Cloud Complex: Cherishing the Struggle (James 1)

Cloud Strife, the heroic protagonist from the beloved classic Final Fantasy VII and all of its myriad of slightly less beloved spin-offs, may be among the most enigmatic gaming heroes I know.  Aptly named to suggest the combination of the murky impenetrability of a cloud with a profound inner conflict (hence “Cloud Strife”), he is a conflicted and typically reluctant hero trying to find himself while being thrust into world-saving predicaments.  Suffering from partial amnesia layered with some serious anti-social tendencies, Cloud is better known for his sense of style and his larger-than-life sword than his personality.  While he is far from emotionless, he stands in sharp contrast to the very defined and outspoken party that joins him on his quest.  This is further explored in the spin-off movie Advent Children, which gave Cloud the opportunity to add some much needed depth to his character while facing his eternal foe Sephiroth one final time.

Ahhh, Sephiroth.  Now here’s a character that knows how to own a room.  Brash and over-confident, the “One-Winged Angel” never missed a chance to showcase his over-the-top personality, and could not provide a more stark contrast to his protagonist counterpart.  As Cloud battles with who he truly is and struggles to find his place in the world, Sephiroth basks in his full realization that he is a destructive force who truly wants to watch the world burn.  Interestingly, their climactic battle in the game did not bring the expected outcome to either of these individuals, as the movie finds Cloud operating a delivery service of sorts and keeping friends at arms length while the essence of Sephiroth still swirls with all of the venom and force of an F-5 tornado filled with deadly cobras.  ( I could have done the Sharknado reference there, but I think that ship has finally sailed.  For all of our sakes).

So at the end of Advent Children we find Cloud and Sephiroth locked in one final epic duel to the death, which is less of a mere sword fight than it is a decision point for Cloud.  His battle with Sephiroth is really just forcing him to face his internal demons of self-doubt, fear, and the emotional/physical disconnection he displays with those he cares for.  And it is in the climax of this battle that Sephiroth taunts Cloud with perhaps one of the oddest questions I have ever heard in such a circumstance.  For years I blamed it on either a poor translation from the original Japanese, or perhaps just another odd phrasing that occurs often in the Final Fantasy series.  Sephiroth, with victory nearly in hand, asks Cloud, ” Tell me what you cherish most.  Give me the pleasure of taking it away.”  But now, after all these years, I believe I finally get it.

The book of James contains many of the most challenging verses to live up to in all of the Bible, and it starts with a doozy.  Right there in chapter one, James gets to the heart of the matter by encouraging us to “count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience.”  Now there are some words that rank among my least favorite to find in proximity to each other.  Enduring tests and trials is certainly unpleasant enough, but to find “joy” in them? To actually treasure these horrible experiences?  With my limited perspective using my carnal mind, that sounds both preposterous and impossible.  When I am suffering pain, dealing with a loss, or perhaps struggling through a difficult personal situation I will confess that joy is pretty far from my thoughts.  I just want to cocoon myself in my misery, throw myself a pity party, and  give up.

I don’t know about you, but I get exhausted from all the conflict and it is honestly so tempting to just let the devil win so the battle will cease.  And it is in that moment, the point of certain defeat, that victory is truly found.  See, James never tells us to find joy in our trials because enduring them yields victory.  No, quite the opposite.  Enduring our trials produces PATIENCE, not satisfaction or a sense of winning. And this patience has a very specific purpose, found in verse 4: that YOU may be complete. Our trials are not intended to cause pain, although they will.  But is through enduring these that we will receive the promise found in verse 12, the crown of life the Lord has promised to those who love Him.

Cloud, physically dying of an incurable disease, emotionally unable to cope with the losses of those he cared most about, and now run through and dangling precariously at the end of his adversary Sephiroth’s sword has all the reason in the world to give up.   But as his enemy gloats in his pending defeat, Cloud finally experiences the breakthrough that changes NOTHING about his situation and EVERYTHING about how he looks at it.  His loved ones are still gone, he is still going to die of a disease if this battle doesn’t finish him first, and his defeat is imminent.  But as he mentally reviews his situation he achieves the realization that there is not a single part of his life, not even those that have created the physical and emotional scars he carries, that he does not cherish as part of the tapestry that is his life and shaping him into the soldier he has become.

That is the moment when this all makes sense.  The devil has a very clear mission statement:  to steal, kill, and destroy.  He will never stop, and he will forever search for the trigger that will break you once and for all.  The peace we are promised is protection “IN” the storm, not “FROM” the storm.  By realizing that the trial is only making us stronger, we can find joy not in the pain but in the knowledge that we are growing in our patient dependence on God and becoming less self-sufficient and more Christ-reliant with each successive challenge.

As Cloud unleashes an epic Omnislash that sends his enemy into oblivion one more time, I am inspired to consider my own responses to trials and the disappointments inherent in living this Christian life.  The devil has certainly stolen from me, tried to kill me, and continues to make numerous attempts to destroy me and my faith.  My story is not unique… we are all enduring trials that are designed by our enemy to destroy us but used by our Father to build us.  But to truly endure these the way we were intended to, we must embrace them as Christ embraced the cross He was given to bear.  As Cloud seemed to discover, the joy is in cherishing each step of the journey for what it is… one step closer to completion.

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