Trials have the unmistakable quality of being difficult. Just ask Job, or Jeremiah, or Naomi, or Joseph. And yet they are not without purpose. It is not as if they show Satan has gained the upper hand. Or that God is wantonly cruel. Trials do not show that the Enemy has won or that God is vindictive. Listen to how James describes trials:
“. . . when you meet trials of various kinds . . . the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (1:2, ESV).
Conspicuously absent from this verse is any mention of God’s providential, loving hand over trials. But though not explicit, God’s hand is clearly present. Who else can produce steadfastness, maturity, and completion, in us, his people, through storm? Who else wants to?
And that’s why we can consider trials “all joy.” Not because they are pleasant in and of themselves. They aren’t. What makes them occasions for joy is the intention behind them and their net result: our Father uses them to strengthen our faith in Him, embolden our fidelity to Him, and make us more stable and sure of His purposes. (And that’s what we learn just from James. Paul, in his letter to the Roman church, adds: “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” [Romans 5:3,4, ESV, italics added]).
In a word, James’ point is that trials produce in us integrity, a kind of undifferentiated moral-spiritual wholeness; a deeper commitment to our Father and to His holy ways. To borrow an old-fashioned term, trials make us virtuous. Not morally perfect or sinless; that’s probably not what “perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” is getting at in verse 4. There, it probably means something like “morally whole,” a reality grounded, of course, in Christ and his work, and oriented Christ-ward, to God’s glory.
Though perhaps there is also an eschatological edge in that verse; that the kind of “perfect and complete” James is referring to is that which will come in the eschaton (compare with verse 12). Surely that much is true; when Christ returns we will most certainly be made “perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” in a final, irrevocable way. But let’s not blunt the force of James’ claim: he seems also to be speaking about a “perfect and complete” that is ours, in part, now, in this life, which approximates our being “perfect and complete” in the eschaton, but is still nonetheless a very real “perfecting and completing." That’s the promise that is affixed to our trails: we are made steadfast, now, which leads to integrity, now.
Job learned it (Job 42:2-6, 17) through the fiercest trials anyone has ever faced, except for our Savior.
Jeremiah, despite unrelenting torment, learned it, even whilst in the midst of what can be fittingly described as deep, persistent depression (Jeremiah 20:13).
Naomi, “Mara”, learned it (Ruth 4:13-17).
Joseph, whose mouth sometimes ran far ahead of his brain, learned it (Genesis 50:19-21).
Jesus, the morally perfect God-man, tempted as we are yet without sin, learned it through the most severe trials ever faced (Heb 4:15).
Our Father wants us to be people of integrity, morally virtuous, which is an extension of the work of the cross, not a detraction of it. He doesn’t want us to be unstable, “like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind” (James 1:6). And one of the ways he accomplishes that end is through trials. “Count it all joy” – not to the exclusion of lament and tears – because God himself, our God, is with us.
Mr. Geoff Sackett
Dean of Students
Guest Lecturer in Theology and Philosophy
Reformed Theological Seminary, Washington, D.C.