Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Count It All Joy

Here is one of the more difficult, and hence probably more helpful, passages of Scripture that I regularly come across: “Count it all joy, my brethren, when you meet various trials…” (James 1:2). That’s the very first thing he says after saying: Hi there, it’s me, James. He doesn’t beat around the bush or mince words or go in for flowery introductions.

So what are we to make of this? Are you all smiles when disasters crash down on you, or even when nothing more than the day’s accumulated annoyances start weighing upon you? Let us look carefully at what he says—and what he doesn’t. He doesn’t say that we should feel happy or experience joy in trials—he says we should count it joy when they happen, that is, to reckon or asses them as something beneficial and hence productive (eventually, anyway) of joy. Why are they beneficial? He says immediately: “for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.” And the goal and full effect of steadfastness is this: “that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing”—especially in wisdom, as he goes on to say. I suppose if something led to my completion, perfection, and to lacking in nothing, I ought count it as joy!

To come full circle, the irksome things we’re supposed to count as joy, and which produce steadfastness, end up leading not only to completeness but also happiness or blessedness. That is, the unpleasant things we are to count as joy lead ultimately to genuine joy: “Behold, we call those happy [or blessed, from the Gk. makarios] those who were steadfast.” This is all part of “the purpose of the Lord,” who “is compassionate and merciful” (5:11).

Now let me get this straight: The Lord, because He is compassionate and merciful, has made it part of his purpose to allow us to be afflicted with trials—which we are to count as all joy—so that this testing of faith can produce steadfastness unto perfection and blessed happiness. Well, that just seems to be another way of explaining the doctrine of the cross that we are supposed to bear daily in our following of Jesus unto the fullness of life.

St Peter gives us a bit of a different slant on this mystery, looking rather further ahead than does St James. James focuses on the effects in this life of our bearing trials joyfully (or at least reckoning them as means to blessedness): steadfastness, maturity, happiness. But Peter looks straight toward heaven. In his first epistle (he likes somewhat richer introductions), he describes the imperishable and glorious heavenly inheritance being kept for us until the appointed time, and then he says: “In this you rejoice, though now for a little while you may have to suffer various trials…” (1:3-7).

There’s no contradiction here. Neither James nor Peter asks us to find happiness in suffering as such, but both point us to the reward of patient and even joyful endurance: James points to our personal transformation and maturing by our efforts and God’s grace, and Peter points to the ultimate goal: the “outcome of your faith…the salvation of your souls” (1:9).

Count it all joy, then, when you have to endure trials, for the test produces steadfastness unto perfection, and fire-tried faith unto salvation. Hey, it could be worse. Unbelievers have nothing but the raw absurdity of chance happenings that produce suffering to no good end. So they either rage against the impersonal universe, or they just keep a stiff upper lip (and all that) while living lives of quiet desperation, or they eat and drink and fornicate today, for tomorrow they die. But none of that is for us. We get to count our trials as joy!