The book of James was written by James, the half-brother of the Lord Jesus Christ. James was the undisputed leader of the Jerusalem church and the moderator of the Jerusalem council (Acts 15). James wrote his letter to Christian Jews scattered outside Palestine. He wrote to those who had been dispersed, the diaspora; those who were dispersed throughout the Roman world (Acts 8:1-3) because of persecution. Had there been no diaspora, the Christians would have stayed in Jerusalem and the growth of the church would have been stifled. Instead, in one generation the gospel was spread throughout the then known world. God allowed the persecution and suffering to cause the believers to be scattered and thereby bringing the gospel with them.
James was addressing those who had to leave their homes, their jobs and their property because of persecution. He wrote to teach them how to deal with the stress and pressure of difficult trials. Among them are mothers who were at their wit’s end; children were screaming and crying and trying to adjust to new surroundings and situations; men who lost their jobs and their sense of dignity; they were wrestling with how to live out their lives as believers. Some were also arrested and imprisoned for their faith.
During this current viral pandemic, the description may fit some believers today; many may be facing very difficult trials – at home, at school, pressure and stress on the jobs, in the midst of relationship problems.
“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds,..” (James 1:2). Notice that James did not say “if” you meet trials, but rather “when” you meet trials. Stress and trials are inevitable, unavoidable in life, particularly if we seek to live godly lives. Jesus Himself warned, “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart, I have overcome the world.”(John 16:33). No matter who we are and how long we have walked the journey of the Christian life, we will face stress and trials.
Trials are not all alike; they may be job-related, financial problems, domestic problems, as a result of old age, sickness, accidents, disappointment – all these are natural trials. Some trials may be supernatural – they come about because we are Christianss and when we seek to live for God and have to go against the systems of the world and our enemy, the evil one.
We may be taken aback by what James wrote: count it all joy when we encounter trials and stress. Most of us would consider it all joy when we escape trials. James was not saying that trial is joy; he was not advocating sadism. He was referring to the joy that would follow the trial if we respond properly. He was probably not even saying that we have joy in the midst of the trials for all believers, but that we have joy in what lies ahead – there is joy in the outcome. There can of course be joy in the midst of suffering when we learn to rest deeper in the Lord (2 Corin. 6:10) – this is paradoxical, but certainly James was not equating the trial with joy per se but that joy and pain can coexist for those who learn to walk in the path that Jesus walked with the same self-denial and devotion to God. But certainly, trials and stress are not without pain; they can be problematic and relationships and lives may even be ruined. It hurts to go through trials in most instances. Although trial and stress can be problematic and destructive, there is hope, always for the believer. Apostle Peter reminded us that our trials and grief are only ‘for a little while’ when compared with what is to come in eternity. The Apostle Paul wrote that our trials and suffering cannot even be compared to the glory that is to come.
Coming back to the joy that would follow the trial, every trial can become a God-given opportunity for growing into the likeness of Christ. Oswald Chambers, the devotional writer of the past generation once said, “Every humiliation, everything that tries and vexes us, is God’s way of cutting a deeper channel in us through which the life of Christ can flow.” We can count it all joy because the trial is used to bring us to spiritual maturity. In that sense, stress can be our ‘friend’. Of course, we must ensure that we do not suffer because of our sins and foolishness and still claim that we are suffering for the Lord Jesus.
One purpose of stress and trial is to lead us to purity. Our trials are for a purpose – to test our faith. Often, they serve as a refining fire, testing us to see if we can hold up under pressure and conforming us to the image of Christ. Apostle Peter wrote that our faith worthed more than gold which perishes can be proved genuine when tested, like gold is refined by fire.
Another purpose of stress and trial is to lead us to perseverance. The testing of our faith develops perseverance; it helps us to stand fast – in other words, it develops staying power that will help us to stand up under other tests that may come our way subsequently. Only a trial can prove the depth of our faith and character. Our faith is being tested – the stress of trials is purposeful – it can produce purity and perseverance in our life. God is perfecting us and we will come out stronger and sturdier than ever if we continue to keep our eyes upon the Lord and trust Him no matter how we feel and despite our lack of understanding of why the trial is needful.
And that leads us to know that stress and trial are to lead us to perfection, that is, to be mature and complete, not lacking anything (James 1:4). It means “to carry work to its end, to become full grown”. Our goal in Christian living is spiritual maturity – this brings dangers and risks along the way. In fact, the one who never undergoes trials will never mature in the faith.
We see the wisdom of James who wrote one of the earliest letters to the believers. He was one who was referred to as a pillar of the church (Galatians 2:9). Tradition tells us that James was a tremendous man of prayer and was often referred to as “camel knees” because of the calluses he earned by spending hour upon hour on his knees in prayer. And that speaks to us of the tremendous need of prayer as we go through trials and stress lest we fail the Lord and put HIs name to shame. We need much humanity to depend on God in our times of stress. Although James was a half-brother of Christ and a leader of the church in Jerusalem, notice that he did not introduce himself in that capacity. He simply referred to himself as “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus”. The term used was ‘doulos’ – a slave who had completed his term of service and could have been set free from his master’s control. However, after considering everything in the world and its opportunities, the slave had concluded that he was better off with his master and became a bondslave, a doulos, by choice. He chose the One who first chose him. Only one who is truly a doulos would count it all joy always when he encounters trials on behalf of his master, for he counts it a tremendous privilege to suffer for his loving master. Such a one would not grumble, murmur or complain, for he is ever grateful and thankful that his master has first chosen him!