James 1:1-4 James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion: Greetings.
2 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.
You’re running a late for a meeting with a friend and you notice the traffic is completely stopped in front of you. What happens in your heart?
You’re 24 hours out from a vacation you’d been planning for months. You need it really badly. You’re exhausted and a few days off the grid is just what you need. As you’re packing up the last few bags, you hear your kid throwing up in the next room. What’s your first thought?
Imagine going about your day and everything is happening mostly according to plan. It’s a pretty good day. And then your phone rings. It’s your Dr.’s office. The test results came back positive. You have cancer. What is your response?
You lied to your parents, telling them that you were sick so you didn’t have to go to school. In the middle of the day, your best friend texts to see if you can go skiing that evening. How would that make you feel?
You’ve been sharing the gospel with your neighbor for months and without giving you a reason he says he’s no longer interested. What happens inside?
Life as a whole just isn’t what you were hoping for. You don’t have the job you pictured yourself in, your church isn’t as healthy as you would like it to be and you’re not sure where you fit in, your health isn’t great, and on top of all of that, none of your relationships have the kind of depth you know they’re supposed to have. What do you imagine to be your dominant emotion?
You’ve prayed for God’s help for the same thing for months, but without any apparent response. How would you process that?
You’re on the mission field. You’ve poured the last five years of your life into sharing the gospel with a people who have never heard before. You’ve endured sickness, persecution, and rejection, but you’ve remained faithful and steadfast. And then a legal technicality forces you to leave the country. How do you feel about that?
Living in a fallen world means that trials are inevitable. The question, then, is not if we’ll face these kinds of things, but how we’ll respond to them when we do. Without any explanation James opens his letter with a command to have one main response to every trial that comes our way. Looking closely at his prescribed response is the heart of this text and sermon.
It is my earnest hope and prayer that with the Spirit’s help, I will be able to explain what James meant and why he meant it. And on the other side of that, it is my earnest hope and prayer that the Spirit would be pleased to move us all at least a little closer to obeying this command this morning. That is, I’ve asked God all week to be pleased to help us see and then respond to our trials differently in light of this text.
I know you just heard the passage read, and I hope you read it on your own recently, but to help you fully appreciate the weight and significance of the passage I want to ask you to try to forget what you know and try to think through the passage with me as if you were hearing it for the first time.
This short passage has two main parts. In the first part, v.2, James issues a pretty radical and extremely counterintuitive command. In the second part, vs.3-4, he gives the reasoning behind his command.
Grace, if we are to obey a command that calls us to do (as we’ll soon see) the exact opposite of what we’re inclined to do and the exact opposite of what almost everything around us is calling for and modeling, we’d better make sure we understand both the command and its rationale really, really well. Beginning with the command, to really grasp it, we need to understand six key terms in it.
We all assign value to the things in our life. By God’s design, we can’t not. We do it for people and things and experiences alike. We then respond to the various things we encounter in light of the value we’ve assigned to them. For instance, if we assign a high value to entertainment, it’ll be pretty important to us to live near entertainment options to spend our time and money on. Or, if we assign a high value to physical beauty, we’ll invest in certain workouts, clothes, food, and makeup. Or, if we assign a high value to sports, we’ll be willing to drive our kids great distances and give up weekends and miss other things to pass that value on. Conversely, if we assign a low value to something like exercise or Bible reading or artistic endeavors, it won’t take much for us to avoid those things. You get the idea. We determine the value of something and then respond accordingly.
The key, then, is to assign right value to things so that we can respond rightly to them. The way we assign right value to something is to assign the value God has given it. And we know the value God has given something exclusively in His Word.
When James begins his command by telling his readers to “count” something, he is, under the inspiration of God, telling them to assign a particular value to something. We’ll find out in just a moment what value he means his readers to assign to what thing, but by calling his readers to “count it,” James is about to tell us what God’s priorities in relation to that thing so that we might make them our own. That’s what he means by “count it”—give it a certain value.
The next key term is important, therefore, because it tells us what kind of value James means his readers to assign. In Philippians 3:8 Paul uses the same Greek term (“count”) to declare, “I count everything as loss…” In that case, he assigns the lowest of low values to everything.
So what value, then, does James call us to assign to something in this passage? James’s very next words give us the answer. James commands his readers to count something as “all joy. What does that mean? What does it mean to count something as all joy? It’s a phrase used only two other times in the NT.
In Romans 15:13, after explaining the glory of God in choosing to include the gentiles in His plan of salvation, Paul broke out in prayerful praise, exclaiming, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing…”
And in Philippians 2:29, after enduring a good deal of hardship, Paul decided to send Epaphroditus to serve the Philippian church. He commanded them, therefore, to “receive him in the Lord with all joy…”.
In these two passages God’s people are filled with “all joy” as a result of experiencing some exceptional blessing of God. The main point is that to count something as “all joy” is to count it as extremely valuable and desirable. Clearly, James is about to tell his readers to place a high, high value on something. Whatever it is, it is meant to give them a kind of uninterruptible gladness. What do you think it’ll be?!
Before revealing what is to be considered “all joy,” James makes clear who he is speaking to. Not everyone is to consider something all joy; just a certain group of people. Who? “My brothers.” As you probably know, to be a Christian is to have been adopted by God into the family of God. Therefore, all Christians are spiritual brothers and sisters. For that reason, “brothers” was a term used by the early Christians to indicate fellow believers in Jesus. In other words, James is not commanding non-Christians to count anything as all joy. He is commanding only those whose faith is in Jesus. So, Christians, and only Christians, are to assign great worth to something.
Whenever You Meet
There’s one more qualifier to consider before we get to the thing that is to be counted all joy. With the fourth key term of the passage James tells Christians when we ought to count that thing all joy. That’s important, right? Some things are only highly valued in certain circumstances. We count winter coats and gloves as valuable only when it’s cold out. We count life jackets as highly valuable only when we’re on the water. We place significant value on skis only when there’s snow. So knowing exactly when means us, as Christians, to count something as all joy is very important.
James’s answer is simple: “whenever you meet” this particular thing. We still don’t know what that highly valuable thing is, but we do know that whenever we encounter it, we are to count it all joy. This thing has no off season or time of partial joy. Every time we meet it, to obey James, it must fill us with fullness of joy.
Without further ado, then, what is this thing of perpetual and great value for all Christians?! It’s got to be something truly amazing, right?!
The answer is…”trials”. “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials…”. What?! That can’t be right, can it? Maybe the Greek word means something different than we think (kind of like the difference between the biblical and contemporary understanding of slave). Nope. It means what you think it means, and maybe even more. A trial is a challenging, often painful situation. A trial is a hardship. A trial is some difficult encounter. There is nothing in the word’s etymology that softens it or explains away the simple fact that James just commanded all Christians, at all times, to count as all joy, the hardships of life that come our way.
There must be something more than just that, right? Why would he command such a thing? That doesn’t seem to make sense. Well, there’s one more term that we need to consider. It tells us what kinds of trials we’re to count as all joy. Maybe that’ll help us make sense out of this counterintuitive command. Is it every kind of trial or just certain trials? He must have some really specific kind in mind, right? That leads to the final key term of v.2.
Think back on the questions I asked at the very beginning of the sermon. Each represented a very different type of trial. Did James have any of those in mind or maybe something even more specific?
“2 Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds…”
All Christians are to count each of the various kinds of trials that come our way as all joy. This means that James has in mind big and little trials. Trials from living in a fallen world and trails from fallen people. Trials brought upon us by the sins of others and by our own sin. Passive and active trials. Trials in ordinary life and ministry endeavors. Even in James’s letter, we’ll read of trials his readers endured—the very people who first received this command—related to exile, poverty, exploitation, and persecution.
Grace, to be clear, James just commanded all Christians to count all trials as all joy all the time. Just think about that for a minute. Even on the surface, it’s easy to see that this is a very different message than the one we’re used to hearing. Virtually everything around us actually tells us the opposite. “Count it all joy when you experience comfort,” is the message we usually hear. The lack of joy is what makes a trial a trial according to the world’s economy.
That leaves us with the question of why in the world he would do that? God, through James, is kind to answer that question for us in the next two verses.
Let me say one more thing about this first part of James’s opening charge before moving on to the reason he gives for it. Whatever the reason for the command ends up being, the very fact that James, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, tells us to place high value on something that none of us naturally value, ought to humble us and cause us to test our entire value system. That we’re commanded to value trials means—even if we’re not sure why yet—that our natural senses and wisdom are not the best judge of value. It tells us that we need supernatural senses and revelation to truly understand the worth of a thing in God’s world. We simply cannot live lives pleasing to God if we don’t value what God values and we need God’s Word to know what that is.
THE REASONING BEHIND THE COMMAND
Just as it is important to get the specifics of the command right, it’s equally important to get the reasoning behind it right. And by God’s grace, the reasoning is every bit as straight forward as the command itself.
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.
In simplest terms, James says that Christians are to count all trials as all joy because God has great purposes for all of them—purposes far greater than whatever pain comes with the trials. More specifically, though, among His great purposes, according to vs.3-4, are to grant assurance, endurance, and sanctification His people—such sweet, sweet treasures for all who treasure Christ above all.
The assurance of salvation comes from having our faith tested by trial and coming out intact. The endurance/perseverance in faith comes from the steadfastness that the trial produces. And the sanctification comes as we “let” steadfastness through many trials do its purifying work. Indeed, the ultimate end of the Christian life, the final saving work of God, is to make us perfect and complete, lacking nothing; and all of that comes, in large measure James teaches, through the refining work God does to us as we faithfully endure our trials.
The bottom line is that Christians are not to consider the trials themselves as all joy (or they wouldn’t actually be trials), but the greater, assurance, endurance, and sanctifying good that God is always working through them.
We see this principle (of counting trials as joy because they lead to some greater good) modeled perfectly in Jesus who, “for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame” (Hebrews 12:2). Jesus was filled with all joy even in the greatest trial any man has ever known (enduring the wrath of God on the cross) because He knew the greater good that awaited Him; namely, that by doing so He would soon be seated at the right hand of the throne of God!
We see this principle at work in Paul in Philippians 3:8, “Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.” In choosing to follow Jesus, Paul gave up everything he once counted as value; his name, reputation, comfort, financial stability, education, ministry training, and career. And yet, compared to the greater reward of knowing Jesus, the “trial” of losing all of that was as nothing.
We see it again in Paul in 2 Corinthians 7:4. Paul not only gave up all of his old “gains,” but he also endured unfathomable persecution/trials for his faith in Jesus. Nevertheless, he exclaimed, “In all our affliction, I am overflowing with joy.”
One commentator summed up the conviction underneath these passages like this: “Grace’s worst is better than the world’s best” (James, Manton, 18).
How can we obey James? That is, how can we be glad in trials? James’s answer is that we do so by understanding and believing with all that we have, that in every trial God’s people have nothing other than a doorway to a much, much greater good. Every trial-dollar invested, yields one million grace-dollars in assurance, endurance, and sanctification.
Grace, if assurance, endurance, and sanctification were the only rewards for faithfully enduring the trials that come our way, James’s command would make perfect sense. But the Bible is filled with trial-producing grace.
James himself mentions another in v.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.” We endure trials in joy because they lead to blessing from God and specifically to the blessing of the crown of life!
In 1 Peter 4:16, Peter promises that, “if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name.” We endure trials in joy because they give us a unique opportunity to glorify God.
Paul wrote in Philippians 1:29, “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake.” We endure trials in joy because they are a gift granted by God.
In Acts 5:41 we read of the response of several disciples who had been imprisoned for their faith, “…they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name.” We endure trials in joy because faithfulness through them demonstrates our worthiness before God.
In 1 Thessalonians 1:6 Paul said of the Thessalonian believers, “you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit.” We endure trials in joy because they there are some ways that the Word of God comes uniquely to us in trial.
In Matthew 5:10 Jesus promised, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” We endure trials in joy because there is a way in which are trials grant us citizenship in heaven!
And Grace, perhaps the greatest opportunity to count all our trials as all joy comes from the certain knowledge that none of our trails come to us as punishment for our sins, for Christ was punished once for all for our sins (Hebrews 9:12). In other words, we are able to count our trials as joy because they remind us of the gospel—that however severe our trials are, they pale in comparison to what we deserve and Christ took for us.
In the end, to truly appreciate and apply James’s command to count all trials as all joy, is to echo the Apostle Paul in believing with all of our hearts that, “this light momentary affliction [whatever trial we face] is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Corinthians 4:17).
James commands all Christians to count all trials as all joy all of the time. How, then, can we be glad in our trials? What specifically do we do?
First, we fill our minds and prayers with the trial-promises of God. We seek them out in God’s Word with His people. We study them, pray over them, and memorize them—hiding them in our hearts. We do those things so that, second, when a trial comes our way, we’re able to instantaneously draw those promises to mind and allow them to rush over and overwhelm us with the goodness of God and His plans for us. And, third, if there’s a gap between the trial coming into our lives and the joy James commands, we call on the brothers and sisters in Christ to remind us of the promises of God, to pray and sing them over us, and to wait on the Lord with us.
Grace, even if you’ve ended up neck-deep in a trial without these promises to cling to (or without clinging to these promises), it’s not too late. Are you in a trial, but marked more by sadness, bitterness, grief, or doubt, than joy? Does your response to your trials look more like one who does not have the promises of God for them than one who does? Jesus died to forgive you of your failure to obey James’s command and to give you the Holy Spirit to understand and believe God’s Word. Look to Jesus today and know that forgiveness and receive that Spirit.
Let’s fight, then, Grace, together, with all we have, to believe what is true and secured by the cross of Jesus. And let’s fight together to share this good news with every weak and broken and suffering soul that they too might know the fullness of joy they were made for and is offered to them in Jesus. Amen.