When reading or hearing this verse, I've been known to cringe a bit. Not as much today as I have in the past, but still…does it get to you as much as it does to me?
It's right there in the beginning of the book of James. He begins his address to God’s people dispersed across the lands. They have sinned and suffered much. Their faith is weak, yet James starts off by telling them,
“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds,” ~ James 1:2
Not, “I can’t believe what you have endured.”
Not even, “You wretched sinners. You brought this suffering upon yourself. Now fix it.”
And not, “Take heart.” “You are loved.” “You are worthy.”
I’m not always fond of James. My flesh rises up and y’all, it’s not good. When life’s particularly challenging and this verse comes to mind, I’d kind of like to strike out with a fist.
Haven't you ever wanted to punch something when life-altering truth hits you hard in the face?
It’s right then when the Holy Spirit holds me back like a good coach and says, “Woah. See there? What’s that inside of you? These words are full of holy purpose. What’s causing you to react so strongly?”
Um…I don’t actually want these trials. So, could you snap your fingers and get rid of them for me?
Just when I don’t want to hear anymore, it's as if the Holy Spirit coach says, “Stick with me. I’ll help you.”
I take a deep breath.
I choose surrender over staunchness.
“OK, show me, Lord. Tell me what I need to know. I’m listening.”
I'm reminded of another verse which sounds eerily familiar to the words of James.
"Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. ~ Thessalonians 5:16-18
This time Paul is speaking. Y'all, I'm not as prone to want to unleash anger at Paul. He was a man of intense passion and incredible endurance. Something about his tenacity and fervor makes me want to just sit and listen.
Then I wonder. Why would Paul say to give thanks in all circumstances? Could he really mean all circumstances? Like...ALL?
What did Paul, or those around him, know of trials?
A lot. We read about them in many of the epistle letters of the New Testament. In this book alone we hear about living through various persecutions, isolation, and unnamed afflictions.
In the study of history, we knew these trials were of great severity. The likes of which many of us will never know.
But though we had already suffered and been shamefully treated at Philippi, as you know, we had boldness in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in the midst of much conflict. ~ 1 Thessalonians 2:2
Therefore when we could bear it no longer, we were willing to be left behind at Athens alone, and we sent Timothy, our brother and God's coworker in the gospel of Christ, to establish and exhort you in your faith, that no one be moved by these afflictions. For you yourselves know that we are destined for this. For when we were with you, we kept telling you beforehand that we were to suffer affliction, just as it has come to pass, and just as you know. ~ 1 Thessalonians 3:1-4
And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, ~ 1 Thessalonians 1:6
God's followers in Thessalonica endured all kinds of affliction while receiving God's word with joy. How could they do this? Could we do the same?
Continually, Paul chose to give thanks. He gave thanks for the work of the gospel message. He thanked the church for their faith. He encouraged and exhorted them to encourage and exhort one another. Words like his sound like a profundity of gratitude even when not stating it specifically.
He gave thanks in the midst. Not when things got better.
Both Paul and James speak of faith which grows through perseverance. These men beheld grace with a grateful heart in the midst of trials. It kind of boggles my mind and makes me wonder what I'm missing when I'm not experiencing a similar attitude.
What else does James say, though? What's the whole sentence?
“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.” ~ James 1: 2-3
He goes on,
“And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” ~ James 1:4
Steadfastness. Perfect and complete. Lacking in nothing.
This message of considering trials with joy, pricks the heart for many of us. We want to know joy, but we don’t want the trials. We want to get around the pain and into the promised land. We want it all, without any trouble. We want the blessings without the burdens. We want God the way we want Him.
Yet, every time we try to make it happen, we miss the wonder of it all.
How do we have steadfastness? Through enduring trials when faith is tested. How do we find a life well-lived, perfect and complete, and lacking in nothing? In Christ, through Christ, and by Christ, in every way. Not the easy way, but the ways which seems odd, contrary, and full of mystery.
It won't always look like we think it should. In fact, it often won't. Yet, we press on.
Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.~ James 1:12
I struggle to fully understand a heart which finds this power of grace so devastating to one's condition that thanks and joy are the result.
Yet, as I wonder, the wrestling of my own soul finds this settling of sorts. The Spirit continues to nurture in such a way that thankfulness finds a way to invade. As I turn towards the truth and embrace the fullness of God's ways over my own, I find it ever more likely to give thanks.
When all hell is breaking loose around us, a heart centered on the presence of our good God can't help but find a way to express thanks. Because even if nothing good is found around us, a good God can always be found with us.
Like Paul's attributions, our giving thanks never denies the pain and suffering we endure. It doesn't pretend it isn't there. Instead, our choice to be thankful is a mystery of faith which precludes even greater faith.
I feel much calmer now. How about you?
These hard to grasp truths may make us want to hit something when first they challenge our hearts, but I'm pretty sure those feelings will continually dissipate in the face of continued gratitude.
A heart which which seeks the mystery of giving thanks in the midst of trials is a heart which finds the goodness of God.
May this mystery be one which many of us explore, even when life is particularly full of trials.
PRAYER: Father God, we cannot fully understand the way in which you work. Even so, we chose to trust you today. Help us see what we cannot see. We ask the Holy Spirit coach to give us guidance today and show us what we need to know about you. Lead us into the mystery of thanks and let us know the gift of gratitude more intimately today.
Thank you for who you are. Thank you for loving us so much more than we could ever know. Thank you for never giving up on us. Amen.