Thursday, January 05, 2006

Joy in the Morning

In writing my commentary on James I was struck this morning with the command in James. 1.2 to 'reckon it all joy'. Here are some of my reflections on Christian joy and what it might refer to.

The discourse proper opens in James at 1.2 with the astounding command to consider it all joy, including all the trials and suffering. It might be better rendered ‘consider it entirely as joy’ because the phrase should be taken adverbially. But what is meant by ‘joy’ here?

Clearly enough it cannot be seen as synonymous with pleasure (hedone) or even happiness (eudaimona) since this joy exists even in the midst of trials, temptations, suffering. Joy is repeatedly said to characterize the experience of early Christians (Acts 13.52; Rom. 14.17; 15.13; 2 Cor. 1.15; 2.3; Gal. 5.22; Phil. 1.4; Col. 1.11; 1 Pet. 1.8; 1 John 1.4; 2 John 12).

Here in James. 1.2 it involves mental calculation or reckoning as the verb hegesasthai indicates. But how does one reckon even suffering as joy? Texts like Jn. 15.16.20-22, 2 Cor. 7.4, 1 Thess. 1.6, and Heb. 10.34 make clear that suffering and joy are compatible from a Christian point of view.

I would suggest here that James is talking about the joy of the Lord here, which in Pauline letters is said to be part of the fruit of the work of the Spirit within the believer. This seems to refer to the sense of contentment that comes from the assurance of and delight in God’s presence in one’s life regardless of one’s circumstances, a presence that is often most evident to the believer precisely when one is in the most duress. This is why the Psalmist says "the joy of the Lord is my strength". This is a joy that only the presence of the Lord can give. The world, or circumstances can neither give nor take away this joy. This joy can not be purchased nor stolen. It cannot be bargained for or earned. It is simply a gift from God that is a residual effect of the abiding presence of God in a person's life. This is not of course the same thing as feeling happy or cheerful. We must avoid the temptation to reduce this joy to a mere emotion. If one can reckon something all joy then it involves a mental exercise, not a passing emotion.

Our culture is too bound up in the world of feelings, even to the point where counselors ask as their main question -- "How do you feel about that? or How did that make you feel?" as if feelings were the ultimate litmus test of what is going on in a person's inner psyche. Feelings however can be very deceptive, the joy of the Lord is not.

In short this joy James is talking about is not just an experience but a reflection on experiences--- all experiences, where the believer says in his heart of hearts "God is holding me in the palm of his hand, whatever comes my way, I shall not be moved or troubled on this day". Amen.

12 comments:

Tim said...

Ben, I was struck by the fact that in your post you used individual language ('a believer' etc.) whereas James is addressing a community ('Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters...' [TNIV]). From verse 5 on the reference seems to be more to the individual ('If any of you lacks wisdom...'). Do you think verses 2-4 also refer to individual experience? I'm wondering, since I am aware of a massive tendency in our culture to read as individual what the NT authors intended for the community of faith as a community.

Happy New Year.

Tim Chesterton

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Tim: Well I think it is both, and James oscillates back and forth. You are right about our tendencies to ignore the communal dimensions.

Ben Finger said...

Hi there Ben. First time poster here. What are your thoughts on arguments by individuals like Peter Kreeft that joy is a foretaste of the divine (presence)? What do we do with the general link between both happiness and joy, especially in some languages (including Indo-European) where the word for happiness and joy are one and the same. Also I could be wrong but it seems you insinuated that happiness (eudaimona) was lacking/gone in the midst of trials, temptations, and suffering. How do we deal with then the Beatitudes? Blessed/Happy are the poor... Blessed/Happy are the meek... and so on. With a number of individuals in the early church building upon the language of happiness found in the Gospels we came up with a number of thoughts, particularly in the area of the orientation of the Christian life and the beatific vision. Upon this very language we draw closely into the worlds of Greek philosophy from the early philosophers of Crete to Aristotle onwards.

Could it not be that the Age of Enlightenment backrupted the view of humanity and our language in regards to it. In the quest to free humanity from Spirituality they robbed/blinded humanity to one of her most important qualities... her metaphysical nature. Where as happiness was viewed as something connected to the divine (often times the word even was in relation to luck & fate in various languages) it became something psychological. The quest for happiness and joy shifted from pursuing God to pursuing oneself. The end goal of their very completion was now to be found within.

So by embracing our metaphysical nature and cojoining it to our Christian beliefs, can we not then similarily view that in being in relationship with God we are perpetually happy and joyful in God? Instead of deciding that we can not be moved or troubled on this day, shall we not say I shall not be moved on this day for I am happy and joyful.

Wow I ranted. Hopefully this makes some sense.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Ben F, and welcome: No, I am afraid we need to not read later philosophical ideas of happiness back into the Biblical text. Charan is not a synonym for eudaimona. And what the Bible says is we should be pursuing holiness not happiness. Happiness is not to be despised, but it is also not to be seen as the goal of life or something Christians should pursue, despite what the Founding Fathers of the U.S. said. Joy, on the other had is another matter.

Eric Thomas said...

Dr. W, when I was preaching through James this past Summer, I took note also of the reckoning of joy as we calculate the work of God in our lives, even through the trails that we face: in essence, God produces something great in us through the trials, and this is reason for joy. I do believe that the main focus is joy of God's presence, but His work in the midst of the trial may round out the thought. Borrowed the picture of file shaping the wood as a portrait of God shaping us through the trial (A. W. Tozer). I wish I had the benefit of your commentary while preaching through James.

Just my thoughts, and thank you for providing this blog.

yuckabuck said...

Hi Ben,
"Happiness is not to be despised, but it is also not to be seen as the goal of life or something Christians should pursue."
I'm wondering if you have read John Piper's Desiring God, and what you thought of it if you did? (Ignoring the militant Calvinism, of course.) I was impressed with a presentation of it that he did at my church. It seemed very balanced and connected with many deep theological themes of the Bible, rather than the typical evangelical prooftexting you ususally find.
Since I spent a third of my time at Circleville Bible College taking psychology classes, it seems that a knowledge of modern psychology is all I really have to bring. (If I had ever wanted to, I certainly couldn't out-exegete you!)
To be as brief as possible, much of modern psychological theory has turned away from "How did that make you feel?" (though it remains the easiest and therefore most frequent question in counseling sessions), and is more influenced by a "cognitive behavioral" model, where the the things we choose to believe in our minds are what determines our emotional responses. Social psychologists today research how or to what we attribute (explain to ourselves) both positive and negative events in our lives.
It seems to me that in James 1, James is telling us how to correctly attribute (account, consider, reckon) the trials we undergo. We should reckon it as God developing perseverance in us. When the "perasmois" (trial) comes, we are not to primarily explain it as "God hates me," or "Life stinks," or "Satan is attacking me," but as "God is working in my life as a means to producing a Christ-like community of faith" (recognizing the corporate aspect of the verse).
Such an inner conviction is much deeper than mere outward happiness, but at times it might show itself as real outward happiness or exuberance. Christians tend to denigrate these feelings, seeing them as "the caboose" on the fact-faith-feeling train. But I would say that such "mere emotion" can be the blooming flower that shows that inside, the tree is full of life. As such it can be an important indicator of spiritual vitality. My personal picture of Paul and Silas in prison (Acts 16) is not of these men calmly having joy despite circumstances, but of them exuberantly singing hymns to God such that they caught the attention of all the other prisoners.
May God bless you with joy!

Ben Witherington said...

Eric and Yuckabuck thanks so much for sharing your thoughts on this, they are helpful as I get ready to preach at ATS next Wednesday on James. 1.2-4. Anyone out there know a really good personal ancedote or story that illustrates what these verses say?

Ben Finger said...

I know this not exactly what you are asking for... but the post did remind me of one thing. Often Christian is described as a religion of suffering. We often focus upon the centrality of the cross. Yet at the same time we seem to be a religion of joy. Seems conflicting but yet ever true. Maybe even to go as far as to say a religion of joyful suffering.

Eric Thomas said...
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Eric Thomas said...

Dr. W, a couple of anecdotes may be valuable to you from devotions that I did for the church on this passage. They are in the archive section of www.firstnorfolk.org/pdf/devotions/20050512.pdf and www.firstnorfolk.org/pdf/devotions/20050513.pdf

jdarlack said...

Interesting! Another commentary on James! If you don't mind me asking, which commentary series will it be in (if any)? I am a student and librarian at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and I am writing a thesis on James 5:17-18 & Elijah's prayer.

Blessings to you,

Jim Darlack

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Jim: It is for a series of three volumes I am doing for Inter-varsity entitled Letters and Homilies of the NT. The first volume will be out in the fall-- it involves the Pastorals and the Johannine Epistles. The second volume is Hebrews and James.

Ben