Is it realistic for James to expect us to consider our trials “pure joy”?

Q.  The book of James says, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds.” Isn’t that an unrealistically high standard to expect us to meet?  I mean, does anybody really feel nothing but joy when they go through trials?

Let me say first that I think you’ve correctly understood James’s meaning when he says we should consider it pasan charan when we encounter trials.  I think that “pure joy” or “all joy,” as many versions translate the phrase, should be taken in the sense of “nothing but joy,” as in the NRSV and NET Bibles.  (Mounce’s translation has “sheer joy,” with the same meaning.)   Some other translations say things like “consider it a great joy” or “an occasion for joy,” but as I see it, that’s taking something off a statement that’s pretty unqualified.

So is it also unrealistic, and not true to the experience of even the most mature and committed followers of Jesus, for James to expect this?  No, because he isn’t saying that we should feel or experience “nothing but joy” simply on account of our trials.   He gives an explanation of what we should be so joyful about:  “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”

In other words, we can be joyful in an unqualified and unrestricted way, even in our trials, because we recognize that God is going to be at work in our lives through them to bring us to maturity—to “the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ,” as Paul puts it in Ephesians.  We can rejoice because our trials are not thwarting God’s purposes, but actually advancing them, if we respond to them in faith with perseverance.

I might also add that the “joy” envisioned here is not so much a feeling as a reckoning, a decision to look at things in a certain way so that we concentrate on their value rather than on their cost.

And so I think it is realistic for James to ask us to choose to view our trials in this way and consequently to cultivate the qualities of faith and perseverance that will allow these trials to be avenues for God’s continuing work in bringing us to maturity.  And when we see Christ’s character taking deep root in our lives—well, that does bring nothing but joy!

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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