Counting Our Trials as Joy in the Kingdom‌

February 18, 2024 Speaker: Ben Janssen Series: James

Scripture: James 1:2–18

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.

5 If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. 6 But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. 7 For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; 8 he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.

9 Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, 10 and the rich in his humiliation, because like a flower of the grass he will pass away. 11 For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. So also will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits.

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. 13 Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. 14 But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. 15 Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.

16 Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. 17 Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. 18 Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.

Last week, we “set the stage” for our study of the book of James over these 12 weeks. This week, we jump into the letter, taking a look at verses 2-18.

‌Most commentators now agree that the first chapter of James provides an introduction to the whole letter. These verses take us from topic to topic in rapid fashion and seemingly without much progression of thought. James speaks about trials, wisdom and prayer, the rich and the poor. He writes about anger, about being a doer of the word and not just a hearer of it, and the need to bridle the tongue. It’s not clear why one subject leads him to address the next.

‌But it is striking that these subjects all are taken up again in chapters 2-5. So, James is here giving us a “heads up” to the things he wants to address in his letter.[1]

Now, when we look at this introductory first chapter, it appears that there are two sections to it. Notice that the subject of trials and tests of faith which is introduced in verse 2 is taken up again in verses 12-15. Did James forget he wanted to say more about this subject? No, this suggests to us a structure for his writing that we may not notice at first. This is the well-known structure of an inclusio, in which a writer begins and ends a section with a similar focus, signaling that this focus is an important theme for what he wants to say. In fact, since James returns to this theme again at the end of his letter, the whole book, and not just the first part of his introduction, seems to have this theme as its major focus.[2] James, like the Old Testament book of Job, is one of the places we can go to in our Bibles for wisdom on how to handle the various trials and tests of our faith with the confidence that comes from knowing that we are secure as citizens in the kingdom of God.

This is not theological theory. James is not writing from an ivory tower. He writes with the heart of a pastor. He knows that “trials of various kinds” confront Christians all the time. He knows how serious this is, the danger that comes with it, and he wants to do all he can to help struggling believers.

Who among us has never faced a test of faith? They come, as James says, in all kinds of ways. They are “of various kinds.” I look out on all of you today and I am aware of some of the battles you have faced. In many ways, I am amazed that you are still here, still in the battle, still holding on to faith in Christ. Not everyone makes it, and it would be foolish for any of us to think that we do not have many more struggles awaiting us in the future. Let’s not have our head in the sand. Let’s see what wisdom James has for us, forged in the real life issues he knew his audience was facing.‌

James encourages us in these opening verses to maintain our kingdom perspective that gives us a quiet confidence and a steady resistance to all that seeks to threaten our Christian faith.

Kingdom Perspective

First, in verses 2-4, James encourages us to face the trials of our faith with a kingdom perspective.

Why Do We Suffer?

James does not answer the question, “Why do we Christians suffer in the first place?” That is one of the major philosophical questions of human existence that confronts every worldview, Christian or not, religious or not. Some see human suffering as a major challenge to theism, but the problem of suffering is a problem that confronts everyone.

The particular problem that suffering raises for Christians, and one that James seems to be taking on here is this: if Christianity is true, if the kingdom of God has already broken in, if—as we discussed last week—Israel’s exile is over and in Israel’s Messiah, Jesus, sins are forgiven, then why do we still suffer? Why do Christians face serious threats against their faith?

This could mean that Christianity in particular is just not true, that Jesus was another failed Messiah, and that suffering exists because we are still in our sins and reaping the consequences for our sins. In other words, from a theological perspective, one of the reasons we may be suffering is because we sin and are under the curse. That makes perfect sense in light of the biblical story. You can still be a theist and hold that perspective. But you most certainly cannot be a Christian theist and hold that perspective. Because the Christian argument is that Jesus is not a failed Messiah. He did in fact bring in to the present the kingdom of God, the rule and reign of God. He did bring an end to all our sin. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:1). Christians do not suffer, do not face trials and tests in various kinds, because there is still a price to be paid. No way! The good news of the kingdom of God is that Jesus paid it all!

Consider It Pure Joy

That’s the reason why James can say, right off the bat, “Count it all joy . . . when you meet trials of various kinds.”

Let’s go ahead and get out of the way any idea that James expects Christians to jump up and down with glee when they go through a trial. It is the nature of sagely advice to suggest to us that things are not always what they seem and how they legitimately feel in the moment. When someone is going through a trial, be careful—be wise—about how you minister to them. Quoting James 1:2, or reminding them of a verse like Romans 8:28, is probably not your best first move. But verses like these are there for a reason, so let’s see what they are here to tell us.

The word consider is used here in an ironic way, urging us to calculate the value of the trial in a counter-cultural way. Paul used the word in Philippians 3, when he said that “whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ” (Phil 3:7). Now, James is basically saying that the reverse is just as true. “Whatever loss you have, count it as gain for the sake of Christ.” That’s why the real sorrow and sadness and grief and loss that comes with “trials of various kinds” can end up on the “pure joy” side of the ledger. This is what James is saying, by the way, that trials can, for the Christian, be counted as pure joy, not necessarily “all joy.” It’s not that trials should be considered “nothing but joy” but rather as a means of producing and leading us to full, complete, intense joy.[3]

To see why this can be so, James will need to explain himself, which he does in verses 3-4, and, as we have said, maybe throughout the letter as a whole.

Trials, Temptations, and Tests

The word trial in verse 2 is the same word used in the Lord’s Prayer, usually translated “temptation.” “Lead us not into temptation.” So, we might translate verse 2 with the same word. “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet temptations of various kinds.”

But the different English word is used because it is clear that a “trial” can be looked at from two different perspectives. In the Lord’s Prayer, “lead us not into temptation” is followed by the request that God will “deliver us from evil” or “from the evil one.” A trial is a temptation from the perspective of evil or the “evil one” whose hope for the trial we face is that it is counted as loss. But God has a different perspective, which is why James can say that “the testing of your faith produces steadfastness” or “endurance.”

In verse 12, James speaks in the language of a beatitude: “Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial.” Remember the beatitudes that Jesus pronounced in the Sermon on the Mount? James is reflecting the same counter-cultural reality that Jesus was pronouncing there. The person facing the trial sure doesn’t look blessed, any more than do the poor in spirit, the persecuted, or the meek. But something is there which, if we can see it, will change the equation entirely.

‌We learned, in our study of the Sermon on the Mount, what that thing is. It is the arrival of the kingdom of God, in which things are turned completely upside down. It is because God is taking over, Jesus said, and inaugurating his eternal kingdom on earth, at long last, that things are not as they might seem. “Temptations of various kinds” are now, because of the arrival of the kingdom of God, turned into a “testing of your faith” that is meant to produce a positive result.‌

‌Quiet Confidence

‌Consequently, James’s wisdom for Christians facing a trial of any kind is that we face it with a quiet confidence that comes from this kingdom perspective. “Consider it pure joy,” he says, “for you know.” You know, don’t you? You know that in Jesus your trials of whatever kind is meant to lead to something positive. So, you must hold on to a quiet confidence in God through the whole ordeal. Alright, now how might we do that?

Toward Christian Perfection

It is easy enough to follow the logic of verses 3-4. You can see the various trials you face as “pure joy” once you are certain that these trials will produce endurance which will make us perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. It is easy enough, too, to understand how trials can produce the quality of endurance. You don’t get stronger without “remaining under” (that’s the literally meaning of “steadfastness” in verses 3-4) the weight. The question is, why would you want to be “stronger” in this sense? What is this strength we seek that ought to motivate us to press on in our trials?‌

The words full effect in verse 4 are, more literally, “complete work.” The same word “complete” occurs again right after that, describing the Christian who remains under the weight of the trial. When the work of perseverance is complete, the result is complete Christians.[4]

“Lacking nothing” suggests to us the complete overthrow of sin which has caused us to come up short of the glory that God intends for us to have as creatures made in his image. This is what salvation is all about. It is about perfection, completeness, wholeness. It is not simply avoiding God’s eternal judgment but also arriving at God’s intended end. “The earth will be full of the knowledge of the glory of the Lord like the waters cover the sea” (Isa 11:9; Hab 2:14) because God will see to it that his glory in his image bearers, complete and whole, will be spread over the face of the whole earth. This is not incidental to what the gospel story is all about. It is central to it. The faithful endurance of Christians of trials of all kinds is every bit the mission of God as is sending a missionary to an unreached people group.‌

Persistent Faith‌

Now we know that one day there will be no more trials. We will then be “perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” We do not believe such perfection will be reached until we are raised from the dead at Christ’s appearing. May Jesus come soon!

But don’t become so focused on Christ’s second advent that you miss the power and importance of his first advent. It is because of what Jesus has already achieved for us that the trials which linger have lost their sting. For the Christian, the trials we face can never be because God is punishing us. Even if we face certain trials as a consequence of our own sinful acts, God does not punish us for those acts. Rather, he disciplines us; he treats us like we are his beloved children, because that is who we are.

In Hebrews 12, we are told that God “disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness.” Now at “the moment” of this discipline, verse 11 says, it “seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”

That is why, we are told in verse 7, we must be steadfast in whatever trial we face. “It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline?"

‌So, you and I simply must endure. We must endure trials of various kinds because God is at work making us into Christians, the perfect, mature, complete human beings he created us to be.

Seeking Wisdom in Prayer

‌Of course, this will not be easy. Part of the real value of a Christian community, of being in covenant with each other in the local church, is to come alongside one another as brothers and sisters, helping the weak, encouraging one another “until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature [humanity], to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph 4:13).

The church is designed by God to make us into complete Christians. So is prayer. Verse 5 is one of the most well-known verses in James, but it must be read, of course, with verse 6, these two verses summarizing what Jesus taught about prayer.[5] We tend to like verse 5; we tend to ignore verse 6. That may be because we are scared off by the requirement that we must pray with “no doubting” if we hope to receive anything from the Lord.

What James means when he says “with no doubting” is clarified by what he says in verse 8. A “double-minded” person, unstable like a wave of the sea, is someone who vacillates “between trusting God and looking elsewhere.” [6] They want wisdom from God one day and the wisdom of the world the next.[7] To “ask in faith, with no doubting,” is to possess a single-minded determination to live by God’s wisdom rather than by the wisdom of the world.

‌It is this single-mindedness that also explains the paradox of verses 9-11. The wisdom of God gives the lowly person by the world’s standards the freedom to boast, to see himself or herself from a kingdom perspective in which they are nothing but blessed as a full citizen of God’s eternal reign. The rich person by the world’s standards will not find his confidence in his material status but in his humiliation—in finding his identity among the lowly people of God who seek a better possession, one that will last forever. That is the beauty of God’s church who remain steadfast together in their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.

Steady Resistance

Every church, like every Christian, will face trials of various kinds. Sadly, many churches, like many Christians, will give up. It will just be too hard. But for those who remain steadfast, for those who show a steady resistance to the evil that threatens to destroy them, the reward is beyond description. Verses 12-18 encourage us to remain steadfast, to maintain a steady resistance to the defeated powers of darkness because of the promise that God has made to us. How do we resist these dark powers?

Don’t Accuse God

First, in the words of verse 13, “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am tempted by God.’” We must resist every temptation to accuse God of seeking our downfall. The lie of the evil one from the beginning is to accuse God of being the evil one. It’s an easy move to make: God is sovereign, all-powerful; we are suffering, experiencing a trial; so God is against us and seeking to do us harm.

But the single-minded person sees through the lie. Verses 14-15 tell us that the temptation to sin comes from an evil impulse, and since God has no such evil impulse, he can never be conceived as trying to bring about that evil in any one of us.[8]

Everything Is Gift

How do we get to that conviction that enables us to remain steadfast under trial? Through philosophy? Maybe. But a better foundation comes through New Testament theology. It’s not just that no evil comes from God; it’s just as important to hold on to the conviction that all good comes from God. Verse 17 says, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights.”

What’s more, it’s not just that God has no evil impulse and so can never tempt us toward evil; it’s just as true that God has only good impulses, so that everything that comes to us must come as a gift, and ought to be received with thanksgiving.[9] We learn this in Jesus, where a cross of execution becomes the means of eternal life, and where the power of resurrection has brought the promised future into the present.

The Crown of Life

And so we must press on with a steadfast resistance. After all, “of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth” as verse 18 says. And when we have stood the test, verse 12 says, “we will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.”

We press on not only to avoid evil. We press on to receive the good. We press on not only because we fear negative consequences if we don’t. We press on because we love the promise that God has made to us.

What is that promise? What is the crown, the reward, the prize? It is life, eternal life.[10] What we are hoping for is the promise of eternal life as complete Christians—full human beings in the image of Christ himself.

The Christian understands that the whole reason God “brought us forth by the word of truth,” the whole reason for our regeneration, our rebirth, is so that we will become grown adults one day, fully alive in God’s new world. That is what God has promised, and that is what God is bringing to fruition in the various trials we must face under his Fatherly care.

And so we press on together because we are growing up together, considering everything God brings into our lives as pure joy!

_____

[1] Douglas J. Moo, The Letter of James, Second edition, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, ed. D.A. Carson (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2021), 60.

[2] Ibid., 71.

[3] Ibid., 72.

[4] Ibid., 75–76.

[5] Richard Bauckham, James: Wisdom of James, Disciple of Jesus the Sage, New Testament Readings (New York: Routledge, 1999), 86.

[6] Ibid., 206.

[7] Moo, The Letter of James, 82.

[8] Ibid., 97.

[9] Bauckham, James, 169–70.

[10] Scot McKnight, The Letter of James, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, ed. Gordon D. Fee (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2011), 112.

More in James

April 14, 2024

What Is Your Life?: Humility, Brevity, Obedience

April 7, 2024

Fighting for Humility

March 24, 2024

Wisdom from Above