I remember hearing one preacher say, “just because someone is experiencing trials in life, does not mean we should immediately quote James 1:2 to them.” That is good counsel. When Mary and Martha were weeping at the death of Lazarus, Jesus did not flippantly tell them to “count it all joy.” On the contrary, he wept with them. If we are quick to give simplified answers to complex suffering, it is helpful to remember Jesus’ powerful ministry of presence and empathy with hurting people. Nevertheless, James 1 is an amazing passage that must also shape our view of trials and suffering.
James 1:2-4 Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.
This passage indicates that trials are inevitable (when not if), trials are diverse, trials produce spiritual toughness, and trials produce spiritual maturity. These precious truths undergird the exhortation to “count it all joy.” That is important to remember! The instruction to “count it all joy” comes at the beginning of the verse, but it only makes sense when you read to the end of the paragraph!
- You can count trials all joy because you understand God’s larger process
James is not commanding an irrational response to hardship with a fake smile pasted on our face. On the contrary, counting it all joy is the last step in a process because we know and understand the process itself. The command in vs. 2 is on the basis that we “know” something. What do we know? We know what God’s larger transforming, maturity-producing process:
Trials come à tests faith à produces endurance à produces spiritual maturity.
Because we know and trust in God’s process, we are able to count it all joy – even though the circumstances themselves are not joyful. A similar dynamic is found in Romans 5.
Romans 5:3-5 And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.
According to both James and Paul, what we “know” in trials makes a huge impact on our perspective. It is interesting that James does not say “feel it all joy.” Applying this passage requires a conscious choice! The word “count” calls us to view, or deem, or consider trials from a vantage point of faith as opposed to pessimism.
- You can count trials all joy because you are believers.
It’s no surprise that James uses the phrase “my brethren.” This letter was written to scattered believers. If we’re not believers, then God’s wise faith-maturing process is not working through our life trials towards the same destination! But if we are, we can be assured of his goodness working through all things. Romans 8:28 is a similar passage and treasured verse.
And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.
Some have wrongly summarized this verse to mean that “everything happens for a reason.” But that is too simplistic. For whom is this promise? Believers! “Those who love God…” Those called according to His purpose.” Believers can face trials differently because, by God’s grace, you are the “those.” Paul continues his logic, and the promise sweetens in vs. 29:
For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren; 30 and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified.
Are you a believer? Those who belong to God are being shaped and refined in this life so that by His good hand we are brought to glory and conformed to the image of Christ; Even through trials, God is relentlessly committed to our transformation. With this backdrop, believers don’t face trials with an irrationality but rather with an eternal perspective!