How we hate it! And yet, doesn’t that seem to be the stuff of the Christian life?
I don’t know about you, but I honestly don’t know many Christians who actually have the cushy, comfy life they long for. And if they do, it doesn’t last forever. I’ve done a lot of counseling and healing prayer ministry over the years, so I’ve had a lot of experience with people facing disruption. Unpleasant circumstances. Challenges of all sorts. And you know what? I’ve seldom encountered anyone who honestly puts James 1:2-4 into practice. I’ll bet you don’t either. James says,
Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.
I can’t think of a single client or friend who, in their deepest heart, their most honest moments, says, “Whoopie! Another trial! I’m getting to be SO mature! And I’m just so full of joy in the midst of this.”
No, they may say it after the fact. When all the dust has settled and they’re surprised to find themselves still standing. When the crisis is over and they’re still alive. But I don’t know many who, in the midst of the battle, feel joy. They may choose joy. The more mature might embrace joy (as in, hanging on for dear life from the front seat of a roller coaster). But few feel joy. Not in the moment.
But then, isn’t that what the trials and challenges are for? To teach us to choose joy? To teach us to embrace joy. To see beyond the terror into the maturity?
Joy vs. Happiness
In order to make sense of this, it might be helpful to look at the difference between joy and happiness. Americans are consumed with the pursuit of happiness, which is closely linked to circumstances. We consider happiness (good circumstances) our birthright. When we aren’t “happy,” many blame God for not being the magic genie we created him to be. I deal with this so often in my ministry and it becomes an endless do-loop to misery. “God isn’t doing what I expect him to do.” Employee evaluation. “God, you’re fired!”
But here’s the reality. I believe that, rather than being an emotion, joy is a function of another Kingdom. And while God never guarantees us happiness, He does offer (guarantee?) us joy. And I believe he promises it when we decide to pursue it. Consider Christians in much of the third world. They face persecution, death, loss of home and family, etc. All tragedies in our American mind. (And they pray that we will face persecution so we will get our eyes off of the idol of self). They experience and express joy at a level that astounds us.
Joy is a Kingdom Virtue
Joy, a Kingdom virtue, is a fruit of the Holy Spirit and only those filled with the Spirit of God can experience true joy. In fact, I wonder if happiness isn’t Satan’s counterfeit of God’s joy? The ancient Qumran community believed that the elect can rejoice in spite of present suffering because they know that they are in God’s hand. Philo said that joy is native to God alone; we find it only in God. Paul’s writings are filled with joy and a command to joy under circumstances that would cause most of us to quit. In fact, he says we find joy in suffering.
Consider Gethsemane. What was it that allowed Jesus to face the most horrible night and day of his short life? What was it that caused him to be able to say, “Not my will but thine” even while sweating drops of blood and facing fear and depression even greater than we can imagine?
Heb. 12:2 gives us the answer: “…who for the joy set before him endured the cross, ….” None of us imagines that Jesus was in a party mood. Nothing in him could say, “I’m so happy right now!” He was in the deepest pain and despair, yet he chose joy. And not a present joy, but a future joy. The joy set before him. For something “out there,” something not yet present, he was able to choose the Father’s will over his own. Both in Gethsemane and through the next day. Even knowing that he could at any minute call 10,000 angels and be set free in the biggest blaze of glory the world had ever seen. He chose joy. But he had to pass through suffering to get there.
Choosing Joy Every Day
James tells us to “consider it all joy when we face various trials.” Most Christians raise their eyebrows at that and wonder what he was drinking. But he, too, was looking at outcome, not process. He said that trials build perseverance and perseverance builds maturity and that’s a good thing. That’s joy.
I have a friend who, for over a year has been living with a loss bigger than life. Most days she didn’t want to get out of bed. But from the first day, she has resolutely looked beyond the present, even while in great pain, to a future that promises joy. What would that look like? We had no idea. It’s been a leap of faith. But because she knows the Father’s heart so well, she has looked at him every day and said, “Not my will but thine,” even while her flesh was screaming, “It’s not fair!” She has set her face like flint to follow the Lamb wherever he leads. Even though much of the path is dark and scary. Somewhere out there is joy. Again, not a “Whoopie Party!” happiness, but the deep and abiding joy of knowing she is nestled in the Father’s heart.
She has chosen the joy of clinging to Abba. Every day. Whether she felt like it or not. And now, as she is finally able to breathe again, she sees the buds, the very tiny buds, of hope and yes, joy. She sees the likelihood that the “her” who comes out of the crisis will be very different from the “her” who went into the crisis. And the new “her” will be a bit better at choosing the joy of Abba moving forward.
How about you? How are you choosing to count it all joy in the midst of your pain?
You make known to me the path of life;
in your presence there is fullness of joy;
at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.
Ps 16:11 ESV