“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know the testing of your faith produces steadfastness” (James 1:2). Was James a masochist? “When you face trials, do it with joy.” Who gets their kicks out of suffering? This is an emotional anomaly. And he was not speaking of “Adversity Lite” — these were the heavy burdens that developed the spiritual character of endurance. Joy is not a natural reaction to hardship. I have a brave friend who, in the last year, has endured cancer surgery and the toxic treatments that are meant to kill any remaining cancerous cells. Her doctor did not begin the ordeal by saying, “I want you to rejoice because you must undergo surgery to remove a tumor and chemotherapy treatment that will bring even more pain.” But that is exactly how God came to her in the inspired letter of James. We must not miss the radical nature of this command.
Command? Yes, this is a decreed joy, ordered by God. The word translated “count” is in the imperative; it carries the weight of a commandment like, “You shall have no other gods before Me.” He commands us to joy in the hard places, where joy could not possibly be expected. This means that we must sometimes exercise our wills in expressing this joy. One does not naturally bless those who persecute him or love his enemies. He must exercise his gospel-oriented will to accomplish something so abnormal. Just so, we must employ our Christ-inspired wills to show joy in times of hardship.
Thus, this is also a distinguishing joy. Jesus said that the world would be able to identify Christians by their extraordinary love. The world should also be able to know who we are by our extraordinary joy. Paul listed the fruit that would be produced by the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives in Galatians 5:22–23. The second characteristic, second only to love, is joy. Now every individual in the world, being made in the image of God, possesses the qualities of love and joy. So how will the Christian’s love and joy be different? It is a love and joy that could only be produced by the Holy Spirit.
William Gurnall, a seventeenth-century minister in England, wrote: “Christ takes no more delight to dwell in a sad heart than we do to live in a dark house.” He understood that the Holy Spirit will not sanction our sullenness and self-pity. In Calvin Miller’s poetic gospel narrative The Singer, there is a scene where the singer (representing Jesus) encounters a miller who is weighed down with self-pity. His arm and hand are grotesque and almost useless because of an injury. The miller hates the pain and deformity. The singer offers to help but the miller replies, “It cannot be so easy, singer. Would you wave your magic wand above such suffering and have it all be done with? Stop your mocking. I am a sick old man whom life has cheated of a hand. The nightly pain has already begun. The season of my hope is gone.” Then the miller fell on the floor and moaned in pain. He waited for the singer to join in his melancholy. But when he raised his head to look, the door was open and the singer was walking away. Calvin Miller understood. Jesus will not join us in our complaining, bitterness, and self-pity.
This is a demonstrative joy that draws the world. When the Israelite exiles returned from Babylon to rebuild Jerusalem, they wrote a song that is recorded in Psalm 126. They were in a hard situation. Jerusalem was in ruins; they had no houses in which to live; the people living around them in the area opposed their presence, but what did they say in the hymn they composed? “We were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter and our tongues with shouts of joy; then they said among the nations, ‘The Lord must have done great things for them.’” Facing their hardships, they demonstrated joy in such a way that the world around them supposed that God had marvelously blessed them.
I don’t think that the world looks at the Christian community in our culture and wonders at our joy. Joy amidst suffering is a powerful testimony to the reality and power of Christ. What about joy outside the context of distress? “Rejoice, in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.” If we are to have a Gospel-joy in times of pain, what should our joy look like as we enjoy the blessings of food, clothes, houses, health, marriage, children, friendship, recreation, prayer, forgiveness, His Word, His Spirit, worship, and the coming glories of heaven? Most Christians are afraid of expressing a sensual, spiritual, unleashed, unabashed, and reveling joy. We think it is somehow incongruous with Christ. Joy incompatible with Jesus — that kind of thinking is a treacherous lie from the Liar and Accuser. He wants Christians to live sad, morose, and dull lives. Self-pity in the face of agony tells the world that God is not sovereign. Despair in the face of our sin tells the world that there is no grace, no blood of Christ that saves. Melancholy in the context of immense blessings is an unholy complaint against the goodness of God.
Oh dear friend, celebrate. Celebrate the great goodness of God, in and out of season. When we get home we will not regret rejoicing too much, we will wonder why we didn’t celebrate more.