No life is without various kinds of trials, so knowing how to approach them is crucial to Christian maturity. Right thinking about trials will help us have a proper response when they come. James told his audience to consider difficulties as “pure joy.” How is that possible? Alistair Begg helps us understand that when we persevere through trials, God develops our character to be more like Jesus, proving our faith and training our staying power.
We’re going to turn in the Bible to James chapter l. It’s on page 854. And I’m just going to read the first four verses:
“James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ,
“To the twelve tribes scattered among the nations:
“Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”
Before we study the Bible, we ask for God’s help:
Lord, what we know not, teach us. What we have not, give us. What we are not, make us. For your Son’s sake. Amen.
Well, we’re picking up our studies where we left off last time. It is clear that we didn’t get very far in opening up the letter of James. And we find ourselves here, just in this opening cluster of verses as I’ve read them now. I’d like to reread them for you, as you listen, in the paraphrase that we have from J. B. Phillips. This is how Phillips paraphrases verses 2, 3, and 4: “When all kinds of trials and temptations crowd into your lives my brothers, don’t resent them as intruders, but welcome them as friends! Realise that they come to test your faith and to produce in you the quality of endurance. But let the process go on until that endurance is fully developed, and you will find you have become men of mature character with the right sort of independence.”
Derek Prime, on one occasion, wrote as follows: “Trouble, hardship and various forms of suffering come to all of us at some time or another. The natural tendency may be to feel that such things are a waste of human life and to be avoided at all costs. … Knowledge informs us otherwise.” “Knowledge informs us otherwise.” So, for example: “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”
Now, James, the brother of Jesus, the writer of this letter, is a good pastor. And as a sensitive soul to what his people—his readers—are facing, he addresses very quickly and very practically the facts of life which are inescapable, unavoidable, and experienced by everyone—namely, that the Christian life is chock-full of tests and trials. And James, recognizing that the nature of his readership—particularly in the first century, buffeted by the insurgencies of persecution and by the peculiar difficulties that faced the dispersed church as a result of all that had taken place in Jerusalem—he recognizes that each of his readers will be going through difficult experiences. Experiences that they wouldn’t have chosen for themselves. Not that they had put up their hands and said, “I’d like this experience. May I have this one?” or, “I would like to endure that if I could.” But rather, these things have, as we will see, fallen upon them. And he writes—and I think Phillips’s paraphrase has been very helpful—he writes to say, “Instead of resenting these things as intruders, we should learn to welcome them as friends.”
Now, it’s important to recognize what he is not saying. What he is not suggesting is that we can equate trials for their own sakes as a source of joy. He’s not suggesting that trials in and of themselves are a source of joy. To suggest that would be a sign of a disordered mind. In fact, psychiatrists spend a great of time dealing with people who face masochistic tendencies. There is nothing of that in what James is saying here. James would have been prepared to acknowledge that trouble hurts, that trials are painful, that loss is difficult. But what he is saying is this: they may become the occasions of unrestrained or unreserved rejoicing if we respond to them from the right perspective. Perspective is crucial. The line of approach, the angle of approach, to the experience of trials and difficulties is fundamental in the way in which we tackle it.
When I studied art for five years in high school—which I did because you didn’t have to read anything, and I wanted a class where you didn’t have to read anything—and so for five years my art teacher endured me. Absolutely endured me. His wife was my English teacher. She encouraged me; Tommy Walker endured me. He would give me a homework assignment—for example, I was supposed to draw that glass of water. I would bring it back. You never saw anything less like a glass of water in your entire life. And I remember he used to give marks out of five. So, it would be a good day if you got a half. And it wasn’t on my glass of water but on my chair—on my chair, which was in a form of suspended animation—there was no mark. He just simply wrote, one-inch high, right across my chair, “Rubbish.”
I appreciate that kind of clarity. It’s never bothered me. And I love that kind of honesty. Because it was absolute rubbish. Because I couldn’t figure out why or how, if one leg was behind another leg, it was supposed to be smaller on the page. And even if it was, how could you make it smaller without making it look like a prosthesis or something? It was an absolute disaster. And it all had to do with perspective. Perspective of drawing, useless. Same is true in what James is saying here concerning trials.
The right perspective is fundamental to the right response. Unless we think correctly, we cannot respond properly. It is thinking correctly that enables us to respond properly.
That’s not unique to James, of course. Paul, you remember, when he makes his application of all that he said in the first eleven chapters of Romans, immediately says, “I want you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, and I want you to be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” And this takes some mind transformation to get to this, because it is a paradox, isn’t it? Verse 2. Because the first part of the verse, “Count it pure joy,” doesn’t really seem to go with the second part of the verse, “when you face trials.”
Most of us, I think, if we think outwith the box of the Bible, are tempted to believe what is common notion—namely, that you don’t have joy if you have trials. And therefore, the way to experience joy is to make sure that you don’t have trials, that you don’t have difficult circumstances, that you don’t have any of these things to face. And if you can spend your energies making sure that all of that is removed from you, then you may be a joyful person, and you can tell people as you go up the High Street just how joyful you are. James paradoxically says, “No,” he says, “consider it pure joy when you face trials of various kinds,” so that the trials are directly related to the experience of joy. Makes you think, doesn’t it?
Thomas Goodwin, the Puritan, responding to this, said, “This is the hardest duty that ever was required of the distressed hearts of men.” “This is the hardest duty … required of the distressed hearts of men.” So that when our hearts are distressed, the Word comes: “Consider it pure joy.” Goodwin says, “That’s hard!” And then he says, “And yet God would not require it if it were unattainable.” God is not asking from us what he is unable or willing to provide for us.
Now, our study gathers under two headings, really, or two words. One word is perspective, and the other word is process. And we spent a little longer here on perspective. You will notice the verb that is used in the NIV: “consider it.” “Consider it.” I read a free translation by Professor Adamson, who translated the opening section of verse 2, “Deem it.” “Deem it pure joy.” Now, you understand that he is not suggesting there that it is intrinsically joy in and of itself but that we should consider it pure joy.
When I was studying this in the week, I had a vivid recollection of a phrase that I had long since forgotten that was used by my father. When I would go to my dad as a youth, making a particular request or offering him an opinion, it was not uncommon for him to say, “I will give that due consideration.” “I will give that due consideration.” There’s something sort of quaint about that, even as I reflect upon it, and he may simply have used it as a mechanism to buy some time. But in actual fact, I think in the instances when he employed it, he was being absolutely honest. And what he was saying was this: “I will think about the issue that has been raised from a particular perspective and in a deliberate way. You have asked of this. You have suggested this. I will give it my due consideration.”
Now, what James is saying is this: when trials and difficulties and circumstances come into our lives, our first response is to be a considerable response, or the response of consideration. And that consideration will allow us to take whatever, whenever, as the basis for unreserved rejoicing.
When you take this opening section, perhaps the most basic lesson that we learn from what James is saying is that the benefit that we receive from going through trials depends in large degree upon how we look at them and the spirit with which we handle them. Doesn’t that make sense as you look at the text? What James is saying is this: that any benefit that we receive from going through trials and difficulties is directly related to the perspective with which we view them and the spirit in which we respond to them. It’s much the same as what you find if you go one book back into Hebrews, where the writer to the Hebrews says, you know, “No punishment is enjoyable at the time, but it produces the peaceful fruit of righteousness for those who have been trained by it.” When a child is punished, if they stiffen their necks, if they grow resilient and resistant to it—if they are not trained by the punishment, if they become inured to the punishment—then the benefit that is represented in the discipline is unknown by them. And in the same way, what James is saying is this: When trials and difficulties come, as they inevitably will, the perspective with which we view them and the spirit in which we respond to them will determine the benefit of them.
“Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of [various] kinds.” Trials are inevitable; they are not unusual. Right? I don’t understand why it is that in the Christian life we put our hands over our mouths and say, “Oh, I can’t believe this is happening.” As if, somehow or another, to live the Christian life is to be exempted from the class that involves trials and difficulties, when the whole Bible is replete with the emphasis upon the fact that we are not removed… “In the world,” Jesus says, “you will have tribulation. But be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.” He doesn’t say, “You won’t have any tribulation because you are mine, you are my children.” And James, understanding his brother’s words, now drives this home.
Trials are not unusual, they’re inevitable. They frequently appear out of nowhere. This little phrase, “whenever you face trials of various kinds,” the verb that is used here is the same verb that is used in Luke chapter 10 in the story of the man who went down from Jerusalem to Jericho—the story of the Good Samaritan—but the focus is on the man who’s going down, and he “fell among thieves.” He “fell among thieves.” He wasn’t looking for thieves. He was just simply going down to Jericho. And all of a sudden, out of the blue, the clothes were ripped off him and he received a dreadful beating. That’s the word that is used here: “when you face trials of various kinds.” It’s the same word that is used in Acts, in chapter 27, in the description of the shipwreck, where it says that the ship on which Paul and the others were sailing struck a sandbar. They didn’t sidle up to the sandbar. They didn’t go and find the sandbar. They were going along quite nicely, and all of sudden, bam!—they hit it. That’s the verb that is used here: “Consider it pure joy when you’re going along nicely, and [smacking noise] all of a sudden. Consider it pure joy in the awareness of the fact that this is not unusual, this is inevitable. Consider it pure joy when you recognize that trials come in all kinds of shapes and sizes.” Isn’t that the phrase? “When you face trials of many kinds.”
Now, you don’t need me to drive this home. If we were to take a test—a little poll—and say, “Hands up, all those who have gone from last Sunday to this Sunday without having reflected—if you were present last Sunday—without having reflected on the fact that you have faced trials and difficulties,” there’d hardly be a person that wouldn’t put up their hand, if they’re honest, if they’re living in the real world. And some might say, “I’ve faced peculiar trials.” So we know that to be true.
Now, all of that by way of perspective. Let’s move into verse 3 and verse 4, where he outlines, if you like, the process or the sequence that results in the finished product. And I’ll just identify this for you. I mentioned it in passing last week; we didn’t have time to get to it.
First of all, there is faith: “because you know that the testing of your faith…” Faith. Faith appears there without an object. It doesn’t say “faith in God” or “faith in Jesus.” It just says, “your faith.” Therefore, legitimately—rightly—it simply means being a Christian. Being a Christian. “Because you know that the testing of your faith, the testing of your Christian life, the testing of your Christian profession…”
James is writing here not to people who are interested in religion, but he is writing to people who have come to understand that Jesus is their Savior. They have been made aware of the fact that by their nature they are unfit for heaven, they are unable to rectify their circumstances, and they have discovered in Jesus the only one who can prepare them, save them, deliver them. And they are the people who have received him and who have believed in him. And all of that is represented in this notion of faith—thereby causing us all, as we take a second in passing, to say, “Am I a man or woman of faith? Have I come to a place in my life, recognizing I am unfit for heaven, I am unable to make my own way there, and discovering that Jesus has provided for me, by his death on the cross, forgiveness for my sins and has opened up a way of entry so that I might come like a little child and trust unreservedly in him?” That’s where it all begins.
There’s a way back to God from the dark paths of sin;
There’s a door that is open [that] you may go in:
[And] at Calvary’s cross [that’s] where you begin,
When you come as a sinner to Jesus.
The real issue is not have you begun to come to Parkside, have you begun to attend a life group, have you begun to read your Bible, but have you come to the cross of Calvary and trusted in Christ? If you have, then you’re able to say, “On Christ the solid Rock I stand, and all the other ground is sinking sand.” That’s not bravado, but that is faith. Okay? Number one, faith.
Number two in the process or the program—I have friends who are always saying, “What’s the program?” Well, here’s the program: faith, then faith put to the test. Faith put to the test: “Because you know that the testing of your faith…” Trials are the means by which our faith, our Christian life, is tested. Trials are the means by which our faith, our Christian life, is tested.
What is being tested for? Two things. The test is, number one, to see if that faith is genuine or if it’s fake. And one of the ways that we discover whether we have genuine faith or fake faith is when our faith is up against it. When the band plays, when everyone’s marching, when everything’s fine, it’s pretty easy to say, “Oh yeah, I’m in this. Yes, I’m going along with this.” But it’s when the wheels fall off, when the difficulties come, when family life begins to disintegrate, when we lose our job, when it appears that we’ve maxed out, and the things that we’d hoped for in life are not coming our way, or whatever it might be—then, in the testing we begin to discover whether faith is genuine.
Now, if you turn over two pages—remember, last week we said that 1 Peter is much the same. First Peter is much the same. And in 1 Peter chapter 1 he says, verse 6, “In this you greatly rejoice.” Sounds like, you know, “pure joy,” doesn’t it? “In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials”—multivarious trials—“all kinds of trials. These have come”—why?—“so that”—purpose—“so that your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire,” so that your faith “may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.” How do we find out whether we have genuine faith? In the test!
The test is to look for the genuine nature of faith, and the test is to look for the growing nature of faith. Is this a stagnant faith, or is this a growing faith? Back to James chapter 1: “He chose to give us birth.” He humbly plants the word in us, verse 21: “the word … which can save you.” And then he says, “[Make sure you don’t] merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.” It’s the line last week, again, from My Fair Lady, isn’t it? You know: “Don’t sing me songs. Don’t quote me poems. Show me! Show me!”
Thirdly: faith, faith put to the test, then perseverance. Perseverance. By means of the testing, James says, we develop staying power. We develop staying power. We were talking to somebody about ten days ago about the fact that they were preparing for a marathon, and they said that they had just come back from their training runs, and when we inquired—Sue and I—“How did it go?” the person said, “Well, it was absolutely dreadful. We had six 800-meter speed trials. Six separate 800 meters, running flat out. Twice round the high school football field, flat out, and then a drink of water, and then flat out again, and then again, and again, and again. Six times.” Why? To try and kill the people? Well, it may appear that way when you’re running. You’re shouting at your coach, “You’re a horrible person! I hate you! Why are you doing this to me? Why do I have to do this at five thirty in the morning?” And the answer is, “Because I want you to be able to finish the marathon! If you wanna lie down, that’s fine. But if you want to have staying power, then do what I’m telling you to do.” The Christian life is not a few hundred-yard sprints; it’s a cross-country run that lasts for the totality of our lives. Faith, faith put to the test; tested, it produces staying power. And our heavenly Father knows how much we can take.
And “perseverance,” you will notice, “must finish its work.” “Must finish its work.” In other words, we’re forced to learn in practice what we know in principle.
I know very little about finishing furniture, but in observing it, I’ve been staggered by the amount of effort that’s involved after the thing is constructed—or in the finishing of a hardwood floor. When that floor is laid and the room is changed, you say to yourself, “Well, it looks like we’ll just take a broom to this and we’re ready to go.” “Not so fast!” says the installer. And then, like me, you will have marveled at the amount of time and effort and skill and commitment that’s involved in getting the right kind of finish. You cannot get the right finish without all that is involved in the perseverance. And that’s why there is a distinction in furniture. Not the only reason. But in the finish of furniture, people will often say to you, “Feel this finish.” How did it come about? Painstakingly.
Look at the life of an individual who has soft eyes, a tender heart—a caring granny, a sensitive youth—and I can guarantee you they did not come to that without the experience of trials.
And perseverance, when it finishes its work, renders as the product maturity, completion, and “lacking nothing.” Last Sunday we sang, didn’t we, the Graham Kendrick song,
Consider it joy, pure joy,
When troubles come;
Many trials will make you strong.
Consider it joy, pure joy,
And stand your ground;
Then at last you’ll wear a crown.
Where did that come from? Well, it came it from verse 2, 3, and 4, and verse 12, if you look down at it: “Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life.” Most of us want a crown without any perseverance. Most of us want to be able to go straight to the graduation class without doing the study. And God is so gracious and kind he won’t allow it.
He brings us to maturity. He completes the good work that he has begun in us—Philippians 1:6. And the good work that he brings to completion is to make us like Jesus. Christlikeness. Christlikeness. How does a person become mature? How is the work of grace completed? How is there that sense of being wrapped up in the provision of God? Well, it’s all here in this process.
Let me just give you two quotes, one from a Puritan and another from Spurgeon. One of the Puritan writers puts it this way: he says, “The wind[s] of tribulation [blow] away the chaff of error, hypocrisy, and doubt.” “The wind[s] of tribulation [blow] away the chaff of error, hypocrisy, and doubt.” You see, because hypocrites’ll never stand up under the trial. If you’re a hypocrite, you’ll be gone. You’ll be running for the border; you’ll be running for the hills. And it’s skin-deep. You’re done! There’s nothing there. How do you find that out? Not in the sunshine. In the furnace! More progress is made in the Christian life through disappointment and tears than is ever made through success and laughter. “The wind[s] of tribulation [blow] away the chaff of error, hypocrisy, and doubt, leaving that which survives the test, … the genuine element of [Christian] character.” The genuine element of Christian character.
Spurgeon, in a far more colloquial way, addressing his congregation in February of 1883, picks up the picture from the sea and from sailors. And he says,
You look at the weather-beaten sailor, the man who is at home on the sea: he has a bronzed face and mahogany-coloured [skin], he looks … tough as … oak. … He [would] not have become a hardy [sailor] by [staying] on [the] shore. Now,
trial[s work] in … [God’s people] that spiritual hardi[ness] which cannot be learned in ease.
Trials work in God’s people that spiritual hardiness, toughness, that cannot be learned in ease. He goes on:
You may go to school for ever, but you cannot learn endurance there: you may colour your [face] with paint, but you cannot give it that ingrained brown which comes of stormy seas and howling winds. Strong faith and [perseverance] come [by trials] …. To reach that condition of firm endurance and sacred hardi[ness] is worth all the expense of all the heaped-up troubles that ever come upon us from above or from beneath.
Let me read that final sentence: “To reach [the] condition of firm endurance and sacred hardi[ness] is worth all the expense of all the heaped-up troubles that ever come upon us from above or from beneath.”
It’s quite a statement. The question is, do I believe it? Do you believe it? Do we believe it? Because if we do, it will change dramatically the way we respond to our trials. Not that we will say, “Oh, I love these trials, in and of themselves. They fill me with joy.” No, they don’t. They fill us with pain. They fill us with fear. They fill us with uncertainty. They may fill us with panic. But we consider them pure joy because endurance and sacred hardiness come down that road, and not down the path of easiness.
It’s quite a thought, isn’t it? It’s no wonder that verse 5 then reads as it does: “If any of you [lack] wisdom…” In other words, “If any of you are tempted to say, ‘Oh, no, I don’t get this,’ if any of you are going, ‘Oh, no, no, no, hey, wai, wai, wait a minute,’ then you should ask God, and God’ll get you sorted out on this.” Because we need sorted out on this. I do. I would imagine you do too.
Let’s pray together:
God our Father, we thank you so much that when we gather in this way we have a Bible to which we can turn, that your Word is fixed in the heavens. That all of your promises find their yes and their amen in the Lord Jesus. That in Christ you give to us one blessing after another. And although we may be tempted to see trials and difficulties as a waste, when our minds are schooled and trained by your truth, we come to recognize that the reverse is so.
That actually helps many of us, because our lives have been marked by difficult days. Some, over a long period of time, have been wrestling with illness or with family circumstances that just seem never, ever to quit; some with unrequited love; others with unfulfilled hopes and dreams; some buffeted by disappointment and by doubts and darkness. And loss is painful, and trials are difficult, and troubles hurt. Hurt! So, it is a supernatural response that James prescribes, and without your Spirit’s power, we cannot even approximate to it.
We pray, Lord, that something of the joyfulness and the clarity of your truth may help us as we go about the business of this coming week, so that the distinctiveness of Christian living may be found not in the fact that we have been removed from the realm of trials and dangers and toils and snares but that you have given to us an altogether different perspective, and we’ve begun to understand the program that you have in order to bring us to maturity and to completeness and to Christlikeness.
And may we offer our lives to you, so that our minds might be taught by you, and our hearts might be filled by you, and our lips might declare you, and our gifts may testify to our joy. For we ask all of this in Jesus’ name and for his sake. Amen.
 Derek Prime, James (Fearn: Christian Focus, 1995), 15.
 Romans 8:28 (NIV 1984).
 Romans 12:1–2 (paraphrased).
 Thomas Goodwin, Patience and Its Perfect Work under Sudden and Sore Trials: Being an Exposition of James I.1–5, in The Works of Thomas Goodwin (Edinburgh: James Nichol, 1861), 2:430.
 Goodwin, 2:430.
 James B. Adamson, The Epistles of James, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976), 52.
 Hebrews 12:11 (paraphrased).
 John 16:33 (paraphrased).
 Luke 10:30 (KJV).
 See Acts 27:41.
 See John 1:12.
 E. H. Swinstead, “There’s a Way Back to God.”
 Edward Mote, “My Hope Is Built on Nothing Less” (1834). Lyrics lightly altered.
 James 1:18 (NIV 1984).
 James 1:22 (NIV 1984).
 Alan Jay Lerner, “Show Me” (1956). Paraphrased.
 Graham Kendrick, “Consider It Joy (Though Trials Will Come)” (2001).
 Adamson, Epistle of James, 54.
 C. H. Spurgeon, “All Joy in All Trials,” Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit 29, no. 1704, 81–82.
 See Psalm 119:89.
 See 2 Corinthians 1:20.
 See John 1:16.
Copyright © 2021, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.