This is the hardest thing to do in the Christian life:
“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:2-4 ESV).
It’s simple to understand, but seems impossible to do. How do you find joy in the midst of a battle with cancer? How do you rejoice when you can’t find a job? How do you find joy when you want nothing more than your circumstances to change?
What does God want for you?
One of the most common mistakes we make when reading the Bible is thinking it’s all about us. While there are certainly applications for our life, the Bible is not a book about us – it’s about God. So when it comes to how to find joy in our suffering, we have to ask what God is up to by allowing it in the first place. And when we bring that question to the Bible, the answer is that God wants us to be made holy.
1 Peter 1:14-16 puts it this way: “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.”
Christians, then, are to constantly shed their old sinful desires and habits in favor of activities which increase their holiness. None of this is possible aside from the work of Christ, of course. His righteousness clothes us so we can come gleaming before the Father in all the splendor of the Son (Isaiah 61:10). In verse 16, God directly commands His followers to be holy.
If God is primarily interested in your holiness, then it makes a great deal of sense why he would allow you to enter into seasons of suffering. These seasons are meant to produce and refine your character. The biblical imagery often used for this process is of smelting, where a blacksmith heats up silver to the point where all the impurities float to the top and he skims them off. He does that over and over again until all the impurities have been removed. This is the refining process.
Does God want me to be happy or to be holy?
But you might be wondering where your happiness fits into all of this. Doesn’t God want me to be happy? Well, yes. He wants you to be happy, but he also wants you to be holy. And His primary interest is your holiness. God’s goal for you after coming to faith in Christ is for you to become mature in Christ, or to be made holy.
Happiness is simply an emotion based on our circumstances. Joy is something much more profound. It’s a choice. Joy is a disposition to be happy regardless of your circumstances. And joy is what God is calling us to: “Count it all joy…when you meet trials of various kinds.”
If you make happiness your life’s goal, you’re guaranteed to fail because your circumstances will change. Your beauty will fade. Your job will change. Joy, on the other hand, can’t be taken. If your joy flows out of your relationship with Jesus then no one can touch it. And that joy can even change how you experience suffering.
You have to want Jesus
To find joy in the midst of suffering, you have to really want Jesus. Like really want him. Like Paul, you have to be able to say, “…I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ” (Phil. 3:8 ESV).
To find joy when you’re suffering, you have to care more about Jesus than anything else. That seems simple enough until you ask yourself if you really want Jesus more than anything.
Do you really want Jesus even if he doesn’t get you that promotion? Even if you don’t get better? Do you really want Jesus even if your marriage never gets better or your child never comes back?
Change me, not my circumstances
Far too often we come to Jesus asking him to change our circumstances. We just want out of the suffering, out of the grief, out of the trial. But if we’re thinking like God, we should be praying something different. We should be praying, “Change me, not my circumstances.”
If you’re after the same thing in your life as God, then you’ll rejoice in times of suffering when they come. That doesn’t mean you can’t collapse over being betrayed, or weep over losing your friend. It just means that through it all you count the time of character formation as joy. It means you beg God for the wisdom to see how He wants to refine you through this trial.
If you ask God for this kind of wisdom, He will give it to you (James 1:5). It won’t happen overnight, and it won’t be easy. There will still be incredible pain. But if you truly want Jesus and you make the pursuit of holiness your goal, you’ll be able to count it all joy when you meet trials of various kinds.