The Power of Joy1
In his book, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, Tim Keller reminds us that “at the heart of why people disbelieve and believe in God, of why people decline and grow in character, of how God becomes less real and more real to us – is suffering” (6). Continue reading . . .
In his book, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, Tim Keller reminds us that “at the heart of why people disbelieve and believe in God, of why people decline and grow in character, of how God becomes less real and more real to us – is suffering” (6).
What he’s saying is that how you understand the source, nature, and purpose of suffering will have a greater impact on you than virtually any other experience in life. The author of the Epistle of James would certainly agree. And his recommendation to us, in terms of how we should respond to the hardships and challenges in life, is wrapped up in one word: joy!
“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds” (James 1:2).
When James tells us to count it “all” joy we should probably understand this as utter joy, great joy, pure joy. I don’t think he means that every other emotional response is out of bounds, as if we should never feel grief or heartache. Rather he means that joy should be supreme over all else that we might experience.
Needless to say, this perspective runs counter to everything we know about ourselves. The default setting of the human soul is the desire for peace, prosperity, ease, unbroken and unchallenged success. James’ advice is a complete reversal of everything we regard as normal.
It’s important to remember that he is not saying that joy is the same thing as pleasure. He is not advocating some version of spiritual masochism. To find pleasure in pain is sick. As we’ll see, joy comes from looking through and beyond the trials and suffering to the opportunity they provide for us to be more greatly refined and conformed to the character of Christ.
Note also that “joy” is to characterize us at the inception or beginning of trials, not merely at their end. It’s when we “meet” or “encounter” them, not merely after they have passed. To rejoice when the trial has concluded is easy. That doesn’t take any special strength or resolve. Anyone can be joyful when suffering ceases. But James bids us rejoice at their onset. If you want to end trials with joy, begin trials with joy. Don’t pretend or play make-believe. Simply look at trials from God’s perspective and embrace his purpose for you in them.
The verb translated “count” or “consider” or “reckon” is important. It reminds us of at least two things.
(1) Our response to the painful and distressing challenges of life is one that begins in the mind, not the emotions. Often our immediate reaction is at what we might call the “gut” level: we experience emotional disgust or anger or frustration; we recoil; we rebel, and sometimes we yield to bitterness. James has a solution for this: engage your mind and think; put yourself in a frame of mind or spiritual perspective where you see in trials and hardship their divine purpose. We’ll see this even more clearly in v. 3.
(2) James at no time suggests that trials are joyful. Rather we are to reckon or consider or count them as opportunities for joy because they provide us the occasion for advancement in Christian maturity. Pain and distress are in and of themselves just as uncomfortable and agonizing for the Christian as they are for the non-Christian. But they are more readily and easily endured by the believer because we see in them the loving hand of our heavenly Father who is using them to make us look more like Jesus.
Grief, sorrow, deprivation, financial pressure, and physical agony are real and no amount of Christian faith will reduce their sting. The only thing that will make them tolerable is your confident belief that there is something of greater value than personal peace and pleasure. If physical death terminates human existence, what James is telling you to do is stupid. If the meaning of life is wholly defined by our earthly calendar, then to count trials and suffering as occasions for joy is insane. His counsel only makes sense in the light of an eternal afterlife in which the grief of this world is transformed into the glory of the next (see 2 Cor. 4:16-18).
To be continued . . .