“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds” James 1:2
Not quite a conventional way to start a letter, right? Not too cheerful either at first glance. But then again, that’s what makes it so great. James engages us – he challenges us – with a paradox that puts up against the walls of our own mistaken beliefs.
Suffering = Joy? Hard pill to swallow. Generally, we’re told that happiness comes from removing stress and difficulties. Suffering entails pain, sleepless nights, fear, conflict, confusion, hurt, and the list goes on. Joy must mean coming into a lot of money or power and then removing all the irritating issues in my life, right?
According to a research study by Philip Brickman, lottery winners and accident victims (paraplegics) do not differ very much in terms of levels of happiness after the fact. Martin Seligman, founder of positive psychology (the study of normal people and what makes life good), talks at length about the fact that happy people still struggle. They might struggle very much – the difference is that they have lots of meaning and engagement in their lives!
It’s a deep truth, and it’s a hidden truth. God makes us work for something so life-changing – and He loves to do it with paradoxes that only make sense once we’ve lived them. Think of all the paradoxes in the Bible – the strong will become weak, the weak will become strong, to find freedom you must become a slave, by His wounds we are healed. The list goes on.
Now think of all the situations in our own lives that seem to be contradictory on the surface. You don’t know what you really have until you lose it or learn to be without it. Telling someone the hard truth, though it may hurt a little at first, makes them trust you more. Hard work done consciously actually makes you feel more energy and aliveness.
These deep truths require us to have the faith to believe, which drives us into action to experience it for ourselves.
Recently I was on a retreat in which we were learning about nourishment and self-care at the Wright Leadership Institute. We were coached to say positive, affirming things to ourselves out loud. Now if you knew me well you would know that this breaks quite a few rules for me. Never be fluffy, just get it done, actions are more important than words, and the list goes on.
I have trust in the Institute’s philosophy so I had the faith to jump into the experience (despite the fact that I felt it was a bunch of froo froo silly talk). You might guess what happened next. I’m reminded of the commercial for Life cereal – “Hey Mikey – he likes it!” Of course as I knew speaking positive truths to ourselves is actually affirming (lots of theory and research about “self-parenting” strategies), but what I learned is that it works for me, too!
I took something that I knew with my head and I actually did it. Now it’s part of me. I let it in and allowed it to change my wiring a little bit. The “froo froo” script and excuse gets used less and less and I’m learning and growing.
Growing. I think this is what God intends for us and ultimately what we all desire for ourselves.
So, what is pure joy? What is happiness? I don’t think we’ll truly experience it until we start growing into our greatest potential for ourselves. Growth is challenging, and challenging situations cause personal growth (if I don’t get in my own way).
When James says to consider it pure joy to face my trials I try to remember just how much I can gain from my pain. I’m not always going to get it right. I’m still going to pull away from pain from time to time. But I’m also going to honor and celebrate the times I stay in it and the growth that happens as a result.