Some things don’t go together. Take polka dots and stripes: few combinations are more fashion cringe-worthy. On the surface, trials and joy seem to fit into that category. I don’t celebrate a toothache, nor do I rejoice when my water heater breaks. I’m not happy when I’m navigating relational conflict.

Hardship and joy don’t seem to go hand in hand. And yet, the Scriptures link them together. How can something painful also be joyful? How can the devastating loss of a child be an occasion for gladness? What does the crushing weight of depression have to do with joyfulness? Should suffering really make us happy? Is that really what it means to be a mature Christian?

James 1:2 seems to present us with two things that don’t fit together—two realities that are hard to reconcile. “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds.” This is not an easy verse. Are trials supposed to be joyful? If so, what does that look like?

What About Grief?

Poor interpretation and application are always problematic, but a misunderstanding of what James says about trials and joy could be especially devastating. When James tells us to “count it all joy,” he’s not telling us that we shouldn’t be grieved by suffering. Closed tear ducts are not the mark of faithfulness, obedience, or sanctification.

We fail to love our brothers and sisters well when our initial response to their pain is to tell them to “cheer up” because everything will work out for their good. To speak the truth in love requires timely wisdom, especially in situations involving suffering. Paul tells the Ephesians that their speech should “fit the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” (Eph. 4:29).

Rejoice that the sufferings of this life are the closest to hell you will ever come. Click To Tweet

In your hurt, do you feel built up when someone tells you not to hurt? God’s Word calls us to weep with those who weep (Rom. 12:15), not rush them through their grief with cold, disconnected quotations from the Bible. You can’t read the Psalms without seeing that an appropriate response to hardship involves grief and lament. Counting our trials as joy does not mean we muster forced happiness from the grievous things we experience.

Reaching the Unreachable

There was a time in human history when the idea of flying seemed like the stuff of fantasy. But not only did we learn how to fly through the air, we also learned how to fly through space! It’s amazing to consider that flesh and blood human beings have left our atmosphere. How many people looked up at the moon and thought getting there was impossible?

The idea of attaining something beyond our reach is a helpful concept as we try to understand how joy is experienced through trials. James tells us we’re to allow endurance (amid trials) to have its full effect so that we might be “perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (Jam. 1:4). Talk about reaching the unreachable. How many of us strive for perfection, only to come up short?

And yet, James is telling us that the outcome of faithfully enduring our trials is perfection. This is not our doing, but God’s. As we follow James’s logic, we begin to see that joy is not found in our trials but in what God is producing through them. God is completing a work in us that we could never have completed on our own.

The Joy of Becoming Like Jesus

To consider our trials as pure joy is to consider the outcome of our faith. It’s to know that God is working to complete what he started in us (Phil. 1:6). In short, the joy of our trials is the joy of knowing that God is refining and purifying us so that we can obtain the outcome of our faith, the salvation of our souls (1 Pet. 1:9).

To consider the trials we face as an occasion for joy requires a God-centered, eschatological perspective. James summarizes it like this: “Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him” (James 1:12).

Our perfection is an eschatological reality. One day we will stand in the fullness of God's presence, completely perfected in the likeness of Christ. Click To Tweet

Our perfection is an eschatological reality. One day we will stand in the fullness of God’s presence, completely perfected in the likeness of Christ. We consider our trials joy, not because of the pain we experience, but because of the way God is using them to perfect our faith so that we can lay hold of the inheritance of eternal life.

We should always grieve the presence of sin and brokenness. But we should also always rejoice that we belong to a God who is making all things new! Our afflictions are not more powerful than our God. Suffering doesn’t have the final word. In God’s kindness and sovereignty, he has ordained a way for us to become more like Christ.

What joy that we belong to a God powerful enough to make us like Jesus, even in the pain of this life. As you experience hardship, turn your gaze toward heaven. Ask God to give you eyes that see his redemptive work in your life. Rejoice that the sufferings of this life are the closest to hell you will ever come. May your trials today be marked by the joy of being perfected in Christ.

Kent Bass
Written by: Kent Bass on March 9, 2022

Kent Bass serves as the pastor for counseling and member care at Imago Dei Church in Raleigh, North Carolina. He has an MA in biblical counseling from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. In addition to providing counseling care to the members of Imago Dei, Kent also works to help equip and care for church planters and missionaries sent out by IDC. Kent lives in Wake Forest, North Carolina, with his wife, Hope, and their four children. You can follow him on Instagram @kentdbass.