Is it idealistic to expect joy in the midst of trials? Our Bible Study group are working through James at the moment, using Jen Wilkin’s study (available for free here). If any of you have read through James you may know that right from the start you are hit with that well known verse:
“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.” James 1:2-3
What does it really mean? Most of us have figured out by now, that it does not mean that we face troubles and difficult times with a grin on our face and, “Praise the Lord, I am so happy!” on our tongue. But what does it mean? What is the ‘joy’ James speaks about here?
What is Christian Joy?
Is it somehow searching for something I can be happy about in the midst of this trial? Finding that elusive golden lining? It is tempting to comfort someone in their trials with statements that start with, “At least….”
- “At least you are young enough to have other kids.”
- “At least this cancer has a good rate of recovery….” etc.
I don’t know about you, but comfort like that might produce a very small burst of gratefulness, but certainly it is not enough to produce in me “joy”.
The prospect of possessing what one desires….
As I prepared for the study I wondered to myself, “What is joy?” Is it happiness?
I looked it up in the dictionary and found a definition which contributed greatly to the way I looked at this verse.
Joy: the emotion evoked by well-being, success, or good fortune or by the prospect of possessing what one desires (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)
I was used to the first part of the definition: an emotion evoked by well-being, success, or good fortune…
But that just told me that joy was an emotion that accompanied good circumstances – not the trials which James is speaking about here. Then I continued reading and saw…
An emotion evoked by…the prospect of possessing what one desires.
That was intriguing. Joy could come, not due to the circumstances which I face, but with the prospect of possessing what I desire through the circumstances.
The fruit of my labour…
When Jen spoke about this verse she used the example of childbirth. What joy we feel as a mother, when those first contractions come and we know that our little one will soon be here. We know that we must endure pain but the prospect of what that pain will produce is so precious to us, that even that pain will actually bring us joy.
So what do I desire?
Honest answer… a hot bath, a warm fire, a snuggly bed, a good book, snuggles with my kiddies….. My immediate desires may not help much in seeking to fulfil this verse. (They may actually hinder me- you know – when the hot water runs out, or there is no firewood, or when my baby gets too big to want snuggles.)
But if I look closer, as a follower of Christ I have desires which will overrule those immediate ones.
- I desire to have a mature faith.
- I desire to be the woman God created me to be.
- Ultimately, I desire to be more like Jesus. (Roms 8:29)
This is the point where lightbulbs go on and things start to make sense. James doesn’t leave us with a seemingly unrealistic and impossible exhortation. He continues on to tell us why it is possible to respond with joy to difficult times.
because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. (James 1:3-4)
Mature and Complete
As we trust God, despite our circumstances, God uses that to deepen and mature our faith. He uses our steadfast faith in Him to make us more like our Saviour, Jesus. We can have joy in the midst of trials, in the midst of the most tragic circumstances, as we realise that through these things, not despite them, we will possess what we truly desire.
This kind of joy does not require us to ignore the pain. It does not depend on the ability to pretend that we are not suffering. Our grief and pain does not mean we are not trusting God. Our grief and pain means that we are trusting God in a very difficult place.
Fixing our Eyes on Jesus
James is not the only one to present this truth. We find it again in Hebrews 12 and we are further encouraged to set our eyes on Christ and His example and enabling.
1“And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, 2 fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross,scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God… 10.God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness. 11 No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.“ Hebrews 12:1b-2, 10b-11
The reason we can experience joy in the midst of trials…
This is the beauty and joy of trials… the understanding that these things bear fruit we deeply desire, fruit which we want so much we can rejoice that the opportunity to develop it has come, even as we grieve and struggle in the midst of it. James 1:2-3