James 1:2 is one of several verses that circulates in the face of suffering, one that’s getting more airtime now as we respond to this pandemic.
“Count it all joy, brothers, when you face trials of various kinds.”
But we can easily misinterpret James’ words as a challenge to welcome every hardship with lighthearted optimism or silent acceptance. The way we cut this verse out and paste it onto life’s trials can defy what he intended for his readers.
This popular passage is centered on what suffering produces – steadfastness – a theme that forms the bookends of his letter. Rather than detaching the first few words from what he wrote, we must consider both the beginning and the end to fully understand his hope for suffering and steadfast Christians.
In chapter 1, he uses surprising words like “joy” and “blessed” in reference to trials; he speaks of people who are “lacking in nothing” and are not “tossed by the wind” (1:2-15). At first glance, James seems to encourage unshakable trust that happily endures difficult circumstances without question. But the end of the letter rejects this narrow interpretation. There, he mentions mistreated workers whose cries “have reached the ears of the Lord” (5:4), encourages sufferers to pray (5:13), and invites the sick to ask for healing (5:14). To top it off, he holds up Job as an example of steadfastness worth emulating (5:11). Job’s journey through calamity is not one of unwavering and stoic joy. His grief is unsettling and messy.
It might appear that the two ways James speaks about steadfastness contradict each other. How can he encourage joyful endurance while endorsing honest lament? But these two realities are not in opposition, they work in beautiful harmony together. While James 1:2 on its own lines up with Western positivity and triumph, we must not isolate it from the rest of the book. When we do, we’re not just separating words from words, we’re divorcing faith from reality.
Steadfastness requires that we carry both in the walk of faith: we stake our joy and hope in God’s eternal purposes while we wrestle honestly with present difficulty.