Joy is a Choice
“Joy is a Choice”
James 1:1-8, 12
April 26, 1998
Matt and Jamie were new to our church. That’s not their real name, but that’s what I’ll call them this morning. They had recently moved to our community from Southern California and decided to drop by simply because they liked a quote they had seen on the sign out front. It was easy to be drawn to Matt and Jamie: bright, energetic, warm, but most of all they were hungry for spiritual things. Jamie had been raised a Catholic, Matt a Protestant, but neither of them had ever been more than nominal Christians. But since they had moved, they had been talking about getting more involved in church. The transition seemed like a great opportunity to make a fresh start.
Several months after they began attending, they shared with us that they desperately wanted to have children, but that the doctors had told them that their chances of conceiving were very remote. For years, they had been trying every new fertility treatment that came along, but nothing was successful. Our people began to pray for them, and miraculously, they conceived a few months later.
I’ll never forget the night I went over to speak to Matt and Jamie at our mid-week program, and Jamie was just glowing. I asked her how she was doing, and she said, “We couldn’t be better. The doctors told us that the first trimester was the most critical stage. They said that if we made it through the first three months, the chances of carrying the baby to term were significantly higher. Yesterday was the end of the first trimester.”
The very next day I came into the office after visiting the hospitals and the secretary had a worried look on her face. She said, “Keith, Matt and Jamie had a doctor’s appointment today, and Jamie’s lost the baby. They’re on the way over here right now, and they were hoping you would get here soon.”
When they came into the office, it was obvious that they were devastated. They wept. I wept. And in the end they asked the inevitable question. “Why? Not just why does God not give us a baby. We had almost accepted the fact that we would have to adopt. But why did God allow us to get pregnant, build up our hopes so much, and then…this?”
Count it all Joy
We’ve all heard that simple question in times of trial and difficulty, and many of us have asked it. Why? Why does God allow us to go through those difficult times when our lives are disrupted and our faith is stretched to the limit?
I just began reading a book this week called God at War. And in it the author makes the point that the tendency to ask “why” is a relatively recent trend. He says that in the early days, Christians had a much deeper understanding of the nature of spiritual warfare, and they expected to encounter difficulties. So they didn’t try so much to analyze their trials. They simply sought to overcome them with God’s help.
And that appears to be what James is encouraging his readers to do in these first few verses of his letter. He isn’t surprised by their suffering. He doesn’t say, “If you encounter trials…” He says, “When you encounter various trials this is what you should do.” And what he tells them to do is a little surprising. He says, “Count it all joy…”
Now let’s go back to Matt and Jamie for a moment. It may be a little troubling to us, but what this scripture tells us is that if James had known Matt and Jamie, somehow he would have said, “Count it all joy.” Now, I am confident he would not have said it in those first few moments. He would have wept with them just as I did. In those first few days when the pain is so intense and agonizing, all we can do is try to help bear the burden. But at some point in his ministry to Matt and Jamie- when the time was right, he would have said, “Count it all joy.”
He says it right here to Christians who were going through similarly painful difficulties of their own. And the fact that it comes in only the second verse highlights the urgency with which he says it. Generally, when we write a letter, we begin with the lighter stuff and then kind of ease into the more difficult matters later on in the later. But James doesn’t do that. There’s a one line greeting and then he abruptly tackles the issue of trials. It’s important to note that James is not casually saying, “I know you’ve had a tough time and I hope you’re doing OK.” There is a very real sense of urgency in James words.
You see, James was writing to a group of people who were being persecuted. Many of them were poor and suffering injustice at the hands of the rich. Some were facing the prospects of martyrdom because of their conversion to Christianity. In fact, it wasn’t long after this letter was written that James himself was put to death because of his commitment to Christ. So when James spoke of trials, he didn’t do so lightly. He fully understood the severity of the trials that his readers were facing.
I make this point because I want to avoid a common misconception in some Christian circles regarding trials. And this is one of the most important insights of this passage. James is not saying here: “Oh boy, you’re in the midst of a tremendous trial. Isn’t this fun?” And yet, I’ve seen a number of Christians respond in that way. Their life may be falling apart, but they put on a great big smile and pretend that everything is wonderful. In fact, they won’t even acknowledge the reality of the trial. They’ve been taught that this is a lack of faith, so they adopt as their life motto the title of that deep and profound song, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”
Friends, James is not saying to us, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” He is not talking about a state of emotion that naturally arises out of the circumstances, but about a posture of joy that is chosen by the believer. A posture of joy that is rooted in faith. You see, emotions are like the waves of the sea, tossed to and fro by every wind that comes along. Joy is like the deep currents of the ocean that remain stable and undeterred by the conditions above. This is what James is talking about. His words are not given as a statement of fact that we will somehow enjoy trials just because we are Christians. They are given as words of command: “Count it all Joy!” He is saying, “When you encounter various trials, choose to take a posture of joy rather than a posture of bitterness or anger or defeat.”
So you see, James’ words are not a shallow, glib call to denial. Rather they are powerful words of encouragement. They are words of hope. And that’s why he would have found a way in the right time to say to Matt and Jamie, “Dear brother and sister, in the midst of your pain, count it all joy.” And he would say the same thing to each one of us who are also facing trials in our life.
But James would say more than that, and for this we can be thankful. Because he goes on to give us very specific words of advice about how to take this posture of joy in the midst of trial. He gives us three very tangible ways that we can choose joy.
Rest in the Providence of God
And the first thing that he says is that we must rest in the providence of God. He says in verses 2-4:
“Count it all joy when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance, and let endurance have its perfect result, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”
You see, joy in the Bible is always rooted in something beyond itself. The shepherds rejoiced because the angels brought them word of the birth of the Messiah. In Acts, the whole city rejoiced because of the miracles that were taking place. In Revelation, there is great rejoicing because the Lord has come. Here in James we can choose joy in the midst of trial because we know God will use it for our good.
Let me share something with you that I uncovered in my studies of trial in the Bible. This may be a little technical, but stay with me. I assumed that I would find two very distinct Greek words: one that denoted trials used by God, and another that denoted trails brought on by Satan. In fact, in the English translation of this first chapter of James, we see two different words. The word “trial” is used early in the chapter where the activity of God is discussed, and “temptation” is used later in the chapter where the activities of Satan are discussed. But in the Greek the two words are forms of the same root word. And it’s that way throughout the New Testament.
So, there is no clear distinction between trials and temptations. But what is clear is this: in every instance of trial or temptation, God always wants to bring about good in the midst of trial while Satan always wants to bring about evil. So what this tells us that in every trial of any kind, we are faced with a choice: We can allow God to work with the absolute assurance that He is working for our good. Or we can allow Satan to work and suffer the consequences.
Now this is important because the temptation is to overanalyze the situation. To try to figure it out why we are going through the trial and who is responsible for it. But James doesn’t spend any time trying to answer the why question. What matters to James is the what question: what are we to do in the midst of trials. And the first thing he tells us is to rest in the providence of God and let Him do His work.
And what is it that God wants to do? In this scripture it is maturity. Someone has said that the greatest growth comes not on the mountain top, but in the valley. And that is so often true. But God also uses trials to accomplish other purposes: to purify, to bring humility, to draw back unto Himself a rebellious people, to produce character and patience, to further the cause of the gospel, and to prepare us for eternity. But always, God’s purposes are good. And yet, God will not do these things automatically. He can only do them when we choose to rest in His providence.
Right after Andrew was born, Pam and I went through a period of about 2 months of darkness. Everything in our life was being turned upside down. We had a brand new baby and no instructions. We were leaving our church. We were leaving our friends. We were going back to school. We were leaving our house to move into an apartment. We even sold both our cars and bought a van. The combination of radical change and postpartum blues sent Pam into a deep, deep depression. And because I love my wife, I suffered with her. At times the fear was almost unbearable. At times she wasn’t sure she would survive. And we were both exhausted.
But something happened during those difficult days. We prayed together as we had never prayed before. At times we literally had to go to war with the enemy, and in those times the power and presence of God was so sweet. Our faith was strengthened as we learned to trust in Him. And something happened between us. A bond of love and trust was forged that had never known. It was a very difficult time, but in the end, we could say, “God has been at work, and His purposes are good.”
Pray for Wisdom
The second thing James tells us to do in the midst of trial is to pray for wisdom. Bible scholars says that for someone like James with a Jewish background, wisdom was much more practical than philosophical. It is a matter of turning spiritual knowledge into everyday decisions and conduct. So, in light of what we have already said, to pray for wisdom is to say, “OK God, I trust that you are working for my good, but I need to know how I should respond to this trial in a way that will please you.”
It is true in many cases that we don’t understand what God is up to while we are in the eye of the storm. In fact, it is usually the case that we don’t see clearly until long after the storm is gone. But that doesn’t mean that we are left to ourselves in the hour of trial. James assures us that God wants to provide all that we need to endure the trial. Paul says the same thing in 1 Corinthians 10:13 when he says that “God will not allow us to be tempted beyond that which we can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.”.
But beyond the matter of asking for wisdom, I am struck by another insight in this verse. It has to do with the matter of prayer itself. Prayer is not just a mental exercise. Prayer is a very intimate act. It is that vital means by which we are connected to the Living Lord. So James says to us that we need that vital connection with God in the hour of trial.
I say this so emphatically because our greatest temptation in the midst of great pain and disappointment is to do just the opposite. To question Him. To doubt Him. To wonder if He even cares. And while these are very natural human responses, let me say that it is no accident that the temptation to turn to these feelings is so close at hand. You see, the enemy knows that God alone is able to deliver us. That God is able to turn even the most difficult situation into an opportunity for good. So if he can turn us away from God, he will be free to kill, steal and destroy. So James says to us, “If you lack wisdom, if you find yourselves struggling to make sense of it all, by all means take your struggle to God. Whatever you do, don’t stop trusting Him. Don’t stop believing that God will be faithful.”
This is why I love the Psalms of lament so much. The psalmists never feel the need to live in denial. They freely acknowledge their pain, their struggles, even their questions, but always it is to God that they make their complaint. And in the end, there is almost always an affirmation of faith even in the midst of their trial. Take Psalm 55, for example:
Verses 1-5: Give ear to my prayer, O God; and do not hide Thyself from my supplication. Give heed to me, and answer me; I am restless in my complaint and surely distracted, because of the voice of the enemy, because of the pressure of the wicked. For they bring trouble upon me, and in anger they bear a grudge against me. My heart is in anguish within me, and the terrors of death have fallen upon me. Fear and trembling come upon me; and horror has overwhelmed me.
Verses 16, 22: As for me, I shall call upon God, and the Lord will save me. Cast your burden upon the Lord, and He will sustain you; He will never allow the righteous to be shaken.
God is big enough to handle all our frustrations, our anger, even our questions. That’s why James says: “But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God who gives to all men generously, and it will be given him.
Christian tradition tells us that James was often called “Old Camel Knees.” He prayed so much that his knees became tough and leathery. And my suspicion is that if someone had asked him why he prayed so much, he would have said, “In the midst of all the persecution, I couldn’t go a day without that vital connection with God and the wisdom that only He could give me.”
Keep an Eternal Perspective
So James says to us: “Rest in the providence of God.” “Pray for Wisdom.” And then finally, he says, “Keep an eternal perspective.” In verse 12, “Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial; for once he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life.” This crown of life is not an earthly reward, but one that lasts for eternity.
And this is a theme that we find throughout the New Testament. Listen to a few of them:
Now if we are children, then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory. Rom 8:17
These have come so that your faith – of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire – may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. 1 Peter 1:17
For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. 2 Corinthians 4:17
Do you know who wrote that last verse? The apostle Paul. Do you know the kind of troubles he endured? He was imprisoned on numerous occasions, he was whipped five times - often within an inch of his life, he was beaten with rods, he was stoned, he was shipwrecked three times, he often went without food. How in the world could he call these light and momentary troubles? Because when they are weighed in the balance of eternity, the scales doesn’t budge.
A lot of people don’t like this last point. They call it shallow and naïve. “Pie in the sky religion.” But I love C.S. Lewis’ response to that critique:
We are very shy these days of even mentioning heaven. We are afraid of the jeer about pie in the sky and of being told that we are trying to escape from the duty of making a happy world here and into dreams of a happy world elsewhere. But either there is pie in the sky or there is not. If there is not, then Christianity is false, for this doctrine is woven into its whole fabric.
You see, either we believe in the resurrection and eternal life or we don’t. If we don’t, then, yes!, nothing could be worse than suffering, for this life is all there is. But if we do truly believe in the resurrection and eternal life, then we must always view our trials through the lens of eternity.
I am often amazed that the early Christians were able to do this. But, they had seen or had known those who had seen the risen Christ. So, when they were threatened with death if they refused to deny Christ, they chose death. But William Barclay has noted that what really moved the Romans was not that the Christians were willing to die for their beliefs. Many people were martyrs in that day. What really moved the Romans was that the Christians died singing. And they could sing in the face of death because they knew that death was nothing more than a gateway to eternity.
How can we chose joy in the midst of trial?
We have the promise of God’s goodness, so we can rest in his providence.
We have promise of God’s provision, so we can pray with faith.
And we have the promise of eternal victory, so we can endure to the end.
I have been especially thankful for this passage in James over the last 3 days. On Saturday, I received a letter from a friend. I met Emedi when I was here working on my Master of Divinity. He had been a national church leader in Zaire for more than 20 years, and his denomination had sent him here to get a doctorate. His dream was to return to Zaire to start a Wesleyan seminary. But while he was here, he and his wife usually spent the holidays with me in Georgia.
Needless to say, I have been concerned about my friend and his family for some time. His home is in Eastern Zaire, not far from the borders of Rwanda and Burundi. I knew from previous letters that his family was in danger due to all the conflict in the region, but I have been especially concerned for the last six months because I had not heard from him. So, when the letter arrived, I was somewhat relieved. Until I read it.
About a month ago, Emedi and his family became refugees. He said that prior to their leaving, every day, tens of thousands of people were being killed all around them. He said it was like they were nothing more than animals led to the slaughter. So, they and 215 others got on a boat built for 150. They left everything they owned in Zaire so that more people could be delivered to safety in Tanzania. Emedi’s sister died on the journey. He said that when they reached Tanzania, they were taken to a refugee camp where they didn’t even have shelter or the promise of food. He said 4,000 people were coming into the camps every day. Toward the end of the letter he said, “I have now come to accept the fact that I will never return to my homeland.”
Emedi and Nyassa are not distant characters of the Bible. They are not unknown faces on CNN. They are my friends. So, I was heartbroken as I read his words. But then I read it again. And a third time, and as I reflected on his words, I was moved and inspired. The very first line of the letter reads, “Dear Brother and Sister in the Lord, Greetings in the Lord’s glorious name. “Glorious” is a joy word.
And then after telling about the various trials they are facing, he asks for prayer and support, and among the things he lists is: Emedi’s ministry among the refugees. When he could have so easily become disillusioned or bitter, Emedi has chosen joy.
Pam to introduce: “How Firm a Foundation”