My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience.

James 1:2-3


Lament and mourn and weep! Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. 10 Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He will lift you up.

James 4:9-10



One could easily get the impression from James 4:9-10 that James is against joy, that the Christian life is a life of constant sorrow. In context, James is commanding Christians to mourn their sins. He is addressing people who are laughing when they should be crying.

But we must remember James also commands joy. He calls us to joy in the face of trial in chapter 1.

The problem all too often is that we mourn our trials and joy in our sins. In other words, we get things backwards. James wants us to straighten out our emotions, so our emotional responses to everything we encounter in our lives is driven by God's Word.

In James 1, the point is that we can rejoice in the midst of providential hardships because these difficult struggles serve a good purpose. They make us more like Christ, who also suffered. They bring us to maturity as we walk through them faithfully. Trials are the arena in which we fight and struggle -- but we have joy before the game is over because the outcome is certain. Christians are remarkably resilient. We can suffer any "what" because we always have a "why." We may not know all the particulars -- God seems quite content to leave many things mysterious to us -- but we have been given the big picture. And having the big picture of God's purposes enables us to be cheerfully confident in the midst of whatever trials he sends us.

The point in James 4 is that we must mourn over sin. We must let our heart break over our sins, the sins of those around us, and indeed the fallenness of the world. Many people live in a context -- including a church context -- where negative emotions are not allowed. They are stigmatized. We are supposed to be happy all the time. But there is no shame in being sorrowful, provided we are sorrowing over the right things and in the right way. There is such a thing as biblically-shaped sorrow. Job was a model of patient endurance, but he cursed the day was born. Jeremiah wished he had never been born. The psalmist continually took his tears, agony, and pain before the Lord. We are never told Jesus laughed during his ministry (though he certainly did). However, we are told he wept. He did not have any sin of his own to weep over, but he still wept over sin and its effect (which is ultimately death). The apostle Paul was transparent and open about his grief on many occasions.

Of course, James goes on to show us that when we mourn our sins in humility, God is faithful to exalt us -- which includes restoring us to the joy of our salvation (cf. Psalm 51). But the only way to get that exalted joy is to pass through the valley of the shadow of death -- to feel the weight of your guilt, to own up to the shameful things you have done, to offer God the sacrifices of a broken and contrite heart. We mourn because we come to recognize that we will always be our own worst enemy and all too many times we have sabotaged out own happiness by not pursuing holiness as we should have. Only when we have experienced the gloom and doom of facing our sins squarely and admitted we deserve death and hell can we also also experience the liberation from bondage that the gospel brings. Only those who pass through the dark night of the soul can enjoy the breaking light of dawn, the new day God gives us as forgiven and restored children.

James shows us the range of Christian emotion, from joy to sorrow and back to joy. We do not let our emotions run wild -- we train them so we are joyful in the ways God says we should be joyful and sorrowful in the ways God says we should be sorrowful. But we are still emotional. There is no getting around that. Feelings matter. The goal of the Christian life is never emotional apathy. Indeed, it is a combination of emotional self-control and emotional freedom. And the Christian's emotional life is paradoxical: whereas the world rejoices in sins and mourns its trials, we do the opposite.