Count it all joy
by Edgar Andrews
‘My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the test of your faith produces patience’ (James 1:2-3)
As James launches his epistle he immediately brings us face to face with harsh reality – the Christian life is not easy.
The word ‘trial’ can also be translated ‘temptation’ or ‘test’. The King James Version says ‘temptations’, but James is not speaking here about temptation to sin but rather about trials and tests. He is talking about the difficulties, problems and obstacles we encounter in life.
Persecution was a first-hand experience for many members of the early church. The very fact that the Jewish Christians to whom James wrote had been scattered abroad (1:1) is an indication of that. They had been uprooted from their homes and driven to the four corners of the Roman Empire by bitter persecution.
Yet the writer can still say, ‘My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials’. He does not say, ‘grin and bear it’ or ‘keep a stiff upper lip’. He does not just advise his readers to be submissive and endure trials (although we do have to be resigned and submissive to the providence of God).
What James teaches here is something far more radical – we must count it joy! He tells us to react to trials and problems, not with sadness or regret, but joyfully.
Living in the real world
Our first response might be: ‘James, you don’t live in the real world; you have no idea of the problems I face. If you did, you could not possibly talk in this fashion’. But we would be wrong.
James most certainly knew what he was talking about. It is the uniform teaching of the New Testament that difficulties, persecutions and problems will afflict every Christian, and our experience today is no different from that of the early church.
What should you do when trouble comes? James says respond with joy. That is an unexpected piece of advice. We do not naturally greet our troubles joyfully. We react happily to the pleasures and good events of life. We all know how to do that.
But this man is telling us to be joyful in every circumstance – particularly in our trials and troubles! How can James say such a thing?
Trials purify our faith
The answer is that, in the providence of a sovereign God, trials purify our faith in Jesus Christ. That is the purpose of the trial. This is made clear in verses 2-3: ‘My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience’. The trial, then, is a test – an examination – of our faith.
Clearly, faith can only be tested if it exists in the first place. There is, sadly, no comfort in these verses for the unbeliever. There is no joy to be found in the trials of life by one who does not trust in Christ.
James is talking only to those who are his ‘brethren’ – people who by God’s grace have become brothers and sisters in the family of God and share a mutual love for the Lord Jesus Christ.
They have been brought into a personal relationship with him through a mighty work of God. They were once rebels and sinners like others but they have been ‘born again’ – ‘regenerated’ by the Spirit of God.
They have been raised from spiritual death to spiritual life through the knowledge of Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2:4-5). These people have been made children of God by adoption, and have become brothers and sisters of Christ (Galatians 4:5). They have received the gift of faith in Christ (Ephesians 2:8). It is only to such people that James can offer the consolation of joy in trouble.
Gold tried in the fire
James’ message of comfort, then, is addressed to those who have faith. And if we have faith, say the Scriptures, it is sure to be tested. Peter explains the matter at length.
‘Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who, according to his abundant mercy, has begotten us again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance incorruptible and undefiled and that does not fade away, reserved in heaven for you … In this you greatly rejoice’ (1 Peter 1:3).
That is fair enough. It is entirely logical to rejoice in God’s gracious work of salvation and the inheritance he has prepared for his people. But Peter does not stop there. He goes on, ‘though now for a little while, if need be, you have been grieved by various trials’.
I do not think Peter is speaking about a month or a year when he says ‘a little while’. He is talking about the whole duration of our residence here on earth. Though this may seem to us a long time rather than a little, it is short compared with eternity. Throughout our life on earth, warns Peter, we shall be subject to trials.
But then he reveals the purpose of the trials: ‘that the genuineness of your faith, being much more precious than gold which perishes, though it be tested by fire, may be found to praise, honour and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ’.
Quite plainly, the purpose of trials is to refine and purify our faith. To remove the dross until the image of Christ is reflected in our lives (cf. Galatians 4:19). And that is very important, because it demonstrates that trials come from above, from the hand of God himself.
Trials are from God
Many would reject this idea. Even Christians may find it hard to believe that trials come from God. They say, ‘No, no; God could not possibly put me through times of difficulty and trial. That is the work of the devil, not the work of God’. Nevertheless, the Bible consistently teaches that these things come ultimately from God.
The book of Job speaks famously of the sufferings of a godly man in whom God delighted. But he was allowed to undergo terrible afflictions and trials. After Satan had completed his first attack and robbed Job of his flocks, his servants and his children, Satan appears before God again.
‘The Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and an upright man, one who fears God and shuns evil and still he holds fast to his integrity although you [Satan] incited me [God] against him to destroy him without cause?”’ (Job 2:3).
One thing is clear – God accepted final responsibility for Job’s misfortunes. Satan, to be sure, was the agent of those sufferings but ultimately it was God who moved against Job in allowing Satan the freedom that he did.
Now, you may say, ‘I cannot understand how God can bring misfortunes of this kind upon his children’. Well, I confess that I cannot understand it either, except insofar as Scripture sheds light on the matter.
What we do know is that God is in control and every misfortune that assails the believer is sent by him. Remember Paul’s words: ‘Lest I should be exalted above measure … a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me’ (2 Corinthians 12:7).
It was Satan’s work, yes. But he says ‘there was given me’, that is, God gave him the thorn in the flesh. It was a ‘messenger of Satan’, so the devil was certainly the agent of Paul’s affliction. But God was the prime mover in the matter – shaping and forming the thorn to humble, bless and finally empower his servant.
The value of faith
People have ‘faith’ in all sorts of things but the only faith that responds appropriately to suffering is faith in Christ. Any other faith – whether in religion, human nature, the church, or even in ourselves – will perish in the fires of trial.
Here lies the glory of this matter. It is in the fires of testing that the reality of faith is demonstrated. The only faith that endures, enabling us to rejoice both in the day of trial and in that day when Christ appears, is faith in him.
This becomes clear as we read on in 1 Peter 1:7, where Peter describes the experience of these believers of a Saviour they have never seen: ‘Whom having not seen you love, though now you do not see him, you rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory!’
And as you rejoice, continues Peter, you are already receiving the ultimate reward of your faith, namely, the salvation of your soul. You are anticipating heaven, tasting its glories, even while you suffer here on earth. You are stepping through the portals of heaven itself.