“We even take pride (“boast,” same Greek word as in v.2) in our problems” (better, “sufferings,” the difficulties we encounter for Christ’s sake). “Boast is our distress for being faithful followers of Jesus” (see also James 1:2)? Are we to be spiritual masochists? Martyrdom seekers? Here we get to a frequently misunderstood one of the deep roots of Christian existence.
To make matters worse, in the note on Romans 5:1-11 the word “boast” is called one of the “noisiest” words Paul could find to express his exuberance here. This is not just accepting or tolerating, or bearing up under, or even being thankful – this is exuberance!
So what is joy that is can be experienced and even celebrated by the church in turmoil and under distress and suffering? Theologian Miroslav Volf offers wise guidance on joy for us (https://www.bigquestionsonline.com/content/what-difference-between-joy-and-happiness).
Volf identifies four elements of joy:
-it is an emotion not a feeling
“Feelings are bodily reactions, and they have causes: a feather under my nose causes a tickle, for instance. Emotions are active responses, and they have objects; a child is born, and I rejoice over the event. That said, joy certainly does involve positive feelings.”
-it is a positive construal of its object
“I can perceive an event—the birth of a child, for instance—as something good or as something unbearably burdensome. I will rejoice over it only if I perceive it as good.”
- its object is experienced as a given delight
“Equally importantly, joy construes its objects as wondrous, un-owed; joy wells up in me when I see myself or those for whom I care as having had a good fortune or having been blessed.”
- it depends both on its object and on my subjective valuation of them
“If I find a desirable item on my table and construe it as a gift, I will rejoice; if I construe it as a bribe, I will become disturbed. On the one hand, joy is not.”
Volf summarizes: joy is an “emotional attunement between the self and the world—usually a small portion of it—experienced as blessing.”
Taking Paul’s (and James’) conviction here in this light, it appears that joy (as opposed to happiness which is situation-dependent) is a positive embrace of suffering, distress, trials, etc. generated by faithful Christian living and witness because we belong to Christ in God’s family and we have caught a glimpse of what is coming and are therefore willing to endure, even celebrate, the path toward that future, suffering and all. Listen to him in Romans 8:17-18:
“But if we are children, we are also heirs. We are God’s heirs and fellow heirs with Christ, if we really suffer with him so that we can also be glorified with him. I believe that the present suffering is nothing compared to the coming glory that is going to be revealed to us.”
Joy in suffering is not a pathological seeking and or enjoyment of suffering. Rather it is a genuine sense of solidarity with Christ and his work in the world and a bearing of the suffering Jesus himself predicted would come with that (John 13:16-18). We can be confident, hopeful, and put a positive valuation on our suffering and hurt (not goods in themselves) by what they intimate about our companionship with Christ and the great future that awaits us and our world (see also Hebrews 12:2).
Such is our “boast” in our suffering. 5:3-5 spells out a practical way that suffering shapes us into Christlikeness built on this more general conviction about the place of suffering in Christian existence.