You’ve been in that moment - at the crux of life and pain - either yourself, or with someone you love. Holding their hand. Sitting quietly. Not knowing what to say, worried that the wrong thing will escape from your lips.
You’ve been in desperate straits. You’ve been in the midst of the crucible, in the heat of the trial. You’ve struggled and wrestled with God, as Jacob did at Peniel (Genesis 32:22-32).
You just found out you have cancer and have been given three months to live. Your child just died tragically. You’ve lost everything that you own. You can’t get out of bed in the morning because the depression is too deep - too heavy. Your wife has left you. Your family is in shambles. You’re struggling to find your identity after you’ve lost your job or suffered a career-ending injury. You just want to end it all.
Because we’ve all been there, statements like this seem ridiculous:
“Count it all joy, brothers and sisters, when you meet trials of various kinds…” (James 1:2)
“When you meet trials of various kinds” makes sense.
But “count it all joy” seems like a slap in the face when all that you’re really asking for is the easy way out, the smooth and happy, suffering-lite, cancer and abandonment and barrenness and shame and conflict-free version of life.
“Why me?” you ask.
“Well, why not you? Would you rather it happen to someone else?”
“Oh, that’s a good point…and yes, actually, that would be nice.”
Joy vs. Happiness
But the joy that James is speaking of in this verse is not the trite kind of happiness that is detached from the difficult realities of life. Joy is a fruit of the Spirit that transcends the emotion of happiness. It is deeper. More eternal. Anchored in God Himself.
And it would seem that joy cannot truly be experienced if trials are ignored. Those who understand, recognize, and endure trials, rather than seeking to avoid or escape them, are the only ones who will be able to experience true joy. Joy, the kind that James is speaking of here, requires trials.
Our American condition is such that we count ourselves experts in avoiding or escaping trials. We want them to stay away - to keep their distance. This is a fairly normal human preference. Even Jesus asked that He be able to avoid the suffering that was coming to Him.
In the midst of trials, we vary between the escape mechanisms of burying our head in the sand and ignoring our trials, or focusing our energy on having them end as soon as possible. Consider, for example, the way in which you pray. When a trial comes into your life, is your first impulse to pray that it would end, or to pray that you would find it to be a source of joy? That, of course, is a rhetorical question.
Avoidance and escape. These are our defaults.
But James is inviting us to actually consider the trials of our lives as sources of joy.
What James is not doing, as we might assume, is discounting the nature of our trials. He’s not ignoring the suffering that they bring, the pain that they instill, the tragedy and the incomprehensible sense of isolation and abandonment that we feel in the midst of them.
James is not saying that trials won’t be hard.
Be Sad for Sad Things
The Scriptures very clearly call us to weep for things. They give us room to mourn and to lament. The world is not the way that it should be. We can see that simply by opening our eyes and getting out of bed in the morning.
We are clearly commanded to “weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15).
Jesus Himself assures us that God smiles on the people who just can’t help but be broken at the brokenness of life: “Blessed are those who mourn” (Matthew 5:4).
There is, according to the author of Ecclesiastes, “a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance” (3:4).
If you were to take a simple survey of the book of Psalms, the collection of 150 Hebrew prayers and songs that are found in the center of our English Bibles, you will find 45% of them (68 of 150) are psalms of lament. In other words, almost half of Israel’s worship music was tinged with sadness, weeping, and mourning, all with the recognition that life is hard and the world is filled with tragedy and suffering.
Think about that for a second. Israel was actually so much better at living in the real world than we are today. I mean, how many of our worship songs actually mention or wrestle with the depth and severity of the human condition? Of human suffering?
How many of those of us who call ourselves Christians actually make ourselves more and more irrelevant just because we’ve become convinced we need to paste a fake smile on our face and act happy all the time because "that’s what good Christians do"?
But tears should frequent the faces of the saints. Just ask Jeremiah.
We are given place in our human experience, before God and the world, to treat the broken world just as it is: broken. To mourn and to cry and to weep and to be sad over things that call for it. That require it, even.
As pastor and author Zack Eswine writes: “It is an act of faith and wisdom to be sad about sad things.”
Let me encourage you, then, to be sad about sad things. See and experience and lament the world as it really is. This isn’t some kind of manifesto towards a hopeless life of cynicism and depression, but rather a reality check that actually allows us to enter into the real life of real people with a real message from a real God of real Good News. Not just real good news, but really Good News!
Instead of encouraging you to do the things we are naturally prone to do - avoiding or escaping suffering - I’m encouraging you to enter in and to walk with people in their pain. Why? Because that’s what Jesus did. And therein lies the really Good News, and real joy.
Jesus, the perfect Son of God - “who for the joy that was set before him” (Hebrews 12:2) - saw fit to enter into the real world and to take on your suffering. To walk with you in the trial. He wept over your sin and your pain. He loves you intensely. Instead of giving you an intellectually satisfying answer for you pain, God gives you a soul-satisfying Savior in the midst of your pain.