Joy. Don’t you just love that word? It almost sounds like it feels. And who doesn’t want more of it? That’s why it’s been great over the last couple of weeks to see that joy is a mainstay of the Christian life. Not an occasional experience for a lucky few, but a normal attitude for everyone who feeds on the gospel of Grace.
But here’s where it gets gritty. What about suffering and its relationship to joy? It’s relatively straightforward to see how we might cultivate joy in the good times, but how about in the tough times? Surely not.
Well actually the Bible envisages two types of suffering in the Christian life – persecution and the everyday sufferings of life in a fallen world – and it spurs us on to joy in the midst of both. It’s never glib or unrealistic about the sufferings themselves, but amazingly it does encourage us towards joy when they come.
Joy in persecution
In Philippians, Paul speaks of people who are proclaiming the gospel only in order to exploit him whilst he’s in jail, and then he says these amazing words:
‘What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretence or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.’ (Philippians 1:18)
Paul is so invested in God’s plans and purposes to advance the gospel and so passionate about the lost being reached that even from prison he can say he rejoices! Joy is a reaction to the desires of our heart being met. That means that if our heart’s desire is for God to be glorified then we will be filled with joy when his gospel is proclaimed… even if we are on the receiving end of suffering for it. The flipside is that if our heart’s desire is for our own glory we will find it impossible to experience joy in the midst of persecution.
Joy in the sufferings of life
James 1:3-4 says ‘Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.’
Did you see it there? Joy… when you meet trials. How? Why? He goes on to explain. The trials themselves strengthen your faith to keep you going and the result of that is perfection, completion and a lack of nothing.
In this case I guess it’s a question of perspective. The sufferings themselves might be grim, but the fruit of that suffering is great and so joy comes from seeing God at work in your life through the sufferings. I know that’s easier to type than it is to live but it’s amazing to be able to aspire to.
So I guess the challenge of both of these verses is to get our ambitions for ourselves and the Lord straight. If we live for our comfort and our glory, ironically we will deprive ourselves of joy. If we live for our perfection and completion and the glory of God, then the joy will follow.
Joy in suffering? Seriously? Yes, seriously.