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I am a bibliophile. Unapologetically. Incurably. There is never enough bookshelf space for all my books. Yet one of my favorite books measures only 4.5 by 3 inches. This wee volume (A Selection of Hymns for Public Worship by William Gadsby) is a treasure chest of more than 1,100 sacred poems. While recently perusing this book, I happened upon one of the hymns of William Cowper (#282). The second verse begins, “Trials must and will befall.” Cowper experienced trials of a deeper and darker nature than many of us will ever endure. But trials must and will befall us all. Why? Because of the nature of the fallen world that we live in—a world hostile to Christ and those who love Him—and also because of our fallen and frail human nature, which longs for the day of full redemption (Rom. 8:23).

James, the half-brother of Jesus, gives one of the most precious and instructive passages on trials:

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 1:2–4)

Less than two decades had passed since the death and resurrection of Jesus. These readers had been a part of the Jerusalem church in its infancy. Some of them no doubt had witnessed, or even been part of, its explosive growth. The Lord was adding “to their number day by day those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47). By the time of Stephen’s martyrdom, a persecution of such proportions occurred that the believers (at this point Jewish Christians) “were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria” (8:1). This scattering would continue northward into Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch (11:19). As the believers went out, they scattered the good seed of the Word. James calls his readers “the twelve tribes in the Dispersion” (James 1:1). These Jewish Christians knew what it was like to have left their homes, property, church, and friends for the sake of Christ.

There is certainly no lack in God, or in what God supplies to us so that we may respond rightly in our trials.

After a brief epistolary introduction, James immediately takes up the subject of trials. How one responds in a time of testing will demonstrate the true nature of his professed faith—whether it is genuine or counterfeit. This was an urgent matter. What James says was needful for those living in the late 40s of the first century, but it is equally so for us living in a vastly different world.

the reality of trials

Throughout this epistle, James addresses his readers as “my brothers.” They were his brothers by nationality, by faith, and by experience. Both author and readers had “encountered” (literally, “fallen into,” from the Greek peripiptō, used of meeting misfortunes, such as robbers or sickness) trials that tested their faith. James notes that these trials were “of various kinds.” The adjective “various” (Greek poikilos) describes a wide variety of things: a bird’s colorful plumage, a beautifully woven garment, or an intricately devised medical potion. It aptly describes the vast variety of trials—of all shapes, sizes, and degrees of seriousness—that come our way.

the response to trials

The word “joy” (Greek chara) occupies the emphatic position in the original text. James is echoing the very thought that Jesus expressed in the final beatitude in the Sermon on the Mount. Although James grew up in the same household as Jesus, he was not a believer during Jesus’ lifetime (see John 7:1–5). The resurrection changed that, and James now highly values His words: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. . . . Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you. . . . Rejoice and be glad” (Matt. 5:10–12). This is strikingly different from the typical reaction to trials by unsaved people.

the result of trials

James continues by saying, “For you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.” “You know” translates a causal participle, and it can be translated “because you know.” Someone might ask, “Well, how do you know?” The answer is that God is at work in our trials. He has designs for our advancement in Christian character. William Cowper, in the hymn “God Moves in a Mysterious Way,” stated it well:

Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never-failing skill
He treasures up his bright designs,
And works his sovereign will.

The specific design stated by James here is “steadfastness”—a compound word (Greek hypomonē) conveying the idea of “remaining under.” The words endurance and patience convey the idea well. Most of us would recognize our need of this. It is one of the most challenging graces to obtain. Only God’s unfathomable wisdom has determined that trials will produce patience if we allow them to have their full effect.

As God causes this “steadfastness” to grow in us, a further product emerges: “that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (v. 4). This is not absolute, sinless perfection. Rather, it stresses a maturity (Greek teleios, a growing up to adulthood) and completeness (Greek holoklēros, what is complete and intact in all its parts) that demonstrate that God is relentlessly at work to make us more like Christ. This work is continuous and progressive and will be completed because God completes what He begins (Phil. 1:6). The picture is intensified by the final phrase: “lacking in nothing”—literally, “in nothing being left behind” (James 1:4). There is certainly no lack in God, or in what God supplies to us so that we may respond rightly in our trials (see Ps. 34:9–10). Trials are a blessing because we know that God is at work, that we are in good hands, and that this is making us better. Cowper’s complete verse reads as follows:

Trials must and will befall:
But with humble faith to see
Love inscribed upon them all,
This is happiness to me.

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