As we enter a festive season full of “comfort and joy”, Erik Strandness looks at what biblical joy looks like and how we are to practise it in the midst of the darkness
“James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion: Greetings. Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” (James 1: 1-4)
James begins his letter with a brief greeting and then drops a bombshell: “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds.” No warmup, no preamble, no love of God talk, just the bold declaration that they should be joyful in hardship. How is that possible?
To the modern and postmodern mind, joy is the same thing as happiness and is incompatible with struggle.
“Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof…Because I’m happy
Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth…Because I’m happy
Clap along if you know what happiness is to you… Because I’m happy
Clap along if you feel like that’s what you wanna do… Because I’m happy” (Pharrell Williams)
I would argue that we need to redefine joy as fullness of life, which includes both happiness and sadness. Happiness alone is hedonism, sadness alone is nihilism, but seizing the good and bad in life is joy. James recognised that a life without hardship was incomplete and that if one didn’t embrace trials of various kinds then one could not fully experience joy. How can he say that? Was he just trying to justify his unpopular Christian view of the world or was he onto something?
We all know that life includes happiness and despair, success and failure, and health and disease, therefore, any worldview that doesn’t embrace these extremes is a sham. Buddhism recognises suffering as the problem but then attributes it to our desire for the things of this world. ‘Nirvana’ then becomes detachment from both happiness and sadness. Hinduism recognises trials as punishment for past bad behaviour and an easy life as reward for good behaviour. Karmic suffering doesn’t get us closer to spiritual release, but rather perpetually reminds that we must go to the back of the line. New age religion recognises trials but tells us that they are avoidable if we just think positive thoughts. Despair becomes a failure to tap into the energy of positive thinking.
None of these options, however, allows one to embrace suffering and redeem it. Christians make suffering the transformational event of their faith. The passion of Jesus takes us from the despair on the cross, to the happiness at the empty tomb, to the joy of an eternal life.
Joy is only possible if we find God in the trials and the triumphs. Interestingly, it is at these two extremes that we most often dismiss God. We forget him when we are happy and get angry with him when we are sad. The Bible, however, makes the bold claim that he is with us in the highs and the lows, when we consider the lilies but also when we survey the wondrous cross.
Jesus explains this view of joy by using an example near and dear to my heart:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice. You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy. When a woman is giving birth, she has sorrow because her hour has come, but when she has delivered the baby, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world. So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you. In that day you will ask nothing of me. Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you. Until now you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.” (John 16: 20-24)
I have been to hundreds of deliveries and yet continue to be amazed how the pain of labour turns into the happiness of new life and fills the room with a palpable joy.
Scripture declares that God is love and that there is no greater love than laying down one’s life for another, but dying for another human is only possible in a world where we face trials. If we fail to acknowledge the suffering associated with the trials of life, then we will miss the greatest manifestation of love the world has ever known.
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lays down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.” (John 15: 12-15)
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Our ultimate hope is the promise of an eternal life without struggle. A sentiment conveyed in the Hebrew word, shalom. We most often think of shalom as the absence of violence and hatred, but the proper Hebrew understanding of this word refers to a more profound state where all is right in God’s world. It is the hope for a restored Edenic garden where everything operates the way God originally intended.
Unfortunately, Adam and Eve rejected this gift and opted for a wilderness adventure where all parades get rained on, where flies are always found in the ointment, and where we are forced to row upstream without a paddle. A world where we blaze our own paths only to find a trial at the end of every trail.
While our ultimate destination is the New Jerusalem, we need to recognise that before we arrive, we must walk through the valley of the shadow of death, but the good news is that we don’t have to fear any evil because he is with us. Shalom is the hope of once again strolling with God in the cool of the morning and joy is the consolation of knowing that he walks with us in the wilderness. In the end, life is a joyride consisting of both tickle belly hills and terrifying turns, but the good news is that we never ride alone.
“If I were called upon to state in a few words the essence of what I was trying to say both as a novelist and as a preacher, it would be something like this: Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.” (Frederick Buechner)
Erik Strandness is a physician and Christian apologist who has practiced neonatal medicine for more than 20 years.