Does James Say Not to Pursue Joy?
Joseph from Atlanta writes in to ask about James 4:9–10, which says, “Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.” Joseph asks, “It seems rather explicit that James is saying to not be joyful. Pastor John, in light of this text, are there times when the pursuit of joy in God isn’t the chief goal in every season of life? Or are the two cohesive?”
That is a sharp observation. I love questions like that. Anything that helps me take my Christian hedonism deeper by wrestling with seeming contradictions is just great. So here we have the question: “How can you say, ‘Seek to be happy in God,’ Piper, and at the same time with the text say, ‘Be wretched, mourn, weep. Let your joy be turned to gloom’? That is the opposite of be happy, isn’t it? ‘Let your joy be turned to gloom.’”
Who He’s Talking To
Let’s stay with the text. I don’t think it is good to run away from texts that feel problematic. Stay with them. In James 4:4, he is talking to people who are adulterers. He says, “You adulteresses” — it is a feminine word, really — “You adulteresses, do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God?” He is talking to people who are finding their joy by using God as their so-called husband to get money and go out and make friends with the world. They are making a cuckold out of God. They are cheating on him, and those are the people that are being spoken to.
James 4:6 says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” So he is talking to proud people. Verse 8 follows, “Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.” And let’s back up with these adulteress people. Half the time they are in bed with God, and half the time they are in bed with the world. They are double-minded. So that is the context when he says, “Let your laughter be turned to mourning.”
This is not wholesome laughter. This is not godly laughter. This is the laughter of an unfaithful wife in a bar with her boyfriend. This is sinful laughter. They are laughing behind the backs of the employees that they are treating unjustly. They are not taking joy in God. They are not treasuring God. And that is why he calls them adulteresses and double-minded.
So Joseph asks, “Are there times when the pursuit of joy in God isn’t the chief goal in every season of life, every situation?” That is a really good question. And let’s just drop the word chief for a minute, because that is a little ambiguous to me. I will come back to it.
Here is my admission — my concession, because I think it is biblical. There are times when the most immediate goal is to stop being happy in the world. Stop being happy in sin. Start weeping over dishonoring God by finding happiness in things. That is what the text is saying. Yes, right now, stop that happiness. Stop that laughter. Be brokenhearted. Don’t rejoice.
But, Joseph, the ultimate aim here — and maybe I would even say the chief aim, depending on what you mean by chief — the chief goal at this moment that James is after is not their long-term misery. He wants them to start honoring God by finding pleasure in their husband. Get back in bed with your husband and stay there. Don’t go cheat on God by finding pleasure in what he has declared to be sin.
So the pathway to that joy is sorrow, and that reminds us of another text, doesn’t it? Second Corinthians 7:10 says, “Godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation.” That is joy. And “worldly grief produces death.”
So when James says, “Stop rejoicing, weep, be broken hearted, don’t take joy anymore,” he means, “Start having godly grief for your sin.” Godly grief leads to repentance, and repentance leads to salvation, and salvation is full of joy. So even in the summons to be broken, the summons to weep, he is pursuing our joy.