he doesn’t give a flip about me and just wants to use my suffering to “get glory” for himself. Why must I suffer for God to be glorified? If he really cares about me, why not conjure up another way to go about making himself look great? I mean, is God even good? Can I trust him? Do I even want to love and live for him?

It’s in these moments of doubtful double-mindedness that I must do what James goes on to instruct:

 “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.” – James 1: 5-8.

Trials smother our faith when we lack the wisdom to see them in light of God’s sovereignty and goodness. We need wisdom to see God is sovereign—that he is always in complete control over our trials. We need wisdom to see God is good—that he loves us and wants our joy in him to be full. We need wisdom to see and believe that “the good life” is not found in being trouble-free and comfortable, but in knowing God and becoming more like his Son. And if trials propel us toward a deeper knowledge of and conformity to Jesus Christ, we have all the reason in the world to ‘count it all joy!’

I may end up old, single, and lonely—or I may end up married with five kids and suffering in other ways my imaginative mind has yet to fathom. Whatever form my future trials take, I know my kind and omnipotent God will be working in them for my good. If I seek wisdom to see the affliction rightly, God will use my suffering to solidify my faith in his Son, increase my dependence on his Son, and make me more like his Son. The fires of trials will burn away the unbelieving calluses around my heart, refine my hope, and warm my affection for Jesus. My pain will not be in vain—it will be an avenue by which the Spirit of God becomes increasingly manifest in my life to the glory of God. And in that, I will rejoice!

  • Melinda VanRy

    “I may end up old, single, and lonely—or I may end up married with five kids and suffering in other ways my imaginative mind has yet to fathom. Whatever form my future trials take, I know my kind and omnipotent God will be working in them for my good.”
    I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how… strange… my (mostly-normal-looking, married, three-kids) life is, in the sense that there is no possible way I could have predicted all the twists and turns and outcomes of various decisions, etc.
    No future will be without its own trials and suffering and pain. But you have the right outlook when it comes to trusting God to work them for your good.
    As usual, good post. Thank you for being open, honest, and vulnerable.

  • Lyle Nelson

    40? 45? 50? How about 64? And with no siblings or nephews or nieces to add to the “aloneness” mix. It is definitely a struggle big time. Fortunately I attend a great church and small group, and that definitely helps a lot, but for the most part there is a big age difference there too especially in my small group (next oldest is 41), where I am also the only single.

    As to whether I’m considered “that weird old man”, I think that varies a lot from person to person. Some do, but I’m relatively certain that many do not. Much of that is due to the caring nature of my church. And it’s difficult to know how much of it is my perception and how much of it is reality. Honestly, it’s probably my perception more than I think it is. Many genuinely try to understand the difficulty of it, but I think that’s hard to do unless you’ve been there. And people, especially younger people with children, tend to have very busy lives, so that definitely doesn’t help; even if they want to do more, they just don’t have a lot of available time.

    I tend to bounce back and forth between wanting to isolate entirely, just to avoid the pain, and really, really, desperately wanting community. So much so that at times I’m concerned that desire for community may have become an idol for me, and perhaps for that reason God is not allowing it. Unfortunately, I’ve always been somewhat of a “loner”, so there are very few long-time friendships that have carried forward. Also, I did not come out of the gay lifestyle until I was 51, and all my friendships at that time were with other gays. Matt, you mentioned that you make friends easily now; my advice is to cultivate those friendships. Over time some will still weaken due to moves and other changes in circumstances, but likely some will remain and that will help.

    As to “counting it all joy”, that is indeed difficult to do. The one thing I do see is that, because of this affliction, I have probably become closer to God than I otherwise would have been. Certainly God can use many means to draw us to Him, and I will never know what might have happened in that alternate reality where my same-sex attraction did not exist, but something, maybe the Holy Spirit, just tells me that I would have otherwise remained very world-focused.

    And since God is the highest good, that makes my trials a real reason for joy, hard as it may be in this life, which in the words of Paul is a “light and momentary affliction”.

    • Barbara Ann Fanta

      Wow! Love your reply. Very real. I imagine not too many people who matter to you would think of you as a weird old man. You, maybe without being aware, are fulfilling God’s purpose by your testimony of faith. Others can be encouraged by the living out of your faith. I know I am.

      • Lyle Nelson

        Barbara, thanks so much for your encouraging reply!

  • Matt

    What if I’m 40 and still single?…..it is statements like this that I love your blog. Guess what, I’m already there (dealing with my own SSA) and yes, it does suck. But the grass doesn’t look greener on the other side, (in fact, I think they’re using fertilizer). I think about Peter’s words to Christ when he said, where will I go, who else holds words of eternal life?
    Married folks…save your comments, because you’ve long forgotten how life is when you were single. The rest of us are outside the social-Christian construct of married and/or with kids. But singles, remember how hard child-rearing could be and that someone else would love to go out and do something random instead of helping kids with homework. Life is difficult…for anyone on either side of the married equation.
    I’m still figuring out how to do rejoicing in suffering, thing….

  • lisafitzhugh

    Absolutley praying for You Matt!

    I value your emailed articles.

    I am a happily married Roman Catholic mama of three young adults.

    I am 99% sure you are well aware of Christopher West’s Theology of the Body Institute and most likely have taken some of his immersion courses.

    I have taken TOB I and it quite literally blew my mind and restored my heart. Joy.

    In two weeks my daughter and I are heading up for TOB II and I am looking for forward to it.

    The classes are taught utterly immersed in the Eucharist and the entire time of the week long class there are folks in a separate room holding it all in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament.

    My main point is I will hold you and your ministry intentionally as often as I can remember and will also remind the Lord of my shaky memory so He will of course hear it all.

    Also I think you are still in New Orleans?

    If so have you run across Dr Tom Neal, he is in your area and I’ll bet you all will make friends.

    No, I don’t lnow him at all! But I do read his blogs on Word on Fire and I always appreciate his unique perspective.

    http://www.wordonfire.org/resources/blog/

    Thanks again,

    Lisa

    • #Trump2016

      I wish more churches would have local Theology of the Body groups. All of us need this mindset to oppose the cultural immorality out there, whether we are young, old, single, married, straight or gay. We all need encouragement and clarity of mind to stay chaste in whatever state of life we find ourselves. Here’s a good example of a local group promoting TOB very well. He is not as polished as Christopher West, but that’s ok. We need local folks pitching in:

  • Kate Monaghan

    I will continue to say it, your words areas pure and wonderful. I so support you and thank you for your blog which I read every time it’s sent to my inbox. Always convicting and always so doctrinally sound! Xo

  • Andrea E S

    Thank you for this, Matt. I recall telling you that I didn’t “get” joy in suffering. This is a good explanation that helps with my confusion. And, dude, I’m suffering. Everyone around me knows it. But I gotta know that God wants what’s best for his children. If I’m going to be a follower, I have to REALLY follow. Getting involved in the church again is super important to me. We all need each other when this stuff causes us to feel alone in our pain. There’s a discipline going on for me as well. Not all trials are a discipline, but I am reaping things I sowed. God is going to use all of this. I know it. And when I remain connected to HIM, I’ll be able to see how far he’s taken me, and how good he’s been to me. Thank you for writing this!!

  • mike

    We were never meant to get old. That is enough to fear, but to add loneliness to the mix is shear dread!
    It’s crazy to be human: the dread of old age, unwanted desires, and aloneness.
    But fear looking into the future are not to be the concern of the children of God. No, when we follow in the footsteps of Jesus he beckons us to live only today and not worry about tomorrow. As we all know tomorrow may never come and so we have only today to live to the fullest in the joy of the Lord and so we shouldn’t waste it worrying about tomorrow!
    I tell myself that, and I know it’s hard. But Jesus understands for he observed it that the spirit is willing (not to fear or worry) but the flesh is weak and it worries.
    That conundrum is the human condition. And so, we move on.
    Moving on for me regarding old age and singleness was while I couldn’t change the former I could the latter. And God assured me that it was good to be single and good to be married. And so I did and two kids later I’m experiencing marriage. But not Matt married life has its own difficulties. Many! Some days I think Paul was right it’s easier in some ways to be single but not in other ways. But if you burn with passion it’s better to find I wife. That was me.

  • Kris

    “It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline?” (Heb. 12:7)
    I think we all know the struggles of temptation. I sure do. I always wonder why some people get instantly delivered of their sin when they are born again when others don’t? Have we done something wrong, thorn in the flesh, discipline etc? Hang in there, today will pass and tomorrow will have its own set of problems. Keep your eyes on Jesus. He is always the answer!

  • Kris

    Btw, have you heard of Joe Dallas?

  • Joe Kupa

    Thank you Matt for your very inciteful and well written post. The questions you ask I can totally relate to and I am glad you shared what many of us silently suffer inside. I never thought of my temptation qualified as a trial but thought of it as more of a curse. I did get married at around 40 and then later divorced after nearly a decade of marriage and had one child with my former ex. However, throughout our marriage that curse never left me, yet somehow by God’s grace I was able to have at least somewhat of a normal sexual attraction for my wife. Nevertheless, I still did not feel completely cured knowing full well this wretched curse still lurked inside me. I honestly got married more out of fear than under God’s direction and while as a backslidden Christian in full rebellion. We had a good marriage with its normal ups and downs and eventually I recommitted my life to Christ and led my the ex to Christ also. However, my true motivations for getting married (fear) and starting off in a backslidden state and an unsanctioned marriage meant payback time was coming and it did. The trials to come were worse than my previous life of being single and a committed Christian living with this curse or trial. The lesson, be careful of what you wish for. The manna from heaven is better than quayle. God Bless!

  • #Trump2016

    Keep the faith! You’ll be fine. You’ll be a very popular old guy 🙂

  • Bob Mullins

    Honestly tackled Matt…. we all face these trials, single… or otherwise, Marriage is tough too & requires a lot of work, Always. Loneliness in later life? I find that if i am friendly I will have friends, its a mindset. I suppose it is the half full or half empty thing again… to me its half full… because I drank the other half & am looking for a re-fill because it was delicious! that sounds like ‘count it all joy’.
    Maybe it should be that you are an example as a ‘matter’ & later ‘extra mature’ (thinking cheese!) it just gets better. be the guy who shows how its done. After all he said ‘My grace is sufficient for you.’ To me it sounds like you’re doing a great job & I will look forward to meeting you if you ever visit the UK.