• The Bible Studies for Life lesson for Sept. 1 focuses on James 1.
One of the most difficult times in our marriage and ministry came about three years into our first pastorate. My husband entered a period of burnout and depression. It’s more common than you might think.
According to Focus on the Family, 45 percent of ministers have experienced depression or burnout to the degree they needed to take a leave of absence. Despite this, ministerial depression is not a topic discussed frequently in most churches. It caught us unprepared.
We sought help from the Baptist General Convention of Texas. My husband slowly began climbing his way out of the pit with the help of the counselor and resources they provided for us. Together, we began to set new boundaries, and he was able to change thought patterns and habits that had contributed to the depression.
Isolated and alone
Those changes were good, but in the midst of it, I felt isolated and alone. I was angry—at my husband for not doing more to help himself; at our church for not seeing our struggle; at God for allowing the whole mess in the first place. I never allowed myself to consider divorce, but there were days I simply wanted out. It felt like my prayers were the only lifeline keeping me from going under. I believed God was faithful, but sometimes, I wasn’t sure we were going to survive the season of trial.
I can’t say I responded to that season of trial with joy. Desperation is a better description. Still, God was real to me during that season. He gave me the strength to face each day. He helped me remain faithful in the midst of difficulties. He was comforter and friend at a time I felt very alone.
On this side of it, I can say our marriage is stronger for having survived that season. My husband is a better minister for having walked through that time of trial. I don’t believe God sent that season of depression and burnout, but I can say God used it to refine our faithfulness. When God makes himself real to us in the midst of trials, that is reason to rejoice.
No stranger to trials
The first readers of James’ letter were no strangers to trials. Jewish believers who had fled persecution, they now were living as strangers and aliens outside of their homeland. They knew poverty and oppression. Rich people took advantage of them and hauled them into court. People mocked their faith (James 2:6-7, 5:4-6). Suffering was a part of daily life.
When writing to people experiencing suffering, most of us would offer words of comfort and hope. James told those suffering believers to “consider it pure joy … whenever you face trials of many kinds (v. 2). Joy is more than happiness; it is the pleasure found in experiencing the presence of God.
In Jewish thought, some teachers considered joy the opposite of fear. Some might consider poverty, oppression and persecution good reason to fear, but James tells them to consider their trials “pure joy.” How is it even possible?
Trials are an occasion for joy, because they are an opportunity to demonstrate godly character (vv. 3-4). When our faith is tested, we are presented with the opportunity to make a choice: Right now, in this situation, will I choose to be faithful? Choosing faithfulness even when it is costly develops perseverance. As we choose faithfulness and persevere in the face of trials, perseverance works in us to develop maturity and completeness.
Though the NIV translates it “mature,” some translations use the word “perfect.” In the Old Testament, God commanded his people to “be holy, because I am holy” (Leviticus 19:2). Jesus also echoed this thought: “be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).
The idea of perfection was linked closely with holiness: being perfect or complete as in lacking no quality of godly character. God’s holiness also can be described as completion. God lacks nothing and needs nothing. Our holiness is dependent on his. A “mature and complete” person is characterized by an undivided heart, someone fully devoted to God.
We can rejoice in the face of trials because those trials provide us with the opportunity to demonstrate our devotion. Like crushed fruit produces juice, pressure reveals what is in us. When we remain faithful under trials, we reveal Christ to a watching world.
God uses difficulties and trials to refine us. Trials reveal where we still need to grow in faith and give us the opportunity to be shaped into the image of God. Persevering through trials helps us reach maturity in the eyes of God.
Consider trials ‘pure joy’
We may not experience the kinds of pressures those early believers were acquainted with. Yet the language is broad enough for us to place our own pressures alongside this verse. Cancer, financial difficulty, marital stress, loss of a job, loss of a loved one, chronic pain, depression—we can consider these trials all “pure joy.”
All these situations provide us with the opportunity to discover who God wants to be to us in our time of trial. Protector, provider, sustainer, comforter or healer—God does not abandon us in times of trial but gives us the strength to respond in faith and endure. When we experience his strength sustaining us in times of trial, we should consider it pure joy.