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“How to Count Joy”

James 1:2-8
Bob DeGray
January 14, 2001

Key Sentence

There is joy in testing if we take the opportunity to grow.


I. Joy that He Gives Maturity (James 1:2-4)
II. Joy that He Gives Wisdom (James 1:5-8)


        Over the last twenty years Gail and I have studied several courses on parenting: Growing Kids God’s Way, Shepherding a Child’s Heart, Parenting with Love and Logic. Somewhere in the process Gail picked up a useful way for parents to think about their task. When something goes wrong in a child’s life, some disobedience, failure, or disappointment, we choose, if possible, not to view it as a crises or personal affront, but as a teaching opportunity, a chance for the child to learn life lessons. If discipline is the training that enables a child to grow into self-control, then a loss of self control is not a disaster, but a moment when further training can take place.

        This is the same way God disciplines us. He sees the difficulties in our lives, and even sends difficulties to our lives as opportunities for us to grow and become mature. Therefore the trials, tests, stresses, and difficulties we encounter day-to-day, and at times with great intensity, are not to be viewed as catastrophes and rarely as punishments, but rather as opportunities to grow. This growth is one of the reasons Jesus and the Biblical authors consistently tell us that there is joy in trial and testing.

I. Joy that He Gives Maturity (James 1:2-4)

        The very first subject addressed by James as he writes to the scattered Christians under his care is trial or testing. He teaches them in verses 2 through 8 that there is joy in testing if we take the opportunity to grow. You and I need to believe this: that there is joy in testing, a joy that comes through growth and the wisdom God gives. There is joy in the outcome of our trials. Let’s begin with James 1:2-4:Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, 3because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. 4Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.

        James opens the body of his letter with two very characteristic features. First, he calls his readers ‘brothers.’ He says this or ‘beloved brothers’ 14 times. These people whom he exhorts so strongly he regards with great pastoral love. The second characteristic feature of James’ opening is that he gives a command: there are dozens in the letter. The first one is tough: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds.” R. Kent Hughes asks “Has James lost his senses? He writes to his beloved brothers and sisters and says, “Enjoy tribulation.” How nice... a letter of encouragement from Pastor Wacko! Then and now James’ command sounds irrational.” Hughes is right. This command doesn’t make sense in terms of cause and effect. Hard things don’t naturally bring happiness. And in fact James is not asking us to be happy about the trials, but rather joyful when we face the trials. In the midst of difficult situations we find underlying joy that comes from knowing what the outcome of trials will be.

        What are these trials? The word has two basic meanings in the New Testament. It can refer to the inner enticement to sin, that is temptation that arises from our fallen nature. It can also denote external affliction, particularly persecution. In this verse, since James says that we fall into these trials, and since he says that they are diverse, he is probably talking of external afflictions, both the difficulties common to all people and the specific adversity faced by Christians. Illness, financial reverses, and social and economic persecution would all be included, and all are discussed in James.

        But how can we have joy in trials? Only if we understand the outcome of our trials. James says “the testing of your faith produces endurance”, or “develops perseverance.” Commentators have said that this word implies ‘staying power’, ‘fortitude’, and ‘toughness’. I like that: ‘The testing of your faith produces toughness.’ As the result of physical discipline is physical toughness, the result of spiritual discipline is spiritual toughness. Allow me an example from mechanical engineering. Most steel exhibits a phenomenon called work hardening. If you stress the steel enough to bend or stretch it, you not only change its shape, you also change its strength. You have all experienced this when you have bent a coat hanger. Once you have put a curve into the coat hanger, you find you cannot bend it straight again very easily. The coat hanger has been strengthened at that point by the stress you imposed. God uses the same technique. He strengthens us by imposing stress on us to the point where we stretch or bend, but he never applies stress to break us. Instead we are work hardened, strengthened as believers. The testing of your faith produces toughness.

        To the spiritual toughness, spiritual endurance that comes from testing James adds a follow-on consequence: maturity, completeness, perfection. Verse 4: “Perseverance must finish its work so you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” It’s a two step process. First testing develops toughness, then toughness leads to maturity or completeness. Hughes: “It is commonly taught that trials bring maturity, but it is not so: Fortitude and perseverance in times of testing produce maturity. As we endure ‘trials of many kinds’ – financial stress, criticism, relational pressure, persecution for our faith, illness – the multiple facets of our being are touched with grace” and so we mature. Spiritual toughness is the key to godliness.

        The word translated complete, perfect, or mature obviously has a wide range of meaning. We need to think of it as a melding of several English concepts. Complete means that nothing is missing - as James says “not lacking anything.” All of the parts, all of our virtues have been developed by this testing and our perseverance so that we do not lack any essential grace or virtue for the Christian life. We become, in one sense, perfect. That is we become perfectly fit for the life God has called us to live. Not with the perfection God has, nor with the perfection we will have in eternity, but with the same perfection we see when it is said of Jesus “In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering.” Hebrews 2:10

        Finally, this word can be translated mature, and though that may not be the best translation anywhere in James, it does give us a key insight into the goal of the process. When we are mature we can handle things competently that would have thrown us before. We can cope with the stresses, keep the godly focus, adjust to the changes, endure the difficulties. We have a perspective that carries us through the passing darkness. So we become what God intends us to be. Hebrews 12 teaches that God is treating us a perfect father treats his son “Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.”

        Oswald Chambers, in ‘Spiritual Leadership’ included a moving and much quoted poem:
        When God wants to grill a man and thrill a man and skill a man,
        When God wants to mold a man to play the noblest part;
        When he yearns with all His heart to create so great and bold a man
        That all the world shall be amazed, watch his methods, watch his ways!
        How he ruthlessly perfects whom he royally elects!
        How he hammers him and hurts him and with mighty blows converts him
        Into trial shapes of clay which only God understands;
        While his tortured heart is crying and he lifts beseeching hands!
        How He bends but never breaks when His good he undertakes;
        How He uses whom he chooses and with every purpose fuses him;
        By every act induces him to try His splendor out – God knows what He’s about!

II. Joy that He Gives Wisdom (James 1:5-8)

         We experience a deep seated joy in testing because by our endurance God is completing his work in our lives. But we also experience joy because in testing God freely gives us wisdom. Verse 5 to 8: 5If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. 6But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. 7That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; 8he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does.

        James uses a play on words to make this transition. Notice that in verse 4 he says that the man who is complete will be lacking in nothing. But then verse 5 says that if any of you lacks wisdom he should ask God. Obviously the word lack is the verbal connection between the two thoughts: testing or trial leads to endurance, endurance leads to completeness as a believer, but if you are not yet complete as a believer, if you are still lacking wisdom, then the trial should motivate you to ask it of God. Isn’t it true in your experience that trials and testing, the difficulties of life, show your need of wisdom? As we go through testing we’re not just passive observers of our own situation but we’re active participants and the decisions we make determine to a large extent the course of the trial or testing. That’s not to say that we can avoid trial or testing, for as we have seen God uses these to produce spiritual maturity. But it is to say that part of the spiritual maturity he desires to produce is that we would make godly choices in trial - that we would act wisely. And the presence of this wisdom is part of the completeness he promises to those who endure

        What is wisdom? Emphatically it is not knowledge. Hughes says “Wisdom is far more than the accumulation of information and intellectual perception. The fact is, man, through his vast accumulation of knowledge, has learned to travel faster than sound, but displays his lack of wisdom by going faster and faster in the wrong directions!”

        What then it is wisdom? Wisdom is skill for right living. It is the ability to look at the world and our circumstances from God’s perspective, and make choices that are in keeping with his character, his righteousness, and his teaching. One commentator says that “wisdom is above all else practically oriented virtue that gives direction for the life of the godly person.” Certainly James, who is eminently practical, sees wisdom as applied godliness in the day-to-day, nitty-gritty decisions of life.

        How do we acquire this wisdom? In the simplest possible way: we ask God for it, and we trust God to give it when we ask. James adds a little theology to his argument in describing God as one who gives generously to all without finding fault. God is a God who cares, and God is a God who gives. James will say later that every good and perfect gift comes from God. He does not withhold wisdom from those who ask for it, especially in times of trial. Instead he gives wisdom that helps us to make good decisions and allows us to see that endurance under trial is right. Often we’re tempted to short circuit trials by taking some way of escape. Sometimes that’s right. Often its wrong and leads into even worse situations. Wisdom allows us to discern this, to make right choices under the pressures of time, stress, conflict or turmoil.

        And isn’t this the wisdom we so often need? If our trial has to do with financial issues we clearly need wisdom to know how to deal with the debts or the bills or the budget. If our testing is in relationships, we need wisdom to know when to challenge those we live with to more godly attitudes, and when to overlook offenses that may hurt us but are not clearly sinful. If our trial comes from illness or loss, it is the wisdom from above that teaches us to fix our eyes on God and strengthens us against the waves of doubt and despair which might assault us. In the area of persecution, we need wisdom to know when to lay down our rights, and when to stand up for them. It is the wisdom of the Holy Spirit living in us which teaches us what right.

        So the gift of wisdom from God and the ability to endure suffering are closely related. Wisdom helps us to have the endurance we need to become mature or complete. But receiving the wisdom itself requires a certain level of faith, that is perseverance in believing God. James says in verse 6 that when we ask we must believe and not doubt. In this he echoes, as so often, the teaching of Jesus, who said “whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive if you have faith and never doubt”. Matthew 21:21. Here faith means more than a belief that God will give what we ask: it includes confidence and trust in God himself. In the same way doubting, in these verses, suggests not so much intellectual doubt as a basic conflict in loyalties. If at one moment we’re trusting God, and at another moment we’re trusting in our financial resources, or in the world’s system, then we are doubting: we are in two minds. This wavering of faith James describes as being like the waves of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. James’ experience was almost certainly on the sea of Galilee, a lake small enough that regular, repetitive ocean waves don’t build up, but reflected waves, and wind driven waves will come at the mariner from every direction. In the same way if we’re not trusting God in trial and persecution, then doubts assail us from every direction, and we will be tossed about like a little boat on great water.

        This doubting in fact is nearly the opposite of the perseverance, endurance, patience to which we were called in verse 2. Do you see how this works? Perseverance leads to maturity. In maturity nothing is lacking, not even wisdom, and wisdom teaches us to believe, to trust without doubting, which is the essence of perseverance. It’s not that this is a circular process, a catch 22. Instead it is a spiraling process by which the endurance of small tests, small trials, teaches us the wisdom needed to endure larger tests and larger trials until we become that complete person God desires us to be - having persevered in trusting Him even for the wisdom.

        In this whole cycle, God, who gives generously, has the major role - that of supplying wisdom and causing us to grow to completeness. But we have two responsibilities. They are, first, to endure or persevere through testing, and second, to ask for wisdom. It is in taking up these two responsibilities, I believe, that we find the joy. What does it matter how difficult my circumstances, if I am seeing it through? What does it matter how difficult the test, if I am doing it right?

        As I persevere, and as I receive wisdom from God, my perspective on trials and testing changes. Rather than viewing them as a catastrophe, I begin to view them as a learning opportunity. I begin to experience joy in overcoming, in persevering, in reasoning through my situation and making Godly choices. This is an experience that R. Kent Hughes calls a dynamic maturity. He says “perfection is not just the maturing of character, but rounding it out as more and more ‘parts’ of the righteous character are added. Thus, maturity is a dynamic state in which a thousand parts of us are honed, shaped, tempered and brought together into a dynamic wholeness.”

        This dynamic maturity is continually changing, continually evaluating, continually adjusting to circumstances so that it gives the appearance of stability. Haven’t you noticed that about mature Christians? They are stable even though they are coping with many things. It is much the same as a pilot flying an airplane, or even the way you drive a car. There are countless small corrections, inspired by the wisdom that God gives through trial, and which work together to provide a smooth ride.

        In the physical realm, the realm of physical discipline, endurance and wisdom can be compared to the strength an athlete uses to accomplish his task, and the thought he puts into his task. No athletic endeavor is purely brute force. It requires self control, skill and mental toughness to succeed. In the same way no trial or test is endured by brute force, but wisdom from God allows those who suffer to do right in difficult circumstances. We must look to God for endurance, the toughness to go on despite difficulties, and for wisdom, the knowledge to choose the right path in suffering.

        Basic Underwater Demolition / SEAL training is reportedly the toughest training of the toughest unit in the entire United States armed forces. I found the following account on the internet, and it seemed to me to capture the combination of toughness and wisdom we are called to have when we suffer various trials. And in a subtle way it captures the joy we will experience in trial if we take the opportunity to grow.

        Hell Week is the highlight of phase one, the physical conditioning phase of BUDS training. During the five_day whirlwind of non_stop action, you are pushed beyond what you thought your limits were. They test your mental skills and physical conditioning, and they observe the student to see how much he can take. From the mud flats of south San Diego Bay to the demolition pits at Camp Elliott to the punishing obstacle course within sight of the posh Hotel del Coronado, the would_be SEALs learn the value of cool_headedness, perseverance, and, above all, teamwork. Class 147 was only the third BUDS class to earn the no bell prize! So named because any student can ring a brass bell three times if he wants to quit. The class has to be really tight, with good leaders and good students, to win the 'no bell’. In this class we had strong officers who the men looked up to a lot. That helped us pull through Hell week without anybody quitting.

        Officers and enlisted men go through the same training: except the officers get more respect. By this I mean , 'Yes, sir. No, sir. Sir, get wet. Sir, get down in the mud. When there is a question of leadership, the instructors actually come down harder on the officer students. If you're in an emergency situation in a SEAL team, you want a guy who can react on a moment's notice with the right decision.

        To an outsider, BUDS training in general and Hell Week in particular look like cruel punishment, but the students' mental and physical stress level is carefully calculated. Crawling under the barbed wire in the demo pit with simulated charges going off and smoke everywhere, I thought how I could actually be doing this in some combat situation, You can't get up, you can't scream. You have to think of what you need to do to get out of that situation. Thinking under pressure is a must. In phase two training you don't necessarily have to tolerate a terrible amount of pain, but you have to be able to think through a problem, whether you're under stress or not.

         Another student at BUDS gives a specific example of his experience. “The steel pier! This was the night my life changed forever, a defining moment when a decision was made, a path was chosen and character was forged. There we were, lying on the huge steel docks at the anfib base. The instructors casually hosed us down with cold water and rotated us every once in a while. I think they had a cooking theme going. Then every half hour of so we were made to jump into the bay and tread water.

        I wasn’t doing very well. I had strained my back during rock portage, and the shivering cold only made it worse. The bell was ringing constantly, and they wrapped the quitters in warm wool blankets and gave them steaming hot coffee. I was starting to crack. I laid there shivering, as cold water from garden hoses blanketed my body. 'Take cover' an instructor ordered; off to tread water again. Then it happened. My back cramped, pain shot through my body and I fell back to the chilling steel floor. "What’s your problem boy" blasted from somewhere behind me. Then a swift, solid kick to my side turned me over. An instructor peered down at me and hissed "either get in the water or quit." "My back" I weakly whispered. "What’s that?” he said.

        I gathered all my strength and stood. Perhaps I could reason with this man. He could apparently see the pain in my gestures because his stern face softened just long enough to tell me to see the Doc. Doc was standing with another BUD/s instructor with that ominous, brass bell right behind them. "You quitting" he asked? "No sir, my back." I could hear my class mates yelling for my return in the back ground. “What's wrong?” I explained. He said I could quit or get back in the water. I could barely stand upright. How could I continue through Hell Week like this, I thought. I stood staring at them for what seemed like eternity. The silence was broken by the instructor. "Get back in the water Dave, You’re not a quitter and we like you."

        I never thanked him for that. I don't even remember his name now... but that's when my life changed. Something deep down inside me flourished to the surface, and I started to laugh almost hysterically. “Hooo yaa Instructor” I yelled as loud as I could, mustered my strength, stood tall and sprinted back to the pier. There I did a swan dive into the bay to rejoin my class mates! That was the turning point for me.”

        After five and a half days, Hell week ends: “Side_by_side, our arms linked, the snake_like row of men in green fatigues stood waist_deep in the murky water under the clear, midday sky. There was no emotion on the 24 faces: their chafed and battered bodies hurt too badly for that. After four hours' sleep in five days, all the concentration they could muster was riveted on the man standing on the sea wall above them. Despite the fatigue, despite the pain, they stood poised to perform at his command. The only sound was the lapping of wavelets against the wall. Finally the man spoke: “BUDS Class 147, secure from Hell Week!” We were stunned. We had done it.

         Slowly the grim_faced trainees let emotion well up from their water_logged feet to their hollow eyes. Some cheered, some laughed, some cried. Those who couldn't climb out of the water were lifted out by classmates. We had done it. We had proven to ourselves we could do ten times, a hundred times more than we thought possible. I don’t ever want to go through Hell week again. But if I have to - no problem.”

        Some of you have been through hell week - not the physical training of a Navy SEAL, but the spiritual training that a loving father puts you through so that having done all, you can stand. And not just stand, but rejoice when you encounter various trials, for you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance, and that God gives wisdom to make right choices under pressure to those who ask for it.

        Some of you have been through hell week. Some of you haven’t. But if God calls you to do it, or to do it again, you will. You’ll find the strength, the wisdom, and even the joy.