When James wrote his letter to the ‘twelve tribes scattered among the nations’, he probably meant it to reach Jewish believers who were displaced from Israel, living across the Roman empire, perhaps persecuted by their Jewish brothers and sisters. And if we read the letter of James end to end, we can gauge that these were people who were oppressed and poor—people whose landowners took advantage of them (James 5:4-5) and people who had to deal with social abuse and injustice (James 2:6).
When we consider the tone of James 1:2-4, it will help to remember that these believers were living in exceptionally difficult, frustrating circumstances, persecuted and displaced from home. They were in need of encouragement and counsel, especially in dealing with circumstances completely out of their control. So when we consider how James then begins his encouragement: “Count it all joy, my brothers and sisters, when you meet trials of various kinds…” (James 1:2), it might sound either extremely familiar to us or it might sound absurd, unrealistic and utterly discouraging.
Who, after all, starts letters with, “Count it all joy when you meet trials”?
The encouraging rule
But, let us be quick to listen. There is a lot to hear in verse 2:
- Trials are various, inevitable, and unexpected
Now James could have stopped at “when you meet trials”. But he makes an inspired addition by saying trials of various kinds or multi-coloured trials or trials of every variety. James, here, is not talking only about the extremely painful moments of life, nor is he only talking about persecution and poverty. James is talking of all kinds of pain, suffering and difficulty—from crying babies in the middle of the night, frustrating relationships, and difficulties at work to being shaken by painful illness, languishing in suffering, and mourning the loss of a loved one. Beloved brother or sister, do not be robbed of deep joy by assuming that your circumstance and your trial are not what James is talking about in this passage. They are. Trials come in all shapes and sizes.
Another thing worth observing is that James does not say if you meet trials, but he says when you meet trials. In other words, trials are inevitable: all of us have either just come out of a trial, are in the middle of a trial, or are about to go through a trial. This was Job’s observation as well in Job 5:6–7: “For affliction does not come from the dust, nor does trouble sprout from the ground, but man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward.”
A third aspect to note is that trials are not self-created, but are encountered and met—often unexpectedly. James will deal with self-created issues shortly—and he calls them temptations.
But here, in verse 2, the NET, KJV and NKJV express it best when they read when you fall into various trials. It’s the same word and idea used in the good Samaritan story when the man fell among thieves (Luke 10:30) or in Acts when Paul is shipwrecked, the boat struck or fell upon a reef (Acts 27:41). Trials appear out of nowhere and shock us. They are unexpected. They are circumstances totally out of our hands. Yet our joy lies in the hands that shape our trials—hands that hold ours.
- Trials need to be accounted as profitable
So we will be faced with Inevitable, unexpected, and multiple kinds of trials. How should we respond? Count it joy, says Paul. In other words, account trials as profitable; see them as worth it. This is no easy command.
We will reconsider this command in future parts, but I must clarify that James is not telling us to find pleasure in trial and pain. Nor is he aiming at some vague surface level happiness. If you read correctly, James is asking us to do some counting, some accounting or consideration. James is asking us to think twice and view trials from the right perspective. I prefer to say that God, through James, is telling us to do our spiritual accounts properly. In other words, when we inevitably and unexpectedly fall into various trials, we should see these trials as worth it, we should see them as profitable by doing our accounts correctly.
So two questions need to be considered. The command is well and good, but how do I do these accounts properly? And how is this command encouraging?
We have glimpsed at slivers of encouragement, but the source of all of that is in this: while James’ command is to see these trials as profitable and worth it, this command of God is built on a foundation that showcases a glorious God. And the foundation begins with the crucial, yet often ignored little word ‘for’, or ‘because’. “Because you know” (James 1:3; the NASB renders it as ‘knowing’, which assumes the same). This particular ‘because’ is crucial because it portrays a God who is very interested in showing us his reasons, a God who is not interested in us faking our joy and a God who does not want us to ignore our pain. Behold our God: the One who wants us to have joy that has a deep and strong foundation, independent of circumstance. It is this foundation that makes the rule so encouraging. It is this foundation that will help us really see trials as incredibly worth it.