Sunday, October 2, 2022
The letter of James has some of the most immediately practical wisdom you can find in the Bible. Some have called it the “Proverbs of the New Testament.” If you are looking for guidelines about how a Christian should live, James is a great place to start.
The only problem is that some of James’ advice is hard to take:
“My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.” (James 1:2-4 NRSV)
I don’t know about you, but when I’m going through difficult things in life, I’m not feeling joy. Isn’t joy supposed to be reserved for things that are… joyful? Isn’t joy for when people get married, or when babies are born, or when a new season of your favorite show is available to stream, or when you are going to have tacos? Yes, joy is for the good things in life.
So why does it sound like James is telling us to enjoy suffering? Is he insane?
Well, no. In order to understand what he is saying, we have to think of the long game. We’re not to be joyful because of the difficult times we are facing, but because of the growth potential they provide for us. Going through things teaches us to endure, and being able to endure makes us more mature and complete. Pressures shape us into stronger people. Recall that if you subject carbon to intense heat and pressure, you get diamonds!
Consider any elite athlete. They didn’t get where they are by accident, but through years of difficult and intense training. Do you think they truly enjoyed all of that training? Of course not, but I bet they did enjoy knowing that through their training, they were going to be the GOAT at their sport.
If you want your muscles to become stronger, you have to progressively challenge them. Likewise, when our faith is challenged, it also becomes stronger. James is asking us to take on the right attitude of joy during our times of discomfort, because we know that through those challenges, we are deepening and growing our faith.
In thinking about all these things, I’m reminded of the time Jesus was in the garden of Gethsemane, under unimaginable distress because he knew he would soon lose his life. Imminent death is the kind of thing that would test anyone’s faith, even Jesus. He didn’t want to go through with it any more than you’d want to drive a stake into your own eye socket. In his situation, I would have been tempted to just run away and wash my hands of the whole thing. I’d say to myself, “This whole messiah business has taken quite a turn and I just want a quiet life somewhere.” I can imagine he had that same temptation. Surely he didn’t enjoy being betrayed, put on trial, scourged, and nailed to a piece of wood to die in total humiliation.
Jesus didn’t have to do what he did, but he was thinking of the long game. Yes, he knew he would face a horrible death, but deep in his heart he had something resembling joy. Not joy because of the circumstances he was enduring, but because of what was just over the horizon. It was this joy and hope that allowed him to muster the strength to say with his dying breath, “It is finished.” He knew that his dying would mean, paradoxically, conquering over the powers of sin and death, and leading us on a mass exodus out of their clutches. He knew that his resurrection would unleash a new reign of God on the earth and again put us at one with God.
Jesus did what he did because he was thinking of us.
A couple questions to reflect on:
1. What are some trials or difficult times that you have had to endure?
2. Can you think of any ways you grew as a result of these times?