Imagine you’ve just had another bad one in a long series of terrible days. You wonder how things could get any worse. And then, as you sit down with a good friend—who should know better—he says, “Great! Good for you! I hope you’re considering yourself blessed!” Wouldn’t that be so inappropriate? Wouldn’t you want to slap him?
Except, that’s essentially what James says here: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, when you experience trials of many kinds” (v. 2). Talk about getting your attention! And, funnily enough, he isn’t wrong.
Crucially, James doesn’t invite us to rejoice because of trials so much as during them. It’s not the trials themselves that are good; it’s the Christian character they produce. “The testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (vv. 3-4). Being mature and complete—being someone who loves, rejoices in, and trusts Jesus till the end of days—is absolutely worth going through the trials.
I remember sitting with one of the godliest friends I have and listening to all that she had been through that year. It seems like she had taken everything the world could throw at a student: abusive boyfriend, distant parents, difficult friends, bad grades. But then her face shone as she said, “But you know what? He has been so good to me.”
That’s the joy James is talking about.
The problem in our culture (at least in 21st-Century Britain, where I am writing from) is that we hate trials. One of the great idols of our times is comfort: we spend so much money trying to become creators and sustainers of our own safe, contained world.
But Jesus challenges that.
The world says: “Take up your glass and sit back.”
Christ says: “Take up your cross and follow me.”
James also says, “whenever you face trials of many kinds”. If you live long enough in this world, you will inevitably go through some kind of suffering. But as Christians, you can take comfort in the fact that it is not pointless; God is shaping and pruning you all the while.
Notice how James introduces himself at the start: “a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 1). Jesus’ little half-brother is not writing to be insensitive but to help; he wants to serve Jesus and His people. And notice he is writing to “the twelve tribes scattered among the nations.” As he is writing to the 1st century church, he is naturally writing to a predominantly Jewish church but it also applies to the new Israel, the church today. This is a message that we all need.
When you suffer, it’s tempting to think that God is mean. But James finishes verse 4 by saying you will be “not lacking anything.” God isn’t a bully; He works mightily to nurture and provide for His children. If you’re going through trials, however difficult, know that His Spirit is working in you to present you blameless and joyful before the throne of Christ. You are not abandoned. You are not alone. In all things, through all circumstances, God is molding, shaping and perfecting you. You lack nothing.
—James Bunyan, England
Questions for reflection
1. As you talk to people around you about your faith, what impression are you giving them—that your faith is a duty or a joy?
2. Who are the godliest people you know? How has God worked in their perseverance?
3. What are you going through now? How might James want you to see it differently?
Hand-lettering by Sonya Lao
James Bunyan is a bit of a fidget, to be honest. His inability to sit still tends to spill over into all sorts of areas of his life; he loves travelling, good writing, all sports (except frisbee), the sense of purpose that the gospel gives him, exotic teas and the satisfaction of peeling off a sticker all in one go. He lives in Twickenham (London), where he works as a CU Staff Worker for UCCF: The Christian Unions, a student mission movement, and he recently married his best friend, Lois. That was a good move.