“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). (All biblical quotations are taken from the English Standard Version, ESV, unless otherwise noted.)
How is the Christian to view pain and suffering? Simple observation will indicate that Christians are hardly immune to “trials of various kinds” (James 1:2). Christians suffer illness, loss of loved ones, disillusionment and other trials just like their non-Christian neighbors; but is there a difference between the way a Christian and a non-Christian views trials? Can the Christian in faith face suffering and setbacks with the equanimity of one who knows that even in tough times there is something meaningful to be gained? The purpose of this paper is to investigate the teaching of one particular Bible passage that deals with this subject. James 1:2-4 is one of a number of Bible passages that set out a Christian’s unique philosophy towards pain and suffering. It should first be noted that some trials are self-inflicted. James is not suggesting that “trials” brought about because of selfish attitudes toward family and friends somehow bring about God’s reward. Those who talk maliciously about others, for instance, are distinctly not told to “count it all joy;” they are instead told to change their ways (James 3:3-7).
Meaning In Trials James’ opening statement is puzzling, if not startling: (1:2) “Count it all joy my brothers,” he begins, “when you meet trials of various kinds” (James 1:2). The word “count” means to “reckon,” or “consider” it all joy (Roberts, p. 32). From the outset James indicates that it is our view of suffering – what we consider suffering to be – that matters most. Will we consider trials a heavy and unfair burden, or will be begin to consider what we can gain from this new challenge? Responding to trials with “joy” is encouraged as opposed to the usual responses to tough times: denial, complaint, and self-pity. “The benefits of God,” Roberts astutely observes, “are often paradoxical” (Roberts, p. 31). Responding to trials with joy is certainly not the response one would expect, and would only be the sort of response exhibited by someone so unusual, so counter-intuitive as a Christian. Neither is this the surface level joy of people enjoying a holiday or celebrating at a party. It refers to the deep satisfaction in knowing that God is working even through tough times to our benefit (Romans 8:28). Other Bible passages discuss the ultimate benefits of tough times (cf. Matthew 5:11-12; Romans 5:2-5). James does not, perhaps wisely, specify exactly what kinds of trials he has in mind. They are, he declares, “various trials.” They could be the result of persecution, when former friends from the world reject our new lifestyles, or simply the tough times that are a part of the human experience; the death of a loved one, betrayal of a colleague, or the loss of a job. The phrase is deliberately vague so that readers can relate to James’ words regardless of the exact nature of their suffering. That God uses trials as a tool to test the genuineness of his peoples’ faith is not new. God tested Abraham when he told him to offer Isaac as a sacrifice (Genesis 22), and Israel is tested in the wilderness (Deuteronomy 8:1-4). At times it seems that both God and Satan operate in the same trial, as was the case with Job (Job 1,2). They do so, of course, with vastly different ends in mind; Satan seeks to break the Christian’s will, and God seeks to strengthen it. James suggests that the benefits of trials take place along a progression. “For you know,” he begins, “that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness” (James 1:3). James’ readers already know this, he implies, they merely need to remember that this is…