Think for a moment: what, if anything, gives you joy? I realize that it’s a hard question for many in this season of pandemic. Some have struggled with the illness itself, while others who have thus far been spared the disease have nevertheless suffered its practical and economic fallout. We are all forced to live with a certain and unrelenting amount of background anxiety and the interruptions of taken-for-granted routines.
But still… are there things that bring you moments of joy, however fleeting?
My one and only granddaughter was born in the early months of the pandemic, which meant that my wife and I weren’t able to meet her in person (though praise God for the Marco Polo app!) until she was nearly a year old. Since then, we’ve been traveling back and forth, braving the airports and airplanes, to spend time with and help care for her. She is full of life and personality, a sheer delight. And she knows us now; she’s learned to call me “Papa,” and it gives me joy just to hear her call my name. I hope you have similar stories to tell.
Whatever it is that brings you joy, however, whatever came to mind, I’m betting that it’s not the difficult trials that have tested your faith and endurance.
But that’s the kind of joy with which James opens his letter.
. . .
My brothers and sisters, think of the various tests you encounter as occasions for joy. After all, you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance. Let this endurance complete its work so that you may be fully mature, complete, and lacking in nothing. (James 1:2-4, CEB)
As noted in a previous post, James addresses his letter to what could be literally translated as “the twelve tribes in the Dispersion,” a phrase that gives the letter a distinctively Jewish cast. It’s not that James doesn’t care about the mission to the Gentiles. But his primary emphasis as leader of the Jerusalem church was to bring his fellow Jews the good news of Jesus as their Messiah.
And chances are, the Jews who read his reference to the “testing of your faith” would immediately think of Abraham, who in Genesis 22 was commanded by God to sacrifice his beloved son, Isaac.
This is not the place for me to rehash the details and possible meaning of this difficult story (I wrote a series of posts on the passage several years ago; you can access the first post here). Rather, ask yourself this question: did Abraham rejoice in God’s command? Did he leap at the chance to kill his son, the son who was an answer to prayer and the fulfillment of God’s promise, the son for whom he had waited for 25 years? Did he take pleasure in binding Isaac and laying him atop the sacrificial pyre, and raise the knife in gleeful anticipation?
Of course not. If there can be said to be any moment of joy in the story, it’s when the test of Abraham’s faith is over, when God provides a ram and Abraham can free his son.
To the Jewish mind, “faith” is not just a matter of what we believe or whether we trust God. Beyond these things, it is obedience in behavior to the command of the covenant God. Abraham’s faith was demonstrated in his obedience — and the testing of that faith was not joyous. For us, joy, if and when it comes, comes after the test, when we see the outcome of our obedience.
. . .
Biblically speaking, while “joy” includes positive emotion it is not merely that. There is a transcendent dimension which embraces an element of awe, of being wowed by the vastness of God’s gracious purposes. I think here of a dear friend whose husband passed away after many months of fruitless and invasive medical interventions. The testing of their faith was less a matter of Do you believe that I will heal him? and more a matter of Do you believe that I love you no matter what happens?
The months of hospitalization were grueling. But both husband and wife treated it as an opportunity to live out their faith, caring and praying for the hospital staff who were supposedly caring for them.
Eventually, the husband was discharged to return home for hospice. I went to their home to discuss what they wanted for the memorial service. Sometime during the conversation, the wife showed me a picture that stood proudly on their mantelpiece: a group photo, signed with love and gratitude by each member of the hospital staff. It was as if to say, We’re sorry we couldn’t do anything for you. But we wanted you to know how much you did for us.
This, I think, is the kind of thing James means when he talks about joy. When we are obedient in our faith, we sometimes get the privilege of seeing the beauty that God fashions from that obedience. And even if we don’t get to see it, we’re encouraged to believe God can and will make something glorious from our faithful response to adversity.
And as we’ll see in the next post, that includes what God will do in us.