Joy in the Bible
There is a familiar verse in James 1:2 that humanly doesn’t seem to make much sense. In this very practical New Testament letter, James begins his important teaching about facing trials by writing this, “My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials” (NKJV). It’s probably true that most readers may hear that verse and respond by asking a salient follow-up question, “How can that possibly be true?” James’ teaching doesn’t quite make sense. How is it possible to have joy when we experience life’s “various trials”?
The process of learning to respond with joy during times of trials in life must begin with a conscious awareness that God is at work in our lives and that He has a tangible purpose for why we may be experiencing these trials. In other words, if we have put our faith and trust in Jesus Christ as our own personal savior (see Romans 10:9), and if we believe that His Word teaches us that God is at work in our lives (see Philippians 2:13), then we will come to the logical conclusion that trials, suffering, and difficult times in our lives are ultimately designed by God, and that He has a specific purpose for us in mind.
The Bible makes this point in this same passage. Let’s look again at James 1:2, but let’s add verse 3, “My brethren, count it all joy, when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience” (NKJV). The text is clear. We can respond to life’s trials with genuine joy if we know that the Lord has a purpose for why He would allow those difficult times of suffering and trials. In this passage, the purpose for trials was to produce patience or endurance (the ability to hold up under a trial) in our lives.
Knowing that our loving Heavenly Father is doing something specific in our lives and that He is doing what is best for us helps us respond with genuine joy. Life’s trials are certainly not fun, but we can react to those painful situations with joy if we understand that God is demonstrating His love for us through those circumstances.
What Is the Definition of Real Joy?
Let’s go back to the beginning and identify a working definition for joy. Simply put, Biblical joy is choosing to respond to external circumstances with inner contentment and satisfaction, because we know that God will use these experiences to accomplish His work in and through our lives.
James is telling his readers that they can choose to respond with joy, even during times of trials and sufferings. Joy is a choice! But it does come from the Lord — and He alone is the originator of true joy. We don’t have to produce it or drum it up on our own.
What Does the Bible Teach Us about Joy?
1. God Himself is the source of our joy
Galatians 5:22-23 gives us a list of the fruits of the spirit — and joy is listed there as one of the byproducts of the Holy Spirit living and abiding in us. This chapter in Galatians tells us that it is possible to “live in the Spirit” and “walk in the Spirit” (see verses 16 and 25), meaning that He will naturally produce His fruit in our lives as we live for Him. God alone can produce true joy — and He does that naturally through His Spirit living in those who have put their trust in Him. It’s important for us to understand that only God Himself can give us the ability to respond to life’s difficult circumstances with that inner contentment and satisfaction.
2. We can choose to respond to life’s trials with joy when we consider God’s purpose for those times of suffering
It’s true that only God can supply genuine joy. However, there is a key technique in James 1:2 to help us. Once again, this verse says, “My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials.” Notice the word “count.” Some other English versions of the Bible translate it, “consider.” It’s a word that means to systematically scrutinize; or to examine as in taking an exam (see Jamieson-Fausset-Brown “Bible Commentary” in Logos Bible Software). The idea here is that the believer should thoroughly list the potential advantages of this situation to gain a better understanding of God may want to accomplish.
A simple illustration of this truth would be a child counting the change in their piggy bank and then realizing that they have more money than they thought. The old chorus Count Your Blessings by Johnson Oatman, Jr. makes the same point, “Count your many blessings, name them one by one, and it will surprise you what the Lord has done.” When we truly count or consider what God is doing, we will conclude that indeed our response should be one of joy.
3. It is possible to have joy to the fullest even during life’s most difficult times
It’s also important to note the simple word “all” in James 1:2. The writer uses it to describe the kind of joy that can only come from God Himself. It is a word that means completely or wholly. This is not just “some” joy. We can experience “all joy,” or joy to the fullest, or the most complete joy.
The Apostle Peter also writes about this kind of joy even in the midst of a variety of trials in 1 Peter 1:6, “In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while, if need be, you have been grieved by various trials.” He teaches us that we can “greatly rejoice.” This is an overflowing, exuberance-filled, lively joy. That is exactly the kind of joy that God’s people can experience even when faced with a variety of trials or difficult times. God provides that abundant and complete joy.
It is a natural human inclination to think that living through trials and negative circumstances would not be an occasion for joy. Choosing to respond to life’s difficult situations with inner contentment and satisfaction doesn’t seem to make sense. Yet, the believer can experience genuine joy to the fullest by taking the initiative to actively consider all that God is doing and that He has a definite purpose in mind for His people.
Mel Walker is the youth pastor at Wyoming Valley Church in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania and is the president and co-founder of Vision for Youth, Inc., an international network of youth ministry. He is also an author, speaker, and consultant with various churches. More information about his books or ministry can be found at: www.GoingOnForGod.com. He and his wife, Peggy, are the parents of three adult children, all of whom are in vocational ministry. Follow him on Twitter: @vfyouth.
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