Count It All Joy: The Spiritual Benefit of Trials
Sermon from James 1:1-4 by Bret Rogers
Series: James: Living the Implanted Word (Part 1)
Delivered on April 3, 2016
Having spent the last several months in Zechariah, we now turn to a New Testament book. And if you haven’t noticed, I’ve subtitled our series in James, Living the Implanted Word.
“The implanted word” comes from 1:21, where James exhorts us to receive “the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.” The picture is one of God’s word taking root in your life. And when it takes root, that word produces the fruit of obedience—faithfulness, integrity, compassion for the poor, purity in speech, humility in relationships. The implanted word, in other words, isn’t just something we hear, but something we do. Something that compels us morally and ethically and socially. We live the implanted word. That will be a key emphasis throughout the letter of James.
And one of the great things about this being a letter, is that it addresses very specific issues in the life of the church. If you’ve noticed, the New Testament letters are very specific, very situational. Situations rise that need counsel, and it’s time for Paul or Peter or James or John to get out the pen. James is a leader in the church. He sees real things happening in lives of people like you and me—some good, some not so good—and he’s writing to address those specific things, so that the church better lives out the word that’s already been implanted inside them (cf. Jas 1:18).
James dives right in to your life and in some rather practical ways. And in ways that are quite unsettling. James is not a letter you read lightheartedly. He holds a mirror to your soul and says—“see here, see here, see here, see here…the implanted word produces this kind of fruit…live this way and not that way, and if you live that way, you’re a hypocrite.”
By diving in to the specifics of our lives, James becomes a gracious gift from a good Father, who knows what we need most. We don’t belong to a Father who carelessly lets his children go astray. We belong to a Father who cares that we take the road that leads to deeper intimacy with him, who cares that we don’t live in hypocrisy, who cares that we do what is good for us and others and for his glory.
Written from One Slave to Another
Today, James will address the specific topic of trials and how we should respond to trials. But before we look at what James says about our response to trials, look at his remarkable greeting in verse 1: “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion: Greetings.”
The “twelve tribes in the Dispersion” indicates that James writes to a primarily Jewish Christian audience. At the same time, James 5:14 refers to this community as the church. So it may be true that James’ audience consists of primarily Jewish Christians, but it’s the Jewish Christians insofar as they belong to the new covenant community called the church (cf. Acts 15:16-17; 1 Pet 1:1). Thus, James’ message is relevant for all who belong to the church regardless of ethnicity.
But that’s because we share one thing in common. Regardless of our ethnic background, regardless of what we were saved out of, we’re all slaves of Christ. That’s how James introduces himself. The ESV has “servant,” but the better translation is “slave.” Not slave in the sense of demeaning someone’s personal worth, but slave in the sense of all rights surrendered. Slave in the sense of humble submission to a new Master. Slave in the sense of belongingness to God; being purchased and owned by Christ.
We see this contrast in other places. Galatians 1:10—Paul says that if he were a man-pleaser, he would not be a slave of Christ. Again 1 Corinthians 7:23—he tells the church, “You were bought with a price [namely, the price of Jesus’ blood]; do not become slaves of men.” James means something similar. He’s no longer a slave to people. He’s no longer a slave to his own passions (cf. Rom 6:16; 2 Pet 2:19). He’s a slave of God. His allegiance belongs to Jesus. He’s duty bound to serve him.
And so what we’re reading aren’t the words of an arrogant, heavy-handed leader. Interestingly enough, this James is likely the half-brother of Jesus (Gal 1:19; cf. Acts 12:2, 17). Paul called him a pillar in the Jerusalem church (Gal 2:9; cf. Acts 15:2, 13). He was a witness to the resurrected Christ (1 Cor 15:7). Why not play one of those cards in writing to the church?—Lay down your Aces, bro! “Listen here, church, I not only saw Jesus raised; I grew up with him.” But that’s not how he begins: James, slave of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.”
We’re reading words from one slave to another about how to serve our Master. He calls us his brothers—or brothers and sisters—in verse 2. He’s one of us; we’re one of him—bought with a price. Belonging to God and to the Lord Jesus. This letter opens with grace. We were once enslaved to sin, but grace freed us and now we’re slaves of Christ. But what does it look like to live as a slave of God through trial? What does it look like to surrender all rights to Jesus in the face of trial? James tells us in verses 2-4…
2Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, 3for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. 4And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.
The Reality of Various Trials
This is what I meant about James diving into the specifics of our lives. How many of us can already identify with meeting trials? He doesn’t say, “if you meet trials;” he says, “when you meet trials.” He assumes we’re a people facing trials. He knows the brokenness of the world, he knows what sin may cause, he sees his people suffering, and he calls attention to that reality—the reality of various trials.
What are some of the trials that may cross James’ mind as he’s writing to these folks? You can pick them up with just a quick read through his letter. Some folks are facing poverty (Jas 1:9, 27; 2:15-16)—economic crises out of their control. Some of them are getting shafted by the rich showing favoritism and injustice (Jas 2:1-4, 9; 5:4)—so other people’s sins are bringing trial into their lives. James mentions the suffering of the prophets as an example (Jas 5:10)—so, persecution and ridicule is very much in mind.
He also mentions Job as an example (Jas 5:11). And we could list several trials that Job faced—robbery of his possessions (Job 1:15, 17); murder of his servants (Job 1:15, 17); catastrophe that fell on his family (Job 1:19); the pain of losing children he loved so dearly (Job 1:19; cf. 1:1-5); himself being struck with loathsome sores (Job 2:7); a wife who tells him to curse God and die (Job 2:9); friends who’d be much better off keeping their mouths shut. James also mentions sickness (Jas 5:14-15).
Various trials. What do yours look like right now? Rachel went to the store the other day, while I’m cooking breakfast. And within five minutes of trying to cook some eggs, I’m trying to bring peace between siblings, clean up yogurt that just got jerked off the counter, and the littlest one comes around the counter with hands that are solid black with mom’s paints. And now the eggs are starting to burn. And I’ve got all kinds of inner turmoil trying not to give in to the flesh. Five minutes…and you moms serve all day long facing these kinds of things.
Or how about the strains you face when close family members turn hateful because of your love for righteousness. Or you get strep throat and the flu at the same time. For three weeks sickness goes through the family, and you feel like you’ve been put outside the camp. Or you lose loved ones, precious ones—death takes them away; you experience a miscarriage. You get more bad news on what your chronic disease is causing inside your body. Another unexpected medical bill you can’t afford. You just want your spouse to be okay. You’re surprised to learn the negative things another brother thinks about you. The church budget isn’t what you expected. The darkness of depression enters. Your friends in other countries are being threatened for their faith.
Various trials. It’s inevitable that we will face various trials, especially as Christians. One of the first things Paul would teach new believers was this—“through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). Trials, many of which are outside of our control. Some trials we face because of our own sinful choices (Gal 6:6). But many of the trials I listed above are simply outside our control. Job couldn’t control what happened to him. The prophets couldn’t control what the people did to them. We can’t control what a broken and sinful world often throws at us. We can’t control what God’s providence orchestrates for our lives or for our church. But we can control the way we respond.
Our Response to Trials
And that’s where James leads us next—our response to trials. There’s the wrong way to respond to trial, which we find other places in Scripture. We can think of Israel complaining in the wilderness (Num 11:1). We can think of people being quick to get angry at others who hurt them (cf. Col 3:13; Jas 1:20). We can think of others running from the trials to find comfort in the world (Matt 13:21-22).
But James’ exhortation is other-worldly, counter-cultural. It’s unnatural to our selfish flesh. We want to be comfortable and for our lives to be uninterrupted by trials; and when that’s not what we get, we have a tendency to groan and complain and get angry with God. But what’s the proper response James gives us. Two exhortations…
Count it all-joy
First exhortation is this: count it all-joy. Be careful here. It’s not “count it all joy”—as if everything about the trials are joyful. It’s “count it all joy,” where all is intensifying joy. Some translations call it “pure joy” or “complete joy.”
Now, the Bible also says that trials bring grief and sorrow. We’re commanded to weep with those who weep in Romans 12:15. First Peter 1:6 says that various trials have grieved us. Paul was once worried about his friend Epaphroditus. Epaphroditus was sick, near to death. But God spared him lest Paul should have sorrow upon sorrow (Phil 2:27). There’s a place for sorrow.
James isn’t contradicting those things. This isn’t a kind of just “grin-and-bear-it” theology. Rather, James is showing us that even in the midst of the sorrow caused by these various trials, there’s still reason for rejoicing. The expression on your face and the agony in your gut may not be chipper—he’s not expecting heal-clicks when we’re holding our friend’s hand on the hospital bed. But he is saying that these various trials in our lives are somehow occasions for great joy.
This is a pattern throughout the New Testament. Jesus says that when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely, to rejoice (Matt 5:11; cf. Acts 5:41). In Acts 16:25, Paul and Silas are in prison singing hymns to God. Paul can say things like “In all our affliction, I am overflowing with joy” (2 Cor 7:4; cf. 2 Cor 6:10). What?! How can both be possible?
For the Christian, both are possible because of who we are in Christ. We’re already new creations. We’re already participating in the glorious realities of the age to come. But it’s not yet here in full. And so we also groan for the Lord’s purposes to be completed. This sorrowful-yet-always-rejoicing—it’s part of the overlap of the ages, the already-not-yet tension of this age we live in. Yes, there’s reason for sorrow; but the resurrection of Jesus and God’s sovereign orchestration of all things for his good purposes means there’s also reason for joy.
Joy is that deep delight in God—that settled contentment in God—produced by the Holy Spirit, who gives us a proper perspective in every situation. Galatians 5:22 says that joy is the fruit of the Spirit. Romans 15:13 says, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy.” Joy is a gift from God. He gives it to us by the Spirit. And it’s possible that we have it even in through trial.
But part of the way the Holy Spirit works that joy in us is through a proper perspective in every situation. Pay attention to verse 3: “for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.” The work of the Holy Spirit and right thinking go together—joy comes in trial when you know something about the trials. You’re not just looking at the trials but through the trials to all that your good Father will do for you.
And what he says here is that the trials test our faith in Christ… Faith always has an object. It’s faith in the person of Christ that’s in view. Our personal act of trusting Christ is being tested in every trial we face. The trials test our faith, so that the kind of faith that comes out the other side leads to greater steadfastness in our obedience.
This word for testing appears a few other places in Scripture in connection with the testing of precious metals (Ps 12:6 [11:7 LXX]; Prov 27:21; 1 Pet 1:7). We’ve looked at this before. But in order to make precious metals shine, you have to remove the impurities. The only way to do that is to put it through fire. Fire exposes and burns off the impurities. Then the metal is tested—its quality is judged. If impurities still exist, back into the fire it goes. And this process gets repeated until the refiner can see his reflection in the metal. Trials test the genuineness of our faith this way.
In his book Trusting God, Jerry Bridges writes,
We may think we have true Christian love until someone offends us or treats us unjustly. Then we begin to see anger and resentment well up within us. We may conclude that we have learned about genuine Christian joy until our lives are shattered by an unexpected calamity or grievous disappointment. Adversities spoil our peace and…try our patience. God uses those difficulties to reveal to us our need to grow… (174).
The trials are various, brothers and sisters, because our remaining sin is various. Our lack of trust in Christ hides in places we didn’t even know about until we face the fire of trial. But when faith is tested and purified, there’s a greater confidence in who Christ is. There’s more assurance that he’s more valuable than whatever else I was valuing when I got angry, that he’s more precious than whatever possession I impatiently lost, that his love is enough even when other people betray me, that he’s better than life itself when the persecution comes.
Each trial leads to ask whether Christ is worth our love, worth our obedience, worth our speech, worth our treasures? And when we keep saying yes, our character as a disciple gets stronger. The tested faith produces steadfastness.
Steadfastness in what? Steadfastness in fidelity to our Master, Jesus Christ. Steadfastness isn’t a passive idea; it’s proactive. It’s doing something in relation to Christ. It’s the act of bearing up in the face of difficulty. Tested faith strengthens our ability to stay Christian when the weight of the circumstances are about to break you. Steadfastness has to do with the ability to stay devoted to righteousness and love for others in spite of the stress. It has to do with pressing on as a disciple when the world would tell you to walk away from Jesus.
So in the end here’s what we’ve got. Trials cause sorrow, yes. But they’re not meaningless. When they’re viewed from the proper perspective, they’re also occasions for great joy. They’re occasions for great joy, because all of them ultimately serve to refine our faith, and when that refined faith clings tighter to Jesus, we’re then enabled to remain steadfast when the rest of the world would’ve said give up on this Christian thing.
When you’re Job and even your own wife says, “Curse God and die,” you can still say, “The Lord gives, the Lord takes away, blessed be the name of the Lord.” Or, when you’re Horatio Spafford and watch the Chicago Fire of 1871 ruin you financially—burn up all that you worked so hard for over the years. And even worse, you then lose your four daughters in a shipwreck, and get a telegram from your wife Anna, “Saved alone.” You can still eventually write a hymn saying, “It is well with my soul.”
How can such joy be possible? It’s possible only by grace. It’s possible when the Holy Spirit gives us a proper perspective. In God’s often strange providence, these trials end up producing steadfastness in the one who is trusting in Christ. It’s not that we seek out the trials, but that when they come to us, we can be sure that God has a good purpose for us in them. We can ask him in the midst of trial—that’s where we’re going next week in verse 5, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God—we ask him, “Father, where are you seeing that my faith needs to grow? As your slave, what rights am I claiming that I need to surrender? As my good Master, give me further steadfastness where I am weak.” He will be generous to answer.
Let steadfastness have its full effect
James’ second exhortation is this: let steadfastness have its full effect. So, the steadfastness we just talked about in verse 3 isn’t an end in itself. Steadfastness actually contributes to an even greater goal. What does it say in verse 4?—“that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” That’s the purpose.
But the command suggests that we can potentially interrupt that purpose. We can frustrate the process by abandoning steadfastness, by abandoning obedience. Trials don’t guarantee our maturity in the faith. We have a responsibility. We must respond to them with faith in Christ and continue in steadfastness. We can’t turn to resentment or complaining or cynicism or bitterness.
A few of you have experienced trial and betrayal, and your bitterness over these things is hindering your growth as a Christian. You’ve built walls to protect yourself from further hurt instead of finding your security in Christ, and that’s hindering your steadfastness in love. We must let steadfastness have its full effect, its complete work. And that means persevering in the things Christ has called us to—like sacrificial love—regardless of the unloving actions of others.
And when we do let such steadfastness have its effect, we increasingly become perfect, complete, lacking in nothing. Jesus uses this same word for perfect at the end of chapter five in the Sermon on the Mount. He says, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt 5:48). Paul will often use this same word to speak of our maturity in Christ-likeness (e.g., 1 Cor 14:20; Phil 3:15; Eph 4:13; Col 1:28; 4:12).
And that’s certainly what James means as well. He uses this same word in verse 17 to speak of God’s perfect gifts, and then again in verse 25 to speak of God’s perfect law. So the idea is that trials help us become like a man who reflects the character of God, our Father; or like a man who reflects the character of Christ. Christ is the only man who is perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.
Sometimes Christians brush aside the pursuit of the perfect and the complete, because, after all, we’ll never really be that way in this life. But while perfection is certainly held out as the way we will live in the end; it also refers to the consistent Christ-like behavior we should want to practice in the present. We should want the perfect God to enable us with his perfect gifts to live out his perfect law and thereby reflect his perfect Son. We should want that as individuals and as a church (cf. 1 John 3:2-3).
Our Redeemer in Trials
Why such an emphasis by the New Testament? Why such a pursuit of living like the perfect One, Jesus? Because life from the beginning was meant to be lived as Jesus lived it. And living out a life that helps others see Jesus is what life is all about. That’s what the future will be—people reflecting Christ to one another. It’s not just about sinlessness; it’s about Jesusness…if that’s a word.
That’s what our salvation now is all about. Our salvation is not a comfortable life with sins forgiven. Yes, sins are forgiven now through Christ. But God then uses our lives to help others see Jesus more clearly. That happens when God uses various trials to refine our faith, to produce steadfastness; and that steadfastness ends up making us look more and more like Jesus. When you say “It is well with my soul,” even in the face of your greatest loss, the world gets a glimpse of how precious Christ truly is.
And they get a glimpse of the state Christ entered in order to save us. That’s where I want to take you last: I want us to look at our Redeemer in trials. Think about all of the themes James is weaving together for us: slave of God; joy even through trial; steadfastness making us perfect. Did you know that Philippians and Hebrews use all three of those same themes to describe Jesus and the way he saved us? What James spells out practically lines up with what Philippians and Hebrews spell out christologically.
Christ becomes a slave for our sake
Philippians 2:5-8 say, “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a [slave], being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” Jesus, who is God, willingly became a slave; and in obedience to his Father suffered death in our place. He became a slave to be our substitute.
Christ was made perfect through suffering
Then the writer of Hebrews tells us twice that Christ was made perfect through what he suffered. Hebrews 2:10, “It was fitting that [God], for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering.” How can you say that Jesus was made perfect? I thought he didn’t have any sin? Yes, the writer of Hebrews is well aware that Jesus didn’t have any sin. We’re about to see that was the whole point.
Hebrews 5:8-9 help clarify what he means by Jesus being made perfect through suffering: “Although [Jesus] was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him.” Hear the connection: “being made perfect” refers back to his “learning obedience through what he suffered.” And that’s still not to say that Christ wasn’t obedient before that point. Rather, Christ’s obedience as a man still had to be tested if he was going to qualify as our Savior. And he passed every test with flying colors.
You see, when our obedience is tested through what we suffer, we fail a lot. When we face trials, we curse, we get angry, we retaliate, we get bitter, we grumble, we criticize, we give up. Not so with Jesus. With every test that came to him in suffering—in trial—he only proved obedient. Everywhere we fail the test of perfection; he passed it. Even when the greatest test came in Gethsemane—Do I drink the cup of wrath or not?—he remained steadfast. And by doing so, he and he alone became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him.
Christ pursued the joy set before him
So, he became a slave; he was perfected through what he suffered; and lastly, he did it all for the joy set before him. We know that it’s possible to have joy through trial, because Jesus had joy through trial. You talk about somebody who was sorrowful! Jesus was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. But Hebrews 12:2 says that it was for the joy set before him that he endured the cross (Heb 12:2).
And why did he do it? Yes, to obtain the joy of his exaltation to the Father’s right hand. But Hebrews 12:3 says to us, “Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.” Jesus became a slave to be our substitute. He was made perfect to become our source of salvation. And now we see that for the joy set before him he endured the cross, so that as he sits at his Father’s side, he is our strength for the future—“that you may not grow weary” in your trials.
A Testimony from Ann Judson
So, yes, count it all joy when you meet trials of various kinds, because those trials have so much potential of making you more and more like Jesus. Your Father wants to make you perfect, complete, lacking in nothing. A good day isn’t necessarily defined by comfort and ease; a good day is a day we’re made more like Jesus.
Ann Judson and her husband Adoniram Judson were missionaries to Burma. In 1816, while they were on the field, their almost-eight-month-old son, Roger started contracting night fevers and eventually he dies. And Ann wrote home to her parents these words…
Our little Roger, our only little darling boy, was three days ago laid in the silent grave. Eight months we enjoyed the precious little gift, in which time he had so completely entwined himself around his parents’ hearts, that his existence seemed necessary to their own. But God has taught us by afflictions, what we would not learn by mercies—that our hearts are his exclusive property, and whatever rival intrudes, he will tear it away. …what shall I say about the improvement we are to make of this heavy affliction? We do not feel a disposition to murmur, or to enquire of our Sovereign why he has done this. We wish, rather, to sit down submissively under the rod and bear the smart, till the end for which the affliction was sent shall be accomplished. Our hearts were bound up in this child; we felt he was an earthly all, our only source of innocent recreation in this heathen land. But God saw it was necessary to remind us of our error, and to strip us of our only little all. O may it not be in vain that he has done it. May we so improve it, that he will stay his hand, and say, ‘It is enough’ (Sharon James, My Heart in His Hands: Ann Judson of Burma [Evangelical Press, 1999], 86-87).
Nine years later, in 1825 Adoniram suffered a miserable six month imprisonment for his faith. Ann was home with their three-and-a-half-month old daughter, Maria. During this time, Ann contracted an illness that prevented her from being able to feed her little girl. Again, listen to what she writes about that situation…
Our dear little Maria was the greatest sufferer at this time, my illness depriving her of her usual nourishment, and neither a nurse nor a drop of milk could be procured in the village. By making presents to the jailers, I obtained leave for Mr. Judson to come out of prison [in fetters] and take the little emaciated creature around the village, to beg a little nourishment from those mothers who had young children. Her cries in the night were heart-rending, when it was impossible to supply her wants. I now began to think the very afflictions of Job had come upon me. When in health I could bear the various trials and vicissitudes, through which I was called to pass. But to be confined with sickness, and unable to assist those who were so dear to me, when in distress, was almost too much for me to bear: and had it not been for the consolation of religion [i.e., her Christian faith], and an assured conviction that every additional trial was ordered by infinite love and mercy, I must have sunk under my accumulated sufferings (James, My Heart in His Hands, 174).
James is preparing us how to suffer like we read here of Ann. He’s trying to shape that assured conviction by telling us to count it all joy when facing various trials. How will you respond to your trials this week? My prayer is that the Holy Spirit would give us this perspective, that even in the midst of trial, we can rejoice that God will use them to strengthen our faith and make us more like his Son.
But when we fail to rejoice, when we fail to be steadfast, let us remember that One has gone before us who never failed. He is Jesus. We eat now to remember him. Right now, in all the trials you’re facing, this Table is God’s grace to you. Eat in remembrance of the one who was victorious over sin and death, so that you might not grow weary and lose heart. And may the Spirit make his joy, his steadfastness, and his completeness your own.
other sermons in this series