For many people it is the most difficult – and arguably the most unreasonable – instruction given in sacred literature: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds” (James 1:2).
James, who led the Church during the earliest years of the Christian faith and in a time of government-endorsed persecution of Christians, directs believers to count their trials as joy. Their trials included the normal hardships of life – privation, sickness and loss – and the trials particular to religious persecution: harassment, mistreatment and imprisonment.
Not only were these people to keep themselves from despair when they were so treated, they were to deem it all joy. Is such a thing even possible? For that matter, is it sane?
To take the second question first: The sanity of such an approach to life would be suspect if there were no rationale for doing so. But St. James states his rationale, and it makes sense: “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.”
The only reason to count trials as joy is that they produce perseverance, which may be the New Testament’s most highly-touted virtue. Perseverance is essential in every worthwhile endeavor in life, whether learning to speak a new language, play the piano, master differential calculus or get in shape. James says that perseverance leads to maturity and fulfillment.
But even if it is sensible to consider trials as pure joy, is it possible? The biblical record and Church history – not to mention the experience of many Christians – suggest that it is.
I knew and was mentored by a giant of a man. His name was Ken West. When I met him I was in my early twenties, he was in his seventies. He was about six-and-a-half-feet tall and had a presence that could fill a room.
He had known his share of trials, but he had learned to count them joy. When I first met Mr. West, he was recovering from surgery to remove a cancerous growth. In cutting out the cancer, the surgeon had severed a nerve, leaving the side of his face drawn and distorted. Yet he moved through life with a joy that hardship could not quench.
He knew that even his pain would not be wasted but would be utilized to make him more than he could otherwise be. He was well-acquainted with the apostle Paul’s teaching on the subject, that “our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all” (2 Corinthians 4:17). Ken West understood that future glory does not come in spite of present suffering; it comes through it.
I’ve known other people who have been able to count trials as joy – enough of them to convince me that it is possible for anyone, properly equipped and trained, to do so. But is it possible for a group of people – a church congregation, for example – to learn to do the same?
Church families sometimes go through painful trials together: A beloved leader is diagnosed with a terminal illness, a pastor is accused of moral failure, financial burdens grow heavy, or accident and tragedy strike. Can an entire congregation learn to “consider it pure joy”?
I think it is possible. The church as a whole can respond to trials with this attitude, but they must realize that such trials are, as James points out, a test of faith – not of competence or spirituality, or any such thing. And their leaders must model this positive approach to hardship in their personal lives. Even more importantly, the congregation must be immersed in the presence of a God whose love and whose competence to care for them is infinite.
(First published on Saturday, June 8, 2013 in The Coldwater Daily Reporter)