The shift in thinking I didn't know I needed.
James opens his letter with a bang:
"Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds." James 1:2
Friend, are you able to count today's trials as joy? I’m going to be honest with you, I struggle. And so, I decided to be honest with James (as if I were writing him back):
What kind of a servant of Jesus Christ are you? The first sentence of your letter shocks me. In fact, I find it offensive. Currently, I am in the middle of a host of trials. Are you not the least bit compassionate for my suffering and the tremendous suffering of my friends? What in the world?! How dare you address us in this way! Couldn’t you share a bit of empathy, “Carmen, I’m really sorry for your suffering.” What kind of emotional IQ is this, James? You must rate a zero. I could not get past the first sentence of your letter and am returning. Feel free to try again.
When a friend faces trouble - think cancer, divorce, job loss, wayward children and so on - do we say, “Dear friend, count it all joy?” No! We enter into their suffering. We cry, we weep, we listen, we hug and we pray. And when we pray, we usually ask God to remove these terrible trials far, far away. “Take them away, Lord!” So throughout studying James, I pondered what James meant when he says,
“Count it all joy, my brothers and sisters, when you meet trials of various kinds?”
Now that I've finished the study, I've circled back around to this troublesome verse in order to take another look.
Count it all joy. Count. This is an imperative verb (one of those commands that I wrote about last time). It means: you must count. You must consider, deem, reckon it all joy. To count is a bookkeeping term. James means take this trial and put it in a column labeled “JOY.”
My Bible dictionary defines joy as anything that causes cheer and dispels gloom. Trials land in this category. The alternative option is to assign the trial in the “misery” or “woe is me” or "that's so unfair" column. I’m good at assigning trials to these categories and have a few more like them.
Yet, as I slow down to take a closer look, I see that James does not say the trial is joyful or easy or festive or not hard. James does not minimize suffering. Rather, he instructs his flock on how to account for the trial, how to manage the trouble at hand and think about it rightly. I have a choice. I can count a trial as misery, or woe-is-me, or I-can’t-believe-he-or-she-did-this-to-me OR I can put it into the JOY column.
When looking at the cross references (those golden verses that help Scripture to interpret Scripture), we find that James sounds so much like his Big Brother, Jesus.
Jesus ended His Beatitudes by saying:
"Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you." Matthew 5:12
Rejoice and be glad are also imperatives. Jesus sounds pretty similar to James's “count it all joy!” Now would anyone say that Jesus is insensitive to our trials, our sufferings, or our concerns? NO! Jesus, God Himself, took on flesh and blood that He might enter into our sufferings with us. Jesus offers great compassion towards our suffering. He weeps, too.
So why does Jesus say, “Rejoice and be glad in the midst of persecution?”
Jesus knew that trials would come, and he wants believers to know a crucial truth: For those who endure, there is a blessing.
“In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world!” John 16:33
Do you hear the heart of Jesus? He prepares his disciples for trials because it's not a matter of if or when trials will come. Jesus clearly states that trials and persecution will come. Why? Because He desires that His followers would endure. "Take heart!" He says. Have courage! Stand firm. Remain steadfast.
James’s message perfectly aligns with his Big Brother, Jesus, in this way. Why does James say to count a trial as joy? See his next verse:
"For you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness." James 1:3
Steadfastness means steadfast endurance, the power to withstand hardship or stress; especially the inward fortitude necessary. That word steadfastness is repeated again in verse 4:
"And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing." James 1:4
When we put this verse into context, we see again that James sounds like his Big Brother, Jesus, from the Sermon on the Mount :
“You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Matthew 5:48
Perfect: without defect or blemish. Complete: whole. Having all the necessary qualities. Aren’t we pretty good at noticing our defects and blemishes? How often do we feel incomplete? How often we feel less than, broken, guilty, or ashamed? Who doesn’t want to be without defect and made whole? Pick me, Lord!
James wants believers to understand that accounting for trials as joy leads to steadfastness. Steadfastness leads to being perfect and complete. This is God’s blessing. A few verses later, he clearly explains:
"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." James 1:12
Does James ask us to count our trials as all joy because he lacks compassion or doesn’t understand how difficult life can be? No. James recognizes that these trials are difficult. In fact, this is why he writes his letter! James wants believers to endure the testing of faith. He knows that bookkeeping a trial in the “woe is me” column will not help steadfast faith. When we categorize trials as misery, even when the trial is miserable, we grow weary. Rather, James sees the eternal perspective. He recognizes that any trial is temporary. Blessing awaits those who endure. His heart longs that believers would enjoy this blessing.
James’s heart aligns with Jesus. And Jesus never asks us to do anything He Himself is not willing to do.
Notice how Jesus counted trials as joy:
"Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted." Hebrews 11:2-3
Jesus endured the cross for the joy set before Him. He is our example. Does this mean that He went joyously running to the cross? Did Jesus ask God to “bring it on!” Hardly. A trial itself is miserable. Notice Jesus’s heartfelt prayer in the garden of Gethsemane as He wrestled with His trial of great suffering:
“Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” Mark 14:36
Remarkable. Notice that Jesus trusts God. He asks God to remove this trial. He simultaneously surrenders His will to God's outworking of the trial. Thank God that Jesus submitted to the Father's will. Thank God that Jesus chose to count it all joy and chose to endure! What if Jesus had chosen differently? Where would we be? What recourse would we have?
Jesus doesn’t ask us to do anything that He Himself is not willing to do. Jesus entered into our suffering with us and for us. There was purpose for Christ’s suffering. And there is purpose for ours. On this side of eternity, we will not always see or understand the purpose. We will not be able to fully explain suffering. No one could explain why Christ died on the cross until after He was raised again. The same is true for us as well. For now, we are called to trust.
"Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see." (Hebrews 11:1)
Blessed is the man or woman who remains steadfast in trials. This word, blessed, equates to being highly favored. Here is divine grace, God's grace. One who remains steadfast in trial, like Abraham, will be called a friend of God.
Friend, I didn't realize it, but I needed (and I need) a complete shift, a complete reset in thinking about trials. A trial is not fun, nor happy, nor joyous. Yet, trials cultivate my faith. Trials hone and polish my faith to prove if my faith is genuine, if it is the real deal. Trials provide an opportunity to show God that I genuinely desire true friendship with Him and am clinging to Him. Accounted for in the right way, trials lead to blessings.
I want to rewrite my letter to James!
Thank you for your letter! Thank you that you do care. Thank you for heart that wants us to know the fullness of God’s blessing extended to those who endure through trials. You rock, James!
Friend, suffering is real. Yes. But for those who endure in faith, Jesus promises a blessing.
This trial hurts. Yes. It’s painful. But for those who endure, Jesus promises a blessing.
This trouble is so unfair. Yes. But for those who endure, Jesus promises a blessing.
May God grant us steadfast faith to place our trials in the "JOY" column today. Yes, we weep. We cry. We lament and hug one another as we face trials of various kinds. Yet we also help one another to fix our eyes on Jesus, the Author and Perfector of our faith. For the joy set before Him, He endured the cross. He scorned its shame. And with great joy, He now sits at the right hand of the throne of God.
That will be us. One day, we will see Jesus face to face. And guess what? The shame of today’s trial: Gone. The scorn: Gone. Only pure joy will remain.
Lord Jesus, thank You for Your example. And thank You for James and his clear instruction to help us think rightly and manage our trials. Unite our hearts and our minds together with
Yours in steadfastness. Help us cling to You and count trials as joy today.
Simply Bible Jonah is here!
This 5-week study dives deep to chase after God’s grace found in fish bellies and beyond. Facing troubling circumstances, feeling lonely or struggling to forgive someone? Journey with Jonah. Sometimes it is in the pits where our hearts find their rest in God’s heart and are transformed by His grace. Consider gathering with friends and introduce someone new to the gift of knowing and enjoying God through the Bible. Study videos will be available on YouTube beginning May 29th. Purchase your Simply Bible Jonah book - and maybe one for a friend - on Amazon.