What does every believer need but no believer wants? The answer, as you might guess, is trials. We don’t want the difficulties and hardships that come our way, but we need them. And though every situation is unique, the process we all go through is the same.
The book of James has much to say about trials and how to live for the Lord through them. It takes a practical look at life and tells us how to persevere in a way that pleases God. The author, James (sometimes called James the Just), was Jesus’ half brother who wrote the epistle to his fellow Jewish believers in Jesus around AD 40 or 50 because they were being severely persecuted for their faith.
James was the eldest of Mary and Joseph’s other children (Mk. 6:3). James came to faith around AD 33, after the resurrected Christ visited him (1 Cor. 15:7). Until then, he was an unbeliever (Jn. 7:5), though a good man, reared in a godly family.
What Is Joy?
Following the resurrection and Day of Pentecost (Shavuot on the Hebrew calendar), thousands of Jewish people came to faith in Jesus as Messiah, making the early church almost exclusively Jewish. However, many were forced to flee Jerusalem because of persecution. Later, the writer of the book of Hebrews mentioned these people:
But recall the former days in which, after you were illuminated, you endured a great struggle with sufferings: partly while you were made a spectacle both by reproaches and tribulations, and partly while you became companions of those who were so treated; for you had compassion on me in my chains, and joyfully accepted the plundering of your goods, knowing that you have a better and an enduring possession for yourselves in heaven (Heb. 10:32–34).
Many of James’s readers had lost their jobs, homes, and savings and were cast off by their synagogues, schools, friends, and family members who had not become believers in Jesus as Messiah. Forced to flee, often with no place to go, they suffered in extremely difficult circumstances. Yet James told them, “Consider it all joy”:
James, a bondservant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad: Greetings. My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing (Jas. 1:1–4).
Interestingly, James did not start his letter by saying, “Dear friends, I know you’ve been through a really tough time.” Instead, he told them to determine to be joyful. One translation says, “Consider it pure joy” (NIV).
The word joy is most aptly defined as the “pleasant anticipation of good.” Kay Warren, wife of well-known pastor-author Rick Warren, has overcome both breast cancer and melanoma. In her book Choose Joy: Because Happiness Isn’t Enough, she defined joy as “the settled assurance that God is in control of all the details of my life, the quiet confidence that ultimately everything is going to be all right, and the determined choice to praise God in all things.”
Joy expects something good to happen. It’s how you feel when you go on vacation, expecting to have a wonderful time. When I was a university professor, I loved the start of a new school year because everyone was excited and positive. That is how James tells us to be.
Joy is volitional, not circumstantial. Is the glass half empty or half full? How we see things is a choice. Joy is something we decide to possess, not something we obtain as a result of something else. How can we be joyful in the midst of trials? By remembering why trials come and what they accomplish.
What Is a Trial?
The Greek word for trial actually means “pressure.” A trial is a faith-proving pressure that usually puts us between the proverbial rock and a hard place—in a tough situation that requires a tough choice. Sometimes it involves finances, sometimes a job situation or relationship, and sometimes conditions like loneliness and heartache. In every instance, it brings discomfort.
Yet, we are to be joyful, knowing that the testing of our faith produces patience, also translated as “endurance.” Trials come in all shapes and sizes, but they always come to prove our faith. That is how they work.
The very testing of our faith first assumes the presence of faith. So when a trial comes, we should recognize that we’re being tested and that the nature of the test is designed to demonstrate our faith—to give us a chance to shine.
A good teacher gives exams so students can demonstrate what they have learned, not to force them to fail. The same is true with God. He gives us opportunities to succeed. That is the nature of testing: “knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience [endurance]” (v. 3). The Greek wording here is specific: The word for “testing” means “approving.” God always oversees the difficulties and circumstances in our lives and never places us where we cannot succeed:
No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it (1 Cor. 10:13).
God measures every trial before it comes into our lives and says, “Okay, this one fits.” The trial must be difficult enough to approve our faith. If it’s too much for us, the Lord prevents it.
How Do Trials Help Us?
Trials produce endurance. God is in the process of preparing people who can endure. Scripture says, “But without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him” (Heb. 11:6). Trials prove our faith, and our faith pleases God.
When Satan appeared before the Lord in the book of Job, the Lord asked him,
Have you considered My servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, one who fears God and shuns evil? And still he holds fast to his integrity, although you incited Me against him, to destroy him without cause (Job 2:3).
God was bragging on His child, saying basically, “See how Job is exhibiting faith in Me despite the hardship that has come into his life?”
James told us to remember that when trials come, they approve our faith so that we may gain God’s approval, become spiritually mature, and “be perfect and complete, lacking nothing” (Jas. 1:4). We start our faith walk as immature believers in various ways. We’re all different. Some of us have trouble trusting God with our finances but have no problem trusting Him in other areas. We all have different backgrounds, experiences, temperaments, and personalities; and we come to God from different places in life.
Yet God is in the process of producing spiritual maturity in all of us. He wants us to grow up, live by faith, and trust in Him. Trials give us opportunities to demonstrate what we’re learning about God, His Word, and life on Earth.
Trials also produce personal satisfaction. All of us can look back on circumstances we have endured and take pleasure in our perseverance. Endurance encourages us, strengthening our knowledge that the Lord can bring us through hardships and difficulties. And when we make it through the trial, we find personal satisfaction in our perseverance, knowing we pleased God.
Our trials also can be encouragements to others. We can share with people what we went through and help them with their struggles. Joy does not depend on our circumstances but, rather, on our perspectives.
These first four verses in James are critical to understanding the entire book. They lay the foundation for what follows. When trials come, instead of asking, “Why me? Why does God allow this to happen to me?” we must focus on what He wants to accomplish in our lives. And we must determine to be joyful and walk with Him as He works in us.