James 1.2-4 (ESV)
2 Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds,
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.
There is somewhat of a play on words as James shifts from the salutation to the opening subject. He bids them a greeting (Gk. Chairein), a term of rejoicing and gladness. Think of it as a happy hello! From this upbeat greeting, James turns the Christian’s attention to joy (Gk. Charan) in the midst of testing and trials. The defiance is striking – Christians live their lives with joy, defying the circumstances and difficulty that may come with it. At the same time it also a paradox. How can one have joy during difficulty, especially the difficulty of persecution for faith?
The Paradox of Pain (1.2-4)
To his “brothers” both by physical heritage (as Jews) and by spiritual heritage (in Christ) James exhorts that they “count it all joy” when they “meet trials of various kinds.” So here is the first paradox: joy in the midst of pain. Specifically, the pain is in regards to affliction from persecution. Indeed, these are trials both good and bad of “various” sources and kinds. Literally these are “many colored” trials; trials of every shade and hue from living the Christian life. These are tests of one’s faith, as if an experiment were being performed to test the true nature of that faith – is it real, genuine?
Faith Tested. Faith is tested in the crucible of trials. These trials are external of the Christian and are very real. For these first century Jewish Christians, the persecution they endured was real and had scattered them all over the empire. James says to once and for all, starting now, “count it all joy.” This is not some joy mixed with a whole bunch of grief and sorrow because of what is happening; this should be an “unmixed” joy, fully joy and joy only.
These trials come surely. It is ungetaroundable in this life that trials come. And they come suddenly. All of a sudden one may find him/herself surrounded by trials. And they come several. They are “manifold” (ASV) and “divers” (KJV). But they have a purpose: to test the genuineness of the Christian’s faith.
James explains that the testing of one’s faith “produces steadfastness.” And the Christians to whom James is writing “know” this! “Know” here is that experiential knowledge (Gk. Ginosko). In other words, because these Christians have been through the crucible before, they know what this testing can do. In modern vernacular, we might call these trials “teachable moments” – they teach us about perseverance, endurance.
Faith Perfected. A faith that is tested will lead us to a faith which is perfected (or mature). To the Jewish Christian their mind might go to Abraham, the first person of which it is specifically stated that he was “tested” (Gen 22.1). As you proceed through the narrative, you see the resolution and perseverance – nothing would hinder Abraham from doing what God had asked. So firm was his faith, he believed even God could raise his son from the dead (see Heb 11.19). The testing of Abraham and the testing of the Christian share the same Greek root.
And so the paradox deepens: the pain of trials is good! It is good because when faith is tested, perseverance is produced. And when perseverance’s work is “perfected” we can stand “perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” The perfect work of perseverance is the “perfect Christian.” Through these trials, God has worked to test the genuineness of our faith (cf. 1 Peter 1.6-7) and bring about our perfection. Some would say that the perfection here is “maturity.” However, an examination of James’ use of this word in the rest of the epistle (1.17, 25; 3.2) seems to indicate more than just maturity. Every Jew would have caught the connotation here. The sacrificial animals had to be “perfect,” free from disease and blemish and also “complete,” not lacking any part of its body. In addition, every Jewish Christian would have been reminded of the words of Christ in the Sermon on the Mount: “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt 5.48). It is more than maturity.
Faith must have an object. For the Christian, our faith rests in the Lord Jesus Christ. So when trials come, they try our faith in Christ – will we remain faithful to Him? Will we continue to put our confidence in Him? Even in death? James says that if we remain steadfast (even unto death), the perfection of Christ, which is ours in Christ, rests and remains in us. Should we throw in the towel, there is no perfection. When we become faithless, we also become hopeless for only perfection can inherit eternal life in the end. We must learn to keep our faith in Christ through any and every trial test.
One other point: obedience to the commands of God and Christ can produce trials. In Mark 6, Jesus makes his disciples get into boat and begin rowing across the sea. By obeying the Lord, the disciples rowed right into the teeth of a storm. In the same way, Christians will experience trials when we obey the commands of Christ. However, though we row right into the teeth of stormy trial, we must not row with anger in our hearts, but with joy knowing that these trials will make us mature, complete, perfect.