How do you help believers overwhelmed by a whirlwind of trials benefit from what the New Testament writers have to say about joy?
First, keep in mind the nature of biblical joy:
- Joy is fueled by valuing what God values so that as we see Him at work, there is a genuine excitement about what He is accomplishing. Consequently, without submitting to the Spirit and avoiding the desires of the “flesh,” joy will be elusive (Gal. 5:16–23).
- Joy has a different focal point from generic happiness. Happiness arises from circumstances that we find favorable for us. Christians’ joy certainly overlaps with happiness in this regard, but joy can exist in a distressing circumstance as long as believers focus on God’s promises, love, and faithfulness. There can be an excitement about how God will use the distressing circumstances for His glorious purposes (Heb. 12:2; James 1:2–5; 1 Pet. 1:3–9).
- Joy is commanded in the New Testament (e.g., 1 Thess. 5:16–18; Phil. 4:4; James 1:2), but it is important to recognize that the imperatives are reasonable only because of the writers’ conclusions about the Lord’s character and His purposes for us. The commands to rejoice are, in effect, calls to nurture a mind-set centered on Him. Pastors can do that preemptively in their preaching and in various other educational venues. However, to use the imperatives with someone overwhelmed by a trial is insensitive (contrary to the spirit of 1 Thess. 5:14) and unlikely to be processed in ways that are consistent with the Scriptures.
Second, empathy with someone in distress is always the first order of care (Rom. 12:15). Take the time necessary to hear about the details of the trial, how it is affecting the person now, what fears it might have generated about the future, etc. Asking questions about these matters can demonstrate you are actually interested, and it can help the person focus attention on issues that will eventually need to be addressed.
Third, as issues to be addressed emerge, offering practical assistance (doing chores, running errands, etc.) could be a powerful demonstration of God’s love (John 13:34–35; 1 John 3:17–18).
Fourth, as questions about how to understand the trial emerge, agree to set up a time to discuss those questions. Depending on the level of distress, the person might not be in the frame of mind needed for such a conversation right away.17 When those questions are discussed, begin by finding out how the person currently is thinking about the trial. Is God a part of the person’s thinking? If so, is the person’s thinking about the Lord consistent with the Bible? If not, explore where this type of thinking originated. (If it came from a trusted source in his or her past, that will be important to know as you respond.) Pick one or two passages that you think will help shift the person’s thinking in a more helpful direction. But again, ask what the person understands the passage(s) to be communicating and how the passage(s) might relate to this trial. End the conversation with drawing attention to the love, the faithfulness, and the goodness of God. If you can point to tangible evidences of God at work, do so—with a sense of excitement, gratitude, or wonder—that is to say, with joy.