If trouble is inevitable— and it is—then the other inevitability is that we will indeed respond to it.
But how will we respond? We can respond passively, fearfully, inwardly, assertively, philosophically, manipulatively. When trouble interrupts us, there are a host of options.
Out of all the possible responses, one rises to the top. That strategic response is vital if we’re to make it through. It is, in fact, nonnegotiable if we’re to grow in character and competency and to bring glory to God’s reputation.
It is the commitment to respond to trouble by “consider[ing] it pure joy” (Jas. 1:2). Through our brokenness and tears, our hearts insist that it’s impossible! Yet considering it pure joy is both possible and, when applied, productive. In fact, resisting this choice will derail progress and deepen despair.
THE NECESSITY OF CONTROLLING OUR RESPONSE
When James writes, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds” (Jas. 1:2), he is referring to an arena we can control. The timing, depth, complexity, and duration of trouble are for the most part beyond our control. What is in our control is the way we respond.
An important goal in trouble is to respond in a way that minimizes longterm regrets. I recall standing by the casket with the parents of a son who had died in his twenties. I heard them say something that made a marked impression on my heart. They said, “We’ve not always been perfect parents, but we have no regrets. We enjoyed our life with him, and he enjoyed his relationship with us.” What a wonderful commentary to come to the end of a relationship and to realize that while it wasn’t perfect, there are no regrets.
THE RESULT OF A RIGHT RESPONSE
Right responses in the midst of trouble always minimize regrets. One of the primary goals in moving through trouble successfully is to go through it in such a way that you can look back and realize that you did your best to respond properly and are not ashamed of how you managed the aspects that were in your control.
The story of Judas in Scripture is a fascinating and instructive tale of a life of wrong responses that ended up in the depths of regret.
Because Judas was given the responsibility of being the treasurer for the disciples, it’s obvious that he was trusted by them. So when Jesus said that one of the disciples seated at the table during the Last Supper would betray Him, it never occurred to anyone that He was referring to Judas. Even after Jesus clearly indicated the identity of His betrayer and told him to get on with his plan, none of the disciples understood whom Christ meant. They thought that when Judas left the room he was going to buy something for the Passover feast or give money to the poor (Jn. 13:21-30).
Yet, in retrospect and under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, John tells us that underneath it all, Judas was addicted to greed and personal gain and that indeed he was a thief and would often steal from the treasury that he controlled (Jn. 12:6). No doubt his dreams were that when Christ established His kingdom, he would be the treasurer and ultimately become a wealthy man.
Interestingly enough, it was right after Jesus announced that He was going to the cross and would not be establishing an earthly kingdom that Judas left the disciples and traded the head of Christ for money—30 pieces of silver. It’s as though he said to himself, “Now that my prospect of greater riches is gone, at least I can get 30 pieces of silver out of this deal.”
What’s significant is that Judas was more committed to his own comfort and ease than he was to going through difficulty in his identification with Christ, a trial that Christ predicted all the disciples would experience.
Judas’ option for what seemed to be the comfortable way out was a response that filled the remainder of his life with regret, regret so deep that he couldn’t live with himself. Matthew reports that after Judas betrayed Jesus and “saw that Jesus was condemned,” his heart was filled with sorrow (27:3).
Those 30 pieces of silver burned a hole in Judas’ heart as they rattled in his bag. They became a symbol of his sorrow and a reminder of his regret. So deep was his regret that he went back to the Jewish leaders and threw the money at their feet. Then he went out and hanged himself. The response that had seemed the easiest, the most natural, and the most comfortable, that seemed to be exactly right and appropriate, ended up being the response that led Judas to the depths of despair.
As a pastor, I’ve been through several building programs. Of the things I’ve learned through that experience, number one is that you let the decorating committee do what it wants to do. It’s much easier that way. In one of the churches I pastored, my secretary was bolder than I was. The committee thought we ought to have blue carpeting throughout the office complex. She did not like or want blue carpeting. She went head to head with the decorating committee over the issue and finally won. Her office would have beige, earth tones on the floor.
Just before the project was to be implemented, however, she walked into my office and said, “Pastor, I’ve decided to have blue carpeting in my office.” I was shocked. She went on to say, “I realized last night that if I have my way on this carpeting, every time I walk into the office the carpet will be a reminder of my stubbornness.”
Our response to a crisis will lead us either to reap a harvest of regrets that etch themselves on our minds as lifelong reminders of poor choices, or to reap the joy of knowing that we chose the biblically correct response. Though the crisis may have been painful, we have the privilege of knowing that through it all we did our best, that our conscience is clear. Regardless of the outcome, we didn’t do things that deepened our distress by accumulating symbols of sorrow through our sinful choices.
Productive responses are the responses that are outlined in God’s Word. In times of crisis, we need to fight through the baggage of our feelings, instinctive responses, advice from wellmeaning friends, and past response patterns to check in with God to see what He believes would be appropriate. Imagine being faced with a crisis and pausing—eyes glazed over a bit—only to hear someone ask, “What are you doing?” You respond, “Checking my biblical data bank to find out how to respond.”
That’s how the process begins.
THE JOY OF OUR RESPONSE
How then should we respond? Although there are specific patterns of response relating to issues of forgiveness, compassion, mercy, understanding, justice, and patience, one general command fits every case. It is God’s command to consider every trial to be a thing of joy.
Initially, that seems unreasonable because trouble does not feel joyous. In fact, trouble and emotional joy are incompatible.
If we are to respond constructively, we must understand that James 1:2 does not tell us to feel joy. For that we can be thankful. It’s impossible for us to manipulate our emotions. Emotions are a result of circumstances, body chemistry, how we have slept, what we have dreamed, or even what we may have eaten the night before. When I’m not feeling right about things, I don’t have a joy button that I can press and suddenly feel wonderful. For the most part, emotions come and go and are often dictated by circumstances of life. And although we are usually able to keep our emotions in check, it’s impossible to change them dramatically.
Emotions are the baggage that comes with our trouble. They were never intended to direct our response. They come along for the ride. The emotions we feel are legitimate and normal. Feeling guilty about feeling down is unnecessary and wrong. Even Jesus wept.
What’s right, however, is that we can’t permit our feelings to dictate how we respond. If you have traveled through the mountains, you may have seen ramps for runaway trucks. They are for drivers who have lost their brakes and are dangerously careening down the road out of control. At that point, their trucks are driven by the weight of their baggage. It’s a disaster waiting to happen. Letting our emotions dictate our actions is like letting the baggage do the driving.
It’s in our choices that our lives should be directed to a productive end. When we understand what the word consider means, it becomes clear that James is speaking of a nonemotional choice in this text. Among other things, the word consider is an accounting term for reckoning items one to another. In fact, some Scripture versions use the word reckon in the place of consider. At any rate, it’s clearly a word that deals with cognitive, mental, volitional activity as opposed to emotional feelings. The text requires that when pain penetrates my existence I need to immediately, mentally, reckon that pain to be a thing of ultimate joy.
Since in the original language the word consider is used in accounting contexts, we can think of our minds as a ledger book with different columns we can use to record our response when difficulty crosses our path. Our response to difficulty might be to pick up the pencil of our mental notebook and put a check in the self-pity column, wondering why this is happening again and why we’re always having difficulty. So we throw a pity party for ourselves and wallow in the despair of “woe is me.” That’s one type of mental response.
There’s another column that is often checked—the column of blame. We might try to figure out who is to blame for our problem (of course we never are) and put a check in the blame column, as we seek to put off any feelings of personal responsibility for the mess we’re in.
Or we may put a check in the column of revenge. I’m amazed at how creative we can be when it comes to carrying out revenge against others who have hurt us. There’s a column for withdrawal. There is a lifeis- unfair column. There are columns for bitterness and guilt. But there’s also a column for joy. Scripture demands that we move all the way across the ledger page until we come to the column labeled joy and mentally make a checkmark indicating our belief that, in the hand of God, what has happened will ultimately be a cause for joy.
THE CONTENT OF OUR RESPONSE
James 1:2-5 points to the fact that this is not simple mental gymnastics or the power of positive thinking to get us through. This “joy” response has real content.
The end of the passage makes it clear that if we process pain correctly, it will, in the end, bring us to completion in terms of character and equip us to be completed in good works in the ongoing days of our lives. God will use our trouble to produce character and competency in our lives. That is the joy factor.
What Hebrews says of Jesus and His suffering should not go unnoticed: “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, . . . who for the joy set before Him endured the cross” (Heb. 12:2).
Counting trouble a thing of joy does not require that we feel happy about our difficulties but that we understand that ultimately and finally God’s good hand will make the experience worthy of joyful praise and thanksgiving. This mental outlook keeps our focus not on the moment of pain but on the culmination of the process.
What enables us to respond positively? The joy response is fortified by what we know to be true in the midst of trouble.
James 1:3 speaks to the process of the joy response by saying, “because you know.” That statement directly ties our ability to count our difficulty an ultimate thing of joy to what we know to be absolutely true. There is a tremendous advantage that believers have when they face trouble because of the truths that are logged in their mind before the trouble comes.
There are times when trouble puts us in such deep despair that our capacity to learn through it is almost nonexistent. Logging the right kind of knowledge in advance is greatly beneficial in light of the inevitability of tough times in our lives.
The success of the Persian Gulf War is likely attributable to the fact that our pilots were well trained before they actually faced battle. As one military commander observed, the generation raised on video games was able to take control of sophisticated equipment that required good eye-hand coordination and accurate timing. When the conflict came, they were well prepared in the skills it required.
Knowledge, whether learned in the midst of trouble or logged in advance, is that commodity that remains certain in the midst of changing emotions and circumstances. It’s like an anchor firmly secured in bedrock that keeps the storm-tossed ship from being blown onto rocks.
One of my all-time favorite sports memories is of the final hockey game played in the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York. The American team, made up for the most part of amateur players from colleges and universities, were facing Scandinavian and Eastern Bloc teams composed of seasoned veterans who had given their lives to the state to prepare for and to compete in the Olympic matches. The Americans seemed to be outmatched. And because the Olympics came at a time when the spirit of Americans was at an all-time low, there was little to cheer about.
Yet the American team persisted and won game after game. I came home from church on the Sunday that our boys were playing the Russians and turned the television on and noted, much to my surprise, that though the match was more than half over, we were playing head to head with the Russians. I sat down and could hardly move. I watched with anxiety as our men skated and flinched every time the Russians cocked their stocks to make a shot. I relaxed in relief when I saw that they hadn’t scored. It was an agonizing, white-knuckle, tight-stomach spectator event for me and for many others who watched across the country.
Then, in the final moments, it became obvious that we would beat the Russians. It seemed impossible. It seemed so wonderful. We at last had something to cheer about. We had done it.
That night after church, the network decided to replay the hockey game. We invited some friends over to enjoy the game with us. I sat back in my easy chair, a glass of Pepsi in my hand and a bowl of popcorn on my lap. I was relaxed, calm, and enjoying every moment of the very same game—no whitened knuckles, no tight stomach. What made the difference? What I knew. What I knew to be true! The outcome was secure.
What we know to be true, regardless of the specific trouble we are going through, is the foundation upon which we can accurately, reasonably, intelligently, and confidently go to the joy column on our ledger page and put a check in the appropriate place.
What is it that we can know to enable us to respond positively in trouble? In James 1:3-4, we are told that we can know “that the testing of [our] faith develops perseverance” and that “perseverance must finish its work so that [we] may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” In other words, we can know that pain is a process with a purpose. And that specific piece of knowledge will enable us to respond to our various trials with joy.