Summary: When James commands us to consider it pure joy when we suffer, does that mean we are to pretend we are happy when we aren’t?
James 1:2 Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. 4 Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.
Years ago I heard Chuck Swindol preach on James 1 and he talked about what he called watermelon seed Christians. He said if you spit out a watermelon seed on the table, and press down on it with your thumb, it will go shooting out from under the pressure. And he said a lot of Christians are like that. They do fine for a while, and they can hang in there up to a point, but as soon as the pressure reaches a certain level, they are gone. They quit or run away or give up. Their strength gives out, and their resolve and willingness to continue to face this problem just kind of disintegrates. They say, “I just can’t take this anymore” and they give up. Or they get angry. Or they “reward” themselves with some sin (“I deserve this because of how I’m being treated”). Or they start questioning God’s goodness or love or power.
Which one of those are you most prone to? When the pressure starts to bear down on you, and you cave in, what does that look like? And how often does it happen? How often do you find that you don’t get the benefits of reaching your goals because you give out before reaching them? Perseverance is a precious commodity, isn’t it? If you want more of it, you are in the right place at the right time because that is exactly what James is going to teach us today.
Consider Suffering Joy
That’s the good news. The bad news is he starts by telling us to do something that sounds impossible.
2 Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds
What is that? Does that mean we are supposed to enjoy suffering - like masochists? No, we are not required to enjoy suffering. If we did, it wouldn’t be suffering.
Hebrews 12:11 No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful.
What James says is not to enjoy trials, but to consider them pure joy. So what does that mean? Why does he say consider it pure joy, rather than feel it pure joy? Is this a purely mental thing and not an emotional thing? And if so, what good is that? What good is joy I can’t feel? Is God just saying, “When you’re miserable, pretend you’re happy”? If it is strictly a matter of intellect, and not a matter of emotion, what is the purpose? If suffering is not joyful, why should I consider it joyful? Does God want us to deny reality and live in a fantasy world? Why should I consider my suffering something that it is not? What good does that do?
It is true that the word consider is a cognitive word. It refers to something you think and believe, as opposed to something you feel. You go through a process of reasoning, and then come to a particular conclusion that you regard as true – that is what this term means. But that is not to say your emotions are uninvolved. It is a thinking word, but the purpose of the thinking is to have an impact on your feeling.
Emotions are Results of Interpretations
This is a hard area for a lot of people to understand because our culture has a twisted idea of what emotions are. They have indoctrinated us with the idea that emotions are just feelings that happen to you. Some chemicals come together in a certain way, and you feel things. It is not right or wrong – they just happen to you. And so you are not responsible for what you feel. That’s the popular belief in our culture. And it derives from an evolutionary, naturalistic perspective that ignores the reality of the soul.
But the Bible gives us a very different view. According to Scripture, the soul plays a huge role in emotions. We are not just mechanistic robots controlled by random chemical reactions. Emotions are connected with chemical reactions, but in most cases those chemical reactions are the result of what the soul does, not the cause. Emotion is the result of your heart’s interpretation of things and events. If you see a dog with ears back and teeth bared running at you, your mind makes a quick assessment of the situation, you interpret what is happening as dangerous or threatening, and the result of that interpretation is an emotion: fear. You see a bouquet of flowers, it’s your birthday, so you interpret the situation this way: “My husband did something thoughtful for me on my birthday,” and the result of that interpretation is an emotion: love. You experience feelings of love or gratitude at that moment. But say before you have a chance to tell him thank you, he says, “Hey honey, can you please put those flowers in a nice vase for me? It’s Secretary’s Day, and I don’t want to make sure I give her something nice.” Now your interpretation of the situation is a little different. Now you interpret the situation to mean that your husband cares more about his secretary than he cares about you. And that interpretation generates a different emotion – maybe sadness, maybe anger, but not the same emotion you had when you were interpreting it the other way. Emotions are results of interpretations of circumstances.