“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds.” - James 1:2
Last year was a good year to learn the wise advice given in James 1:2, wasn’t it? 2020 was a year when the world collectively went through one big trial, all at the same time. It seems that not a single aspect of our daily life was left untouched. I don’t know about you, but I had a hard time continually counting it all as joy, and I can’t say that I am still all that great at it.
But here’s what I do know: God has a purpose in the inclusion of this verse in His Holy Word, and we are wise to pay attention to it.
Last year was a tough year for me personally. I went through many challenges, both emotionally and spiritually. I had a baby in the midst of a pandemic, I walked through some excruciating relational situations, and to top it all off the world went into quarantine. I’ll be honest, some of these trials often left me reeling and feeling hopeless.
In the beginning of some of these trials, I liked to say, “I wouldn’t change it. God is working in me and I’m going to be much better off for it!” It’s almost like that brave face made it possible to move on, but what happened was my circumstances didn’t change. Or rather, they didn’t change as quickly as I wanted, and do you know how that left me? It left me feeling like maybe God wasn’t working in me, but working against me instead. Do you know the feeling? That feeling like God was the one inflicting the pain into your life? There were times I would cry out and ask Him what on earth He was doing!
Right around this time was when I started studying James.
Right off the bat James tells us that trials should invoke a sense of Joy in us. At first I wanted to pass over this verse. “Oh I know that verse,” I would say to myself. But knowing of this verse is not the same as KNOWING it. So I stopped myself, did a little backtracking, and looked into it more. Surely this verse isn’t saying that trials should make us feel emotions of happiness, right? No, joy is different from happiness. I know that. But still, that’s not the chief emotion I experience when something really really hard is going on. How can we possibly read a verse like this and understand it?
The hard part about understanding the merit to be found in trials is that historically, trials on earth were a punishment. That’s why it feels so natural to blame God for the trial. When you think through the Old Testament scriptures, life as we understood it was riddled with plagues and diseases as a result of sinful acts. God used very EXTERNAL methods to discipline sin. This is not the case in today's world, though. Today, our relationship with God hinges on one thing: grace.
Under the Old Covenant, when someone sinned there were strict rules around how to handle it - externally. In the New Covenant we’re now under, we have beautiful access to Christ through admitting our weaknesses. Wow. Such a difference!
Under this New Covenant, God deals with us internally by working in our hearts. This is such a unique gift to our salvation that can be easy to miss. This reality gives us the great opportunity to find joy in the midst of a trial. That trial might be the very thing that brings about our Christ-likeness.
You see, trials reveal brokenness and sin inside of us - regardless of whether it’s a trial we’ve subjected ourselves to, or if someone else has subjected us to it. The sin in our world was not a result of God, it was a result of us - humanity - and our pride. God, in His faithfulness, knew that He had the answer to make us holy again so He made a way to pay for our sins through His very own Son, Jesus. Working beauty from the ashes of the world that we caused. Now there is a New Covenant that no longer involves stoning people for their sin, but instead involves a Savior that took that punishment in our place.
It’s common to perceive a trial as punishment from God, and I think it is incredibly common in the church for us to point fingers and claim that a trial is the result of our own shameful sin. Don’t get me wrong: There ARE consequences for our actions and sometimes we do find ourselves in the middle of a trial because of a choice we made. But ultimately, God longs for an intimate relationship with us and it goes against everything Jesus stood for to say that He would be the cause of a hardship happening in your life simply to rid you of sin and idolatry. You are a beloved child of His. He only sees you as He sees His son Jesus.
So if it’s not Him, then how do we reconcile trials on earth? I can’t claim to know all the answers, but here’s one answer I do know. We have a very real enemy on this earth who sees us in the exact opposite light. He hates human beings because he knows WE get to be heirs with Christ and the reigning position of Christ is what he wanted for himself. Not only that, but he knows that we have an even greater authority on this earth than he ever will and he wants to do all he can to convince us that we’re powerless. One of the ways he does this is by convincing us that our God isn’t as good as He says He is. After all, in the garden he worked to convince Eve that God was holding out on her and his whispers to us are no different.
In light of all this, what is so beautiful about James 1:2 to me, is that it’s pointing out to us that God uses these hard things in our lives for our good. He uses the very thing the enemy meant to harm us with for His eternal purposes (Gen 50:20) . The reason we can “count it all joy” is because we know the One who can bring beauty from ashes. Trials become a form of uncomfortable grace in our lives meant for our good and God’s glory.
As I walked through some of the darkest trials of my life on this earth last year I discovered how beautiful it was and how gracious He is that not one single part of my life will be wasted. That He absolutely would take back every single evil thing I’ve ever walked through if it didn’t mean the loss of my freedom to ultimately choose Him. That there is a real enemy out there who wants me to feel powerless and wants sin to reign in my life, but what he meant for evil turns into absolute beauty in the hands of my Savior. But here’s the trick… will I let Him? Will you let Him?
Every trial is likely going to bring out some kind of ugliness from deep inside of us that the Lord so graciously longs to redeem. And that, my friend, is the joy to be found in the midst of a trial.
The joy of knowing a Savior who loves you and me enough to not let us sit and wallow in our sin, but will instead redeem even the worst of circumstances in our lives.
Want to dig deeper into the book of James? Check out our Wisdom Journal, a guided study through James, featuring hand-written lettering, original watercolor artwork, and thought-provoking questions to make your study time powerful and intentional.