Count It All Joy: Support for Suffering Saints part 1

JOY IN THE MIDST OF SORROW


Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds. (James 1:2) 

Imagine suffering the sudden loss of your children and your wealth. That is the story of Horatio Spafford. He was a prosperous lawyer and devout Presbyterian Church elder who lived in Chicago with his wife Anna and their four daughters. In the spring of 1871, Horatio invested in real estate. A few months later, the Great Fire of Chicago reduced the city to ashes, destroying his investments. Then in 1873, he planned a holiday with his family to Europe. At the last minute, he was detained by business and sent Anna and the girls on ahead of him. While they were sailing, their ship was rammed by another boat and sank. Anna was rescued but the four girls drowned.

We all have our trial stories. Some heavier, some lighter, but trials none the less. Even as I write, I am going through one of the hardest trials of my life to date. James’ words have been particularly helpful. My prayer is that you will be helped by them too.

Consider James’ words again. He indicates two things concerning trials. Can you see them?

  • First, trials are inevitable. They are a matter of when, not if. Expect them.
  • Second, trials are varied. There is no one size fits all variety of trial. They come in different forms and degrees.

I am married. That means unless the Lord comes first, either my wife or myself are heading for the trial of bereavement. It sounds depressing, but it is a given. That trial is coming.

James is writing to a people in the midst of trial. The persecution that followed Stephen’s stoning in Acts 7 scattered the Jerusalem Church. Most of these Christians, having been displaced from their homes, were poor and vulnerable to oppression. Some were in danger of starvation, having been defrauded of their wages (see 5:1-6). The experience of trial was very real, and for some very severe. James writes to help his scattered sheep.

Read James’ words again. How does James say we should respond to trials?

Count it all joy. Be careful how you respond to this command. It would be easy to think that James is being a little simplistic or insensitive, perhaps even cruel. After all, trials are hard. They hurt, sometimes terribly so. We shudder at the thought of telling a grieving widow to cheer up. Is that what James is doing?

I think it would be wrong, in light of other Biblical passages[1], to hear James as merely seeking to replace the pain with joy (in a ‘don’t worry, be happy’ kind of way). There is no negation of grief in his words. Rather, James means to add joy to the hurt. In the complexity of human emotions, it is possible to experience grief and joy at the same time. Despite the hardship of trials, we can be joyful in their midst, even as we will see, because of them.

We have a tendency to allow our minds and emotions to be passively governed by our circumstances. Bad things happen and our thinking is pulled down by them; we are drawn down into the pit of depression and despair. James calls us to get active with our minds. He says, ‘Count it all joy.’ Don’t allow your mind to be passively drawn down by trials. Actively engage your mind, so that you will rise up in joy in the midst of the pain and hardship.

Thankfully James doesn’t just leave us with the command. He gives us help. The rest of this series will unpack James’ teaching about how we can be joyful in the midst of our trials. But for now let us go back to Horatio Spafford, because in him we see a man who lived James’ words.

When Horatio received word from Anna about the tragedy at sea, he sailed to meet her. As he passed over the very spot where his daughters died, he wrote the hymn, “It is well with my soul.”

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.

________
[1] See Philippians 2:27, 1 Peter 1:6 for the legitimacy of sorrow and grief.


Support for Suffering Saints
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6

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