Pure joy. What do these words conjure up in your mind? Perhaps its the chubby, smiling face of a two-year-old eating a melting ice cream cone or a newlywed couple strolling arm in arm on a moonlit beach. Each of us can search in the memories of her mind to find pictures that radiate joy. A picture of a wife standing over the casket of her husband grieving probably did not pop into your mind, since that is obviously a picture of pain and suffering, not joy. And yet James wrote to believers asking them to “consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds” (James 1:2, NIV). In case you are tempted to think this is a misprint or that God has a strange sense of humor, the explanation follows those unconventional words: “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.”
James was helping his readers understand that painful situations would strengthen their faith and develop in them a perseverance that is needed for maturity.
The Tiggers and the Eyores
For many years I thought that some people just tend to be more joyful, and others, more negative. Sometimes they are called optimists and pessimists, but I often labeled them Tiggers and Eyores because they seemed either unreasonably happy or unusually sad. I assumed their basic personality dictated their responses to life. Recently I considered this truth: Joy that survives not only pleasant circumstances but trials comes from a deep-seated understanding of the sovereignty of God, not from a personality trait.
Those Who Trust God
Understanding God’s sovereignty helps people see more than His great power and knowledge. It showcases His ultimate control over every situation. It also helps us grasp that He is orchestrating every event in every second of every hour to accomplish His grand and glorious plan upon the earth. Even though the proponents of a health and wealth gospel preach it, and even though we would like to believe it, God’s grand plan does not center on us and our comfort. It centers on the glory of God and the accomplishment of His work. When God says that “all things work together for good to those who love God,” we assume that the “good” means our personal comfort, ease, lack of pain, and maybe even good parking spots. Instead, God’s plans are far greater than these creature comforts in which we want to linger. His plan includes developing the fruit of the Spirit in our lives, the testing of our faith to make it perfect, and the deepening of our character to make us like Him. When we begin to understand God’s sovereignty, it is clear that exhibiting joy shows confidence in God, while grumbling expresses doubt in His character, plan, or power.
In essence, each of us longs for a carefree, happy life that is hard to obtain. But even when we reflect on happy memories, we are reminded how fleeting the emotion of happiness can be. A two-year-old can go from grins to screams in a matter of seconds if his ice cream cone falls to the pavement, and a newlywed couple can go from ecstasy to anger when a harsh word is spoken. Immature joy can be exhilarating, but it is usually temporary and fragile. As we endure painful storms of life buoyed by the sovereignty of God, He begins to change something within us. We develop a confidence that each trial will eventually pass. We realize that with God’s help we can endure whatever comes. We realize that we do not need to scream or get angry when things go wrong, because we have learned to trust God, Who will never leave us or forsake us. We know we are growing more mature in our faith when we endure with patient endurance trials that would have sent us into hysterics in years past.
My mom has recently shown me a spirit of joy despite major trials. Two years ago she was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer, due in part to the failure of a doctor to diagnose her condition for over three months. Her prayer request to our family was not for healing but that she would be able to share Christ with others and never lose her testimony for the Lord. She said God always has a reason and maybe her cancer would help someone to come to know Him.
But recently my father, her husband of almost 60 years who cared for her faithfully during her cancer battle, died suddenly. I thought grief might cause her to complain or be angry at God, but instead she found multiple reasons for joy. She set up a memorial fund for Dad’s funeral to benefit missions work and praised God for the money given. She rejoiced over the several hundred people who came to the funeral and heard the gospel. She praised God that she knows she will see Dad in Heaven. In the midst of one of life’s greatest sorrows, I believe Mom chose joy because her walk with God for over 70 years taught her He is faithful.
My mother is living proof that when we walk with God, He gradually and supernaturally develops a deep sense of joy within us that will not flee when we face trials. It’s not because circumstances are pleasant or bring us pleasure, but because we have learned to trust Him in everything. It is also evidence that we are growing closer to Christ and beginning to bear His image. So whatever you are asked to endure today, count it all joy.
Jeannie Vogel is a women’s ministry consultant and the wife of Jim Vogel, associate national representative of the GARBC.