“Frankly, many of us would prefer this passage were not in the Bible.” So writes one scholar about a verse you are no doubt familiar with:
“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds.” (James 1:2)
At first glance this is one perplexing verse and one we might prefer was not in Scripture, particularly when we experience trials and suffering. So let me get this straight. When I encounter a trial, when I find myself suffering, God commands me to “Count it all joy”? He does. And this command, like all of his commands, is a wise command, for our good and ultimately for his glory. Alfred Plummer helps us to understand this when he writes:
“The hard saying by James is really a merciful one, for it teaches us to endure trials in a spirit that will make us feel them least.”
Perhaps you’ve never viewed this command this way.
This is a hard saying by James and its any easy one to misunderstand. Really easy to misunderstand so let’s make sure we don’t. God isn’t commanding us to enjoy trials. Trials are not enjoyable in any way. So the command isn’t “Feel it all joy.” No, trials are not enjoyable and there is an element of genuine sorrow when one suffers but we can respond to a trial in this unusual way when we know each trial arrives with a divine purpose. We can count a trial “all joy” not because the trial is enjoyable but because of the desirable outcome of the trial. We can respond this way to a trial because we know that God is at work in and through our trials to develop steadfastness, perseverance, and endurance in our lives. Our joy is rooted in the knowledge that God is at work in our lives in and through difficult and painful trials. There is no such thing as a random, purposeless trial for the Christian. And knowing this makes all the difference “when (not if) you meet trials of various kinds.” Knowing this is why we can can count the trial as “all joy.”
One more thing about trials and this is very important. You are going to have trials. I’m sure you know that. And you need to know each trial has been custom designed by God for your growth, your good and his glory. I’m sure you know that as well. But you might have forgotten that your ability to benefit from trials depends upon your response to trials. And this we must not forget because if we don’t obey this wise and good command when we meet our trials then we will not grow from our trials and will instead waste our trials. So there is something potentially more discouraging than a trial and that would be wasting that trial by not responding in a God glorifying manner to the trial so that one does not grow because of a trial.
Tim Keller effectively makes this point in his book Walking with God through Pain and Suffering:
“The stakes are high here. Suffering with either leave you a much better person or a much worse one than you were before. Trials and troubles in life, which are inevitable, will either make you or break you. But either way, you will not remain the same.”
The stakes are indeed high when we meet a trial. It is commonly assumed that trials produce maturity but this is simply not accurate. One doesn’t mature by merely experiencing trials. I wish this were so. Actually we mature only when we respond to God by obeying this command in the midst of our trial. If we don’t we end up worse not better. Keller is right, “Trials and troubles will either make you or break you. But either way, you will not remain the same.” The stakes couldn’t be higher.
So Mr. Plummer is also right. “The hard saying by James is really a merciful one…” God knows I need this wise command when I meet a trial because left to myself I will complain about my trials rather than respond in a God glorifying way. Without this command my response to a trial will be informed and governed by my unfavorable emotional reaction to the trial. So when I experience a trial I very much need this command and it is merciful of God to give me this command. And Mr. Plummer reminds us that the command is an expression of God’s mercy because “it teaches us to endure trials in a spirit that will make us feel them least.” Oh my, how kind of the Lord! He designs the difficult for us so that we may grow in godliness. He provides this command and the grace to obey this command so that we will benefit from trials the most and feel them least. So once again we encounter God’s mercy in a place where we least expect it. Truly our experience is mercy from first to last, even in trials.