Features, Pastorate, Preaching, Theology

Joy in Trials?

James loves to exhort his readers. 59 times in 108 verses, in fact. James is relentless in his drive to get us to live out our faith in God-honoring ways. Most of the time we have no trouble with his exhortations. After all, what Christian objects to asking God for wisdom (1:5), being quick to hear and slow to anger (1:19), putting away wickedness (1:21), being a doer of the word and not a hearer only (1:22), caring for orphans and widows (1:27), and avoiding worldliness (1:27)? To these exhortations we say, “Amen.” It’s when James starts talking about trials that we get a bit uncomfortable.

Consider his opening words:

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing (1:2-4).

What immediately causes some cognitive dissonance is the association of joy with trials. Upon reading this, the reader is tempted to dismiss James altogether as a reliable counselor or take offense at his apparent naive callousness toward people’s pain. To make it still worse for James, we should remember the situation of his original readers. He was addressing “the twelve tribes in the Dispersion” (1:1). What do we know about this dispersed or scattered group of Jewish Christians?

In making a profound theological point about who constitutes the true Israel, James compares the scattered and persecuted church of Christ to the twelve tribes of Israel that had been scattered throughout the world through the oppression of the Assyrians and Babylonians. His audience would understand this comparison as they identified as the true Israel of God in Christ. Christians, James knows, are sojourners and exiles living away from their heavenly home even as they await the glorious return of the Lord to gather his people to himself. But even as this ingathering is assured, the present pilgrimage to our heavenly home is wrought with “many dangers, toils, and snares.” Followers of Christ are called to “go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come” (Hebrews 13:13-14). Indeed, on our way to the city of God, we meet trials of various kinds as we live in solidarity with Christ in his suffering and death.

James is not naive. As a leader in the Jerusalem church for nearly two decades, James would shepherd God’s people through countless struggles and fears and hurts. In connecting joy to trials James is not crazy, he’s serving as a faithful pastor.

James is helping his readers step back and see the redemptive purpose of God in our trials – a purpose we need to help our people see as well if they would live as faithful pilgrims on the King’s way. In vv. 2-4 James gives us two exhortations and two corresponding explanations that move toward a glorious climax. It’s as if we’re ascending Mount Everest with the promise of a breathtaking view that more than justifies the excruciating climb.

The first exhortation James gives is, “Count it all joy, my brothers, whenever you meet trials of various kinds” (v. 2). The word translated ‘count’ carries with it the idea of ‘deliberate consideration’ or ‘measured judgment.’ And James’ idea of ‘joy’ is not some thin worldly happiness (like R.E.M.’s ‘Shiny Happy People’ from the 1991 song of the same name). Christians are far too honest about the realities of a fallen world for that. Christian joy, likewise, is not stoicism or emotional detachment or denial. And we do not rejoice in the trial itself. Christian joy exists alongside sorrow and grief and pain (cf. 2 Cor. 6:10 “sorrowful yet always rejoicing”). Christian joy is a serious happiness that is realistic about the trials that come in a fallen world, but also intensely confident that God is sovereign over them. This leads us to James’ explanation of why joy in trials.

James explains why Christians should count it all joy whenever we meet trials. The reason is because of something his readers know: “for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness” (v. 3). This ‘test’ of our faith is producing ‘steadfastness’ or ‘perseverance’ or ‘fortitude’ or ‘endurance.’ This testing is intended to make our faith strong. The background is likely the Refiner’s fire from Proverbs 17:3, “The crucible is for silver, and the furnace is for gold, and the Lord tests hearts.” God is doing a refining work so that our faith is rid of all impurities, leaving steadfastness through the fire. The Christian knows these tests are given by the hand of the loving, merciful, gracious, Almighty God. Indeed, our heavenly Father stands behind every trial and test, refining our faith so that it is strong and steadfast.

Knowing this, William Cowper, no stranger to suffering, was able to write in 1774 one of the great hymns of the church “God Moves in a Mysterious Way”:

God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea
And rides upon the storm.

Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never failing skill
He treasures up His bright designs
And works His sovereign will.

Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break
In blessings on your head.

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.

His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flower.

Blind unbelief is sure to err
And scan His work in vain;
God is His own interpreter,
And He will make it plain.

Pastor James continues to help us on our climb by offering another exhortation and explanation. He exhorts, “And let steadfastness have its full effect” (v. 4). What we see with James is that steadfastness is no passive thing. Perseverance, in other words, is strong and active. We are called to endure in the right path even when difficult. Like a good shepherd, James exhorts us to not try to short-circuit the gracious process of our Lord in trials. Of course, we try to do this in manifold ways. We may try to deny the trial by pretending it’s not there. Or, we may try avoid it by doing everything imaginable to get-out-of-the-way of it. Or, we try to speed it up as if we, and not God, were sovereign over it. In our arrogance we simply say, “Ok, I’m done with this. The trial is over.” (I see people trying this with quarantines, lockdowns, and COVID.) But James will have none of this for steadfastness is not the end for James, but something far greater.

James explains what the “full effect” of steadfastness is: “that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (v. 4). The “full effect” of steadfastness is ‘perfection,’ ‘completeness,’ ‘lacking in nothing.’

This is nothing less than Christlikeness – being as much like Christ as glorified human beings ever could be. This is what God’s salvation is accomplishing in us. And James isn’t alone in this thinking. Consider Paul’s words in Romans 8:29, “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” Like James, Paul would have us see the “big picture” of our salvation. We will glorify God by perfectly reflecting his character throughout eternity so that he is the preeminent One among an innumerable host of “the righteous [who] will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (Matthew 13:43). We are now at the summit. And pastors help their people take in the view.

To make the point still more emphatic, James says, “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” (1:12). It is this eschatological perfection that provides the ultimate framework for James. Without an appreciation for this eternal perspective in James, the idea of joy in trials is at best nonsensical, at worst, offensive.

Where did James get this vision of trials? What had he been taught, and what had he witnessed, that led him to write such audacious things about suffering?

OUR JOYFUL, SUFFERING SERVANT

Our joy in trials is blood bought. Indeed, this was the way of Christ. In Isaiah 53:11 we learn that it was only out of an anguished soul that the Lord was satisfied. And in Hebrews 12:2 we are reminded that the joy of the ascension comes only through the agony of the cross. It is the loving pastor who helps God’s people see that the journey through suffering and to glory that Christ walked, is the same journey we are called to walk by faith.

Notice, for example, how explicitly Paul makes this connection: “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Romans 8:16-17). We are fellow heirs with Christ in his glory “provided we suffer with him.” The road to glory is paved with trials of various kinds.

James is not crazy in his talk of joy in trials. On the contrary, he’s a faithful pastor. As co-laborers with James, pastors today must help God’s people see trials in their redemptive context. In the company of suffering saints, pastors exhort their churches to imagine a day when we will be perfected in Christ, complete in Christ, lacking nothing in Christ. A day when our faith will no longer need to be tested for it will have resulted in perfect praise and honor and glory to the One who authored it.

May that day come soon.

Filed under: Features, Pastorate, Preaching, Theology
Michael Pohlman

Michael Pohlman (PhD, Southern Seminary) is professor of Preaching and Pastoral Ministry and chair of the Department of Ministry and Proclamation at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is founder and executive director of Some Pastors and Teachers.