Question: "What does it mean to count it all joy (James 1:2)?"
Answer: In some English translations of the Bible, James 1:2 contains the clause count it all joy. It is the first command James gives in his epistle; to understand what he means by it, we must look at the full passage and surrounding verses: “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, ESV).
The word count is a financial term, and it means “to evaluate.” When James says to “count it all joy,” he encourages his readers to evaluate the way they look at trials. He calls believers to develop a new and improved attitude that considers trials from God’s perspective. James wants believers to know to expect “trials of various kinds” (James 1:2) in the Christian life. We should be prepared and not caught off guard when a sudden trial comes upon us. Trials are part of the Christian experience. Jesus told His disciples, “In this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33).
Typically, a trial is not an occasion for joy. James isn’t suggesting that we pursue trials or court hardship; neither are we to pretend that trials are enjoyable to endure. Trials are difficult and painful. But they exist for a purpose. Trials have the potential of producing something good in us, and, for this reason, they are an opportunity for expressing joy. Knowing there is a bigger picture, we can consider trials as things to rejoice in. Even though joy is contrary to our normal reaction, James urges us to work on changing our attitude toward troubles from dread to positive expectation, faith, trust, and even joy.
James does not merely say “count it joy,” but he says “count it all joy”; that is, we can consider trials and testings as pure, unalloyed, total joy. Too often, we see trials in a negative light, or we assume that joy cannot exist in hardship; worse, we consider the hard times as God’s curse upon us or His punishment for our sin, rather than what they really are—opportunities to joyfully mature into Christlikeness.
James 1:3 explains that God intends trials to test our faith and produce spiritual perseverance. Trials are like training challenges for an athlete. They build physical endurance and stamina. The athlete looks forward to physical and mental challenges because of the benefits that follow. If we were to walk through life on easy street and never face hardship, our Christian character would remain untested and underdeveloped. Trials develop our spiritual muscles, giving us the stamina and endurance to stay the course (Romans 5:2–5). We can count it all joy in trials because in them we learn to depend on God and trust Him. Faith that is tested becomes genuine faith, rugged faith, uncompromising faith: “In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed” (1 Peter 1:6–7).
God also uses trials to discipline us: “God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness” (Hebrews 12:10). Trials help to purge our spiritual shortcomings and mature our faith. They promote joy because they produce holiness in the life of steadfast believers.
James encourages Christians to embrace trials not for what they presently are, but for the outcome God will accomplish through them. James 1:12 promises, “Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.”
When Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers (Genesis 37:1–38), he could not see the beautiful, life-saving outcome that God would accomplish through his years of suffering and perseverance in Egypt. After his ordeal with Potiphar’s wife, Joseph spent long years forgotten in prison. Eventually, God’s plan came to fruition, and Joseph was raised up to the second most powerful position over Egypt. Through many trials and tests, Joseph learned to trust God. Not only did Joseph rescue his family and the nation of Israel from starvation, but he saved all of Egypt, too.
Joseph’s faith had been tested through trials, and perseverance finished its work. After coming through the trials victoriously, Joseph understood God’s good purpose in all he had endured. Joseph was able to see God’s sovereign hand in it all. Mature and complete, Joseph spoke these words of forgiveness to his brothers: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Genesis 50:19–20).
James 1:4 says a believer who perseveres through trials is made “perfect.” This does not mean he or she becomes sinless or without moral failings. Perfect speaks of maturity or spiritual development. Christians who face trials with a joyful outlook—trusting God to accomplish His good purpose—will develop into full spiritual maturity. They will be equipped with everything they need to overcome every trial they encounter. That’s certainly a good reason to rejoice.
To count it all joy when we face trials, we must evaluate the difficulties in life with eyes of faith and see them in light of God’s good purpose. The translation of James 1:2–4 by J.B. Phillips aids our understanding: “When all kinds of trials and temptations crowd into your lives my brothers, don’t resent them as intruders, but welcome them as friends! Realise that they come to test your faith and to produce in you the quality of endurance. But let the process go on until that endurance is fully developed, and you will find you have become men of mature character with the right sort of independence.”