James says, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds” (James 1.2). Do you grit your teeth when you read or hear this verse and wonder why on earth God would ask this of us? You are not alone and yet, there it is, it’s not going away, and it poses a monumental challenge for all believers in Christ. Many would argue that to respond to all our trials, especially the tough ones, with joy in our heart is unreasonably optimistic and simply impossible to genuinely accomplish. Let’s explore what this command actually says and consider why and how we might go about accomplishing this great challenge.
JOY IN THE MIDST OF TRIALS. What does God’s command from James actually mean? The first thing to note is that James did not tell us to be joyful for the trials themselves but in the trials. This is a very important distinction. To not be joyful for the trial allows us to express any anger or frustrations we may have with God when tough trials overwhelm us. To be joyful in the trial, however, requires that we realize trials are not a punishment from God or a disaster beyond the poise of humanity, but are something that should paradoxically prompt an attitude of joy. Furthermore, this joy should be pure joy, not just some joy mixed with sorrow. Many people consider it a joy when they avoid or come out of their trials, but James said to count it all joy in the midst of trials. The question then becomes – how does one find pure joy in the midst of trials?
MOTIVE. The first thing to always check in our Christian walk is the motive in our hearts. If our motive in finding joy in our trials is simply the selfish avoidance of pain, then it’s hard not to be cynical and see it as anything more than disingenuous folly. If our motive, however, is belief in the truth of the Word of God and a desire to affirm its claims as a way to glorify God, then finding joy in our trials is worthy of consideration for the following two reasons. A Biblically grounded motive has as its foundation the Creator of the Universe, more virtuous and credible than the flimsy foundation of selfishness. Furthermore, a Biblically grounded motive comes with the Holy Spirit, a source both for understanding God’s will in this command and the power to carry it out. A Biblically grounded motive can thus lead to the confidence, the understanding and the power to carry out this ambitious command.
THE RESULTING GOOD. The primary way to find joy in our trials is to truly believe that ultimately God is working through them for our good. “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8.28). God has a plan to prosper all believers, and he does this in and through all things, including trials.
To find pure joy in the midst of trials, however, we must not only wholly believe the promise found in Romans 8.28, we must focus solely upon it in the midst of our trials. Therefore, to think or say, “This is an awful thing that’s happening to me, but I choose to look forward to the good things God is going to do with it” is still short of the mark of what we believers are called to do. Our challenge is to go beyond even this and, in the midst of awful circumstances, move forward with confidence and fully lay claim to the good that will come out of them to the point that the circumstances fade into the periphery.
It is our response to difficult circumstances that is paramount, not the circumstances themselves. The actual circumstances must be relegated to the peripheral vision of the soul by our relentless focus on the prime center – the good of God that is to come. If we persist, we will be amazed at how even our view of the peripheral circumstances can be transformed from “what is” into “what is hoped for”. “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1).
The question then becomes – do we really believe God is going to turn this awful circumstance into something good? If so, doesn’t this awful thing cease being awful the moment we in faith wholly believe this is true? We know, of course, this awful thing in and of itself is not good, as it is the painful consequences of a fallen and decaying world. But we also know God created this world and stands ready to teach and grow us right through the heart of this awful thing. Our faith that this actually will happen and our longing for the coming Godly growth is what beckons us to now in effect look upon this awful thing as a Godly thing – to refashion through faith our present feelings of anger and sorrow into sincere gratitude and joy. This is our faith overcoming our feelings.
It’s important that you know I am not suggesting we simply deny that awful things are happening to us. There is a fine line, but critical distinction, between simply denying the awful things happening to us, and laying claim to the good God promises to deliver out of the ashes of these awful things. The former denies present reality, while the latter intently focuses on the future good that will result from this very real present reality.
THE RESULTING PERSEVERANCE. The good that God promises us in Romans 8.28 can take on many forms, all according to his will and purpose. James, however, specifies one consistent pure quality that is produced by all trials that are rightly taken – perseverance (James 1.3). Trials that are endured with faith yield steadfastness in the face of difficulties. But it doesn’t end there. Perseverance, when developed, produces the ultimate qualities of spiritual maturity and fulfillment (v. 4). And so, trials can be faced with joy because, when infused with faith, they result in perseverance, and when perseverance spreads her sails full tilt it will produce a mature Christian who is not lacking anything and “content whatever the circumstances” (Philippians 4.11–13).
THE RESULTING DEPENDENCE. Another reason to welcome trials with joy is they keep us humble before the Lord, reminding us to depend on his grace and strength, not our own. From the time of his conversion, so much of the Lord and his truth was directly revealed to the Apostle Paul that, to keep him humble, he said the Lord gave “me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me” (2 Corinthians 12.7). Paul pleaded three times for the Lord to take this thorn away from him, but the Lord said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (v. 9). Thus, Paul delighted in his “weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties” (v. 10). For he knew that when he was shown to be weak and helpless in whatever trials came his way, that is precisely when he would turn all the more fervently to the Lord for strength. He depended on his trials to keep him humble before the Lord and on his knees to the Lord, and therefore he delighted in his trials.
CONCLUSION. I would like to be able to tell you that I in some large measure practice what I preach. I can’t. There have been some trials through which, like most of us, I have experienced a fair measure of success in maintaining joy and a positive attitude. The largest thorn in my side, however, is still a challenge I struggle with – searing pain 24/7 in the lower three quarters of my body. After seventeen years of paraplegia where I felt not a whisper of any sensation from the chest down, fifteen years ago I suddenly and inexplicably started feeling chronic neuropathic pain below my line of feeling.
Living paralyzed from the chest down is a hard life, but I had largely accepted it because I was partially culpable in it happening to me. I struggle to this day, however, to understand why or simply accept that God allowed this chronic pain to “pile on” top of my longtime paraplegia. That’s what it feels like anyway. That’s where I am now and that’s okay. What matters is spiritual progress in the direction of spiritual perfection. I do hope to one day accept my pain for what it is so I can let it go and focus on the mark, thanking God faithfully for what is to come. I believe that is when I will begin to see the good He has in mind for me.
In conclusion, I believe the precise measure of just how pure our joy is in the midst of our trials is proportionate to the degree that: 1) we truly believe God will turn them into something good; 2) we believe they will teach us perseverance which leads to spiritual maturity and fulfillment; and 3) we truly want to rely on His grace and power as opposed to our own sufficiency and strength.
My prayer – “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9.24).
© 2014 by Patrick Lloyd—the WORD runs deep publishing (TWRD Short # 020)