No human being is a stranger to suffering because suffering comes to all of us. The question, then, is not whether we will suffer, but how will we respond to it? This is one way to understand the otherwise baffling (and seemingly problematic) claim that James makes in today’s first reading. The apostle tells us to “count it pure joy” whenever we are faced with trials and troubles, setbacks and adversity. Is this good pastoral advice? Is it even rational?
Christianity does not claim that suffering is good, but it does teach that we can make our suffering productive of good. Christianity does not encourage us to seek suffering, but it does affirm that we can grow through our suffering. Suffering is productive of good when we seize it as an opportunity to reassess our values and priorities, our goals and ambitions. In this respect, suffering can re-center us by reminding us of what is most important in life. Similarly, we grow through our suffering when we use a fundamentally negative experience to lead to positive results. This happens when suffering makes us more attuned to the struggles and hardships of others; when it makes us less judgmental and more compassionate.
James tells us to rejoice in our sufferings—in the tears and sorrows that come our way—not because there is anything intrinsically good about those experiences, but because through them our faith can be cleansed and deepened. Perhaps the most important lesson we can learn from suffering about the nature of genuine faith is that faith is the steadfast and resilient conviction that no matter what might be happening in our lives, God is faithful and trustworthy. Moreover, suffering shatters the fatal illusion that we can make it through life on our own, by reminding us of something that we find so hard to accept: our absolute and enduring dependence on God. As the apostle James’ prediction about the rich man assures us, none of us can make ourselves safe or secure. Despite what our society preaches, we should not place our faith in money or possessions, in power or status, but in God. If suffering has taught us that, we can count ourselves blessed.
Paul J. Wadell is Professor Emeritus of Theology & Religious Studies at St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin, and a member of the extended Passionist family.