Joy in Suffering
Is it difficult for you to think about joy and suffering in the same sentence? Normally, when we are in the middle of suffering, we just want it to be over. Think of the woman who feels betrayed by her best friend, or the wife who feels betrayed by her husband. Consider the mother who longs for her daughter to speak with her again, or the persecuted believer who is imprisoned for his faith. What about the woman who has endured years of chronic pain and some days wonders how she can continue to live? Think of the employee who is shunned by others because of her faith, or the student who is ridiculed for being pro-life. Is it possible to have joy in the middle of heartache, physical pain, and persecution? Scripture not only says it is possible, but calls us to count such suffering “all joy” (Jas. 1:2).
James begins his letter by grounding us in two important truths: who we are and whose we are (Jas. 1:1). First, we are servants of God the Father and Jesus Christ. Second, God exists in three persons, although only God the Father and Jesus are explicitly mentioned. Although James’s original readers were Jewish Christians dispersed outside of Palestine, all of us are dispersed throughout this world “looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God” (Heb. 11:10). We are servants of the triune God. Our heavenly Father “chose us in him [Christ] before the foundation of the world…In love he predestined us for adoptions as sons through Jesus Christ” (Eph. 1:4-5). Therefore, we are to look to God as our Creator, Savior and King, serving Him out of gratitude and submitting to Him out of love, especially during times of suffering.
James goes on to tell us some hard news. We will “meet trials of various kinds” (Jas. 1:2). This is true for every person living in this fallen world. But James also tells us good news. For believers, these trials are sifted through the Sovereign hand of the gracious God. Therefore, there are no mistakes in the suffering He ordains for our lives. We can be sure that every trial has been purposefully sent by the hand of a loving Father. This should greatly encourage us!
As we encounter these trials, James tells us to “count it all joy” (Jas. 1:2). It is not the trial itself, whatever form that might take, that we are asked to consider joyful, but the character that results, if we submit our suffering to God. The testing of our faith “produces steadfastness” (v. 3). And the full effect of this steadfastness is that we will be “perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (v. 4). Now, we will not be perfect and complete on this side of glory, but as we persevere in suffering, we grow in godliness by God’s grace. And when He comes, we will be made like Him. That will be a glorious day!
When we encounter various trials, let us remember that Christ suffered in far greater ways, and is not only able to “sympathize with our weaknesses” (Heb. 4:15), but also sustains us in the midst of suffering. Therefore, let us “draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (v. 16). If you feel like you are slipping into a sinkhole of despair, remember that “underneath are the everlasting arms” (Deut. 33:27).
In our trials, joy results when we remain faithful to the One who has been faithful to us. Joy doesn’t erase the pain or dry the tears, but it accompanies the faith of the believer who says, “All is not lost. I am in the hands of my Father. Nothing can touch me that has not first touched Him. No matter what the cost, I will cling to the One who carries me through storms of such force that I cannot see my way. He is good and gracious, kind and loving, and I will trust him.”
Don’t wait until the suffering comes to settle the matter in your heart of who you are and whose you are. We often don’t have time to ponder theological truths when the doctor calls to inform us of bad news, or the officer calls to say there has been a tragic accident. Today is the day to decide who we are and whose we are, and to begin trusting God in the small sufferings of life, so that when the tsunamis come we are tethered to the truth and the Anchor of our souls.
If you are having difficulty finding joy in your suffering, and you just want the pain to be over, be encouraged that God is using your trials to do good things. No matter the trial, we can trust that God is using our suffering to sanctify us. No suffering in the life of the believer is ever wasted. Therefore, dear believer, find joy in your trials today, recognizing that God is testing your faith to bring about steadfastness, so that you might increasingly be conformed to His beloved Son.
Sarah Ivill (ThM, Dallas Theological Seminary) is a Reformed author, wife, homeschooling mom, Bible study teacher, and conference speaker who lives in Matthews, North Carolina, and is a member of Christ Covenant Church (PCA). To learn more, please visit www.sarahivill.com.