Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds . . . (James 1:2)
In and of themselves, our hardships are emphatically not joyful. That’s part of what makes them hard. What could it mean, then, in circumstances like these, to “count it all joy”?
When James charges us to “count it all joy,” he does not mean it all — all our pain, all our trials, all our hardship — is joy in and of itself. Pain is pain, not joy. Trials are trying, not sources of pleasure. Rather, what James has for us — and what the gospel of Christ provides — is a lens on life, and a true vantage point on reality, through which even life’s most painful trials have a vital part to play in our joy.
And not just “even,” but “especially.” In God’s strange and wonderful ways of ruling this world, life’s most painful trials serve a special purpose for our good. God often draws his straightest lines from life’s greatest difficulties to our deepest and sweetest joys. And not just in the long run, but even in the midst of trial. When trials assault our surface pleasures, we’re pressed to consider our deepest, fullest, richest treasures — and to tap those roots for sustenance in ways we simply do not when all is well.
Don’t think that James only has little trials in view here. He says “trials of various kinds” because he means the big ones, too. It can be easy to see how God is at work in life’s little inconveniences, but our greatest tragedies press the hardest, darkest questions on our soul.
Has God abandoned me? Is he really in charge and also good? Is he even there?
James will not have us relegate his charge to “count it all joy” simply to the easy stuff. The very issue at stake is the hardest things — the “trials” of tragedy, loss, distress, despondency, and long-term despair.
Verse 2 may be straightforward enough, but our souls need more than just a command to own this and see it come to life in us. Our minds and hearts need reasons, or at least a reason. Which is exactly what James supplies in what immediately follows.
We could rehearse many of the clear biblical reasons why we can “count it all joy” when we encounter various trials. “We know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). We can write over every trial, “This light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Corinthians 4:17). And we can say with the apostle, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18). Or with Jesus, “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven” (Matthew 5:12).
But James has something particular in mind: “for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness” (James 1:3).
“Steadfastness” is not a word we use frequently today, and so likely this does not feel especially compelling at first glance. Another word for it would be endurance. Endurance on its own isn’t necessarily desirable (for instance, enduring in error). What makes it compelling is what we endure in. And what James has in view is very clear: faith in Christ. And for Christians, enduring in faith is what life is all about. If we do not endure in faith, we will be on the wrong side of what matters most in the universe: being right with God, and enjoying him forever, in Jesus.
In other words, one of the things God is doing when he tests our faith is he is preserving our faith. When he lovingly brings trials into our lives — and he does so lovingly for all who are in Jesus — he is working for us, and in us, one of the greatest goods imaginable. When he tests us, he is taking action to keep us. And he keeps us not just by protecting our present level of faith, and not just by growing, enriching, developing, and maturing our faith. But in testing our faith, he is keeping it alive.
God’s preserving work in us through our pain and difficulty is essential to what matters most, and James makes that connection explicit: “Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him” (James 1:12).
Faith does not flourish when it lies untested. It atrophies when it goes un-exercised. And eventually it dies. So, when God loves us with his saving love, and gives us saving faith, he commits, because he cares for us, to inject our lives with various trials to train, grow, sweeten, strengthen, and mature what matters most in us. Our “various trials” in this life are not superfluous to our enduring in faith. And they are not just threats to losing our faith. They are one of God’s essential means through which he preserves the faith he has given us and keeps us as his own.
Strange as it may seem, one of the primary purposes of being shaken by suffering is to make our faith more unshakable.
Faith is like muscle tissue: if you stress it to the limit, it gets stronger, not weaker. That’s what James means here. When your faith is threatened and tested and stretched to the breaking point, the result is greater capacity to endure. He calls it steadfastness.
God loves faith so much that he will test it to the breaking point so as to keep it pure and strong.
For example, he did this to Paul according to 2 Corinthians 1:8–9,
We do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.
The words “but that was to” show that there was a purpose in this extreme suffering: it was in order that — for the purpose that — Paul would not rely on himself and his resources, but on God — specifically the promised grace of God in raising the dead.
God so values our wholehearted faith that he will, graciously, if necessary, take away everything else in the world that we might be tempted to rely on — even life itself. His aim is that we grow deeper and stronger in our confidence that he himself will be all we need.
He wants us to be able to say with the psalmist, “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Psalm 73:25–26).
My first thought upon reading these verses is that steadfastness had better be worth it. Be joyful in the midst of your pain, because it will give way to steadfastness? Really?
In order to understand what James is doing, let’s put three definitions underneath all of this. “Joy” is not glib, naive happiness. The Bible refers to joy as contentment in Christ above all else. “Steadfastness” carries similar connotations. It means to be confidently rooted in Christ; in other words, it means that all of our confidence comes from belonging to him, not depending on our own effort or resources. “Faith” is believing that the promises of God that we cannot yet see or feel as reality will someday come true, because he said so.
Now, we can rephrase what James is telling us, and ask how it is possible to live out these words. He is saying, “Seek to be happy in Christ above anything else, and you will find that, even in trials, He will prove Himself and make His promises real to you again.” By implication, then, it will be worth it. All of it will be worth it.
I have personally wrestled with these things. I was born with a spinal defect called Spina Bifida, which took away my ability to walk a few years ago. Amidst approximately 20 surgeries and daily inconveniences, the question of “Why?” has arisen in my heart more than once. What’s the point, the end of all this? Ultimately, the answer has always come back, “Jesus is the point.” I am constantly reminded of how he has worked, of all the people I would have never met, and opportunities I would have never had if I hadn’t been given a disability. But this is not some inspirational story about a human being. This is a miraculous story about God.
See, the idea that “joy is a choice” is an incomplete truth. I can choose joy in having Spina Bifida, and you can choose joy in your trial, only if God gives our hearts joy. Joy is not simply one in a buffet of virtues, from which we can take at random as we feel the urge. It’s not a light switch we can simply flip on in our minds. This is where faith and steadfastness come in.
If God does the miracle of changing our hearts, and if He gives us the gift of faith, we will have the eyes to see where all of our pain is going. To know that whatever suffering we endure really is working for our good. To see that Jesus shows Himself to us more profoundly in our trials, and that this changes everything. To place our confidence in Him; really believing it doesn’t matter if everything is perfect here, because this world is not our home. Our hope is not in the things of this world. James goes on to write that the one without faith will be “like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind.” Only if God causes our hearts to remain steadfast will we be able to rest joyfully even when our world is caving in. Only if He does all of these things in our hearts can we “choose joy” in our suffering.
Conclusion? Oh, suffering saint, you must pray. I must pray. We must pray together for eyes of faith, hearts of steadfastness. We must seek God in our trials, asking Him for the faith to know He is in the fire with us, and the joy to believe that this is enough. In the end, brothers and sisters, we will see our Savior with unveiled faces. We will know, then, that it was worth it. That He is worth it.
But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him. James 1:5
Life is full of pitfalls and snares, and we often make wrong choices, but it is comforting to know that no matter what trials we may be called upon to face, or what foolish choices we have made in the past, we can go to the Lord and ask Him for godly insight and spiritual understanding, and He has promised to give us all that is needed for the task.
In this passage, James, the half-brother of the Lord Jesus, is particularly referencing the wisdom we need when compassed about by the various difficulties we encounter in our everyday lives and the tough choices we are all required to make. James was at enmity with God and scornful towards his older sibling. It must have been shocking for this young man to discover that the brother whom he had treated with such contempt, during his life, was his Lord and his Savior.
This bond-servant of Christ may have lacked wisdom in his earlier days but was ready to admit his folly and willing to share with us how easy it is to gain godly wisdom and spiritual understanding. James began his lesson on wisdom by pointing out that the suffering of this life produces patient endurance, which will furnish us with spiritual maturity
There are times when we do not know what to do or which way to turn, and I am sure that James was shocked and mortified when the resurrected Christ visited his petulant, younger brother. But James was a young man with a teachable spirit, who was quick to embrace the wisdom of faith he lacked, and encourages those of us who are deficient in spiritual insight to ask the Lord for the necessary wisdom we need – and not to doubt that He will provide for us liberally.
God knows that we are weak and frail and He knows that the testing our faith can cause us to complain or murmur or to become unsteady in our Christian walk.. but God provides all the wisdom we need to maintain a steady heart, patient endurance, and an unwavering, un-compromised faith in Him. God delights to give generously to all who ask – but we must be prepared to ask Him, to listen to His voice, and to obey His Word.
Have we ever ached for stability as much as we do now — for the semblance of some new normal, for a return, unmasked and un-distanced, to human life?
Many of us alive today have lived through little societal turmoil and upheaval. We have not endured wars on our native soil. Until now, we have not faced anything like a global pandemic months on end, and the uncertainty and chaos it’s brought around the world, even to the seemingly steadiest of societies.
In wisdom and love, Jesus allowed Peter to be sifted (Luke 22:31). So too his church has been sifted in these days. Our plans, our work, our finances, our relationships, our information sources, our preferences — we have seen that many of the structures and seeming givens in our world are not as sure and steady as we assumed. The instability has exposed a softness, fickleness, and frailty in those around us, and in our own selves. Some humble, long-overlooked saints are shining like never before. Other people have been washed away, revealing they had built their lives on sand.
The stability we need most in days like these, however, is not first and foremost our own. We need the fulfillment of the great prophetic promise that our God “will be the stability of your times” (Isaiah 33:6). How does he do that? We look first to a stability outside ourselves. The old word for it is steadfastness, as Paul prays,
May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and to the steadfastness of Christ. (2 Thessalonians 3:5)
In their respective Christian virtue-progressions, Peter, Paul, and James all highlight the need for endurance, or steadfastness (Greek hupomoné) — the ability to bear up under trial. “Make every effort to supplement your . . . self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness” (2 Peter 1:5–6). “Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character” (Romans 5:3–4). “The testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:3–4).
Steadfastness, holding fast, is a critical facet of Christian maturity. We do not become complete or godly without it.
The virtue of steadfastness presupposes such waves, big and small — trials, conflicts, difficulties, pressures that would move the ship, and even send her out to sea, were it not for the steadfast anchor, holding the vessel firmly in place. Peter, Paul, and James mention the waves that threaten to carry us away: “our sufferings” (Romans 5:3), “trials of various kinds” (James 1:2) , “the corruption that is in the world” (2 Peter 1:4). Steadfastness isn’t a virtue that shines in comfort but in conflict — under trial (James 1:12), in persecutions, afflictions, and sufferings (2 Thessalonians 1:4; 2 Timothy 3:10–11).