“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, 3 for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. 4 And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” (ESV)
Sometimes I am tempted to say, “Brother James, you must be kidding!”
The Merriam-Webster site defines joy as “the emotion evoked by well-being, success, or good fortune or by the prospect of possessing what one desires.” Yet James says that we are to “count it all joy” when faced with the opposite of success or good fortune. Is he kidding? Does he work with a different definition of joy?
When we face trials, how are we to achieve a response so contrary to the normal?
Much has been made of a tension between the teaching of James and that of Paul. But what James is saying here is just a stronger statement of what Paul says in Philippians 4.
Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. 12 I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need” (Phil 4:11, ESV).
The parallel between James and 1 Thessalonians 5 might be even closer. And, of course, joy is recommended elsewhere in scripture. Proverbs tells us, “A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones” (Pr 17:22). So, James is not the only biblical writer to commend joy.
Those who know me are unlikely to describe me as a bubbly, effervescent fellow that appears joyous on the surface. I grew up believing that every silver lining has a cloud. I am still pretty good at picturing the worst-case scenario. So, what right do I have to tell you to be joyful?
First, let me remind you that the editors of this publication invite contributors who will describe what Christianity is supposed to be, not contributors who will claim to be an ideal example of it. As Robertson Whiteside said, “He is a poor preacher who cannot preach better than he can practice.” Or, as C. S. Lewis said when urging people of the 1940s to forgive,
“… half of you want to ask me, ‘I wonder how you’d feel about forgiving the Gestapo if you were a Pole or a Jew?’ So do I. I wonder very much. …. I am not trying to tell you in this book what I could do – I can do precious little – I am telling you what Christianity is. I did not invent it” (Mere Christianity, 104).
Second, I find no evidence in scripture or history that James was of the bubbly, effervescent type. He was known as James the just, not James the jovial. A particular mode of expressing joy is not prescribed and should not be prescribed. But there is to be joy in our lives, even in our trials. This passage is not demanding a huge smile at the funeral of a loved one. But it does seem to demand that our attitude be significantly different from what a non-Christian would have in the same circumstances. We may indeed grieve, but not as the world grieves (1 Thess 4:13).
We are to have this joy realizing that a process of spiritual improvement is at work. Under continuously pleasant and prosperous circumstances we have little opportunity to grow in grace. Non-Christians will observe nothing different in us if we never face any difficulties. “Of course he is happy,” they will say, “he hasn’t a care or a problem in the world.” It is only when we show joy amid trials that those in the ‘world’ have cause to notice.
And, if we have no trials, we would not be enabled to grow. Among the letters of Samuel Rutherford, there was one that included this memorable thought.
“I know that, as night and shadows are good for flowers, and moonlight and dews are better than a continual sun, so is Christ’s absence of special use, and that it has some nourishing virtue in it, and gives sap to humility, and puts an edge on hunger, and furnishes a fair field to faith to put forth itself, and to exercise its fingers in gripping what it does not see” (Letters 234).
Anne Cousin, in writing a poem based on the letters and last words of Rutherford included that thought, but it has, unfortunately, been removed from the poem as printed in our hymnals (under the title “The Sands of Time”).
But flowers need night’s cool darkness,
The moonlight and the dew;
So Christ, from one who loved it,
His shining oft withdrew;
And then for cause of absence,
My troubled soul I scann’d—
But glory, shadeless, shineth
In Immanuel’s land.
The testing of our faith over time leads to steadfastness. The term “testing” refers not to the kind of testing we do in schools, but to the process of refining ore. God is not testing to see if we have faith. He is refining and strengthening that faith (see 1 Pet 1:7; Pr 27:21).
He is leading us to steadfastness or perseverance. The goal is not patience, as that word is understood today. The concept is more active than our concept of patience. The difference between the modern understanding of patience and the biblical intention here (and in passages like Romans 2:7) is the difference between waiting quietly while someone else runs a marathon and running the marathon ourselves. The word is sometimes translated “endurance” (Rom 5:3).
We are to aim at perfection of Christian character. The word teleios is a word indicating completeness of things or maturity of beings. More often than not it is better translated “mature” or “complete” rather than “perfect.” Of the passages where it is translated “perfect,” Matthew 5:44-48 might be the example that most closely resembles the way James uses the word.
In this context, stacked as it is with other terms indicating a similar thought, the author is clearly trying to indicate that the process of steadfastness in trial is capable of bringing us to what might seem to be unreachable. We must stop saying “I think I can’t, I think I can’t, I think I can’t.” Of course, we can’t, but for the Christian that is no excuse. We cannot, but God can. We need to stop focusing on self. We need to let the process that the Lord has set in motion complete its work. We cannot perfect ourselves in steadfast faith, but we can surrender to God and allow him to work on perfecting our steadfastness and faith. James’ concept of joy in the midst of trials, like Paul’s discussion of contentment, is an act of God, not a matter of sheer willpower on our part (Phil 4:11-13).
But let us go back to the question of defining “joy.” The dictionary site defined joy as “the emotion evoked by well-being, success, or good fortune or by the prospect of possessing what one desires.”
As Christians we might say instead, “The emotion evoked in most people by well-being, success, good fortune or by the prospect of possessing what one desires; but evoked in the Christian by the assurance that the Lord’s will is being done, and that we are being made fit instruments for his glory.”