October 1, 2013

Count It All Joy

Several weeks ago, Lily, our three-year-old granddaughter, spent the day with us. Midway through the morning, she announced somewhat dramatically, “Grandma, I’m starving!” I glanced at the clock and decided that a few crackers probably wouldn’t spoil her lunch, so I instructed her to sit down at our kitchen table. Pulling out a package of the crackers that are her current favorite, I dumped them onto a small plate in front of her.

Lily is being homeschooled, and Grandma and Papa have been trained to utilize day-to-day events as “teachable moments.” So I pointed to the crackers on her plate and suggested that she count them before she ate. She pondered that for a moment, then agreeably put out her pointer finger and began, “One…two…three…” I noticed that as she counted, she shoved the broken crackers to one side with her finger and did not include them in her numerical assessment. When I pointed to the broken pieces and asked her, “Lily, why didn’t you count these crackers?” a perturbed crease appeared between her eyebrows. In a voice that clearly indicated her displeasure at having to state the obvious, she said, “Grandma, those crackers are broken!”

Of course, I chuckled at the time. A few days later, I was reading in the Book of James during my devotional time, and came across this verse: “My brethren, count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations; knowing this, that the trying of your faith worketh patience. But let patience have her perfect work, that ye may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing” (James 1:2-4). The word “count” made me think about Lily’s refusal to count the broken crackers. I wondered: How often might we do the same thing when it comes to counting all the circumstances of life as joy? It is easy to be thankful and full of praise for the blessings God has given us. But how much harder it is to count as joy the things that make us feel sad, fearful, frustrated, discouraged, or stressed—in essence, the “broken crackers” in our lives!

Clearly, that is what we are instructed to do. Notice that when James said, “Count it all joy…” he was not referring to the acceptable, pleasant, positive aspects of our existence. He specifically stated that what we are to consider as joy are the “divers temptations” (or trials) that come our way. Now, that’s a challenge!

Once my attention was caught by this admonition, I was curious about the circumstances of the people James was addressing in his epistle. A little background study revealed that the Apostle was not writing to individuals whose lives were free of hardship. He was directing his admonition to persecuted Jewish believers who had been scattered among pagans and were experiencing the challenges that come to displaced persons in a hostile environment.

Since he was giving instruction, James obviously was indicating that to experience God’s abundant, overflowing joy involves a choice as to whether or not we will heed his advice. He was not just saying, “Be happy!” Happiness is a subjective state, but James was encouraging these persecuted Christfollowers to make a more objective judgment. “Happiness” might imply to his readers that they could expect a carefree life or a constantly cheerful mood. Neither of these was what James had in mind. He acknowledged the presence of extremely unhappy experiences in his readers’ lives. At the same time, and with no perception of any contradiction, James counseled them to rejoice during those very experiences of hardship. He encouraged them to face their trials with an attitude of joy, rather than viewing them as a punishment, a curse, or an unforeseen calamity.

His message is applicable for Christians today. I suppose for many of us, our initial reaction to “count it all joy” might be, “Easier said than done!” I have to confess that I’ve had thoughts along that line. Yes, we know what we are supposed to do. But how do we do it? How is it possible to count times of sadness, fear, frustration, affliction, discouragement, or stress as joy?

Perhaps the secret lies in looking at the big picture. James hinted at that when he went on to say that “the trying of your faith worketh patience.” In the original language, the phrase “trying of your faith” has the implication of a test that is designed to prove the quality of something. Since James specifically pointed to “faith” as being the target, we know that he was not giving comfort to people who were suffering as a consequence of their sins. He meant the hardships and sufferings that Christians encounter as they are following the Lord. In those times, we are admonished to trust our loving and sovereign God to use the trials for our spiritual good.

One positive fruit of a trial is specifically mentioned: it “worketh,” or develops, our patience. Which one of us would claim we have enough of that priceless virtue? The fact is, we cannot really know how much patience we have until we are under pressure. Rough times can teach us patience. James goes on to add a further instruction, “Let patience have her perfect work, that ye may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing.” The Apostle was pointing us to a focus on the end result, rather than the pain of the moment. Being perfect and entire—spiritually mature and complete, with every spiritual faculty developed in a balanced life of holiness—is an end result we all long for, and one that is worth making the effort to obtain.

James was not alone in this teaching. His fellow apostle, Peter, wrote much the same advice to the Christians who were scattered throughout the Roman provinces of Pontus, Galatia,

Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia. His instruction was, “Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened unto you: but rejoice, inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ’s sufferings; that, when his glory shall be revealed, ye may be glad also with exceeding joy.”

The German theologian Helmut Thielicke was once asked what he saw as the greatest defect among American Christians. Thielicke’s surprising reply was, “They have an inadequate view of suffering.” Like James and Peter, he was pointing out that the time of trial is not the time to rejoice less. When we are enduring sickness is not the time to pray less. When we suffer loss is not the time to love others less. Rather, those times are opportunities to practice the joy, peace, and love that are to characterize the Christian life. Not all the things that happen to us are enjoyable. But spiritual perception can reveal the will and work of God in the midst of trials, and in that we can rejoice. We can accept life’s hard spots because we know that the Lord is working in our lives and He promises that good can and will come from them. He’s not done with us yet, and everything He allows has a reason!

Joy comes from our relationship with Jesus Christ, and the steadfast assurance that He is working in and through every event that comes our way.

Joy is not dependent upon circumstances. It is something we can possess, irrespective of what happens in our lives, good or bad. Joy comes from our relationship with Jesus Christ, and the steadfast assurance that He is working in and through every event that comes our way.

We want to be “perfect and entire, wanting nothing” spiritually. So let’s accept the broken pieces along with the whole. Let’s count as James would have us count, with an understanding that trials are God’s way of helping us to a greater spiritual maturity and a deeper relationship with Him. Let’s count them all joy!

apostolic faith magazine