Chapter 1: When Facing Trials
2 My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, 3 knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. 4 But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing.
Every one of us is familiar with trials of one sort or other. And James is talking about all of them. He describes what he has in mind as “various trials” and by this he means to include any and all kinds of real or imagined trials. Trials are the storms we go through in life. It’s often noted that every one of us has either gone through a storm, is presently in a storm, or getting ready to go through another storm.
Storms and trials are part of living in a sin-cursed and fallen world. Ever since our first parents (Adam and Eve) sinned in Genesis 3 we have experienced trials of one kind or another. We see evidence of the fall all around us. So while we are often shocked and saddened by tragic events, at the same time we are not surprised when they happen. We understand that this world is not as it was meant to be.
But trials hit home when we become personally involved in them. How encouraging that we have passages such as this to encourage us as we go through them. Let’s consider some practical truths that surfaces from these verses. First, note this:
Trials are Inevitable
That may sound rather obvious and perhaps even unhelpful, at first. But it is so important for us to remember this fact so we do not immediately fall into doubt or despair when trials come our way.
Too often when trials and hardships come we find ourselves immediately reacting by crying out, “God, why are You doing this to me?” And the implication is: “Surely, I don’t deserve this misfortune!”
Rarely do we ever think to ask the same question when something favorable comes our way, or we are on the receiving end of some unforeseen good fortune: “God, why are You doing this to me? I don’t deserve this success—give it to someone else!”
Truth is, we sinful human beings deserve nothing. The very air we breathe at this moment is an undeserved gift that comes graciously from our Creator. He can withhold the air if He wishes. He is God and we are not. But He is a good God and He always does what is right. So we trust Him, believing that He knows what He is doing and we take Him at His word when He teaches that trials and hardships actually serve not to harm us, but to help us. More about that in a moment.
For now let us consider that trials can come to anyone. Being a Christian does not keep one from trials. If you are a human being, you will go through trials. James does not say, “Count it all joy if you fall into various trials,” but “when you fall into various trials.”
In fact, the Bible teaches that Christians can expect to face suffering and hardships when others oppose their faith. For example, Jesus said, “In the world you will have tribulation (John 16:33).” The Apostle Paul warned: “All who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution (2 Timothy 3:12).” And Peter wrote: “Beloved, do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you (1 Peter 4:12).”
Trials are inevitable. And while the previous verses suggest more the idea of trials of persecution for one’s faith, James has in view trials of any kind.
James was not himself immune from trials and suffering. Church history records that he died as a Christian martyr in the year AD 62. Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian, tells us that James was accused by the high priest and condemned to death by stoning.
Eusebius, a fourth-century church historian, adds a few details about James’ death. He says that the scribes and Pharisees took James to the top the temple, and “demanded that he should renounce the faith of Christ before all the people,” but rather than deny Jesus, James “declared himself fully before the whole multitude, and confessed that Jesus Christ was the Son of God, our Savior and Lord.”
Another historian, Hegesippus, adds:
They went up and threw down the just man [from the temple], and said to each other, “Let us stone James the Just.” And they began to stone him, for he was not killed by the fall, but [James] knelt down and said, “I entreat thee, Lord God our Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” One of them… took a club with which he beat [James] And thus he suffered martyrdom.
So when we read James’ describing the inevitability of trials, know that he himself is prepared to face them.
Again, trials can come to anyone. Being a Christian does not preclude one from facing danger, enduring suffering, or encountering hardships. If you are a human being, you will go through trials. And they may come suddenly and unexpectedly.
In fact the word “fall” in verse 2 is the same word used in Luke 10 where Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus says, “A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell among thieves (Luke 10:30).” This man was minding his own business and suddenly and unexpectedly he encountered thieves.
That is often just how suddenly trials arrive. We’re minding our own business, the day starts off uneventfully and then we encounter one of a “variety” of trials, hardships, or difficulties.
Now James says that when this happens, we’re to “count it all joy (verse 2),” or, “consider it joy.” What exactly does this mean?
It does not mean that we are to consider the trial itself to be joyous. James does not say that. He is not calling for us to think, “Oh trials, how wonderful! I love trials and I am so joyful when they come!” That’s a silly notion at best and a psychological disorder at worst.
He doesn’t say, “count the trials joy,” but rather, “count it all joy when you fall into various trials.” This may sound at first like a distinction without a difference, but it is very different indeed. Reading on to verse 3, James continues: “knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience (or perseverance).”
Put another way: “Consider the fact that you are undergoing trials—painful as they may be—as an opportunity to grow in faith and become strong and, for that reason, you may have joy in the midst of your trials.”
Here, then, James is arguing for another important and helpful truth:
Trials are Beneficial
Trials—painful as they may be—provide an opportunity to grow in Christian faith and become strong. In this way, trials are beneficial. They bring the benefit of strength and endurance to Christians. For this reason, we may have joy when facing them.
In fact, we rarely consider escaping a trial as a benefit lost. What do I mean? Well, let’s be honest: If we pray without thinking, how do we usually pray about trials and hardships? Do we not usually fall into a sort of “default mode” of prayer, asking to escape the trial, or praying that we or the ones we love would never face any sort of trial at all?
A friend is sick and we pray that God heals her. A persecuted Christian is imprisoned so we pray for his release. And one of the reasons we do so is because we normally think only of the joy that comes in the absence of trials. To be sure, there is joy in sound health and religious freedom. No one disputes this. At the same time, however, James is calling for our rejoicing in the ability to benefit from the presence of trials and hardships.
James’ stress is not on the joy we have when escaping trials, but on the joy we may have when enduring them. Indeed, one reason a Christian can be joyful when facing trials is because—as James puts it in verse 3—“the testing of our faith produces patience (or endurance).”
Trials strengthen us
Usually when I go to the gym I feel a bit inferior because I find myself in the presence of guys who have been working on their muscles for years and it shows. As I heard a friend once remark: “They have muscles in places I don’t have places!”
But how do you get muscles? How do you grow strong? You “work out.” And it is work. Muscles grow when they are tested. It’s like the guy who struggles to carry a load upon his shoulders. The first time is very difficult, but the longer he carries that load the stronger he becomes. Over time, he moves with greater ease and agility.
In the same way, the longer you carry the “load” of each trial, the stronger you become. Most Christians want to become strong in the faith. They really want to grow and mature. Well, think of God as your personal trainer who guides you through various “work out” routines because He knows what is best for your program of growth. And know that the longer you keep carrying the “weight” of your trials, God will strengthen you.
The word “patience” in verse 3 is a word that is better translated “endurance.” It connotes the idea of standing strong in the presence of adversity.
Trials have a way of strengthening our trust in God as the One who always does what is right and knows what is best for us. It is often through the experience of painful trials that joy is discovered or enhanced.
John Piper helps us see this truth in his booklet, Don’t Waste Your Cancer. In the book, Piper (who was himself diagnosed with prostate cancer) helps Christians understand how God uses trials like cancer to draw us closer to Himself. And while Piper notes that praying for physical healing is certainly biblical and right, he also writes about the joy that can come in the midst of cancer, a God-focused joy that, if not experienced, might lead to one’s cancer being lost or “wasted.” Some of the points he brings out in the book include:
You will waste your cancer if you fail to use it as a means of witness to the truth and glory of Christ.
You will waste your cancer if you spend too much time reading about cancer and not enough time reading about God.
You will waste your cancer if you think that “beating cancer” means staying alive rather than cherishing Christ.
That last point is especially helpful. Our tendency is to think of “beating cancer” as the best goal, but the best goal is to cherish Christ and to be conformed to His image. So Piper reminds us:
Satan’s and God’s designs in your cancer are not the same. Satan designs to destroy your love for Christ. God designs to deepen your love for Christ. Cancer does not win if you die. It (only) wins if you fail to cherish Christ. God’s design is to wean you off the breast of the world and feast you on the sufficiency of Christ. It is meant to help you say and feel, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus as my Lord.” And to know that therefore, “To live is Christ, and to die is gain (Philippians 3:8; Philippians 1:21).”
Cancer doesn’t win, nor does any trial or affliction win, unless we value our temporary human existence over and above cherishing Christ, and growing in Christ, and becoming more complete in Christ Jesus.
This takes us to another benefit of trials:
Trials complete us
In verse 4 James teaches that once endurance has “its perfect work” or, we may say, “has done its job” then, writes James, “you may be perfect (or mature) and complete, lacking nothing.”
“Mature” and “complete.” In other words, apart from trials, we are “immature” and “incomplete.” That’s why you can count it all joy when you fall into various trials, because they present to you an opportunity to grow, to grow up in your faith and to become more like Jesus Christ. You can’t become mature and complete if you never suffer. Trials strengthen us and trials complete us.
You really can’t become like Christ apart from suffering.
Without trials we could never really learn humility or genuine love.
Couples who have been married for years have a deeper love for one another precisely because they have been through difficult times together. A young couple who thinks they’re ready to marry and have known each other only a short time haven't even had a chance to fight yet! It is through difficulties and challenges that love really matures and grows.
Without trials we could never really learn patience, or wisdom.
Through trials, we become more and more like Christ. The Apostle Paul teaches as much in Romans 8:28-29: “God works all things together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose, for whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son…”
God works all things together for the good of completing us, conforming us more greatly to the image of His Son, Jesus Christ.
Think of it: without trials we are less like Christ. Without trials we are immature, underdeveloped. Without trials we are incomplete. Without trials we could never really learn compassion or empathy.
Paul teaches in 2 Corinthians chapter 1, for example, that God comforts us in our trials and difficulties so that we may be in a position to comfort others in their trials and difficulties with the same comfort that we ourselves have received from God (2 Corinthians 1:3-4). That’s compassion; that’s empathy.
Paul wrote as one who had faced numerous hardships and difficulties. Have you read of his “thorn in the flesh?” Paul had some kind of affliction. Nobody knows exactly what it was, but he wrote about it in 2 Corinthians chapter 12. Calling it a “thorn in the flesh,” Paul described it as that which was beneficial to him. Given what he had written in 2 Corinthians 2 about our being in a position to comfort others as a result of our own trials, Paul surely was able to see that his affliction served to strengthen him, complete him, and equip him with the ability to bless others in their trials and afflictions.
Theologian Wayne Grudem sees God’s wisdom in His assigning Paul his “thorn in the flesh.” Defining God’s wisdom as His “always choosing the best goals and the best means to those goals,” Grudem asserts:
It should be our great confidence and a source of peace day by day to know that God causes all things to move us toward the ultimate goal He has for our lives, namely, that we might be like Christ and thereby giving glory to Him. Such confidence enabled Paul to accept his “thorn in the flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7) as something that, though painful, God in His wisdom had chosen not to remove (2 Corinthians 12:8-10).
God in His wisdom knows what He is doing. Small wonder that James goes on to say in the very next verse, verse 5, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God…” We’ll talk more about that in the next chapter!
What About You?
While it is right to pray for deliverance from trials, James does not call for this, but rather for our rejoicing when we fall into them. Why?
“Truth is, we sinful human beings deserve nothing.” Do you agree with this statement? Why or why not? Be sure to support your answer from Scripture.
In what ways can you become more “complete” or “mature” as a result of your present hardships and difficulties?