Study 3             Count It All Joy

James 1:1-4

1. James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes in the dispersion: Greetings.

2. Count it all joy my brethren, when you meet various trials,

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.

James, of course is the brother of Jesus, but it is interesting that he doesn’t mention the fact in the opening address to the readers of his letter. That is because being the brother of Jesus has no special authority to admonish and teach. That authority comes from a spirituality that is based on faith and belief in Jesus. It is interesting that though James wasn’t among the original twelve Apostles, he, like Paul was called an Apostle because of his encounter with the risen Jesus. Paul reminds his listeners in Galatians 1:9 that when he went down to Jerusalem he “saw none of the other Apostles except James the Lord’s brother.” James had risen to be the spiritual leader of the Jerusalem church and that in its self carried merit and authority, but once again he doesn’t refer to his status for the authority of what he has to say, instead he is able to speak to the readers because he is, “a servant of God and the Lord Jesus Christ.” (v. 1)

The word translated servant literally means slave. James is a slave because he serves God alone, and he understands what a great honor it is to serve. Moses was called a servant of the Lord (Deut 34:5), as was David (Jer. 33:21) and both Peter and John gladly served under the designation. James was a slave or servant to Jesus and he spoke on the authority of the one he served and not on his own authority or by the right of any title (Apostle) that he held. He was speaking to his readers as their pastor with words of comfort, rebuke and direction because he was God’s spokesman for the occasion.

How different our churches would be today if our leaders, priests, pastors, and elders realized that they were servants of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ. So many Christians have been beaten up and left the church discouraged because of leaders lording it over them, because those leaders saw themselves as God on earth. To be a leader within the church is a high calling and never to be abused or taken lightly. A pastor of a church is looked up to when he/she pastors. Members of the congregation should be able to expect help, support, comfort, advice, prayer, and spiritual healing at the hands of a pastor who represents the love of Christ for his people. The Christian church needs more servants who are slaves to Christ, and His ministry of reconciliation if we are to turn the world upside down.

James view of his half-brother Jesus must have changed a lot since their early days of growing up in the same household. He says he is, “a servant of God and the Lord Jesus Christ.” This is the only place in the entire New Testament where this language occurs. James is not only a servant of God the Father, but of His Son Jesus the Messiah. Remember, on the day of Pentecost Peter preached out to the people, “God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.” Acts 2:36 Very early within the Christian tradition Jesus was considered Lord as well as Messiah. James letter is for the Christian Jews, as we mentioned in the introduction, who are scattered throughout the world and away from their homeland in Palestine. Today, we understand the letter was to Christians scattered throughout the world that long for their homeland, Heaven, and must wait a bit longer to come home.

Verses 2, 3

Count it all joy my brethren, when you meet various trials,

for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.

James after his initial opening doesn’t give the usual greeting to his fellow believers that we have come to expect in Paul’s writings. Instead he gets right to the point. There is a great deal of wisdom and teaching wrapped up in verses 2-4 and it would seem from the prominence of trials as the first topic James enters into that trials must have been a key problem for the scattered Christian churches.

I think non-believers have asked no more serious question over the years than why God allows suffering. In fact, Christians have struggled with the problem of suffering and how it relates to the Christian walk probably every bit as much as the non-believer. James doesn’t give us the answer in these few short verses, but he frames the problem of suffering within the context that it is always under the providential control of God and that God has our best interests at heart.

When James writes, “count it all joy,” he is not insinuating that our only response to trials is to wave our arms in the air and shout for joy. James understands there are many other emotions when we face troubles, but a Christian is to look at the problem through the eyes of God and try to see the problem for what it is and how their Christianity will frame their response to the crises. We as Christians however, can find rejoicing in our trials and this knowledge changes everything for us regarding our understanding of suffering.

The Jews had a long tradition of testing, reaching back to Abraham (Gen. 22), the prime example of someone passing a test. Then there is the story of the children of Israel in the desert (Num. 14:20-22), the prime example of a people who failed the testing. The Israelites were exiles and faced persecution all the way from Egypt to the Promised Land just as the Jewish Christians were now facing persecution in their own exile. There is little doubt, in my mind, that the Christians would have remembered the wilderness experiences of Israel and how, if they had trusted in God to take them through the suffering, they would have inherited the Promised Land forty years earlier than they did. See also Matt. 5:11-12 and Luke 6:22-23 to compare Jesus view of suffering with James. It is important for us to notice, that neither Jesus or James sees suffering and persecution as something to be sought after, but instead they show the proper perspective on suffering when it comes our way.

Douglas Moo in his excellent commentary on James gives us an interesting insight into the word trial. “The word that is translated trial-peirasmos– and its verbal cognate-peirazo– are important words in the section: we find peirasmos in vv.2 and 12 and peirazo in vv.13 and 14. These words have two distinct meanings in the N.T. They can denote either an outward trial or process of “testing,” or they can denote the inner enticement to sin: “temptation” or “tempt.” The latter meaning is seen in verses such as 1 Timothy 6:9: ‘People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into the many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction.’ 1 Peter 4:12, on the other hand, is a good example of the other meaning. ‘Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you.’ In verse 2, however, peirasmos means trial.” (The Letter of James, p. 54)

We will look at trials as temptation later in the chapter, but for now we need to understand that these trials are real trials with real consequences and James is telling us that there is opportunity to rejoice when we face them. Most New Testament scholars believe that the trials mentioned here revolve around poverty. It would seem that rich landholders and wealthy merchants were exploiting the Christian exiles that were scattered throughout the Roman Empire and as a result they were finding it almost impossible to survive in such hostility. When wealthy Jewish farmers and merchants learned that their employees were Christian they quickly took advantage of them and paid them starvation wages. When James says that they suffered “various trials” he is probably referring to the religious persecution that was involved in denying these believers their due wages. Being exiles in strange lands they would suffer loneliness, culture shock, disappointment and sickness as well as the stress of trying to get established in a new society and making a living. If anyone needed pastoral support and comfort it was this hard-pressed and persecuted minority of Christian Jews.

Now comes the crux of the situation. James states a simple and straightforward analysis of the situation and an explanation of what is happening and needs to happen with these believers. He tells them, “The testing of your faith produces steadfastness.” (v. 4) This is probably not the answer they wanted to hear, but the truth is often hard to accept when it doesn’t agree with what we want.

In the Old Testament the word “testing” refers to the idea of refining silver and gold to remove the dross and that is the way James uses it here in his letter. Always the finished product is of greater value than the raw ore. Our problems and difficulties are intended by God to refine our faith, thus getting rid of all the unnecessary things so that our faith can become pure and useable by God. An important point is that the testing of our faith is not to determine whether or not that we have faith, but to strengthen the faith that we already have.

In classical Greek the idea of fortitude, patient perseverance or steadfastness has the idea of standing firm in the face of enemy forces that are about to attack. And in the LXX (Septuagint) it has the idea of nerving ones self as to hold fast to God, not mistaking His power and faithfulness. Peter Davis in his commentary on James writes, “The Christian church valued this virtue, for only those with such a tested character knew that they would stand to the end.” (Commentary on James, P. 68) He further writes, “So, says James, testing does a service for a Christian, for the virtue of fortitude comes out of the process, however, slow and painful it may be.” James (P. 69)

Think about this for a moment. The idea of steadfastness also can mean persevere and comes from the idea of ‘remaining under.’ A farmer working his field may remain under heavy loads throughout the harvest season as he moves bales of barley, and other grains from fields to storehouses. This remaining under a heavy load builds muscle and endurance. If a person keeps carrying those heavy loads throughout the harvest season year after year they build up the stamina to find the loads easier and easier to carry. Maybe, that’s why Jesus tells us, “that His burden is light”.

Trials do the same thing as we go through life. The more of them we face and turn to God for support and comfort, the less they become frightening and overpowering in our lives. Later James will talk about patience but for now that concept may well be including in being steadfast. A Christian who faces trials needs strength that has grown from trusting in Christ, and patience to make it through. The Christian also knows that God only desires the best for him/her and can be assured that God is not allowing some cruel game to be played out on him or that God has forgotten about her in His busy schedule of running the Universe. God loves and cares for us and He is with us through the storms of life as well as the good times. The struggles we face in life only make us stronger.

Ruth was reading me from the diary of a young girl who went through the horror of a concentration camp in Nazi Germany. Her diary is almost unbelievable because of the ability she had to see the wonders of God every day in spite of the hell she lived in. She found such pleasure in little things around her that she was able to stay spiritually tuned to God while others were lost to despair. I think we all would love that kind of trust when we go through our trials, and I think that’s the kind of results James says we may have when we trust God through the storms of life.

Verse 4

And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete lacking in nothing.

When faith is tested it leads to perseverance. But perseverance isn’t the end result of being tested; it is “that you may be perfect and complete lacking in nothing.” (v. 4) Only Christians who allow trials to do their intended work will receive the benefits of persevering through the trials. Notice that through this testing James is asking for a response from the people going through the trials. Once again it is, “that you may be perfect and complete lacking in nothing.”

What does James mean when he says the perseverance of a Christian facing trials will lead to perfection? The word teleios (perfect) can often mean mature or complete. (Genesis 6:9) James seems to be presenting this idea of perfect, however, as a goal of the character. This is the ideal for James that the follower of Christ should come to perfection through perseverance. Nowhere, however, does James claim that any of us obtain that goal this side of Heaven, but that doesn’t mean it is not the direction of the character. God calls on us to be perfect, but of course we do not obtain, but that doesn’t mean we should lower the bar of what God wants for us. The whole point of grace is that we don’t obtain perfection and Jesus becomes our substitute. His perfection is credited to my account. When the Father sees me He sees Christ in me because by faith I have accepted His sacrifice on my behalf that I may have the benefits of His death; eternal life. Trials spur on spiritual growth and more trust in God. The end goal is that we completely trust in God, and we would be perfect in our relationship to God. To stand up under persecution and trials is to grow in maturity as a Christian and to allow God’s leading in the life.

This is a hard lesson and must have hit the scattered Christians right between the eyes, but it was not written to encourage them to tough it out on their own as if they would receive credit with God for their stubbornness in the face of trials. The words were written to encourage people who were up against the wall and needed to know that there was more to suffering than mere suffering for its own sake. These Christians needed to know that through the suffering God was with them, encouraging and strengthening them so that they could get through the problems and grow through their trust in God. Then when the next trials come along they will grow closer to God and trust more fully in Him because of their past experience.

Let me say right here and now, if a Christian hasn’t faced discouragement and trials in their life, they need to. It is only through trials that we truly learn to lean on Christ. As long as life sails along and nothing goes wrong it is easy to believe, but someday all of us will face trials and severe problems in life. If we haven’t learned to trust in God through the smaller setbacks we will never trust in Him to get us through the major problems. James isn’t saying anything different than Peter and Paul (Romans 5:3); his emphasis is simply on the growth aspect of the experience. Paul even writes, “I rejoice in my suffering for your sake,” in Colossians 1:24

When you really step back and take a long look at it, the problems we face are opportunities to “count it all or perfect joy,” because it is an opportunity to trust God and have our faith stretched and matured. That may not sound like much of a consolation to someone who is weighed down with sickness, but God, in His wisdom, understands those weights make us stronger. So, let us face our life situations not with dread or self-pity, but instead with the fullness of power because our trust is in Christ.