Because we are starting a new book of the Bible, I want to remind you yet again that we gather here as a Body each week not just to make friends, or get our problems fixed, or hear some creative and positive message, but we gather to hear from God Himself. I read this week about a professor who, on the first day of classes every semester, would ask his students how many of them believed that the Bible is the Word of God. Almost every semester, the majority of the students in the class would raise their hands. Then he would ask how many of them had opened the Bible on their own within the last month. Almost every semester, a very few or even zero students would raise their hands. And he’d always respond by saying, “If you really believed that God wrote a book, you would read it.” Isn’t it such an amazing thing this book is God-breathed. That God used over 40 different authors over the course of about 1500 years to write a book revealing who He is and who we are as His people. It’s an amazing time, and it’s the reason why we go straight to the Word each week.
The book of James is quite a bit different than the other letters we have in the New Testament. It starts out very similarly, with a greeting, but then the entire book is made up of wisdom sayings. It’s almost like a miniature Proverbs, in that he jumps every few verses to a completely different topic. That’s part of what makes it such a neat book: Even though James wrote it specifically to a group of Jewish Christians living outside of Palestine, so he has a specific audience in mind, even though that was who the letter was written to, the content of his letter is particularly applicable for all of us. These are a collection of wisdom sayings for all Christians.
But, even with it being particularly relevant for all of us, it is still helpful to know a little bit about these Jewish Christians to whom he was writing. In verse 1, James addresses the letter to “the twelve tribes of the Dispersion.” For those of you unfamiliar with the Old Testament, these “12 tribes” were the tribes of Israel, God’s people. And in the New Testament, Jesus had chosen 12 disciples to kind-of signify these twelves tribes. The purpose of that seems to be to identity the church as the new Israel, or at least to show the continuity of God’s plan to redeem his people, that Old and New Covenants, are all part of one big plan. But the reason they’re called the 12 tribes of the Dispersion is because the tribes of Israel had been scattered all over the place by the Babylonians and the Assyrians. So, let’s try and put ourselves in their shoes. These are Jewish Christians, who had been scattered out of their homeland, and now have turned to Christ, which makes them even more of a stain upon society. Almost everyone hated these people, which is at least part of what likely added to their poverty as well. These Christians are not in the easiest of circumstances. That’s who he’s writing to, and that’s what they’re going through.
And that’s also why his first words to them in this letter are so profound. Turn with me to James 1:1-4. In the blue New Testaments under your seats, it’s page 116. And please do follow along, so you know that what I am saying to you is not just from me, but from God Himself. And also because we want to be a learning church, meaning even if you are brand new to the Bible or to the Christian faith, we want you to learn how to read and understand it on your own. That’s also why you have sermon notes in your bulletin. So, James 1:1-4, this is what he writes:
James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion: Greetings. 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.
Count It All Joy
Count. It. All. Joy. When you face trials of various kinds. Just so we all understand as clearly as possible what’s being said here: Count, meaning consider or regard. “Consider it all joy.” “Regard it as all joy.” “All.” “All” doesn’t mean that aren’t other emotions happening at the same time, but that in the midst of these trials, in the midst of a range of emotions that come with trials, we have this complete joy. It’s the quality of the joy that the word “all” is really getting at. It’s a joy that is founded in Christ, not in our worldly circumstances, which is why it is a complete joy. It’s not a temporal happiness, a merely emotional or circumstantial happiness, but rather a deep, enduring and complete joy in God who is sovereign over all things, including even our trials! So let’s read it again and ponder for a moment.
“Consider it all joy when you face trials of various kinds.” This is an incredibly profound command. And it is worth noting that this is a command. God desires for us to make a definitive choice to be joyful in the midst of trials, and even to consider the very trials as joy. And it’s referring to all kinds of trials. It says it right there: “when you meet trials of various kinds.” Trials meaning testing. This means testing like what Christians, in particular, may face occasionally, for example persecution (not as much where we live, but no doubt around the world). This also includes temptation, having our faith tested while being tempted. Then, lastly, it also includes trials that all people face, like financial, social, and physical issues, illness. As followers of Christ, as God’s own adopted children, we have a unique perspective when it comes to going through hard things, even while we’re still in the middle of them. And this is the hardest part about this, at least to me.
You see, I’m pretty good at looking back at hard things, even terrible things that I’ve gone through, and seeing good in it. I can look back, and see how God moved, and sometimes see how I’m even better off because I went through that. We’d probably all say that we believe what Romans 8:28 says, that “we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him.” We believe that, and even find great joy in that, especially looking back on things in the past. But here’s the thing, verse 2 says: Count it all joy when you face trials of various kinds. When you face hardship, when you face family issues, when you face medical issues, when you face personal temptation and sin. WHEN you face them, count it all joy. Anyone else want to admit that they find that a little difficult?!
How can God really expect us to consider it joy in the middle of it!? After the fact, yessir! Weeks later, maybe months later, when what God taught us in the middle of it becomes more apparent, when maybe it’s more obvious to us how it was for our good even though it was difficult: After the fact, bring on the joy! Yes?
But in the middle of it, right when it slaps us in the face, surely God can’t expect us to count it all joy. How in the world would we even begin to do this when someone we love is diagnosed with cancer? When a child is defiant to the point of despair for the parents? When we’re struggling and feel enslaved to pornography or some other sin? When we’re betrayed by a friend or a family member? When someone is talking bad about us behind our backs? Count it all joy when we face it? Before it’s resolved? Before it’s all better?
Part of this unique perspective we have as God’s children is not just that we choose joy in the midst of trials because it will make us feel better than not choosing joy. Because guess what? In some ways, it may not! Sometimes choosing joy doesn’t necessarily make us feel better. So that’s not why we do it. We choose joy for far bigger reasons than our feelings. And that’s what I want us to get into with the time we have left. Why should we “count it all joy?” Two reasons that James gives.
Why should we count it all joy?
- When our faith is tested, the result is steadfastness (vv. 3-4).
Verses 2-4 again: “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.” The first reason James gives for us to count it all joy is because our trials have a purpose! This is what puts us in a different category altogether from the world. You know, apart from Christ, we can only cross our fingers that this will end up better for us. We can only try and look for the positive, whether it’s there or not. All we can do is hope it will all go away very soon.
For Christians, though, it’s a totally different picture. We already know, before we even have something hit us, that there is a purpose behind it! That God is working out ALL THINGS for the good of those who love Him. We know that before it even comes! In fact, we know that because it is our very faith that saves us, this faith we have that God gave us in his grace, because of the centrality of our faith and the importance of our faith, we know that this is where we will be tested!
“The testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” It is these very trials, of various kinds, that bring us to maturity, that help us to become people who endure, who are faithful to God and find our joy in Him no matter the circumstances we’re in and no matter the temptation we’re facing! In fact, without these trials of various kinds, our spiritual growth would be limited. Our maturity would be stunted! Isn’t that an incredible thing to think about? Becoming a born-again Christian, turning from sin and trusting in Christ and his sacrifice for us on the Cross, in doing that you’re not signing up for an easier life. I mean, in one sense, you are: Jesus says, “For my yoke is easy and my burden is light,” (Matthew 11:30). In a sense, it’s easy because the burden of sin has been placed on him, and we’re now free from that and free to live for God. But, it’s also difficult, and this is where we will be tested. I have for us two reasons following Christ is difficult, but why we still count it all joy. And this directly corresponds to the two big areas of trials we face.
Why Following Christ is Difficult, And Why We Count It Joy
- Our flesh is still at war within us…
Even though we are righteous in God’s eyes because of Jesus, and we’re fully reconciled to God because of Him, we still sin against God, we still make mistakes, often! This is one aspect of the trials and testing we experience as Christians: temptation. One of my favorite tensions I see in Scripture (and maybe this is just because I can so strongly relate to it) is when Paul expresses this war of the flesh in him in Romans chapter 7, starting in verse 18:
For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.
So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!
Our flesh is still at war within us. That’s one reason why the Christian life is difficult, because we’re battling sin, and this testing, this temptation, is something the rest of the world does not experience. The rest of the world does whatever they desire. We, on the other hand, have chosen not to just go along with our sinful natures and go along with only what feels natural. We have chosen to follow Christ, this beautiful journey of pursuing righteousness in our sinful bodies because Christ has won that righteousness for us, by dying and then by rising from the dead. He has brought us victory. So we fight sin! Our flesh is still at war within us, BUT…
But We Count It All Joy: Our War with Sin is Assurance that We’re Children of God.
We count it JOY when we’re faced with temptation, because fighting that sin will, as James points out so clearly, make us able to endure more and more and be steadfast, but also because fighting that sin is evidence to us that we are, in fact, children of God! Think about it: If there is no war with sin in us, if we’re just comfortable in it, with no conviction from the Holy Spirit, we need to examine ourselves, to see whether or not we’re in the faith. That’s what 2nd Corinthians 13:5 tells us to do. But the fact that we are dying to sin actively should bring us great joy!
Even though it’s difficult, there is great joy, because it’s assurance for us that we are children of God. It’s a sign that the Holy Spirit does, in fact, dwell in us. Even if it’s a sin that seems impossible to kill, even if it’s a Godly virtue like patience that we’re trying to pursue and make part of who we are, but it seems impossible. First, it’s not impossible. Secondly, this struggle is not in vain. And it’s a beautiful thing because it can assure us that God is in us, and is giving us the very energy power we need to fight that sin. Peter puts it this way in 1 Peter 1: “In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—which is more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” The tested genuineness of your faith will result in glory to God. When you’re faced with temptation, and when you fight it, and struggle with it, and endure it, don’t live in shame. Count it all joy! You are a child of God who will bring you through it with His very power strengthening your resolve.
The 2nd reason following Christ is difficult:
- We are not home yet, therefore experience the pain of this life…
This is one of the great tensions of the Christian life, is that this is not our home. Because of the work of Jesus Christ, those of us who have turned and trusted in Him as our atoning substitute, we’ve been transferred from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of Christ! We have a new home! We’re new creations! We have a new King! But we’re still here, aren’t we? As far as I know, I’ve never heard of anyone giving their life to Christ and suddenly BOOP, they’re beamed up into heaven! We still experience the struggles of our own sin, like we just talked about, but we also experience every kind of pain that anyone else in the world experiences. The day in which God will wipe away every tear and there will be no pain, that day is not here yet. We will get cancer, we will lose loved ones and friends, we will have people treat us badly. We won’t always get what we work so hard for. BUT…
But we count it all Joy: There is a purpose behind all pain.
With Christ, we have the freedom to count it all joy. Why? Because there’s a purpose for all of it, even when we don’t see it! There is a purpose behind all pain and suffering for Christians who are in the path of obedience. God is using trials that we experience to produce endurance, steadfastness. Why? So that we may be complete. God is pulling us along in this path toward Godliness, toward consistent faithfulness. Toward Christ-likeness. And without trials, our maturity would likely be lacking.
The analogy I love using, though it’s a common one, is that of an athlete. When I was in high school, I was an athlete. I’m not really an athlete anymore; I am very out-of-shape. But, I did soccer and power-lifting, and even cross country. I did cross country even though I hated cross country. Seriously, I hated it. But I did it, because even though I had short legs, I would usually do ok, and even get medals occasionally. And in training for the actual event, I remember just running miles and miles and miles. I remember the longest I ever ran was about 12 miles, so almost a half marathon. And I remember those last few miles being painful, just incredibly difficult. I was absolutely exhausted. And yet, I endured, I kept going. Why? Partly because I wasn’t home yet, you know, I had no other way to get home, so I just had to keep running. That kind-of messes up the analogy, but leaving that part out. Why did I keep going? Because enduring that pain, what did it do? It achieved for me a higher level of endurance!
As Christians, we endure these trials in life in order to attain an endurance that will bring perfection, maturity. We can become people marked by steadfastness, consistency, no matter the circumstances that we’re in. And this steadfastness isn’t a passive submission to what’s going on, like, “Well, there’s nothing I can do about it, might as well keep living and surviving.” It’s not like that. Instead, it’s an active response, challenging our natural reaction, which might be complete chaos or despair or even an unraveling. We’re challenging that gut reaction that is so caught up in the reality of this world; we’re challenging it with the reality that we are no longer of this world. It’s an active response that says, “No, no, no; I am NOT going to be consumed or destroyed by this world because I am not of this world!” We have a new home, and we’re not there yet. But every bit of pain we go through, we can find joy in it, because we know there’s a purpose for it.
Ultimately, the result of enduring trials and keeping our eyes and our ambition and our hope and our affections on Christ, we become people of fortitude, of courage, people that trust God no matter what. This doesn’t mean that we don’t grieve, or cry, or feel the pain of whatever we’re going through. This doesn’t mean that we become desensitized or numb to pain as if we’ve just blocked it out of our minds or that we pretend like it’s not there. It doesn’t mean any of that. It means, simply, that we are not rooted in our circumstances in this place that isn’t our home. We’re rooted in Christ, who is the author and perfecter of our faith, according to Hebrews 12:2. So why do we count it all joy? The testing of our faith produces steadfastness, fortitude. Secondly:
- When we’ve stood the test, we will receive the crown of life (v. 12).
Look at verse 12. James is completing this section of chapter 1, and goes back specifically to the idea of trials, that’s why I want to look at it right now. Verse 12:
“Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.”
We count it all joy when we face trials because there’s a purpose for them in this life, but also because there’s a reward to come. I know we often cringe at the idea of a reward for being faithful, which is a good thing: If we’re motivated to serve because we want a reward, that’s almost the opposite of the biblical Gospel. Instead, we’re motivated to serve because we’ve been given this great reward despite doing nothing to deserve it. We’ve been given eternal life in Christ. But even with that truth, throughout the New Testament we are invited to ponder this inheritance that awaits us! In fact, setting our minds and hearts on this awesome inheritance can, honestly, be a great source of strength for us! It can help sustain us in the midst of this life, especially when we realize that, according to Romans 8:18, “the sufferings of the present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed us.” Don’t you love that?
Why count it all joy? Because every bit of pain and suffering is achieving for us an eternal glory that we can’t imagine. We’re on a trajectory toward eternal life. Standing the test means not that we handle our trials perfectly or that we somehow meet a standard that God requires for us to receive eternal life, because we just can’t. It means instead that we are on this trajectory toward maturity, and toward eternal life no matter what life throws at us. This test isn’t a test that we’re graded on to determine our future, but instead a test that assures and reminds us that we became children of God sometime in the past. It’s a test that assures for us that we are children of God, that we’ve truly turned to him in repentance and faith sometime in the past, and now we’re living lives of repentance and faith. The genuine believer in Jesus perseveres. There may be big bumps in the road, and victories and defeats, but the genuine believer perseveres, not because HE himself is strong, but why? Philippians 1:6: He who starts a good work in us will bring it to completion. God brings us to maturity. GOD brings us through trials. GOD is the one to empower us to count it all joy. And GOD is the one who will give the crown of eternal life.
It’s a glorious thing, this eternal life that is coming. And we can find great contentment and even our very life and sustenance in the truth that God will bring about what he has promised to those that love him.
In September of 2015, the very Sunday that you all voted on me to become your next pastor, a very happy and sentimental day, for me personally. On that day, we looked at Psalm chapter 1. Psalm chapter 1 gives us this picture of a tree. It says this:
Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.
He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers. The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous; for the Lord knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.
The picture I want to leave you with is that of our church graphic, or logo, whatever you want to call it. The man or woman that delights in God’s Word is like a tree planted by streams of water, meaning they are consistently fed and strengthened with the Word of God. It’s planted near the Word so as to be fed, and to carry the analogy a bit further than the psalmist does: Because it is fed consistently by the Word, it is rooted deeper and deeper and deeper. No matter the storms that come along, no matter the wind, the rain, the lightning even, this tree stays planted because it’s strong. It’s steadfast! It’s mature!
But guess what? It might be damaged. This tree that’s consistently fed with truth and rooted deeper and deeper in the Gospel, it might be damaged. Some trees may go through more storms than other trees. But what we must remember, is that the very storms that damage this tree, that break off some of its branches, that tear off so many leaves, these storms are some of the very tools that God uses to make this tree so strong.
I said this in September of 2015, and I’ll say it again now: I want to be like this tree, strengthened and fed by the Word of God, but also strengthened and rooted even deeper as God brings me through trials. With this picture in mind, trials can become something we truly count as joy. When God fashioning us into the likeness of His Son becomes a bigger reality to us than anything happening in this world, no matter how painful and difficult, we will truly count it all joy.