Wednesday
Jun062012

Stiff Upper Lip

Keeping a stiff upper lip is somewhat parallel to the old deodorant commercial – it’s about never letting your enemies and opponents see you sweat.

Much value is placed on enduring the pangs and hardships of life with a similarly phlegmatic response, acting as if things do not bother us, simulating apathy as a heroic act of deference. Of course, the problem is that all of that stoicism often amounts to nothing more than a very big lie. There are disappointments, anxieties, and sorrows in our lives that produce overwhelming emotion, which we feel obligated to deny as a function of self-control or perspective.

The challenges of life are more than just assaults upon our character or our faithfulness. Consider Job, whose virtue was demeaned by a satanic accuser and whose faithfulness was predicted to collapse with his blessings. God permitted the devil to test Job, giving the man an opportunity to demonstrate the genuineness of a trusting faith. With great emotion, Job suffered, debated, questioned, and, finally, celebrated. He had seized his opportunity and disproven the devil’s thesis, that faithfulness is tied to material or emotional ease.

Another beloved patriarch, Joseph, found himself imprisoned and enslaved as a result of his brothers’ envy and his own provocative lack of discretion. Instead of recanting his faith or swearing out vengeance on his kin, Joseph looked for opportunities to climb out of his pit. He rose through the ranks and became powerful enough to save Israel from famine and teach his brothers a lesson. Rather than being bitter, Joseph forgave them, saying, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Genesis 50:20).

The early church thrived, in part, because that indomitable spirit drove the apostles and martyrs, influencing others to cling to their convictions in spite of threats and penalties. A trial for heresy was an opportunity to preach Jesus, a neighbor’s incredulity was an opening for spiritual discussion, even a death sentence offered the convict a platform. 

Paul wrote, 

 

For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again (Second Corinthians 1:8-10).

 

Only later in the letter would Paul detail his private experience with a thorn in his flesh, “a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited” (Second Corinthians 12:7). After thrice requesting its removal, God replied that it must remain to fulfill that purpose and that his grace was already sufficient as it was. Paul learned to accept life’s difficulties in such a way that weaknesses became strengths. “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (Second Corinthians 12:10).

None of us chooses to suffer pain, although we do sometimes bring it upon ourselves with bad choices and sinfully shortsighted decisions. Regardless, when we are thrust into the crucible of life’s most difficult tests, we are also presented the opportunity to prove the greatness of faith, not necessarily by adopting a stiff, upper lip, pretending it amounts to nothing, but by exercising the spirit of trust and affection for others that defines our faith (Hebrews 2:13, Colossians 1:23, 2:7).

James wrote, 

 

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. If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. (James 1:2-5)

 

Let Satan do his worst, firing flaming arrows at our hearts, but we will be prepared with the shield of faith and the whole armor of God (Ephesians 6:10-18). Like those who collapsed at the Lord’s feet or who cheered his entry into fateful Jerusalem, we will let our lights shine and our actions speak.

It’s not the end of the world, people soothingly say, meaning well, but helping little. They are right, of course, however. 

Money woes and job loss are terrible tests, but the Christian can endure and demonstrate that life consists of more than possessions and promotions (Luke 12:15, First Timothy 6:6-10).

Good grades and academic achievement are noble pursuits, but an average score or even a failure here and there reminds us to settle our priorities and keep secular knowledge in perspective (Mark 8:36-37).

Troubled relationships and being treated poorly are opportunities to adorn oneself anew with a gentle and quiet spirit that loves as it should, even if it goes unreciprocated for a while (First Peter 3:1-6).

Even the doctor’s deathly diagnosis, while approaching the ultimate test of all, is a chance to reaffirm almost everything in the sight of loved ones. It is one thing to profess beliefs about life and death, but quite another to live them out against a backdrop of a setting sun (Second Timothy 4:6-8).

In reality, however, there are opportunities like these for all of us most every day – traffic congestion, yet another cavity, being passed in line at the 7-Eleven, a bird messes with your just-washed SUV. They are opportunities, not just for self-control or stoicism, but for expressions of faith and conviction that are visible, audible, and impressive.