joy in suffering

I’ve been chewing on James 1:2 the past several weeks ever since my summer Bible study group studied this verse last month, and I just can’t quite move on from this idea, this command, to “count it all joy.” I sense God wanting to work that joy deeper into me, and I’m trying to cooperate.

Full-hearted, authentic joy in struggle is something I want. I’ve tasted it before, but when confronted by James 1 again recently, conviction poured in. The truth cut deeply: I wasn’t pursuing joy, and the Lord needed to do a work in my heart.

It had been a difficult week. As a foster parent, I’d reached a new level of vulnerability with the foster baby we have, and it hurt. It still hurts. We don’t know the future God has for him, but we have strong desires for a certain outcome and consequently get to practice surrender every.single.day. Committed to honesty about the highs and lows of fostering, I’ll tell you this part of it has made things extremely hard for me this past month. We’re past being able to guard ourselves from thinking about it, and the waiting can feel like it’s killing me.

But that’s not all. For years, I’ve lived with somewhat of an open wound surrounding the question of whether or not God would add to our family through another biological child, and the specific desires I have there coupled with a history that includes difficulty and miscarriages can at times overwhelm me with both grief and longing. It’s a struggle that’s always there, but the pain is felt very acutely at certain times. And the week we were studying James 1:2 happened to be one of the hardest. I’d moved into a deeper acceptance that some of my cries to the Lord were not being answered the way I’d hoped, and that week I was struck by what seems to be the finality of His “no” answer.

joy is a journey

So when I recently re-read “Count it ALL joy…,” I knew I wasn’t anywhere near that place. Rather, I was caught up in the pain, and I was counting sadness instead.

But I knew I wanted the joy, so I began to pray and ask God to help me with it. He was the sweetest, mercifully walking me deeper into it, helping me understand His joy and moving me to grab onto it. As I spent time exploring what the Scriptures say about that joy, I became enamored by all He was showing me….

It’s HIS joy to give. I can’t create it for myself, so why bother with finding my own?

Anytime we experience this kind of joy in the hard, it’s a miracle. There’s nothing natural or small about it.

Joy is found in the Lord’s presence, and what circumstances could possibly keep me from that presence? The hard things have a way of driving me to Him, so it must be the other things I allow – the idols in my heart – that distract me from getting close to Him.

Joy found is a power discovered. It has this ability to strengthen me for this life and also to be carried out toward others as a blessing.

It’s a fruit of the Spirit, and fruit-bearing isn’t instant. Joy comes by a process that happens over time.

Joy is a gift, but it’s a gift I participate in. I receive His joy as I join God in moving toward joy.

the process of joy

As I’ve pressed the Lord to know what this process looks like for me, in my current struggle, He’s taken me back to a passage in Matthew 28 where Mary Magdalene and the other Mary visit the tomb of Jesus and are met by an angel telling them the good news that Jesus has risen from the grave.

Certain elements of their story echo past joy-journeys of mine, urging me to remember for today’s struggle:

These two Marys ventured to Jesus’ grave expecting a dead body but instead witnessed the appearing of an angel so bright that the nearby guards were knocked out just by the fear of him. Because the angel admonished the women not to be afraid, we can  assume they were. How could they not be scared?!

Notice this about the story: Their journey toward joy began in fear.

Commanded by the angel to GO tell the good news of Jesus’ resurrection to the disciples and encouraged that they would be met by Jesus on the way, the women obeyed. I love verse 8’s description of this:

“So they departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.”

I love it because so many of my journeys toward Jesus are also a mixture of fear and joy. I try to imagine the progression of their emotions as they ran – starting in fear but moving quickly in the direction they were told to go, and somewhere along the path, joy welled up inside them. Jesus met them, and “they came up and took hold of his feet and worshiped” (verse 9). They obeyed in spite of their fear, and the end result of that movement was worship.

That’s because it’s in the running towards Jesus that joy emerges.

Whether it’s fear, sorrow, grief, or any hard emotion I’m dealing with, His joy bubbles up in me somewhere along the journey of running towards my Savior in authenticity. I don’t know about your experience, but usually I can’t even pinpoint the moment it happens. When I’m eagerly running towards Jesus, I’m caught up less in trying to find joy as I am focused on finding HIM. Like so many of his gifts, I discover joy in retrospect and then am fully convinced HE did it and that it wasn’t me.

So that’s my cry in this fight for joy –

Eyes on Christ,

Moving forward even when I’m fearful,

Embracing his presence in my life,

And discovering the joy he gives on the journey.

Jesus had to address their fear again, and I get that. Allowing my difficult emotions to move me towards Christ instead of paralyzing me is a repetitive lesson for me as well.

But this glimpse into the lives of these two women named Mary encourages me to keep seeking, keep moving toward Him, even when I’m sad, and I can count on Him to do his joy-work in me along the way. I don’t need to be impatient with how much time it takes, and I definitely don’t need to carry the weight of guilt when my feelings don’t match up with facts right away. Its naming of gifts may be very specific and it might require discipline, but mostly I think “counting it all joy” is an invitation to know more intimately, more deeply, the God who miraculously and graciously gives it.