Thursday, September 8, 2016

Count It All Joy? Why? (Part 2)

And let steadfastness have its full effect
that you may be perfect and
complete, lacking in nothing.
James 1:4

In my last post I talked about why we can “count it all joy” in the midst of trials and difficulties. Since then, I did some reading in a commentary and thought it would be important to note something I came across. In his commentary on James, Douglas J. Moo points out that the
Greek translation of the word  all  in the phrase “all joy” ...“probably suggests intensity (complete and unalloyed joy) rather than exclusivity (nothing but joy).” He goes on to say that “James does not, then, suggest that Christians facing trials will have no response other than joy, as  if we were commanded never to be saddened by difficulties. His point, rather, is that trials should be an occasion for genuine rejoicing” (The Letter of James, The PiIllar New Testament Commentary, p.53). To me, that distinction is comforting. We can and should seek to find joy in the midst of our difficulties, but we will still experience a complex mixture of emotions, and that’s okay! One of my all time favorite passages of Scripture says,

As a father shows compassion to his children,
so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him.
For he knows our frame;
he remembers that we are dust. Psalm 103: 13-14

I love that image of God as a tender and compassionate Father. He knows our frame--He made us! He knows that our responses to difficulties will include sorrow, disappointment, and even anger at times. He loves us and is with us through it all. But we can experience a joy that rises above our circumstances (even while we still have sadness), as the previous verses state. The knowledge that our trials can shape our character for the better is a real reason for joy. Which brings me to the main subject of this post. Our trials can produce steadfastness, but we have to “let steadfastness have its full effect.” Let is the key word. To quote Moo again, “...the benefits of testing come only to believers who respond to them in the right way: Christians must allow endurance to do its intended work” (p.55). But how do we do that? I won’t claim to be an expert on this, as I am still very much in the process of learning it myself. But what I find helpful sometimes in figuring out what something might look like in action is to think about what it’s not. So, some ways to not let steadfastness have its full effect would be:

-To become bitter.
-To allow jealousy to take root in your heart. This is easy to fall into when we look around and see others who seem to have it easier than we do at the moment, or who have the very thing/s the lack of which in our lives is the source of our trial.
-To complain. We aren’t learning true endurance if all we do is whine. There’s a difference between sharing our sorrows with others and just complaining--I think we can usually tell when we’re slipping into the latter.
-To only ever focus upon the ins and outs of our trial and never seek to find the potential it has for shaping our character. It’s really easy to analyze difficulties from every angle, nursing our wounds and giving in to self-pity. It takes effort to apply that same energy to analyzing how we can grow and learn and love even in the midst of our struggle.
-To simply give up. This probably looks different for everyone, but could be a combination of giving into any of the above and just beginning to coast through life--never trying to improve, never learning to endure.

We learn to endure by enduring. But the kind of enduring James is talking about isn’t just that we keep going. We all will keep going (until we don’t anymore--profound, right?). True endurance, or steadfastness, is all about how we keep going, the way in which we suffer. What our attitude is like, and what it says about what we believe.

Letting steadfastness have its full effect in us is part of what leads to being “perfect and complete, lacking nothing.” This doesn’t mean that we will attain perfect character this side of heaven, but I think it does indicate that steadfastness helps to develop maturity and keeps us on the path towards wholeness and transformation, until the day when “we will be like him, for we will see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).

In my last post I shared about one of my greatest fears. I want to close with a little epiphany I had a few months ago. I had been struggling with the fear that when I inevitably face trials in the future I would not suffer well (and that I wouldn't suffer well in my responses to past and current difficulties). Essentially, I was afraid of doing and becoming my list of “ways to not let steadfastness have its full effect.” And, ultimately, I was afraid that I would let those things cause me to drift away from Christ. Then, one morning as I was praying The Divine Hours through a web site a friend had shared with me, one of the prayers stood out in bold relief.

Lord God, almighty and everlasting Father, you have brought me in safety to this new day: Preserve me with your mighty power, that I may not fall into sin, nor be overcome by adversity; and in all I do direct me to the fulfilling of your purpose; through Jesus Christ my Lord. Amen.

All of a sudden a weight seemed to lift from my shoulders and I realized-- I can pray for this! I can ask God to preserve me! I can pray that I would not be overcome by adversity! I can ask the Lord that no matter what I face, I would hold fast and not be overcome. It seems almost silly to say that this was a revelation. Of course, I knew intellectually that I could pray for this. I was accustomed to praying, “Lead us not into temptation,” a request that this prayer echoes. But something about that morning and those specific words did something for my soul that I desperately needed. What freedom can be found in knowing that there is nothing that we need or fear that we can’t ask God to help us with. And of course, if we ask for steadfastness--something so obviously his will for us--he will give it!

So, there’s one more way to let steadfastness have its perfect work--pray! Pray in the midst of your trials. Pray when you’re sad, disappointed, lonely, scared, angry, jealous, tempted to complain and grow bitter. Pray for help to endure, and the Lord will surely hear.