More Than Happiness

A sermon preached at Covenant Presbyterian Church of Fort Smith, Arkansas on December 15, 2019.

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).

Following up on his bestselling book, The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest, Dan Buettner, a National Geographic journalist, wanted to see if similar lessons could be found for human happiness. The results are in his book The Blue Zones of Happiness: Lessons from the World’s Happiest People. Unlike longevity, however, the difficulty for Buettner was defining the elusive term “happiness.”

Drawing from other studies, Buettner established three pillars that could be surveyed and therefore measured to find the happiest people on earth: Life satisfaction, or pride (On a scale of 0 to 10, how satisfied are you with your life?), purpose (How engaged are you in meaningful things daily?), enjoyment, or pleasure (How much do you enjoy your day?) High ratings of pride, purpose, and pleasure report that you are happy.

Narrowing his scope even further, Buettner studied three countries with high ratings of his “three P’s”, drawing unique deductions from each country. He also distilled his findings even further in a list of nine ways you can improve your happiness rating. The list is fascinating and worth considering, but what concerned me was the circumstantial consistency. For example, Buettner concludes, “Of all the things people can do to try to increase their happiness, the most effective and lasting one is to choose to live in a community that supports well-being.”[1]

I don’t doubt Buettner’s findings or disagree with his thesis, but what stands out to me is the temporal and circumstantial nature of “happiness.” What if you have a condition that you must bear for the rest of your life? What if you are imprisoned for your faith? What if you learn that someone you led to Christ is now living in sin, a sin that even unbelievers disdain.  What if you are deserted and betrayed by those you considered brothers? What if the circumstances of your life don’t yield or support happiness? Surely there is more than happiness.

As you may know, my questions aren’t hypothetical but are a summary of the Christian life of the Apostle Paul, the apostle who also commands, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice” (Phil. 4:4). He is the one who confesses, “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty, and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:11b-13). Happiness may be circumstantial, but joy knows only the boundaries of repentance and faith in Christ, and his ongoing work in us by his Spirit.

Therefore, the Apostle James says to the church, to brothers and sisters in Christ, yesterday, today, and tomorrow, “Count it all joy . . . when you meet trials of various kinds.” Yes, there is something more than happiness. Its source is eternal and limitless. It is known by young and old, rich and poor, at birth and death, in sickness and in health, and it matters not where you live. And even in the worst of circumstances, it radiates an unshakeable trust in our sovereign God.

Joy amidst Trials

The apostle’s charge is first to engage our minds. For this reason, I prefer the NIV’s translation of this particular verse: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds.” To consider, to think about it, perhaps even contemplate, is to engage the mind, actively directing its perspective.

The late Stephen Covey popularized the term “paradigm” with a short parable of a man riding a subway. Within him on the subway was a father with his children who were at that moment unruly, disrespectful, and disruptive. Exasperated, the man confronted the father, urging him to get control of his children. As if in another world, the father gazed back, slowly revealing that he and his children had just left the hospital where his wife had unexpectedly died. What changed on that subway was not the children’s behavior or the father’s engagement but the man’s paradigm. He considered the situation differently, his perspective changed.

Similarly, through faith the Christian’s paradigm, or perspective, graciously changes. Adversity is no longer an unexplainable, random situation disturbing peaceful life. Rather, it is a dark yet purposeful providence, ordained by our loving heavenly Father. And because of this, we are to consider adversity, those trials of various kinds, with joy.

This joy is not a more intensified “Christian” happiness. It is a fruit of the Holy Spirit that is “pure joy” or “complete joy.” This pure or complete joy is not an emotion but is, as one commentator describes it, “an unnatural reaction of deep, steady and unadulterated thankful trust in God.”[2] It doesn’t mean that you wear some silly Evangelical smile on your face, as if Jesus wants you to “fake it ‘til you make it.” No, as Solomon teaches us, this life is as varied as the trials we meet, and there is “a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance” (Eccles. 3:4). But joy may be known while we mourn and cry; only the Christian can truly cry tears of joy.

Few of us go looking for trouble, but it seems to inevitably find us, doesn’t it? Adversity is part of normal life and the Christian is certainly not exempt. James does not limit his description: adversity has many flavors. We should not consider adversity in life something out of sorts for the Christian. As the Apostle Peter encourages us, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you” (1 Pet. 4:12). No one is exempt, not our Lord or his apostles, nor we his disciples.

However, we are not to consider adversity as pure joy like some kind of masochist. No one likes adversity. No, we consider it pure joy because we trust our heavenly Father, trusting that there is sovereign purpose in the trials of life, trusting that he is growing us in his grace and granting us a joy, a joy of maturing.

Joy of Maturing

Joy amidst adversity is not arbitrary but is founded on knowing God and trusting his sovereign purpose: “for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.” What we consider is based on what we know. And what do we know?

First, “we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28). And we know, “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers” (Rom. 8:29). We also know that “those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified” (Rom. 8:30). Turns out we know a lot about what God has done, is doing, and will do in us, maturing our faith.

So, testing is not a pass/fail exam but a refining. Just as gold is refined by fire to remove the impurities, so God uses adversity to refine us, conforming us more and more to the image of Christ. We could summarize this as follows: testing is the process. Trials are the occurrence. Steadfastness is the result. And because we know this there is a joy of maturing in Christ. Charles Spurgeon wrote, “Those old gnarlings on the root of the oak tree and those strange twistings of the branches all tell of the many storms that have swept over it, and they are also indicators of the depth to which the roots have forced their way. So the Christian is made strong, and firmly rooted by all the trials and storms of life.”[3]

We call this process sanctification, growing in holiness, and to see that God is at work in us, even (or especially) in adversity, should lead us to rejoice. There is a joy of maturing in Christ that sees God at work, trusts what he is doing is for our good and his glory, and joyfully perseveres. But perseverance (or “steadfastness”) is not the ultimate objective. We do not consider the agony of adversity joy, nor the perseverance of it but are to “let steadfastness have its full [or “perfect” or “complete”] effect.” Therefore, we are to consider adversity with joy, knowing that there is purpose which is ultimately our holiness.

Joy of Holiness

Despite the consistent theme of joy throughout Scripture, for many Christians joy seems more like a standard to aspire to rather than a fruit to be enjoyed. The reason for this is easily explained but harder to accept. There is one thief of your joy: your sin. Sin negatively affects our spiritual growth, encourages our flesh, amplifies worldliness, and blinds us to the grace of the gospel.

King David encountered this when he committed adultery with Bathsheba and then tried to hide it by murdering her husband. His sin had blinded him to the truth that “The eyes of the LORD are in every place, keeping watch on the evil and the good” (Prov. 15:3). Graciously, God in his mercy confronted David leading him to a right confession of sin and repentance.

Recorded in Psalm 51, David’s prayer of confession also includes several insightful petitions, a few of which are of particular interest to our topic: He prays, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me” (Ps. 51:10). To confess our sin is essential. To ask God’s forgiveness is necessary. To repent is right. But in this we desire to be cleansed by God, fresh and anew. The heart of the Christian desires to be holy just as our Father in heaven is holy.

But David desires not only cleansing but also restoration. Listen closely to what he asks God to restore: “Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit” (Ps. 51:12). David’s sin had robbed his joy, so to speak, and so he prays for God to not only restore it but to sustain him in faithful obedience. This is not a prayer reserved for kings but for joyless saints, longing for the restoration of Christian joy.

Our holiness then is also a fight for joy in which we persevere in Christ. And our perseverance, our steadfastness, is headed toward holiness, “perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” This is not to say that we achieve perfect holiness in this earthly life, but we may confess with Paul, “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… But one thing I do: forgetting what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil 3:12).

I wonder how many Christians lead joyless lives because they wallow in the weight of their past sins. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). Repent, confess, ask for forgiveness (early and often), and pray for joy. Therefore, we are to consider the trials of this life pure joy, more than happiness, for God is at work in us for our good and his glory.

In his book, Dan Buettner narrowed his study with consistently high “happiness” ratings to Costa Rica, Denmark, and Singapore. What he didn’t study is the land of the joyful amidst trials. They are not located in one country. They don’t speak one language. They aren’t of one ethnicity or people group. No, they are the saints of the kingdom of God who consider even the darkest providences of life to be worthy of joy, pure joy, in the sovereign purpose of our holy God. Therefore, consider it pure joy, brothers and sisters, for he who redeemed you by his atoning death and victorious resurrection is sanctifying you for a glory that is forever…more than happiness.

[1] Dan Buettner, The Blue Zones of Happiness: Lessons from the World’s Happiest People (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 2017), 249.

[2] Derek Tidball, Wisdom from Heaven: The Message of the Letter of James for Today (Fearn, Scotland: Christian Focus, 2003), 22.

[3] Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Morning and Evening (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1955), 386.

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