All beginnings are hard.
I can remember hearing my mother murmur those words while I lay in bed with fever “children are often sick, darling. That’s the way it is with children. All beginnings are hard. You’ll be alright soon.”
I remember bursting into tears one evening because a passage of Bible commentary had proved to difficult for me to understand. I was about 9 years old at the time. “You want to understand everything immediately?” my father said. “Just like that? You only began to study this commentary last week. All beginnings are hard. You have to work at the job of studying. Go over it again and again.”
The man who would later guide me in my studies would say to me in his gentle voice “Be patient, David. The Midrash says, ‘All beginnings are hard’ you cannot swallow all the world at one time.”
-Chaim Potok, In the Beginning
Beginnings are hard. Moreover, because they are periods of change, they are all potential temptations. Of course, moments of redemption or “new beginnings” are sweet. Yet, in this life anyways, even they can all too quickly become pitfalls. Like the addict who relapses because he put his guard down while celebrating a period of sobriety, change will beget change, either good or bad. In a sermon I was listening to on James 1, Tim Keller points out that any change at all is a test; whether prosperity or adversity, success or failure, riches or poverty, beginning or end, change is a test that will result in transformation. Thus, when the book of James speaks of trials, it would not be completely accurate to think only of negative events.
Without falling into a pessimism that is anomalous to the Christian message, then, how ought we to face trial in all its varied forms; beginnings, ends, transitions, etc.? Instead of fear or paranoia, James tells us that it is with joy we ought to face trials,
Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, 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.
Of course, there does not seem to be a natural causal relationship between trials, and joy. My first year of graduate school was one of the hardest periods of my life. The first several weeks I sat in class, completely oblivious to the topic at hand. As my professor pontificated on the nature of existence, I stared right through him and anxiously envisioned my eviction all the while trying hatch a quick scheme to make enough money to pay the next months rent. I was broke, in a new field of study, in a new state, in a new house with strange people I had only met the night before I moved in. One big trial, not much joy.
I would live to see the next day and finish my degree. God provided, sustained me in my brokenness and I added another life experience to the pile of evidence that God was in control and cared for me. It is a period of my life I go back to when I face other trials; an altar of God’s faithfulness.
And that is just the point; it was God’s faithfulness that was the empowering difference. We seem to experience a causal relation between trials, on the one hand, and denial, bitterness, sin, anger, fear, anxiety and paranoia; similar to the causal relation between fire and heat. But joy is only had through patient and steadfast obedience to the source of all goodness and stability.
To the weary and burnt out student, exhausted professor, burdened administrator, aching staff, and all in between, we might imagine God speaking some of the contents of James to us himself,
Come now, I am the Father of Lights with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow! I have no “beginning” “middle” or “end”; temptation or evil cannot touch me! Be patient until I return. Let your weakness and limitation be a cause for prayer and ask me for anything you lack without doubting that I am able to give it. All change is hard, but consider it all joy when you face various trials, for you know that those who are most blessed are the steadfast to obey. Whether success or failure come, you are called to obey. Change for me is no weakness, but an opportunity to bless you, if you will only trust me. After all, anything good and worthwhile in your life came, and will come from me. Let your steadfast obedience bring about your perfection and completion; a contentment devoid of complacency, filled with life and joy in me.
Trials will come. We cannot “swallow the whole world at one time,” nor were we meant to. But consider it all joy, and when it comes, patiently trust and obey, there is blessing on the other side.