‘My brethren,’ writes James as he begins his epistle, ‘count it all joy when you fall into various trials’. The King James Version says ‘temptations’. The word can be translated ‘temptation’ or ‘trial’ or ‘test’. James is not speaking here about temptation as we normally understand it, but rather about trials and tests. He is talking about the difficulties, problems and obstacles we come up against in life.
Persecution was a very real experience for many members of the early church, and the very fact that the Jewish Christians to whom James was writing had been scattered abroad (James 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. Of course, we do have to be submissive to the providence of God. But what James teaches here is far more radical. He says we must count it joy! He tells us to react to trials and problems in a joyful manner.
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 trials, difficulties, persecutions and problems will surely afflict every Christian, and our experience today is essentially no different from that of the early church.
What should you do when trouble comes? James says, ‘Be joyful.’ Respond with joy. That is a very unexpected piece of advice. In human terms, we do not normally greet our troubles joyfully. We expect to respond joyfully to the pleasures of life and the happy events that come along. We all know how to respond with joy to such things. But this man is telling us to be joyful in every circumstance, and particularly to rejoice in our trials and troubles!
Let us try to understand how James can say such a thing. Why should the Christian rejoice in trials? I want to suggest four answers to that question, the first of which is dealt with in this article.
Trials purify our faith
The first answer is that, in the providence of a sovereign God, trials purify our faith in 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 of faith. It is not so much a test of us, as an examination of our faith.
Clearly, faith can only be tested if it exists in the first place. There is, sadly, no comfort in this message 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 ‘brethren’, people who 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 rebels and sinners like others, but they have been ‘born again’ or ‘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
Let us be clear, then. This message of comfort is to those who have faith. And if we have faith, the Scripture tells us, it is sure to be tested. Peter explains it in these terms: ‘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 in the wonderful 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 week or a month, or even a year, when he says ‘a little while’. He is talking about the duration of physical life, the whole time of our residence here upon earth. Though this may seem to us a long time rather than a little, it is short compared with eternity. Throughout this period of life on earth, warns Peter, we shall be subject to trials.
But then he tells us 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. 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 people who call themselves Christians reject the concept that trials come from God. They would 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. Job was a man in whom God delighted. But he was allowed to undergo terrible afflictions and trials. In chapter 2, after Satan had completed his first attack on Job, and had robbed him of his flocks, his servants and finally his children, Satan appears before God again. In Job 2:3 we read, ‘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?”‘
One thing is surely clear. It was God who accepted final responsibility for Job’s misfortunes. Satan, to be sure, was the agent of those sufferings. Satan was the one who challenged Job’s integrity. 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 have to confess that I cannot understand it either, except insofar as Scripture sheds light on the matter. What we do know is that God is sovereign. He is in control, and every misfortune and problem that assails the believer is sent by God. Remember what Paul says: ‘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! God was the one who purposed this trial, who shaped and formed the thorn to humble and bless his servant.
The value of faith
This faith that is being purified is very important. People have ‘faith’ in all sorts of things, but the only faith that will respond appropriately to the fire of trial is faith in Christ. Any other faith, whether faith in religion, in human nature, in the church, or even in ourselves, will perish in the fires of trial. Here lies the glory of this matter. It is as the fire of testing is applied that the reality of true faith is demonstrated. The faith that will endure, that will enable 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 proceeds to describe the faith of these believers in a Christ 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, says Peter, it is as if you were 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. As you fix your gaze on Christ, the joy of your faith in him overcomes the trials and sorrows of your earthly life. It is like stepping through the portals of heaven itself.