Faith

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Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds . . . (James 1:2)

Few stories turn heads like solid joy in the midst of deep pain. Not only is this kind of unshakeable happiness a distinctively Christian experience, but it also amounts to one of the most powerful witnesses we can make before an unbelieving world.

It’s one thing to describe joy-in-trial from the outside and ponder it in theory, but it is something distinct to actually walk through it ourselves, experiencing it from the inside, in practice — paddling in the sea billows of sorrow, as one who is hurting and desperately wants the difficulty and pain to go away.

In and of themselves, our hardships are emphatically not joyful. That’s part of what makes them hard. What could it mean, then, in circumstances like these, to “count it all joy”?

Not Only Joy

When James charges us to “count it all joy,” he does not mean it all — all our pain, all our trials, all our hardship — is joy in and of itself. Pain is pain, not joy. Trials are trying, not sources of pleasure. Rather, what James has for us — and what the gospel of Christ provides — is a lens on life, and a true vantage point on reality, through which even life’s most painful trials have a vital part to play in our joy.

“God draws his straightest lines from life’s greatest difficulties to our deepest joys.”

And not just “even,” but “especially.” In God’s strange and wonderful ways of ruling this world, life’s most painful trials serve a special purpose for our good. God often draws his straightest lines from life’s greatest difficulties to our deepest and sweetest joys. And not just in the long run, but even in the midst of trial. When trials assault our surface pleasures, we’re pressed to consider our deepest, fullest, richest treasures — and to tap those roots for sustenance in ways we simply do not when all is well.

James does not say, “Count it only joy.” We wince. We wail. We hurt. We ask, “How long, O Lord?” God does not expect us to receive our trials as only joy. In fact, Christians, of all people, should be most ready to receive pain as pain, tragedy as tragedy, trauma as trauma. We count, or reckon, our trials as joy, because we don’t simply feel them naturally to be so.

Not Just Tiny Trials

Don’t think that James only has little trials in view here. He says “trials of various kinds” because he means the big ones, too. It can be easy to see how God is at work in life’s little inconveniences, but our greatest tragedies press the hardest, darkest questions on our soul.

Has God abandoned me? Is he really in charge and also good? Is he even there?

James will not have us relegate his charge to “count it all joy” simply to the easy stuff. The very issue at stake is the hardest things — the “trials” of tragedy, loss, distress, despondency, and long-term despair.

Why Count Pain as Joy?

Verse 2 may be straightforward enough, but our souls need more than just a command to own this and see it come to life in us. Our minds and hearts need reasons, or at least a reason. Which is exactly what James supplies in what immediately follows.

“When trials assault our surface pleasures, we consider afresh our sweetest treasures.”

We could rehearse many of the clear biblical reasons why we can “count it all joy” when we encounter various trials. “We know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). We can write over every trial, “This light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Corinthians 4:17). And we can say with the apostle, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18). Or with Jesus, “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven” (Matthew 5:12).

But James has something particular in mind: “for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness” (James 1:3).

God Keeps Us Through Trial

“Steadfastness” is not a word we use frequently today, and so likely this does not feel especially compelling at first glance. Another word for it would be endurance. Endurance on its own isn’t necessarily desirable (for instance, enduring in error). What makes it compelling is what we endure in. And what James has in view is very clear: faith in Christ. And for Christians, enduring in faith is what life is all about. If we do not endure in faith, we will be on the wrong side of what matters most in the universe: being right with God, and enjoying him forever, in Jesus.

In other words, one of the things God is doing when he tests our faith is he is preserving our faith. When he lovingly brings trials into our lives — and he does so lovingly for all who are in Jesus — he is working for us, and in us, one of the greatest goods imaginable. When he tests us, he is taking action to keep us. And he keeps us not just by protecting our present level of faith, and not just by growing, enriching, developing, and maturing our faith. But in testing our faith, he is keeping it alive.

God’s preserving work in us through our pain and difficulty is essential to what matters most, and James makes that connection explicit: “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).

“God lovingly injects our lives with trials to train, grow, strengthen, and sweeten what matters most in us.”

Faith does not flourish when it lies untested. It atrophies when it goes unexercised. And eventually it dies. So, when God loves us with his saving love, and gives us saving faith, he commits, because he cares for us, to inject our lives with various trials to train, grow, sweeten, strengthen, and mature what matters most in us. Our “various trials” in this life are not superfluous to our enduring in faith. And they are not just threats to losing our faith. They are one of God’s essential means through which he preserves the faith he has given us and keeps us as his own.

(@davidcmathis) is executive editor for desiringGod.org, pastor at Cities Church in Minneapolis/Saint Paul, and adjunct professor for Bethlehem College & Seminary. He is a husband, father of four, and author of Habits of Grace: Enjoying Jesus through the Spiritual Disciplines.