Counting it all joy
In exhorting us to “Count it all joy…when you meet trials of various kinds,” James is laying before us one of the most difficult challenges in the Christian life (James 1:2). It is an other-worldly challenge. How can we “count it all joy” when we are going through the most heart-breaking or heart-wrenching of circumstances? How can we rejoice when the world as we know it is falling apart?
I once heard a story about a friend of mine who went to visit a member of his congregation in the hospital. The member had a young son, around 2 years old or so, and the son was dying. When this friend of mine walked into the hospital room, he saw the mother of the child sitting in a rocking chair holding her son in her arms. Almost as soon as he walked in the child took his last breath and died in his mother’s lap. As tears were streaming down her face, the mother looked up at my friend and, in the midst of incredible grief and pain, asked my friend to lead them in singing the Doxology.
It is relatively easy to “count it all joy” when things are going well around us. When God’s will matches our own will for our lives, it is easy to be a Christian and to “count it all joy.” But when those two things don’t add up—when God’s will for our lives and our will for our lives don’t match—that is when things get hard. We all marvel at those occasions, like the one described above, when we see brothers and sisters in Christ rejoicing in the midst of incredibly difficult circumstances. But how do we actually begin to do it ourselves when things fall apart in our own lives?
I think James 1:2-4 helps us to answer this question. It doesn’t do so comprehensively to be sure, but it does give us a real answer as to how we can “count it all joy” in the midst of heart-breaking circumstances. This passage has at least three things to teach us about trials and how we can consider them worthy of rejoicing in. We will look at the certainty and uncertainty of our trials; the consistency and inconsistency of our trials; and the regard and disregard we should have for our trials.
The certainty and uncertainty of our trials
The first thing we can see is that James is highlighting both the certainty and the uncertainty of our trials. Notice that James is mentioning trials right from the beginning of his epistle. He could have started out talking about sin or temptation or wisdom or the tongue or a variety of other subjects. Why start with trials? I think the answer is because he is writing to “the twelve tribes in the Dispersion” (v. 1) who are living as strangers in foreign lands and, therefore, are undergoing trials and tribulations accordingly.
But, if that is true, who exactly are the “twelve tribes in the Dispersion”? The phrase is similar to one that Peter uses at the beginning of his first letter: “elect exiles of the dispersion” (1 Pet. 1:1). We know that Peter is clearly speaking of Christians who have been scattered throughout the surrounding nations, because he then goes on to describe them by way of their “obedience to Jesus Christ” and by the fact that they have been washed “with his blood” (1 Pet. 1:2). James would seem to be using Old Testament language—“the twelve tribes”—in order to connect the Old Testament people of God to the New Testament people of God. Christians are not a separate people but, as Paul says, we are “the Israel of God” (Gal. 6:16), those who are also children of Abraham by way of our faith in Jesus Christ. By referring to Christians as “the twelve tribes,” James is focusing attention upon the certainty of the trials and tribulations that would have been experienced by Christians in the dispersion. They would be similar to those experienced by their Jewish forebears as well.
We can also see this emphasis upon the certainty of trials in James’s use of the word “when” in verse 2. He doesn’t say, “Count it all joy, my brothers, if you meet trials of various kinds” but “when you meet trials.” The trials are certain. They will happen. We can take that to the bank. It is not a question of “if” but of “when.”
James also highlights the uncertainty of our trials by speaking of them as something we “meet” (v. 2). This word occurs two other times in the New Testament: once in the Parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10 and once in the account of Paul’s shipwreck in Acts 27. In Luke 10, we read about a man who is traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho and, on the way, “meets” robbers who strip him and beat him and leave him for dead. This “meeting” certainly wasn’t scheduled, and it certainly wasn’t planned—at least not by the man who was traveling. He just happened to run into these robbers on his way to Jericho. In Acts 27, we see something similar. Here the ship on which Paul was sailing happens to “meet” a reef and is wrecked. This “meeting” was also something that wasn’t scheduled or planned by those on board. They ran into the reef accidentally and had to abandon the ship.
So too trials, according to James, are not scheduled or planned. They come into our lives when we least expect them to. They so often catch us by surprise. We don’t know when we will face trials; all we know is that we will face them, and we must be ready. There is, therefore, both a certainty and an uncertainty associated with all our trials.
The consistency and inconsistency of our trials
James tells us more than simply that trials will come; he also tells us what their consistency will be like when they do come. In vv. 2-3, James puts “trials of various kinds” and “testing of your faith” in parallel. By doing so, he is highlighting the fact that every different kind of trial that comes into our lives is a testing of our faith. The word he uses for “testing” occurs only one other place in the New Testament—in 1 Peter 1:7, which translates the word “tested genuineness.” The idea in both places is the same, namely, that trials are designed to test the genuineness of our faith. In other words, they are designed to bring us face to face with questions like, “Am I going to trust God when I don’t understand what He is doing?” or “Am I going to trust Him when things are not going the way I want them to be going, when my own will for my life doesn’t match up with God’s will for my life?” Trials will always bring us to these kinds of questions, and they will always force us to decide whether we will walk by faith or by sight in response. That is the consistency of our trials; they test the genuineness of our faith.
But James is also pointing out the inconsistency of our trials when he speaks of “trials of various kinds” in v. 2. The word “various” could also be translated “diversified” or “many-colored.” The point is that this is not a one-size-fits-all trial that we all face together. What one person goes through will be different from what someone else experiences. No doubt there will be some overlap between us. Cancer, for instance, may affect my family and many other families too. It isn’t necessarily unique to one person. But many of our trials are “diversified.” They look different and feel different for different people. We have unique personalities, unique experiences, unique education levels, unique parents, unique gifts and abilities, and unique strengths and weaknesses. So we would expect to find that our trials will be unique as well, wouldn’t we? That is precisely what James says. Our trials are inconsistent; they are not the same. They are uniquely fitted to us and to the contours of our lives.
The regard and disregard we should have for our trials
The third and final point we want to explore is the regard and disregard we should have for our trials. Let’s start with the second first. I think it is interesting what James doesn’t say here in v. 2. He doesn’t say, “It is all joy when you meet trials of various kinds.” But he does say that we are to “count it all joy.” We know that trials are not worth rejoicing in all by themselves. They don’t feel good; ever. They hurt. They bring grief and pain. Trials, in and of themselves, are not enjoyable experiences. No one in their right mind enjoys hearing that they have cancer; no one rejoices at losing a child or at having their lives turned upside down by devastating circumstances. No one likes that, because it doesn’t feel nice. It hurts. James knows this, and so he doesn’t tell us that trials are worth rejoicing in all by themselves but that we are to count them that way. We are to consider them from that point of view.
The reason we are to regard trials positively, however, is not because they are actually good and pleasant things in and of themselves. We are to regard them this way because of what God is doing in and through them. James puts it this way: “the testing of your faith produces steadfastness” (v. 3), which in turn produces maturity; we will be “perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (v. 4). How do we “count it all joy…when [we] meet trials of various kinds”? We do so by reminding ourselves of what James is saying here, namely, that none of our trials will ever be wasted. They will all be effectual unto the purposes that God intends, and one of the main purposes will always be to grow us in grace and to make us more like Christ until that day finally comes when we will be “perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”
This ought to be tremendously encouraging for every Christian. James is not telling us that we have to have stiff upper lips or that we have to suck it up and grin and bear it when we experience trials because they just might be used for our good. No, he is telling us that we can rejoice in the midst of our trials—not because they are worth rejoicing in—but because God is using them, no matter how small or how great, to bring us to maturity in the faith. That means that there is always a light at the end of the tunnel. No matter how long the darkness may last, we know it will never be the final word for us.
James begins his epistle with this incredibly challenging command. We are to “count it all joy…when we meet trials of various kinds.” As challenging as these words are, however, they are not spoken from an ivory tower, because the one who writes them is not only the half-brother of the One who was “despised and rejected…a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (Isa. 53:3), but he is also an individual who himself suffered many trials and tribulations in life and in death. History tells us two main things about James. One, James was so committed to prayer that his knees apparently looked like the knees of a camel. They were rough and calloused from years and years of continual prayer. The second thing history tells us about James is that he was put to death by the Jewish religious leaders for his faith in Jesus Christ. Eusebius in his Ecclesiastical History tells us that he was thrown down from the top of the temple. When he hit the ground, James pulled himself to his knees and actually began to pray. And, as he prayed, the Jewish religious leaders beat him to death with clubs. James was no stranger to trials. Even to the end of his life he knew what it was to “meet trials of various kinds” and his life, even in the very moment of death, modeled what it looks like to “count it all joy.”