“Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”
– James 1:2-4
We started the book of James Sunday evening at my church: St Johns York Mills. It’s an Anglican congregation at the corner of York Mills and Yonge, in the middle of the northern part of the city. It’s a bit of a drive for me: but I was intrigued by their attempts to bridge classical theology (in which I’ve been trained) with more modern social values. I visited a couple of years ago, and stayed on.
It happens that James is one of my favourite books in the Bible, because of the infamous “faith without works is dead” reference of James 2:17. It’s one of those books that challenges the concept of simple “belief” by itself being enough… for anything. Much though I think that there is nothing we can do to earn any approval from God, I’m also quite glad that this book was never dropped from the canon. Faith is the beginning of a spiritual life: good works do nothing to improve our acceptance by God, but they are essential for proving (if only to yourself) that faith exists.
We started this evening at just the beginning, and a question came up about the verses quoted above. The person was having difficulty with God bring about or even using bad experiences in our lives. Yet that seems to be what the verse is implying, asking us to even “consider it all joy” when bad things happen. When I was younger I might have taken a more flippant attitude toward these verses: in my older, more Calvinist days. But tonight I had to review my thoughts about these verses and their implications.
I don’t think that God causes, uses, or in other way benefits when when bad things happen to us. His goal is to have our lives go as smoothly as possible. But then why doesn’t if happen that way? Why doesn’t he change things? Why then does he allow things like in Syria? It’s easy to say that we have chosen these events: we humans have made silly (even stupid) choices, and they can result in terrible things happening to ourselves and others. But then still: why doesn’t God do anything? That in itself is one of the chief arguments against God’s existence. It’s easy to say: “our free will”, but that doesn’t help a lot when you’re going through a divorce or dealing with a death of a friend.
I was pondering this and looking at the verses we studied today when I suddenly realized: God actually does do something to fight those evil things happening in our lives, and it is described in these verses. He does not change the choices made by individuals, and does not change their effects on the universe which result in “various trials” happening around us. But he can change how we interact with those trials: how we respond and react to them. Instead of getting angry and hateful and continuing the cycle of evil and sin, we can choose to react with endurance (some translations say “perseverance”) and stop the escalating cycle of hatred. So God does step in… through us… and stops the bad things from getting worse. This is why we should “consider it all joy” when these trials happen to us: not because they’re easy or we’re blithely going through life trying to minimize any bad things that happen to us, pretending we’re “happy” so that we’re a good testimony for God: no no, quite the reverse of that. We need to acknowledge the trials and deal with them head-on. We need to use the energy, and skills, and time and knowledge that God has given us to attack these difficulties without flinching. That is how God works in the world: not by sitting back and letting evil wash over us, but by fighting with it directly, allowing us to be his work. This is why we should consider it “all joy”: because we are active agents of the Almighty in a Fallen world, and through these trials will get stronger at our “endurance” and “perseverance”. We can actually have an effect on the evil in the world.
As an example, I would have to disagree strongly with a comment I found on a website that discussed these verses. According to this young pastor: “For example, when we first learned that our daughter Kayte was born deaf we did not count the trial itself as joy… we know that God created our daughter deaf on purpose for His purpose. Therefore, who are we to not be joyful in the exercise of His sovereignty?” (Paul Tautges, 2012) Wow. I would not agree that anyone is born deaf (or blind, or with a disability) by God’s will. It is a result of random chance and genetic mismatches: often due to our human pollution of our world through chemical pollutants and other abuses we’ve brought about. But a loving God does not make anyone less than they could be. I suppose the thought that God brings such suffering into the world, for some brings “joy” because it puts responsibility for such bad things squarely on his shoulders (and away from us)… but then that’s not the God I’ve come to know and love.
Where the author should “consider this joy” is that it allows him (and his family) to use the power of God to make life for Kayte better, and as productive as possible (which they have done: she now hears through an implant). This can then be multiplied for other deaf and partially hearing persons through related effects. The strength that they receive from God, and the effort they exert at correcting the influence of randomness or evil: these are the ways that God works in our world. These are the actions of righteousness. The “joy” does not come in believing that God has caused the suffering: it comes in using all of God’s power to fight against it: from stopping it from going any further and being a spiritual agent in a world of suffering.