When trials come into our lives, James 1:2-4 is an oft-cited refuge. How much more in this season should we mine its riches to make sure we know what God thinks of our trials? Let’s take a minute to look at this wonderful passage phrase-by-phrase and think through some applications for our current moment.
“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds”
God has two commands for us in James 1:2-4. The first command is that when we meet trials of various kinds, we need to “count” (other translations “consider”) them all joy. The command itself (“count”) is worth breaking down. This is indeed a command, which means it is a choice God requires us to make.
The very fact that we need to “count” something as joy implies that it is not something we would normally see as joyful. The “trials of various kinds” are just that: trials. They are not fun; they are not easy. And yet, when we inevitably meet them, we are to look them squarely in the face and say, “I’m choosing to treat you differently than you deserve.” We are to choose joy.
“For you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.”
This phrase forms the grounds, or the reason, which God gives us for considering our trials something to rejoice in. We would have zero reason for rejoicing in difficult situations if there were not a spiritual component involved. Seriously: think of one logical reason that someone without hope in an eternal, sovereign, good, redemptive God would have for finding any joy in their suffering. Without this God, we have no other reason to live but for our own pleasure. And trials compete with pleasure. Therefore, without God, why in the world would anyone find joy or “count it all joy” when they meet trials?
But Christians know that through the redemption we have received in Christ, we have a reason to live that lasts beyond trials and even in trials. This reason is to glorify God by looking more like his son (2 Cor. 5:9). And according to our passage, trials make us look more like his son. God uses these trials to test our faith and build in us greater endurance (“steadfastness”).
At this point, one might wonder why steadfastness is such a great prize. But seen through spiritual lenses, we see that steadfastness is an even greater prize than comfort and ease. Why?
- Steadfastness is a fruit of the spirit: It is continued evidence of our faith and our growth in Christ (Gal. 5:22-23).
- Steadfastness creates in us the ability to endure more trials: A Christian understanding of the world recognizes that trials are not the exception, but the rule. If we get through this trial, there will be more coming. Don’t you want to be ready? Then, James tells us, count it all joy.
“And let steadfastness have its full effect”
God’s second command, however, adds a bit of pressure to the first. This command seems to imply that we have a part to play in how much our trials actually produce sanctification. Stated another way: our effort can help or hinder our sanctification. We know this because James tells us to “let” steadfastness have its full effect. This is not a passive action, as if we are to simply stand by and allow God to build steadfastness in us. Rather, it is an active command to participate in the process in order for us to receive the full benefit of the trial.
But what does it look like to participate in the process? It seems this is, at least in part, another way of saying, “Count it all joy” When we choose joy in the midst of trial, we declare our trust in God’s promises. When we find the joy before us, we also agree that the results of those promises are good. On the other hand, when we complain, turn inward, or lash out at those around us, we show our lack of trust and appreciation for what God is intending in this trial. The degree to which we are willing to “count it all joy” is the degree to which we are able to receive the blessing of sanctification God intends in every trial.
“That you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”
This final phrase expresses the results of actively participating in the sanctification process. The result is that Christians would be “perfect” and “complete,” which is another way of saying “lacking in nothing.” Does this mean we can be perfect in this life? No, but this fact does not diminish God’s high calling on our lives. We are to pursue holiness in this life, not to become saved, but because we are saved.
God has made us perfect in Christ, and yet we still live imperfect lives. But our inability to act perfectly should not diminish our need to seek personal holiness wholeheartedly. God is holy. We want to be like him. Therefore, we run after holiness as hard as we can until the day we finally meet him.
James assumes that his Christian readers have this goal. He holds out the hope that our trials will produce in us steadfastness, which in turn will make us look more like Jesus. We will be “perfect” and “complete” in the sense that we will be consistently obedient to God’s commands—not perfectly but seeking in every way to conform our lives to be like Christ’s.
This is the hope of every Christian. And it can be the blessed result of our trials. We can find joy if we are to simply count our trials as joy.
What Does This Mean for Today?
Two immediate applications to our current moment come to mind:
- Rejoice in the hope you have, a hope that extends beyond circumstances: We are certainly in a trial. The effects of COVID-19 are far-reaching and affect you uniquely. Maybe your trial is job loss, or relational difficulty, or the virus itself. Without a hope beyond your circumstances, you would have every reason to despair. Yet, in Jesus, we have a treasure that does not wilt in trial. We can be completely counterintuitive and countercultural when we look at our circumstances and say, “Praise God for COVID-19.”
- Take this time to reformulate your goal in life: If you were honest with yourself before COVID-19, what would you say was your goal in life? Comfort, ease, or maybe a little appreciation from others? You can’t very well find joy in those fleeting things. How about personal holiness for the sake of God’s glory? Our current moment provides us an opportunity to reflect on what we really value. Because the reason God gives us for choosing joy in trial is not the promise of things getting better again. Instead, he promises us the ability to endure more trial and the resultant sanctification. Does this thought bring you joy? Maybe it’s time to “let steadfastness have its full effect.”