Joy - Where?
Some people expect our experience as Christians to be joy, joy and joy again. In hymns there is the picture of sunlight - "There is sunshine in my soul today more glorious and bright than glows in any earthly sky, for Jesus is my light" wrote E.E.Hewitt, and the hymn goes on to picture our experience as music, spring time, gladness, hope, praise and love. Or F.W. Faber in his verses which speak of the wideness of God's mercy comes to the thought that "if our love were but more simple... our lives would be all sunshine in the sweetness of our Lord."
But many believers have found that life is not like that. Some have faced the distress of a terminal illness. Some have seen their loved ones tortured or killed on account of their faith. Some have struggled against a sense of depression, as for example J B Phillips in his later life, a sense of depression which existed despite his faith and trust and presenting God's word to others. Where in such experiences is the joy?
James, brother of our Lord, when he wrote to his brethren, recognised this as the first problem to be addressed. "Whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy." What a paradox! The J B Phillips paraphrase reads "When all kinds of trials and temptations crowd into your lives, my brothers, don't resent them as intruders but welcome them as friends! Realise that they come to test your faith and produce in you the quality of endurance." Endurance, steadfastness, is produced when faith is put to the test. There is a positive process. When we give up, we halt the process, which needs to go on until our character is mature and we are people of integrity, complete Christians. If this seems something that is beyond us, we may look into the lives of others and see God at work.
James does not say that God sends temptations our way. He does say that the way to face trials is to take them as an opportunity for our faith and character to grow. Afterwards, there will be the "crown of life that the Lord has promised to those that love him."
The apostle Peter, writing with help from Silas a dozen years later, probably from Rome, has a similar viewpoint. At the beginning of his first letter he sets out our hope and destiny, by contrast with which 'various trials' are relatively insignificant. Later in his letter, some of these trials become apparent. Christians will be misunderstood and slandered as evil doers despite their good moral behaviour. If they are slaves, they could be punished unjustly. Any of them might suffer for living a good life in opposition to the lives lived by others around them. In the fiery ordeals facing them, to be a Christian would be cause for punishment as murderers and thieves are punished. They should take Christ as their model of patient endurance and look to the "God of all grace who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ" to restore, support, strengthen and establish them.
Yet Peter dismisses all this hardship as 'various trials' suffered for 'a little while', little by comparison with the experience of a 'perfect inheritance beyond the reach of change and decay, reserved in Heaven for you' which represents a source of tremendous joy. Born again into a life full of hope... (through Christ, who rose from the dead!).... guarded by the power of God - which operates through your faith - till you enter fully into the salvation ready to be revealed at the last - praise and glory and honour in the day when Jesus Christ reveals himself.... Jesus, someone who is loved, trusted, who brings a joy that is beyond words. All the time the real you is being kept safe.
The trials, meanwhile, do serve a purpose. They are like the furnace that purifies precious metals. Precious as gold might be, it is ultimately perishable. Your real self is more precious, and you have a hope which is eternal.
Between the times of James and Peter's letters, the apostle Paul was also writing letters which contained thoughts about suffering and trials. Writing to Christians in Corinth, he drew on his own experiences. Writing to Rome, he was concerned to understand suffering as part of God's great scheme of things.
In two passages in 2 Corinthians Paul does not seem to look on his trials as a means of building up strength, but rather as an occasion for seeing God's grace and help in his weakness. When speaking of his trials, he concentrates on those relevant to his task of preaching the gospel. He has been stoned, imprisoned, beaten, shipwrecked. He had to avoid bandits, beware of false Christians, experience danger in cities, deserts and on the high seas. He suffered drudgery, exhaustion, sleepless nights, hunger and thirst, cold and exposure. Alongside these physical risks, he felt anxiety for all those who had become Christians through his agency, in their weaknesses, doubts and temptations. At one point he was completely overwhelmed, the burden was greater than he could bear, he felt the end had come. But afterwards he realised that this experience had made him trust completely in God when he had come to the end of his own strength. And God can raise the dead.
Because of all this, he was better able to help others. From God he had received a sense of mercy and comfort; to others he was able to give strong sympathy in their troubles. He knew God could comfort them (and can comfort us!) just as effectively.
There was another trial Paul experienced which was more personal. His "thorn in the flesh" ‑ we do not know what it was, acute symptoms of malaria have been suggested among other things - was something he could not get rid of, for all his prayers. The stabbing pain was his personal experience of evil, but it also provoked God's reassurance. God's grace is sufficient whatever the trial. Our helplessness makes room for Christ's power to help. Paul could also see that there had been a risk of his getting above himself because of his spiritual experiences, and this trial had brought him back to earth. And strangely, because his weakness made him aware of Christ's power, he could even be glad of insults, privations, persecutions and difficulties.
When writing to the Christians in Rome, Paul in chapter 5 brings together the two thoughts of helplessness in suffering and growth in character through suffering. The context is that we are forgiven people, through trust in Christ. "Since then it is by faith that we are justified, let us grasp the fact that we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have confidently entered into this new relationship of grace, and here we take our stand, in happy certainty of the glorious things he has for us in the future. This doesn't mean, of course, that we have only a hope of future joys - we can be full of joy here and now even in our trials and troubles. These very things will give us patient endurance; this in turn will develop a mature character, and a character of this sort produces a steady hope, a hope that will never disappoint us. Already we have the love of God flooding through our hearts by the Holy Spirit given to us. And we can see that it was at the very time that we were powerless to help ourselves that Christ died for sinful men...." Paul expresses thoughts similar to James and Peter - joy in the midst of troubles, development of endurance, maturity, hope for the future. Additionally Paul mentions the love of God flooding through our hearts by the Holy Spirit given to us.
Obeying the leading of the Spirit is an indication that one belongs to God's special family, but is not a guarantee of a pain free life. Paul identifies a state of painful tension. Having the Spirit is only a foretaste. Our bodies, like the rest of creation, are subject to the tyranny of change and decay. But like the rest of creation, we expect in God's plan ultimately to be rescued. We hope. But hope implies waiting, settling down to wait.
In our trials and weakness and limitations the Spirit helps us, especially in the matter of prayer. When we can't put our feelings into words, we need not worry for the Spirit 'speaks for us', interprets our longings. God understands. Our experience is all part of God's working for our personal good. More, it is all a part of His wider plan to bring the whole of creation into joy and freedom. Paul speaks of all this at the end of Romans 8, on which we do well to meditate, but here let us simply note that none of our trials, hardship, distress, persecution, whatever... has power to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
What James, Peter and Paul wrote, was written for good reason. We all have troubles to deal with, little ones or terrible ones, and they point out that we need to look beyond the immediate trouble. If we are helpless, we look to God for His help, for His love to flood our hearts. Perhaps our prayer for relief, as Paul found, may not be granted: but we still trust. There may seem no end to the trouble: so be steadfast, and hope for God's salvation still ahead of us. Trusting, enduring and hoping, we may even learn to find joy.
References: James 1.2-8, 12-13, 18. 1 Peter 1.3-9, 2.11-25 2 Corinthians 1.3-11, 11.23-12.10 Romans 5.1-6, 8.14-39. Use has been made of
J.B.Phillips version and NRSV.