The first section of James (1:2-4) deals with the way we should respond to trials, tribulations, and suffering as children of God. In it James gives us insight into what true faith looks like, even when things aren’t going well for us.
“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds…”James 1:2
The word trials that James uses in this verse is translated from the Greek peirasmos. However, in our commonplace Christian understanding of “trials” we may lose sight of what James is getting at. When we speak of trials, we often focus exclusively on suffering or struggle with a particular sin, however peirasmos in itself is not inherently negative. When translated literally it can mean a temptation which is negative, however it can also simply mean a test.
Just like when we are in school or playing a sport, tests are meant as a way to challenge our understanding and competency at a particular subject. They are meant to reinforce what we have learned by using the skills we have gained to solve and overcome problems placed before us.
To be clear, in the context of James 1 he is referring to the suffering and temptation that our 1st century brothers and sisters were facing. I simply think it is worth noting the choice of words which lends both to understanding verses 3 and 4, as well as the general way in which this chapter as a whole applies to our lives.
Nevertheless, whether speaking about trails in terms of positive or negative testing James encourages his audience (which now includes us) to respond in faith and righteousness. The godly response to the various trials we face on a daily basis, and even the major calamities that may come on occasion, is find joy through the pain – a joy that only Jesus provides as we draw closer to Him. No one is saying this is easy… I’m just saying it’s right and it’s what’s best for us.
“…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 1:3-4
The reasons we suffer and endure struggles, temptations, persecutions and more are many and they are complex; but a purpose can be found. Just as running regularly and doing aerobic exercises builds up your stamina and the overall health of your cardiovascular system, undergoing “trials of various kinds” will build spiritual stamina. When we choose joy in the midst of suffering and hardship we are deepening our faith and building up our endurance to resist the works of satan, his demons, and the effects of living in a fallen and sin-filled world.
The more we allow God to work in us and build up our faith by turning to Him in the midst of trials and tribulations, the more we become like Jesus. Theologically, this is a known of the act of sanctification or when God purifies us and helps us to be more like Him as He commanded (Leviticus 11:44, 1 Peter 1:16).
The big idea of these three simple, yet profound, verses is that there is purpose to suffering. We should respond with joy, and while on the surface this sounds (and often is) difficult to do, it’s often because we have failed to see a perspective outside of ourselves. What we may see as a no good, very bad thing, is not always as one dimensional as it seems. Sometimes a bad thing is just bad; but quite often we can ask God to help us see the testing of our faith as an opportunity to grow rather than an attack to tear us down. Regardless, God is sovereign and can use all of this to perfect our faith.