Beyond the Lectionary Text: James 1:1-18
by Joel Schreurs
When was the last time you experienced pure, unrestrained joy?
For most of us, “joy” is something that goes hand in hand with the best moments in our lives. It erupts, unbidden, when everything is going our way. At the birth of a child. On our wedding day. After opening an acceptance letter to our dream school. When our team wins the Super Bowl. These are the kinds of moments we associate with joy.
But James has a different point of view. James says that for followers of Jesus, joy is not to be tucked away on a shelf like a fine wine, kept on special reserve and poured out only in those rare occasions when we believe all is as it should be. No. For the Christian, says James, joy should be paired with good times and the bad. It should be served when our worlds are exactly as we think they should be and when our worlds are falling apart. Consider it pure joy, James writes in verse 2, whenever you face trials of many kinds.
As James opens his letter and introduces the major themes of his letter in this passage, he offers us a great deal to chew on (more than most congregants will be able to swallow in a single sermon!). But I suspect that most who encounter this text will have a difficult time getting past his opening line. His words make us scratch our heads in wonder–or even shake them in disgust. Joy in trials?!, we may want to shout back. What is wrong with you? Don’t you know what I am going through? What kind of pastor are you? Where is your empathy? Why would we ever consider trials to be a reason for joy?!
One answer to our question comes in verse 4 (James offers another in verse 12). Notice that James is careful to say that the trials in and of themselves are not reason for joy. He is not playing a linguistic game where up is now down, black is now white, and the bad is now good. James is not urging his listeners to delight in the injustices they have suffered in court (chapter 2), the ways they have been mistreated at the hands of the rich (chapter 5), or for that matter, in the diagnosis they have received or the losses they have endured for their own sake. The trials themselves are not the point. Rather, it is what the trials will ultimately produce in his congregation: “maturity and completion” (verse 4). To be “mature and complete” is to grow in the likeness of Jesus (Ephesians 4:13)–the one who was himself tested in every way, and who now promises to give us mercy and grace in our time of need (Hebrews 4:14-16). To be conformed into his likeness is the greatest source of joy imaginable!
“I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy, down in my heart”, our Sunday school children sang. And then, as the chorus rolled around, they went on. I’m so happy, so very happy… “
The old song demonstrates one of the challenges of preaching on James 1: for many English speakers, “joy” and “happiness” are synonymous. Understood this way, James’ instruction seems all-the-more baffling. Is James suggesting that the mark of a true Christian is a constant smile? Does he want us dancing in the streets at all times? Is he commanding us to feel happy?
Commentator Craig Blomberg doesn’t think so. According to Blomberg, when James speaks of joy, he is speaking of something far different than happiness. He writes that unlike happiness, which is so often rooted in circumstances, joy is a “state of being….a settled contentment in every situation or ‘an unnatural reaction of deep, steady, and unadulterated thankful trust in God.’” (Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, pg.48). Furthermore, this joy seems have less to do with the realm of feelings and emotion (where happiness seems to find its home) and more to do with the realm of our thinking and perception (notice that we are to “consider” it or “reckon” it as pure joy). While preachers should beware of allowing their sermons to get too bogged down in these distinctions, it may well be worth taking some time to help listeners understand what exactly James is–and is not–talking about when he talks about joy.
Similarly, the preacher may also want to take some time to discern the nature of the “peirasmos” that James mentions in verse 2. Assuming one sides with the majority of translations and interprets peirasmos as “trials” (rather than “temptations”, as the same root is translated in verse 13), one must still discern if speaking of trials of “many kinds” is the same as speaking of trials of “any kind.”
In the summer of 2014, militants who are a part of the group ISIS pushed their way across Iraq in an attempt to establish an Islamic state in that country. Buried in the news reports of their horrific actions were accounts of thousands of Christians who been forced to choose one of the following options: convert to Islam, pay a heavy fine that they could not afford, leave their cities and homes, or be killed. While a fraction of these sisters and brothers have surrendered to the pressure to convert, tens of thousands of others have left behind their homes. An untold number of others have lost their lives. They have suffered–immensely–for their faith in Jesus.
The question is: is this the type of trial that James has in mind? In other words, is James speaking (as it seems Peter does in 1 Peter 4:16) specifically of trials that arise on account of one’s desire to follow Jesus? Or is he also thinking more broadly? In other words, in addition to thinking of Christians who suffer for their faith in Iraq, might he also be thinking of parents in our pews who suffer when their child is diagnosed with Leukemia, or husbands who suffer when their wives abandon them, or children who suffer when they are tormented by their failures at school? A quick survey of James’ letters suggests that the members of his first century congregation were enduring trials because of their faith. However, a survey of scripture as a whole makes clear that the Spirit of God can–and does–use most anything to shape and fashion us into the likeness of Jesus. Perhaps the greater question, then, is not if the Spirit can or will use our trials (of any sort) to produce “maturity and completion” in us, but how.
C.S. Lewis once quipped that most of us don’t really want a Father in heaven, but a Grandfather in Heaven, a “senile benevolence who only wants to see the young people enjoy themselves, and whose plan for the universe is that it might be truly be said at the end of each day, ‘a good time was had by all.’” What we want, says Lewis, is a God who wants nothing more than for us to be happy. But the trouble is–our Father in heaven wants more than that for us. As the old saying goes, God doesn’t just want us to be happy (as we might understand the term), he wants us to be “holy.” He wants us to be “mature and complete,” rebuilt into the image of Christ. And that is one reason He may sometimes allow us to face trials of many kinds.
A member of my congregation once told me about an experience she had years ago while going through a time of deep hurt and personal loss. One evening, she received a phone call from a wise and trusted friend. At one point her friend said, “I’m jealous of the person that God is going to make you through this. I wouldn’t want to travel the road you are traveling. But I do want to end up where you are going to end up.”
It was not a well-timed statement. In fact, my parishioner said it was all she could do not to hang up the phone on her friend. And yet, nearly a decade and a half later, those who know this woman well would say that her friend’s prediction was exactly right. Trials produced perseverance, and perseverance completed its work, and she became more “mature and complete.”
This story of transformation and faith is not wholly unique. Many people in our pews have faith stories that fall into the “What-doesn’t-kill-you-makes-you-stronger”’ category. But for those who are currently facing trials, they can serve both as a tremendous encouragement and a wonderful challenge. Encouragement–for the Spirit can use even the ugliest things in our lives to produce something beautiful. And challenge–for they push us to be (as Frederick Buechner once put it) good stewards of our pain–opening ourselves to the Spirit so that he might use the most difficult times in our lives to sow seeds of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, and all the rest.
Rev. Joel Schreurs is the pastor of First Christian Reformed Church, Denver, CO.