How Trials Serve Christian Joy

James 1:1–15

James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion: Greetings.

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.

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.

Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, and the rich in his humiliation, because like a flower of the grass he will pass away. For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. So also will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits.

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. Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.

January 10, 2013, was the funeral service for Henryk Otto Thiel, son of Pastor Michael and his wife Emily. He was born the previous summer, on July 27, and died five months later, on January 6. He suffered a rare and mysterious traumatic event in utero, and despite what doctors expected, he lived through birth, through the whole fall, and six days into the new year. His life was a gift to so many of us, even as we cried our way through those five tear-filled months.

And we did cry. Those months were the heaviest of my life to date, and for many in this church today. It was a profound series of trials for many in our community of young adults who had lived relatively carefree lives and had very few, if any, tragedies like this strike so close to home.

Henryk comes to mind for me because of how James opens his letter. Right out of the gate, James says, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds.” If your life hasn’t yet tasted many traumas and tragedies, it wouldn’t be surprising to default to how God might be at work in life’s little inconveniences. But “various” doesn’t mean all kinds of *small* trials. It means all kinds of trials, including the traumas and tragedies that 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 something so significant as Christian joy to simply the inconveniences and daily frustrations of life. The very issue at stake here is the hardest things — the “trials” of loss, severe pain, disability, death, distress, despondency, and long-term despair. For me, the question this passage presses home is this: Was there joy at Henryk’s funeral?

Made for Trials

The great test of any world religion, any philosophy of life, any system of beliefs, and any individual person is pain and suffering. When we suffer, we find out what’s really inside, who we truly are, and how powerful, or weak, is the foundation on which we’re building our lives. We see it for ourselves, and others see it in and through us. What Christianity offers in life’s greatest pains and hardships is one of the most powerful testimonies to its truthfulness. Christianity is made for trials, not because Christians like pain, but because Jesus Christ is real, he himself is acquainted with grief, and he is more powerful than our greatest trials and able to make them serve his glory and our joy.

 

It’s not just a matter of if we suffer, but when. And when you do, will secular humanism have you ready? Will pragmatism do the job? Buddhism? Hinduism? Islam? Atheism? The proving ground of any faith is not how it goes when times are good, but what comes out when the inevitable comes: trial.

 

The great test of every world-and-life view is not the ringer of public opinion, or the college classroom, or entertaining debates among the creative class. The great test is suffering. Whose system of belief gets stronger in suffering, rather than weaker? That’s the one I want. And one of the most powerful claims Christianity makes is that it gives meaning and purpose, like no other set of beliefs, to the universal human experience of pain and suffering.

How Christians Handle Trials

This morning as we begin our 12-week series in the book of James, and look briefly at these first fifteen verses, what we see is a kind of sketch for how Christians handle trials — and not just handle them, but how trials become causes for joy. This short passage makes no claim to tackle trials comprehensively. The rest of the New Testament, and the rest of the Bible, fills in many important pieces, but James does give us a here a coherent mini-theology for our trials. He shows us how Christianity is built not just for life’s easiest times, but for the hardest, when God reveals the depth and breadth and strength of his resources in his ability to hold us and carry us. 

So as we move through these verses, look with me at four parts to how in Christ our trials become causes for joy.

1. We expect trials and own their pain. (verse 2)

Verse 2: “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds . . .”

Christianity teaches us to expect trials. James doesn’t say “if” you encounter trials, but “when.” We believe that this world, because of human sin, is not what it once was, and especially not what it will be one day. In the meantime, we do not live in a world in which everything always, or even typically, goes our way. In fact, things often don’t go our way. Perhaps you’d say, “Things mostly don’t go my way.” Often it’s the small inconveniences; sometimes it’s profound pains.

As we said before, verse 2 mentions “various trials.” We said, Don’t think that we’re only talking little trials here. James says “trials of various kinds” because he means the big ones, too. But it cuts the other way as well. Don’t think the seemingly small details of your life are excluded — that Christianity stands ready to help in tragedy but doesn’t have something to say about your anxiety, your stubbed toe, your road rage, and your broken electronic device. Verse 2 is not just for major tragedies and traumas, but for every day, even for every hour.

Count Them All Joy?

What, then, does it mean to “count them all joy” when these “various trials” come? Note three words in verse 2: “count,” “all,” and “joy.”

First, “count.” James does not say “experience trials as joy,” but “count them as joy.” This doesn’t happen naturally, and without effort. We *count*, or reckon, our trials as joy, because we don’t simply *feel* them naturally to be so. We need reasons and promises to review in trials, when they don’t feel like joy, so that we can “count” them as joy. It means not riding our feelings, but directing them in light of truth.

Second, James says “all joy,” not “only joy.” Trials are not “only joy”; they are hard. Pain is pain. In and of themselves, our hardships are emphatically not joyful. That’s part of what makes them hard. Christianity presses us to own the pain, not repress it. Trials are trying, not sources of pleasure. We don’t experience pain as “only joy,” but what the gospel of Christ makes possible is joy in pain — that *even* life’s most painful trials have a vital part to play in our joy. “All joy” doesn’t mean only joy, but it does mean that no trial, no painful detail, is outside the scope of what God works for our joy. For the Christian, there are no circumstances in life, no details however painful, that God does not capture and turn to serve our everlasting joy.

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 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 truest treasures — and to tap those roots for sustenance in ways we simply do not when all is well.

Third, then, is “joy.” There is joy at weddings and joy at funerals. If you can only think of joy at weddings, you don’t yet the know how deep joy can go. There are trite, shallow joys, but don’t equate Christian joy with the trite and shallow. Jesus gives joys deep enough to sustain you in the worst of pain and suffering. Yes, there is joy at funerals.

So, when James says, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds,” he is not being flippant. These are not simplistic words. These are careful, intentional, powerful, sobering, hopeful words. So, as Christians, we expect trials and we own their pain, and yet we know pain doesn’t have the last word. Which leads to the second part.

2. We trust that God does his most important work through trials. (verses 3–4)

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 — that’s how we count when we don’t naturally feel it. 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:

  • Romans 8:28: “We know that for those who love God all things work together for good*, for those who are called according to his purpose”
  • We can write 2 Corinthians 4:17 over every trial: “This light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” 
  • We can say with Romans 8:18, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us”
  • Or with Jesus in Matthew 5:12, “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.”

But James has a particular reason in mind, and he begins verse 3 with “for”. He actually has two reasons in verses 3–4, and then he gives us another in verse 12, which we’ll finish with in a few minutes.

God Keeps Us Through Trials (verse 3)

Verse 3: “. . . for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.”

The big barrier here is the word “steadfastness.” “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. And 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 Jesus (“the testing of your faith . . .”). And for Christians, is there anything more vital than enduring in faith? 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 in us through life’s trials 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 allows us to be tested, he is taking action to keep us.

Faith does not flourish when it lies untested. It atrophies when it goes unexercised. 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 cultivate in us what matters most. 

Trials in this life are not superfluous to our enduring in 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.

So James first reason, in verse 3, is God keeps us through trials. Then he adds more in verse 4.

God Matures Us Through Trials (verse 4)

Verse 4: “And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”

The main barrier here might be the word “perfect.” What does James mean by saying our enduring in faith makes us perfect? Does that mean we will have no flaws? Well, eventually, in the next life, but not in this life. “Perfect” here means something like “mature,” or the word that follows, “complete.” Faith is for trials, and as you encounter and endure them, faith not only survives but matures. God grows our faith and strengthens and deepens and enriches it. The apostle Paul talks about it in Romans 5:3–4: “Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.”

In trials, God keeps us and matures us, and another reason is coming in verse 12. But first, where to verses 5–8 and 13–15 fit in?

3. We do not blame God, but ask him for help. (verses 5–8, 13–15)

Skip forward to verses 13–15: “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.”

In the original language, trials and temptation are the same word (with distinct meanings in their contexts), and James is providing some balance here for the strong statements he’s made, so people don’t take them the wrong way. Because of how directly James has pointed to God’s purposes in our trials — how he keeps and matures our faith — he wants to add a balancing word. This is really important for our church because of our leanings. We are unapologetic “big God” people.

We talk about God bringing trials into our lives, and God testing us, and we should be careful that we not begin to see God directly behind evil in the same way that he is behind good. James says that is not the case, and he’ll continue this line of thought into verses 16–18. God stands sovereignly over both good and evil, but he stands directly behind good, and indirectly over evil, as it were. 

And in particular here, there’s an emphasis on external testing in verses 2–4 and internal temptation in verses 13–15. What James hopes to maintain for us in our trials and temptations is that God is never the one to blame. He does not stand directly behind evil. Rather, God is the one to whom we turn for help. That’s where verse 5 comes in: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.” (There’s much more to say about verses 13–18, but I’ll save that for Joe two weeks from today.)

God is indeed sovereign, fully and utterly in control, and there is a sense in which he brings suffering and pain into our lives — but never in such a way that he is the one to blame for our pain. He is the one to whom we reach out for help. He’s the one who generously gives wisdom for navigating our trials. He’s the giver of every good and perfect gift.

What about verses 6–8 then?

Verses 6–8: “But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.”

These verses might feel crushing to you after that good news in verse 5. All faith, with no doubts, or no wisdom from above? Doubting here is not a humble crisis of faith but an arrogant anger at God. It’s not about doubting his existence as much as doubting his goodness. The basic sin James calls attention to in his letter is this “double-mindedness” (James 4:8), which is a kind of halfhearted compromise with the world. It is “friendship with the world” that is “enmity with God” (James 4:4). This is what suffering does: it tests our love for this world. Are we double-minded, trying to have God and his world as equally ultimate, or is God our greatest treasure?

Let’s be a church that gets this right in our heads and hearts and our suffering: it is never right to be angry with God. It is always sin to be angry with him. It is always sin to blame him. He “cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one.” He is sovereign over our pain, but never to blame for it.

And let’s also be a church that extends ample grace to suffering people. Let’s have a category for “words for the wind” (Job 6:26), when people say things they don’t really mean deep down; they’re just hurting. And when people are angry with God, let’s be safe place for them to be honest about that. No need to add the sin of hypocrisy to the sin of anger with God.

4. We look forward to receiving the crown, which is ultimate life together with Jesus forever. (verse 12)

We saw in verse 3 that God keeps us through trials, and in verse 4 that God matures us through trials, and now in verse 12, God rewards us because of trials.

Verse 12: “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.”

This is an extension of God doing his most important work through trials. Faith through testing produces endurance in faith, and such endurance produces maturity, and endurance in faith will have its full reward one day in eternal life. Reward does not mean that eternal life is earned. This is a gift. Those who endure in faith “*receive* the crown of life.” The picture here of receiving a crown is not a king with a crown, but a runner receiving a crown at the finish line. James is picturing this life, and the various trials we encounter, as a kind of race, with a finish, and a promised crown awaiting us at the finish.

One thing that makes our encountering trials so difficult in this life is that it’s written on our hearts to want life without trials. We were made for life without trials, without pain, without suffering. And a day is coming when faith will be sight, and trials will cease. And in the meantime, God uses trials — big and small — to wean us off our love for the world and to woo us to love for him, to be among those that receive his crown of life.

Funeral Joy

Let me come back to our question from the beginning. Was there joy at Henryk’s funeral? I called Pastor Michael on Friday night and asked what he thought. He said, “Yes, there was joy. It was a deep joy knowing that God was there even as we were crumbling with grief.” There was indeed joy at Henryk’s funeral. It was not the joy of a wedding. It was funeral joy. It was the joy of knowing we had a place to stand, in God, when everything else seemed to be shaking.

And in that major trial — with all its trauma and tragedy — God was keeping us, and he was maturing us, and he was weaning us off the world, and wooing us to himself, and in doing so he was fulfilling his own promise of giving the crown of life “to those who love him.”

The Table

As we come to the Table, we come to a place familiar with trial, and familiar with joy. At the Table, we celebrate the cross. Ponder that. We count as joy the execution of the Son of God. The most wicked, evil act in the history of the world became for us the greatest good. The day he died we call “Good Friday.” It was the most horrible day and, coupled with Easter Sunday, the most beautiful day the world has ever seen, all in one.

This Table is our weekly reminder that God’s own suffering in the person of his Son was not without purpose and meaning, and in Christ, neither is ours. Jesus, for the joy set before, endured the cross. He wasn’t bubbly on the way to Golgotha, but he wasn’t without joy. He counted it all joy, and endured untold misery so that one day soon our every trial will cease, and in the meantime our every trial will serve our everlasting good in him.