Shovelfuls of Reality
”Count it all joy when you face various trials” James 1:2
I once heard a story about a set of twins, one more optimistic and the other prone to pessimism. The optimistic child was placed into a room full of piles of what looked like dirt used in farming (sod, hay, manure, and mud), and the pessimistic child was placed in a room filled with toys.
As researchers watched pessimistic child, they observed that although entertained at first, he shortly began shifting through the toys as if looking for something. Within a little bit of time, he began complaining and treating the toys roughly – knocking block towers over, leaving game boxes open without returning the pieces to the proper boxes. Eventually, with dramatic flair, he landed on the floor pouting that the toys were for babies, he was bored, and this was stupid. When asked why he was so sullen over a room full of toys, the child reported that he wanted to play a video game and since there were no game systems there, he didn’t want to play anything at all.
While watching the more optimistic of the siblings, researchers first noted that the child did not enjoy the smell and used his fingers to pinch his nostrils. Hesitant, the child stayed near the door he had entered through and slowly surveyed the room. The child seemed to look confused at exactly what was expected and what he should do next. Upon his second scope of the piles in the room, the child spied a plastic shovel and pail leaning along the side of one of the piles. He walked towards the piles and picked up the shovel and pail. Reluctance seemed to morph into determination, as the child began to use the shovel to scoop the farming soil into the bucket. He would then carry the full bucket to the other side of the room and dump out. He repeated this task for a while, occasionally stopping to assess whether he would need to choose another pile from which to fill his bucket. When researchers finally entered the room to the check on his progress, they asked what he was doing. He answered, matter-of-factly, “Well, I figured, with this much manure, there was bound to be a pony somewhere. I was looking for the pony.”
I don’t know whether this story is true, nor do I remember where I heard it. What I do know is that I like it. But, the reason I like it is most likely not as obvious. I like this story not because it shows the difference in personalities or the importance of resourcefulness, respect, curiosity, and having a good work ethic (although, it does convey elements of all of these things). I actually like it because of how the child conveyed his interpretation of the stinky piles of farming soil. He did not deny what was before him. He did not sugarcoat, pretend it away, ignore it, or inflate the problem he faced in that room. He simply admitted what it was in reality. And yet, the most remarkable thing about this story is the fact that admitting his reality did not quench his joy.
In his simplistic response, I see an important tool in facing the heaviness of our world: realism. I think we unwittingly cheapen our ability to face hardship with hope and determination because we try to sugarcoat the reality of hardship in our lives. Pretending that we are not facing the challenges we face, and discounting how it directly affects us, can forfeit our ability to meet the challenge with the quality of determination and resourcefulness needed to truly endure. We may even try to impose this sort of more palpable, yet delusional, framework onto other people and their situations. We tell ourselves and others “it could be worse” or “it’s not that bad”.
But, let’s explore what result we may get if we deny reality using this story of the child in the room filled with farm soil: If the child had simply pretended that the stinky piles were just sand, he may have been able to play for a while without rebuttal. However, there is only so much a child can do with sand (and in this case, sand that’s not even sand at all). Sandcastles would not have the same quality, and looking for seashells would only end in disappointment. Pretending it away would only provide temporary relief. It only serves to mask reality, delaying the inevitability that the piles would have to be addressed eventually.
However, it could be said that the child’s decision to face the piles in the reality of what they were was the very tool that allowed him to find motivation, think resourcefully, and act with willing determination. Dealing in the reality allowed him to correlate the stinky piles to the next obvious fact: there must be a pony in here somewhere!
In his letter to 1st century believers, James was not encouraging believers to act excited that they were encountering trials. Rather, the word “count” in James 1:2 is translated as “to evaluate” the situation, as if doing a calculation. And after you’ve plugged in the data to this spiritual formula, you will find that the result is joy. Not because James expects us to sugarcoat reality. But, because we do not have to be afraid of reality. We can both face the reality of the trials we face and how hard it feels to have to face it, and also know that going through it will lead us to whatever it is that God has for us in it. To admit reality…to feel pain, stress, confusion, and anything else…does not negate that we don’t also believe that God is still at work on our behalf. In fact, it may be the confession of our reality that reminds us how desperately we need to turn towards God for clarity and hope in our struggle.
Sometimes, our journeys take us into rooms filled with piles that stink. That’s Life. But, we also know that we can face those piles for what they are. We can call it hard, stinky, unfair, confusing, disorienting, discouraging, heavy, hurtful, etc…and never have to deny the trial we face. We don’t have to deny, sugarcoat, pretend, or ignore it simply to make it feel better to ourselves or others. We can call it what it is, and in processing the reality of what we face, find the connection between the hardship in front of us to whatever it is that God has hidden for us there. We have the assurance that God turns what was meant for our destruction into something good for our lives. We have the promises of a God who says that He will provide all that we need for life and godliness. We know that He sees us and cares for us. We are told that although we don’t always receive the reward for our work on this side of Heaven, we will someday, because God is our inheritance.
Maintaining a balance between hard reality and God’s sure provision for us within the difficult trials we face can provide the protection needed to maintain a steady, secure heart in the face of hardship and trial. After the initial shock and stench of each new trial wears off, remembering the reality that it is God’s purposes that will prevail in all our moments (good and bad) will help us to find the motivation and determination to “look for the pony.”