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On January 31, 1649, John Owen preached before the British Parliament. In the midst of the English Civil War, Parliamentary forces had captured the hated king of England, Charles I, and had tried him for and convicted him of treason. He was executed the day before Owen’s sermon.
We might expect Owen to have struck a triumphalist note. After all, his side had emerged victorious. But no—without so much as mentioning the events of the day before, Owen instead preached on suffering.
Suffering, Owen said, is part of what it means to be a follower of Christ. He said:
The return which God’s labourers meet withal in this generation is in the number of those things whereof there is none new under the sun. Men that, under God, deliver a kingdom, may have the kingdom’s curses for their pains. . . . Men every way blameless, and to be embraced in their own ways, are oftentimes abhorred and laden with curses for following the Lord in his ways.
This was no time for triumphalism. It was a time to reflect somberly on the travails of life on earth between the advents of Christ, a time during which Christians will be hated simply for the sake of the One whose name they bear.
The text for Owen’s sermon was Jeremiah 15:19–20, but his point can also be drawn from James 1:2–4:
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.
In this passage, James refers to “joy.” Joy is not the same as happiness. Joy is an apprehension of and a settled confidence in the providence of our great God. It is a realization of and a trust in His promises.
Owen made reference to “men that, under God, deliver a kingdom.” We as Christians are looking forward to the full unveiling of Christ’s kingdom on earth, where every knee will bow and every tongue confess that He is Lord (Phil. 2:10–11). In the meantime, when those same knees fall on our necks and those same tongues curse us, we rejoice. We know that the Lord works out all things for our good and His glory (Rom. 8:28). And we know from the promise of Christ Himself that when we suffer for His sake, we are blessed, “because [our] reward is great in heaven” (Matt. 5:11–12). We are to count it joy when we meet trials that test our faith, because they give us the opportunity to have our faith strengthened and to have the fidelity of our God vindicated before the watching world.
Note also James’ reference to “trials of various kinds” (James 1:2). We might think this is a reference to the kinds of ordinary difficulties we endure in a fallen world, but James likely has something else in mind.
James’ readers were almost certainly Jewish Christians, as he refers to them as “the twelve tribes in the Dispersion” (v. 1), using a term for Jews who were living outside the promised land. Their situation had a spiritual analogue in terms of the exile of believers on earth. Therefore, James’ address can be expanded to include all Christians everywhere—we are the spiritual Israel dispersed on the earth away from our heavenly home.
Dispersion from one’s homeland encompasses aspects beyond location; it also includes deprivation. Jewish Christians in the Dispersion were far removed from the center of the faith in Jerusalem, exiled among a strange and often hostile people. They often suffered from economic woes and exploitation (James refers to these difficulties in 2:6 and 5:1–6). We Christians also suffer as sojourners and exiles on earth among people who hate the One we serve. But we know, because He told us so, that our Lord is with us always (Matt. 28:20).
By His Spirit, Christ strengthens our faith as we meet trials of various kinds, and this testing produces steadfastness. “Steadfastness” can also be translated “patient endurance.” Without trials, we would have no need for patience. We would have no need to endure. Through the testing of our faith, we discover that it is stronger than we realized and that Christ is more trustworthy than we knew.
Steadfastness is not an end in itself. It is part of our sanctification, whereby we are more and more conformed to the image of Christ and more and more die to sin and live to righteousness. Displaying the image of Christ, for His glory, is the end. The full effect of steadfastness is that we “may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:4).
The Bible calls us in several places to be perfect. This often seems to be an impossible standard. Here, James fleshes out what it means. It means we lack nothing; that is, we display the full range of the glorious attributes of Christ that are ours to share in.
James continues this line of thought in verse 5, where he gives counsel to “any . . . who lacks wisdom.” We are to strive to display the fullness of Christ’s character. In response to trials, we gain a character trait that we did not have before. Trials therefore help us on our way to attaining perfection, that is, fully imaging our Lord Jesus in all His splendor.
Thomas Watson said, “Affliction is a badge of adoption.” We can rejoice in our trials because we know that we are Christ’s, and that through our trials, He is accomplishing His glorious work in and through us.