“Turn left,” Siri said. So I did and found myself at the end of a dead-end road, not the promised entrance to the beautiful Blue Spring State Park. No canoeing or manatee spotting at the end of this road. And no joy. Thanks, Siri. Wrong turn.
The biblical author James strikes me as somewhat of an ancient version of Siri when he wrote, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds.” Joy and trials are not found on the same path, James. Wrong turn.
James, don’t you know that joy comes when God causes our lives to fall into place—not fall apart? Joy is when life makes us want to celebrate, not hyperventilate. And joy comes when our loved ones rise up and call us blessed, not when they rise up and walk out the door.
Surely you go too far, James. Like Siri and perfect directions, some things just don’t go together. Where’s your compassion in our pain?
But James didn’t chart this unexpected path through trials. He wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Who can read the Bible and question God’s compassion? It’s on display from beginning to end.
James’s command to “count it all joy” when life falls apart is really God’s command. We cannot separate it from every aspect of His nature—including His compassion, wisdom, and love.
How can we count it all joy when all we want to do is cry? Or rage? Or at least grumble a little? How do we make sense of James 1:2?
If you stumble over the “count it all joy” command like I did, it helps to skip to the last verse in the passage and work backward. So let’s start at the end!
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)
“That you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:4).
Imagine standing before the Lord and our fellow man, free of shortcomings and weaknesses. To have our sin atoned for by Christ and banished from our daily lives.
Perfect and complete, lacking nothing. The thought of this floods my heart with peace, hope, and—yes—joy.
Of course, we could never pull this off. If we could, we would. But God can.
“Let steadfastness have its full effect” (James 1:4).
Ah ha! This is how we reach this desired place of perfection—by letting stick-to-it-iveness, never-give-up-determination, and get-back-up-strength have its full effect on us.
All we must do is get out of its way. I like the sound of this. Except it’s not that easy. Not at all. No one needs steadfastness to keep doing something easy and pleasant, right? Only the things we don’t want to do—like endure trials—require steadfastness.
Trials trigger our fight or flight reaction. They drive us either to destroy them or outrun them.
Each time my daughter skydives, my steadfastness fails to obey the most repeated command in the Bible —fear not. When she jumps out, my joy goes with her, and it only returns after she’s returned safely to the ground.
No, letting steadfastness have its full effect is hard. It’s unnatural. Apart from a work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts, we bail almost every time.
“For you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness” (James 1:3).
Isn’t this just like God? The trials we experience produce the steadfastness we need to endure the trials we experience. We want the steadfastness, but we don’t want the trials.
We want Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego faith, but we don’t want to get sent into captivity or tossed into a fire (Daniel 3).
We want to be Daniel as the king drapes a royal robe over him, but we don’t want to be targeted by evil men or dropped into a den of snarling lions (Daniel 6).
We dream, like Joseph did, of God blessing our faithfulness in ministry, but we don’t want to be thrown into a pit, sold by our brothers, or forgotten in prison after being falsely accused (Genesis 37–50).
We want to be diamonds without enduring the pressure. And yet—to be a diamond in faith. What a joy that would be!
“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds” (James 1:2).
Here we are, back at the perplexing command. Except now it makes sense and no longer leaves the bitter taste it left before I saw the godly wisdom of James 1:2–4.
The Lord does indeed use trials to lead us to joy. They’re necessary tools in His loving hands to create a shining diamond out of our coal-shaped faith.
Which leads us to a choice: we can let trials continue to exhaust us with its fear-gripped prayers and anger-induced insomnia, or we can rejoice that God has purposed them for our good.
God Gives Opportunities, Not Problems
My mother’s cancer wasn’t the problem that led me to despair. The problem was that I kicked against God for letting her have cancer.
I only saw the vileness of cancer. I couldn’t imagine something so evil might be part of God’s will for her life or comprehend that He had planned it for good. I counted it all distress, not all joy.
Of course, finding joy in the trial and enjoying the trial are two very different things. The reality of a trial is that it is still, well, a trial. But the greater reality is that God is still God—the God of the impossible. With my newfound understanding of James 1:2–4, I saw the impossible. I saw how I could indeed count this horrible trial “all joy.”
Mom’s cancer never brought me joy. But meeting this trial with my eyes fixed on Christ did. Keeping God’s end goal for mom (and me) in sight—perfect and complete, lacking in nothing—brought me joy not even cancer could destroy.
Throughout Mom’s journey, I bounced between joy born out of trust and tears born out of sorrow. But rarely did I descend into despair. I set my mind on God and purposed to let steadfastness have its full effect. It changed my faith, which governed my reactions, which revealed my faith. And down we go along the unexpected path to joy.
From Joyless to Joy-Filled
Coffee makers make coffee. It’s what they do. True Christians produce joy. It’s the natural fruit of the Holy Spirit’s work in His children. A joyless Christian is as contradictory—and as useless—as a coffee maker that doesn’t make coffee.
God brews the pleasing aroma of joy into His children by steeping us in the appointed amount and temperature of hot water. His process typically takes longer than the fifteen minutes our coffee makers need to brew tasty java. But we want full-bodied faith that matches what we say we believe and fills us with joy, not weak faith that leaves us joyless.
The times when God has steeped my faith in the hottest water are the times that He’s produced in me the greatest joy. (Eventually.) Some of the joy came from when the trial finally ended, but the purest joy came from the work He did in my heart over time because of the trial.
Exceedingly Great Joy—No Matter What
As impossible as it seems, God’s Word promises us exceedingly great joy—no matter the circumstances—because nothing and no one can ever truly hurt us. Only what God allows can touch us, and all He allows brings Him glory and us ultimate good.
He doesn’t promise that if we trust Him we’ll never again experience deep grief or pain. God gave our bodies over two billion nerve endings. Physical pain is going to happen—emotional pain, too. Our world is fallen and decaying. Sin and death will and should grieve our heart.
Absolute perfection awaits us in heaven, not in this world. But even if “the worst” gets worse, the trials of God’s children produce the opposite of what we’d expect—they produce joy.
Every day God brings us one day—and one trial—further along on His unexpected path to joy. But remember, our trials aren’t problems. They’re opportunities designed to produce faith in us that glistens with the joy and light of Christ. He is the object of our faith and our great reward.
One day our journey on earth will come to an end. For those who belong to Christ, trials will also end, and we’ll stand before the Lord, refined and glorious—complete and perfect, lacking nothing.
Oh, what a joy that will be!