Count it all joy they said. Christians through the centuries have quoted this admonition from the Book of James, chapter one verse two. Be glad you’re given these trials they said. When they're over and done you'll be stronger. But I don’t want them, I said. And I am not joyful or happy. Isn’t that a realistic reaction? Am I supposed to go skipping down the street singing I’ve got the joy joy joy joy down in my heart, acting like a giggling ninny? Let’s talk about this thing called joy. I wonder what it actually looked like to a man named James. James lived in a brutal time.
As the half brother of Jesus, he knew how his brother had died at the hands of the Roman government and he was likely among the first of all humans to know the joy of Jesus. There is joy and there is JOY - a deep emotion that goes beyond the surface level of mirthful joy. This is an abiding feeling - an understanding of God’s grace that is sustaining and uplifting regardless of surrounding circumstances. This joy grows stronger with each challenge whether it be the challenge of trials that seem to be too much to bear or temptations that threaten our well being and even our very existence. Bubbly giggly joy because of a happy event is a wonderful thing and I hope we all get to have a lot of it. But I think you will agree with me that it is short lived at best. It’s not an emotion we can live in. The joy of the Lord - which is to be our strength - is a deep down abiding, knowing God’s presence in spite of all that may be around us. This joy is built over a period of time and experience.
Here’s the thing that many people miss...It’s a pretty sounding word, but joy doesn’t always look pretty. It doesn’t look like we think it should. It often looks strong and stern...determination at the highest level. Max Lucado’s book You’ll Get Through This gives honest and down-to-earth encouragement for the rough times. He says “You’ll get through this. It won’t be painless. It won’t be quick. But God will use this mess for good. Don’t be foolish or naive. But don’t despair either. With God’s help, you’ll get through this.”
I can think of times in my life - and you can too - when I learned the way to get through this trial was just simply to put your head down and push on. It wasn’t pretty. I didn’t like what I had to go through. Sometimes the mess was my own making. Other times, it was things I had absolutely no control over. It took a long time to learn that getting through whatever it was - or is - depended a lot on my attitude. Someone once said attitude is more important than fact. When we look for it and reach down deep to get it, there is that deep abiding joy that we can know in the presence of Jesus. I know people are facing all kinds of trials every day. I look back at my life and I can see my own - those awful days of chemo...my mom’s alzheimer’s...daddy’s cancer...family conflicts...business difficulties...kids who dared to think they could have minds of their own! How could I ever make it through these things? I finally began to look around at all the examples of godly folks who had weathered the same and often worse. That’s how I began to figure out what I was supposed to do - watching those who were living for Jesus in front of me, bracing themselves with God’s word and prayer and support from the Christian community. I had sung these familiar words so many times and I slowly began to pay attention:
Have we trials and temptations? Is there trouble anywhere?
We should never be discouraged, Take it to the Lord in prayer.
Can we find a friend so faithful, Who will all our sorrows share?
Jesus knows our every weakness, Take it to the Lord in prayer.
(Joseph M. Scriven 1855)
The next verse promises that Jesus will take me in his arms and shield me, and I’m still learning the truth of that. Let’s just be real - stuff is gonna hurt. But with each experience, we build a history for ourselves. Our inward voice begins to say "Ok - we’ve done stuff like this before. I made it through the last time. How did I face this...what did I do? What did my friend do when she faced something similar?" We put our head down against the wind, stick our neck out and walk on. And while we’re walking, we can look around and see that even in this darkness, there is light somewhere. There is something positive if we just look for it.
Rick Warren, author of Purpose Driven Life, has shared out of his own life’s challenges. He says he once thought that life was a series of hills and valleys. We go up, we go down. Experience has taught him that life is not like that. In reality, good and bad run through our lives on parallel tracks...both realms are always running alongside each other.
A beautiful statement of this kind of faith comes to us in the classic hymn O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go, (George Matheson 1882) a shining example of reading the verses as poetry and letting their truth sink in to fill our souls. Verse 3:
O Joy that seekest me through pain, I cannot close my heart to thee;
I trace the rainbow through the rain, And feel the promise is not vain
That morn shall tearless be.
I trace the rainbow through the rain...and I hear the words of James...count it all joy.