“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, 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 1:2-3)
When the pandemic began, few would have thought that as we enter into 2022, we would still be dealing with COVID-19. Yet, here we are. 2022 has begun, and the Omicron and Delta variants continue to surge. All over the world, families, businesses, churches, and governments struggle to navigate the ever-changing pandemic in reasonable, effective ways. Moreover, most of us are dealing with some level of serious “COVID Fatigue.” We are worn out of the effects of the virus, lockdowns, mandates, mandate debates, and other direct and indirect impacts of COVID. I would put myself in this group; I am worn out. Yet, in the face of a new year sure to be full of disease, political tension, social unrest, and a wavering global economy, I choose to have joy.
I find the book of James particularly helpful as I consider my approach to the trials of the new year. James, in writing the church, begins his letter with a concise, yet profound, commandment. He writes, “Count it all joy, my brothers” (1:2, ESV). What were the circumstances by which James was commanding Christians to “count it joy”? Most commentators agree that he was writing to Christians who were dealing with severe poverty and intense physical persecution. Much of the letter reads like a field guide for Christians who live in troubling situations. James also makes great efforts to distinguish between genuine faith and vain presentation of religion. I would add that I think these two things are woven together. How we choose to respond when faced with trials is an indicator of genuine faith. It is all the more compelling then, that he begins his instruction with that simple and direct command to “count it all joy”.
It is easy to read this commandment and feel like an immediate failure. Perhaps you don’t feel joyful. Instead, you might be tired, sad, worn out, angry, bitter, and so on. Some of these may be justified, and others may not. I will not pretend to know your situation any more than you know mine, nor will I lend excuses for self-justification. These are things you need to work out with your soul before a holy, righteousness God. Nevertheless, I think the emotional aspect of fulfilling the commandment is a result of a mental choice.
Notice that James says to “count it all joy.” That is to mentally acknowledge and respond to such trials with joy. This is a choice you make. This mental choice is rooted in the Christian’s ability to recognize that trials are not meaningless acts of suffering. Instead, they are providential instruments of grace. When we prayerfully and faithfully make mental choices to respond joyfully to trials, our emotions will eventually follow.
The Christian can, with great confidence, know that whatever trials come upon them are not flowing as acts of divine judgment. Simply put, we are not suffering because God does not love us. God gave us His only Son because He loves us. Therefore, we must acknowledge that our trials flow out of God’s love for us. The Puritan Matthew Henry in his commentary on James wrote, “By suffering in the ways of righteousness, we are serving the interests of our Lord’s kingdom among men, and edifying the body of Christ and our trials will brighten our graces now and our crown at last.”
Responding to hardship with joy is one of the great paradoxes of the Christian religion. It is also one of the great gifts. How can the world harm us if we understand that such trials are instruments of grace for the church? In Christ, we find an eternal well of joy, hope, and love from which we can drink.
I should be clear: there are situations and seasons where grief, sadness, anger, etc. are appropriate. I think what James is saying here is that underneath these emotions is a deeply spiritual, unshakable recognition that “for those who love God all things work together for good” (Romans 8:28). We may grieve, but we never despair. We may be sad, be we know that this sadness will yield the fruit of righteousness. As Christians, we must make the conscious choice to respond to all trials with joy. In doing so, we become a powerful witness of God’s love to those around us. Christian, your trials have a purpose; count them as joy. We can do this because we know that “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 into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:3-4).