Endurance in a Losing Streak

More like Jeremiah than Daniel, Our Perseverance Isn’t So Glorious

David Clay / 5.27.21

Famously, there’s some tension over the issue of justification in the writings of James and Paul. On the topic of suffering, however, the two apostles are practically indistinguishable. “Whenever you face trials of any kind,” writes James, “consider it nothing but joy, because you know the testing of your faith produces endurance,” which eventually leads to spiritual maturity (Jas 1:2-3). Paul does his colleague one better, by simply assuming that “we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance” (Rom 5:3). Both apostles use the same Greek term for “endurance,” the ability to stay the course under pressure and pain, and they both think it’s an essential part of our becoming like Jesus. 

Endurance, incidentally, is also a key ingredient to any sports film you can think of. No one is going to make a movie about the 2018 Boston Red Sox, a force of nature that destroyed everything in its path (winning a ridiculous 108 out of 162 games in the regular season) before trouncing the LA Dodgers in the World Series. There’s just not enough narrative tension there. We want stories where the team faces trials and tribulations, setbacks and losing streaks. Even when the team in question is good from the start — say, the 1988 Permian Panthers, which featured in arguably the greatest sports TV show of all time, Friday Night Lights — they must learn how to weather adversities of all kinds together, coming out the other end victorious (morally, and usually athletically as well). 

It’s easy to imagine that our lives will follow roughly the same trajectory. At the end of our lives, we’ll be able to look back on a clearly distinguishable upward trend in terms of success, sanctity, and satisfaction. The inevitable setbacks will all fit neatly into this narrative, which will be all the better for us. 

To take a biblical example, we feel that our lives will somewhat resemble the prophet Daniel’s. Daniel was taken into captivity at a young age, threatened with death unless he performed the impossible (Dan 2:10), conspired against by jealous colleagues, and apparently fed to lions. In the end, though, he came through it all with remarkable poise, bringing glory to the God of Israel and impressing his pagan bosses. 

But we could also draw a very different example from the pages of the Hebrew prophetic literature. God tasked a professional priest named Jeremiah with becoming the ultimate killjoy, constantly proclaiming the coming divine judgment on the apostate kingdom of Judah. Jeremiah hated his job, but the Lord pointedly refused to accept his resignation (19:8-9) even when very little good seemed to be coming from his ministry. Jeremiah was eventually labeled a defeatist, unpatriotic, and a danger to the war effort against the encroaching Babylonian Empire. He was at one point cast into a muddy pit until he was helped out by a sympathetic court eunuch. In the end, Jerusalem burned, and Jeremiah fled to Egypt with a group of Hebrew exiles who, according to Jewish tradition, stoned him to death. 

It would be tempting to create a scatterplot of how well a genuinely faithful, devoted life might turn out, with Daniel on one end and Jeremiah on the other. But on this trend line, Daniel is a clear outlier. Prophets don’t take home the trophy; they are rejected, beaten, treated shamefully, and/or killed (Mk 12:3-5). Every last one of them, including Jesus.

So it’s thus at least possible (if not likely) that our own lives might tend to veer a bit too far in the negative direction. This may have less to do with the intensity of our sufferings, and more to do with lack of resolution. The boredom, bad mental or physical health, financial hardships, or loneliness just kind of drag on and on, with no pithy lesson or character-building in sight. Sometimes a losing streak is just a losing streak: no one’s going to make a movie about the 2019 Detroit Tigers, who went 47-114 and were mathematically eliminated from play-off contention with well over a month to go in the season. 

The reality is that we’re probably not much like Daniel. Few are. Success didn’t go to his head, as it probably would ours. Along these lines, the apostle Paul himself was in danger of being “conceited” after his vision of the third heaven, and the solution was a “thorn in the flesh” that lacked clear resolution (2 Cor 12:7).

Being closer to the “Jeremiah” end of the spectrum simply makes it more likely that we’ll learn how to consciously rely, day in and day out, on the risen Jesus for help.

Trials may indeed produce endurance. It’s a mistake, however, to think that endurance always leads to obvious, glorious successes. Even more importantly, it’s a mistake to think that endurance is something we dig down and find deep within ourselves somehow. What doesn’t kill us makes us weaker, dependent on Jesus, who himself endured the cross so that he could walk beside us and carry our burdens. That’s worth any kind of losing streak.