Monday, June 20, 2016

James 1:2-4 and Counting It All Joy in Trials

"Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing." (James 1:2-4)

James issues a kind of "irrational" call in the opening to his epistle: he's writing to beat up brothers and sisters and he tells them to take joy in the midst of their trials. What gives? In answer, we must first understand what it does not mean. James is not ordering all-encompassing joyful emotion during severe trials; nor is he demanding that his readers must enjoy their trials, or that trials are joy. He knew, as did the writer of Hebrews, that “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful” (Hebrews 12:11).

James was not commanding that we exult upon hearing that our career position has been given to another, or that the neighbor’s children have leukemia, or that one’s spouse is adulterous. Rather, James is commending the conscious embrace of a Christian understanding of life which brings joy into the trials that come because of our Christianity. James says, “Consider it pure joy,” which means to make a deliberate and careful decision to experience joy even in times of trouble. Is this possible? Yes. Paul told the Corinthian church, “in all our troubles my joy knows no bounds” (2 Corinthians 7:4). Luke reports that the Sanhedrin “called the apostles in and had them flogged. Then they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name” (Acts 5:40, 41). Later, Luke tells us, Paul and Silas, having been severely flogged and being in intense pain, were in prison, and “About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them” (Acts 16:25). Their concert so pleased God that he brought down the house! This apostolic experience is still the experience of the church today.

The Greek verb hÄ“geomai ("consider") is an imperative because joy is not the natural human response to trouble. The more we rejoice in our testings, the more we realize that they are not liabilities but privileges, ultimately beneficial and not harmful, no matter how destructive and painful the immediate experience of them might appear. When we face trials with the attitude that James admonishes, we discover that the greatest part of the joy is drawing closer to the Lord—the Source of all joy—by becoming more sensitive to His presence, His goodness, His love, and His grace. Our prayer life increases, as does our interest in and study of the Word, and in each of those ways our joy increases all the more.

In other words, the rationale for such joy comes from knowing that the various trials we face have spiritual value. James says there is a two-step process through which our trials elevate us.

The first step is to understand that “the testing of your faith develops perseverance” (v. 3). Here is how this works: we develop toughness or fortitude by repeatedly being tested and prevailing. The more tests we pass, the tougher we become. As a boxer engages in bout after bout, he toughens and becomes wiser and stronger. After a time he develops such fortitude, perseverance and staying power that he can take on the best. There is no way a fighter, or any of us, can develop toughness without testing! The endurance and fortitude of the Apostle Paul or William Carey or Corrie ten Boom did not come overnight and did not come apart from trials. Paul, in Romans 5:3, confirms this truth: “but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance.”

The rationale becomes even clearer when we observe the second step: perseverance produces maturity. “Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (v. 4). Spiritual perseverance or toughness produces a dynamic maturity. “Mature” refers to a personality which has reached its full development. Regarding the corresponding synonym “complete,” Peter Davids explains: “Perfection is not just a maturing of character, but a rounding out as more and more ‘parts’ of the righteous character are added.” Thus, maturity is a dynamic state in which a thousand parts of us are honed, shaped, tempered and brought together, making a dynamic wholeness.

It is commonly taught that trials bring maturity, but it is not so. Rather, fortitude and perseverance in times of testings produce maturity. In troubled times we must practice spiritual toughness. As we endure “trials of many kinds”—economic stress, disappointments, criticisms, domestic pressures, persecution for our faith, illnesses—the multiple facets of our being are touched with grace.

The idea that when we “get it all together” our trials will lessen is a falsehood. Paul told Timothy the truth: “In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12). Life will always be full of testings for the true Christian. We must not imagine they will lessen with time—say, less trials at thirty-five than twenty-five, or at forty-five than thirty-five, or at fifty-five than forty-five, or at sixty-five than fifty-five, or at seventy-five than sixty-five. Trials are not a sign of God’s displeasure but are opportunities to persevere in the Lord.

James commands the irrational: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds.” Is this crazy talk—pious prattle? Not when we embrace the double rationale: 

1) Testing brings spiritual toughness—“because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance” (v. 3). When we, by God’s grace, tough it out, our entire person becomes pearly.

2) Toughness brings a dynamic maturity—“Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (v. 4).