Have you ever received a gift, that wasn’t, well, what you were expecting? Maybe it was a bit of a disappointment. Maybe you had your heart set on something else, or you had in your mind something a bit more appealing? Your taste buds were all set for something really, really sweet, only to discover it was sour or bland, spicy or hot! You said, “Thanks! I really…ah…appreciate it!” but your heart was saying, “Really? Seriously?!”
And then the giver, noticing the deer-in-the-headlights look in your eyes or your awkward smile, says sheepishly, “Well, it’s the intention that matters.” Well, yes, as true as this may be, it doesn’t always lead to the joy that the giver had intended.
Which is why I find it interesting that, in what may be the earliest Epistle in the New Testament, the author, after the greeting, begins, “Count it all joy, my brethren, when you meet various trials” (James 1:2). The more you think about it, this comes across as a bit of an oxymoron. It makes more sense to say, given the day-to-day struggles of life, “Count it all joy when you DON’T meet various trials,” or “when you’ve put those various trials behind you,” or maybe even, As Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster may have said, “Count it all joy whenever you’ve been able to hide from those various trials!” And today when the Church and our culture seem to be overflowing with “various trials,” how do we possibly “count it all joy”?!
This letter, from whom many scholars believe was the second bishop of Jerusalem (after the first bishop James, the brother of John, had been martyred by Herod) was not merely trying to raise their hearts in the midst of a bad situation, but seriously hoping these early Christians would recognize the absolute importance of accepting trials as the normal process of growing in joy.
When St. James wrote this, he may have assumed that his early Jewish-Christian congregation remembered the words of Jesus—maybe St. James had related our Lord’s words to them in a sermon—when Jesus told His apostles that the reason He was insisting that they abide in Him, abide in His Love, keep His commandments to love one another, and bear much fruit, was so that our Lord’s “joy may be in [them] and that [their] joy may be full” (John 15:11)—in other words, that by grace, faith, and obedience they might experience “all joy.”
But what about “various trials”? Jesus did promise His apostles that if they decided to follow and abide in Him, they should expect that the world would hate them, even persecute them, because the world had first hated and persecuted him (John 15:18f). But Jesus doesn’t tell them to be happy about this, or that “various trials” would somehow be the primary pathway to joy.
Yet, St. James went on to remind them: “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 1:3,4). Scholars often battle over the interpretation of the Epistle of James, and how St. James’ theology of “faith and works” fits with St. Paul’s supposed “faith alone.” I think, however, that the real issue is expressed in this verse, for whether our faith is demonstrated in our works or not, the bottom line is that you and I need to be steadfast to the end, responding to grace, so that we can be found “perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”
One of the reasons I think the Epistle of James was basically an early sermon on our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount was that Jesus had warned his audience that “unless [their] righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees (i.e., their religious leaders), [they] will never enter the kingdom of heaven…. You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt 5:20,48). Many Christians argue that St. Paul was all about “faith alone,” and “once saved-always saved,” with no emphasis on growing in perfection, but St. Paul recognized this very need when he gave one of his most personal confessions:
Indeed 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 refuse, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith; that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brethren, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. (Phil 3:8-14; emphasis mine)
The righteousness that you and I need, when one day we stand before God, we receive by grace through faith in Christ, but never apart from sharing in His sufferings, or pressing on to become perfect, to become like Him, letting go of our past failures, and straining forward toward our Savior.
This is the joy of our everyday walk with Christ. In that Sermon on the Mount, our Lord had said, “[D]o not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day” (Matt 6:34). The “various trials” that come our way each day are the means by which He is testing our faith, to help us grow, so that, as St. Paul said, “If possible [we] may attain the resurrection from the dead.”
Later in the Epistle, St. James wrote:
Be patient, therefore, brethren, until the coming of the Lord. Behold, the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient over it until it receives the early and the late rain. You also be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand. Do not grumble, brethren, against one another, that you may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing at the doors. (James 5:7-9; emphasis mine)
Our Lord, and all of the New Testament writers, warned that the coming of the Lord was near, and since here we are 2000 later, far too many biblical scholars claim, “See, Jesus and his apostles were obviously wrong!” But they miss the point of what this warning was all about, for every single time we recite the Apostles or Nicene Creed we say that we believe that the Lord will come again, “like a thief in the night” or “as were the days of Noah” (Mt 24:37). We just make the mistake of presuming, like those people “eating and drinking” as if the flood will certainly never come, that the “coming of the Lord” is something only future generations may need to worry about! But our Lord and His apostles, and St. James, were right: we need to patiently seek this day—not tomorrow—but today, to face with joy the various trials placed in our path, knowing that this is precisely how He is preparing us to face Him when He comes—and, of course, it may be soon.
Three years ago this month, Kobe Bryant, the highly acclaimed basketball star, began his day as usual by attending Mass with his daughter. As they left, blessing themselves with the sign of the cross, and then soon after, stepping onto a helicopter, they had no idea that they would so soon both be standing face-to-face with Jesus.
About two thousand years ago, St. James was trying to encourage his struggling, dispersed congregation, to have courage, hope, and patience in the midst of great trial. For this reason, I believe his message is the exact message we need to hear today, in this time of scandal, confusion, moral craziness, even apostasy. Our Lord may be nearer that we think, but regardless, our calling is to face whatever trials He sends our way with joy.
In Philippians, St. Paul made another confession:
Not that I complain of want; for I have learned, in whatever state I am, to be content … [for] … I can do all things in him who strengthens me. (Phil 4:11,13)
Disciples of Jesus Christ are called to grateful and content in whatever circumstance, even through the various trials of life, and the more often and the longer by grace we are able to do this, the more like St. Paul we learn contentment—and also learn how much we can actually do with His help.
I will say, however, that as I get older, I constantly need His help to remind me I’m no longer twenty-years old! Sometimes the “various trials” I bring upon myself are His way of reminding me that I’m seventy-plus years old and I need to act my age!
But this is another reason that disciples of Jesus Christ are to stand beside each other on the journey of faith, so we can help each other hear God more clearly, and then strengthen and encourage each other to “count it all joy” whenever we “meet various trials” together.
Who in your life needs to be reminded—as each day we hear of the escalating craziness of our present Age—that true joy and hope only come through a relationship with the person of Jesus Christ?
As Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, God rest his soul, once wrote in his Catechesis on St. Bernard of Clairvaux (Oct. 22, 2009):
[F]aith is first and foremost a personal, intimate encounter with Jesus, it is having an experience of his closeness, his friendship and his love. It is in this way that we learn to know him ever better, to love him and to follow him more and more. May this happen to each one of us!