I enjoy a good biography, at least most of the time. But there are times they get me in trouble. Take this week for example. There I was, actually sitting in the SUN out back (Imagine it!) hoping the rays would be warm enough to fend off the chill…and I was just starting an old biography of Hudson Taylor.1 I’ve read it before but wanted to refresh my memory after seeing a Taylor quote elsewhere that I really liked (which will follow here shortly)…
So I was lounging in the sun hoping to snatch a few minutes of late afternoon Vitamin D, reading about this icon of evangelistic zeal. His “First Steps of Faith”, as the second chapter was titled, were to leave the comfort and refinement of his privileged upbringing to move into a squalid neighborhood on the edge of a sewage drain ditch so as to 1) have more money to give away, besides more opportunity! and 2) toughen himself up in preparation for going as a missionary to China. All the while, he held down a job and used his evenings to evangelize in these slums. Wow. Is this a case of ‘deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me’, or what?! And suddenly I was feeling indulgent for relaxing in the sun while the world is going to Hell.
I put that book aside and picked up the alternate biography I had brought along: Surprised by Laughter: The Comic World of C.S.Lewis.2 This oddly analytical study of Lewis’ jovial personality, being rife with quotes from Lewis’ life and works, breathes a welcome lightness into my natural sobriety. Usually. But the chapter at hand this particular afternoon was: “Joy and Suffering”. Not exactly the permission to relax that I was anticipating. And yet, it rings true and is not altogether morbid…The author speaks of a joy that is not void of pain but is made all the richer by it.
“Darkness, suffering, and longing are part of the very definition of joy…the salt of joy is sorrow, a touch of tears…Joy is prepared for by suffering. God accomplishes that preparation by interrupting our material and superficial happiness. He shatters, through suffering, our illusions and pretenses that all is well.”3
As one who tends to think (mistakenly) there is more merit in denial of pleasure than enjoyment of it, I ate up these next words before heading back inside to get on with the duties at hand:
“The keenest pleasures and joys of life cannot be given us without interruption, simply because we tend to cling to them. Yet such toys are not meant to take the place of real treasures. Joy comes only when the toys are put away. However, we don’t want to put them away; and, more often than not, the toys must be taken from us.” 4
Hmm… I’ve always been suspicious of a good time. I’m warped, I know. My distrust comes, I suspect, of hating disappointment. Hating the ‘toys’ to be taken away…But it does seem that whether by my own choice or another’s, life will have pain. It will disappoint.
I reflected on these things later in the week… who of us naturally chooses hardship over pleasure? deprivation over comfort? Should we? We have been raised in a culture of excess, of comfort, of self-orientation, yet as followers of Jesus we are called to deny ourselves, take up our respective crosses and be about His business. Where is the balance, the guiding principle? How do we keep from being lulled into a love of this world’s ‘good life’ and rendered ineffective for the Kingdom? On the other hand, how do I freely enjoy what I’ve been given without clinging possessively or depending on it for my happiness?
I gave a little more attention to Hudson Taylor’s story as well. There is more at play here than arbitrary pain, whether self-imposed, or regulated by factors outside our control. Hudson Taylor was not some ascetic hermit trying to gain merit. He was working toward the fulfillment of his life’s dream—to take the Gospel to the people of China. And where did that dream come from? Who was the Mover and Shaker behind his life story? Who inspired and enabled him to train for hardship yet to come? Who gave him the grace to live out a story I lack the grace to imagine myself living?! God did. In fact, the quotation that drew me into reading his story again underlines all this. It caught my attention because I needed to hear it:
“After months of agony and struggle to realize more life, holiness, and power in his soul, he [Taylor] came in final and utter self-despair to ‘rest upon the Faithful One’. In a letter to his sister he says in part:
“The sweetest part, if one may speak of one part being more sweet than another, is the rest which full identification with Christ brings. I am no longer anxious about anything…for He, I know, is able to carry out His will and His will is mine. It makes no matter where He places me or how. That is rather for Him to consider than for me; for the easiest positions He must give me grace, and in the most difficult, His grace is sufficient. So, if God place me in great perplexity, must He not give me much guidance; in positions of great difficulty, much grace; in circumstances of great pressure and trial, much strength?”—Hudson Taylor5
This was Taylor’s ‘spiritual secret’ one I’m glad he has shared. It is very like Paul’s claim:
“I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” Phil.4:11-13
The common denominator is Christ. I can trust Him with the living out of both pain and pleasure. I can trust Him to grant me joyful endurance in pain and gratitude in plenty. I can rest content in what He allows, knowing He will use it for my good. I can trust that He will instruct me in the use of what He entrusts to me, and will prepare me too for things to come…
I am reassured too by the parable Jesus told of the nobleman going into a far country to receive a Kingdom before returning. He puts his various servants in charge of his holdings until he returns to set up his Kingdom, instructing them to “Occupy till I come". (Lk.19) Then upon his return he asks them what they gained by trading. In other words, what did you do with my investments? What’s reassuring about this? Well, I haven’t always seen it this way but really all that he’s asking is that each servant make use of what he’s freely entrusted him with. Each one of the servants had received something. Each one was responsible to use that something, not to merely give it away because it was more than the other guy got. Not to bury it and live in poverty. Not to squander it on themselves. But to be faithful in the use of it for their prince’s cause.
And if this is us. If we are those servants, I must say, we have a distinct advantage in the form of the Counselor (Is.9:6; Jn.14:6) residing in us to direct our affairs! Some stages of life and some necessary duties are more comfortable than others, but for each we have all that we need in knowing Christ.
And about the time I was wrestling with all these notions, Rachel came along to request help with her review of Never Give In,6 a biography of Winston Churchill, the prime minister that led Great Britain through the harrowing years of World War II. Here was another life story—one of rising to greatness through multiple hurdles, of overcoming difficulties in order to be able to confidently lead others to victory. And imbedded in his story was this piece of advice for me, with which I close:
"Let us reconcile ourselves to our destinies, such as they must be in this world of space and time. Let us treasure our joys but not bewail our sorrows. The glory of light cannot exist without its shadows. Life is a whole, and good and ill must be taken together." –Winston Churchill7
Good advice I think. Our destinies are in Good Hands!
“But by the grace of God I am what I am: and his grace which [was bestowed] upon me was not in vain; but I laboured more abundantly than they all: yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me.” –Paul I Cor.15:10
“You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.” I Cor.6:19,20
1Hudson Taylor’s Spiritual Secret by Dr & Mrs Howard Taylor
2Surprised by Laughter by Terry Lindvall, Ph.D, Thomas Nelson Publ.,1996
3 Lindvall, p.65-67
4 Lindvall, p.66
5 Born Crucified by L.E. Maxwell, p.17-18
6 Never Give In by Stephen Mansfield, Cumberland House, 1995
7 Mansfield, p.145