McCartney must be a seminary professor. Anyone who can identify the major theme of James as “God humbles the proud and exalts the humble” and call it “the eschatological reversal of the gospel” must be preaching in a graduate school chapel rather than First Presbyterian Church of Smallville. But he is on to something. The theme of suffering is present in James—not of redemptive suffering, but the suffering that tests and matures faith, and prompts faithful living in the redemptive community. What does that kind of suffering look like, and what does it look like when a Christian responds in faith to suffering?
My youngest brother J.J. died a few months ago. His death was very sudden and unexpected, and we still do not know for certain the cause of his death, and at this point we will probably never know. Obviously it was God’s timing to call my brother (by blood and faith) home to heaven, but not knowing the medical answers has prompted many questions and suffering among his family and friends. Is this the kind of suffering that McCartney says James is extolling? From one perspective, yes. My faith in God’s goodness was shaken and tested. The faith of my parents and siblings has been on public display under the most difficult of circumstances. In order to be faithful to the witness of the character of God, I have had to give hard answers to hard questions. My family has suffered our closest brush yet with the penalty of sin and the curse of death on the race of men. And it’s been painful.
Our church family has been a rock of support and a faithful testimony of God throughout this trial. The gospel they believe and live has been tested and proved strong enough and true enough to even handle the suffering of death. They have cared for our family by crying with us, praying for us publicly and privately, provided meals for our physical needs, counseled us in our grief, and assisted us in preparing for the funeral. To be clear, my family has received much more from our congregation than we have given, so they don’t “owe” us in any conceivable way. No, they love us and have shared in our suffering as a family in need.
As time goes by and I hear more stories about J.J.’s life and faith, I learn from his example even after his death. In only 21 years, he touched more lives than I can imagine. He earned a reputation in high school, college, and at work for taking the time to talk to and befriend those who many consider social outcasts—the wallflowers, the losers, the foreigners—and he also became known for shunning the popular crowd to their faces for the injustice and hypocrisy he perceived in them. Amazingly, his honesty and joyful outlook on life (which was firmly rooted in his understanding of the character of God) endeared him to all, even those whom he confronted. What an example of loving and gracious Christian suffering he left as his legacy! In many ways, he modeled the ethic of Jesus by befriending the “sinner” and attracting the “saint” with a gospel-centered life bent on entering into the sufferings of others in order to give them a lift. According to McCartney, that’s the kind of suffering that Christ wants his Church to experience.