The Great Joy of Suffering

Thomas Blevins

A few days ago, our family celebrated my daughter Ella Jay’s eighth birthday. She loves reminiscing and looking at old videos and pictures of herself growing up. We’ve captured her first steps, the day she got her first haircut at Disney World, and many other experiences. So to appease her nostalgic spirit and love for history, we grabbed some juice boxes, sat down on some tiny pillows, and pulled out old pictures from a box she keeps in her room.

Ella Jay began taking each picture out one by one, retelling the story behind each image. After going through about 12 pictures, she stopped and began to tear up. So I asked Ella Jay the only question that came to my mind: “What are you thinking about, sweet girl?” She turned toward me with her big brown eyes, pointed at the man in the picture she held and said, “Daddy, I miss Millard!”

The man in the photo was Mr. Millard Rice. He was the usher at the first church service Ella Jay ever attended. She was eight weeks old, and he was 91 when they met. Ella Jay took a strong liking to Millard because of his infectious smile and warmth. From that day on, we invited Millard to every one of Ella Jay’s birthday parties. He showed up to each of them with a present and a card until his passing in 2014. Millard was an ordinary man with an extraordinary story that most people would never know because he led such a quiet life. He was a survivor of Pearl Harbor and Hickam Air Force Base, an engineering graduate from Rollins College and a published songwriter. But our family wasn’t drawn to Millard because of these accomplishments; we were drawn to him because of his inexpressible and genuine joy during his times of suffering.

Millard taught us, through his life and daily pursuit of Jesus Christ, that suffering never waits for the perfect time or until we are thoroughly prepared. Life cannot be journeyed avoiding personal pain. It comes. And when it does, we are reminded of our limitations and inability to control the uncontrollable. Pain places us in a posture of neediness. Hurting calls for our attention and puts us in an uncomfortable position of dependence on unmerited and divine assistance. We become needy of God’s unequivocal grace.

You see, we don’t have to have it all together. As a matter of fact, when we’re honest enough to admit we don’t have it all together, it actually brings us closer together and to Jesus. Tears don’t make you unholy; they make you human! You can miss someone and still rejoice. You can suffer and still find solace. You can fumble and still be faithful. Ella Jay taught me this in her moment of suffering. After a few short moments of distress, she started to laugh. I asked the same question: “What are you thinking about, sweet girl?” She said with a smile, “Daddy, I can’t wait to see Millard again.”

While other worldviews lead us to sit in the midst of life’s joys foreseeing the coming sorrows, fearful of what’s to come, Christianity empowers its people to sit in the midst of this world’s sorrows tasting the coming joy!

Maybe you’re suffering immeasurably today. Maybe you’re missing someone so bad you can’t seem to bear it. Maybe you’re convinced you should tap out and give in. I’d like to leave you with this final thought...

“Consider it a sheer gift, friends, when tests and challenges come at you from all sides. You know that under pressure, your faith-life is forced into the open and shows its true colors. So don’t try to get out of anything prematurely. Let it do its work so you become mature and well-developed, not deficient in any way.” — James 1:2–4, MSG

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Thomas is the Connections Minister at Northland, A Church Distributed, and Lead Advocate for The Zoe Project, a radically diverse community bringing hope to everyone.

Thomas is originally from Kalamazoo, Michigan, and currently resides in the metropolis of Oviedo, Florida. He and his beautiful wife, Tyler, are privileged to be deep in the parenthood trenches of craziness with their children, Emma Grace and Ella Jay. You can connect with Thomas on Facebook or Instagram.