What did James mean by writing - "count it all joy when you fall into various trials"? First of all, what's a trial? A trial is an affliction or difficulty that provides an outward opportunity to sin. Now, that's different than a temptation, which we'll talk about quite a bit in this chapter later. A temptation is an inward desire to sin. These two words are often closely related, but there is big difference between trials and temptations.
Allow me to illustrate. Let's say you're driving, and some reckless driver pulls out in front of you and causes a terrible accident. You are not injured, but your brand new car is totaled! At that moment, you are in the midst of a trial; you've been presented with an outward opportunity to sin. It could be that there is a great temptation inside you. Maybe you really want to get out of your car and curse at the driver or punch him in the face. Maybe you just want to sit in your car and swear under your breath. Now, whether or not you actually do any of those things depends upon how strong and mature you are spiritually. But, do you see the difference between the two terms? A trial is an affliction that provides an outward opportunity to sin, but a temptation is that inward desire to actually commit sin.
Now, does James really mean that we should rejoice when we're in the midst of difficult and trying situations? Always? Yes, that's exactly what he means! But how? How can a person find joy in such situations? "Stephen, if someone smashes my car up, I'm going to have a hard time praising God for the situation! I might not give in to temptation and commit sin, but I definitely won't be rejoicing!" But friends, shouldn't you be rejoicing? Shouldn't you rejoice that the Lord spared your life, and only your car was damaged? Shouldn't you rejoice in knowing that although you've been inconvenienced, something much more dreadful could have happened? After the fact, shouldn't you rejoice and thank the Lord for giving you the strength not to give in to the temptation to curse or assault the other driver? Further still, shouldn't you rejoice for the opportunity to let your light shine during such a trying situation?
We need to understand "that the testing of [our] faith produces patience" (1:3). You see, when an outward opportunity to sin approaches us, our faith is tested. That's right, your faith is tested when someone wrecks your car. Your faith is tested when you lose your job. Your faith is tested when a loved one dies. Sorrow, sickness, pain, and disappointment--these are all trials; they all present us with the opportunity to react improperly and commit sin by giving in to temptation. But, that is not what God wants us to do! He wants us to react properly and not give in to sin. He wants us to know that there is a purpose to trials, and the purpose is not to cause us to sin but to help us grow stronger--to help us produce patience (i.e., steadfastness, active endurance).
Essentially, God wants us to mature or grow up under the pressures of this life! God uses trials to test our faith, but even more significant is the fact that trials benefit us because they make us stronger--that is how we can find joy in them! The joy is not necessarily in the trial itself, but in the fact that enduring trials properly will make us stronger! As an athlete willingly accepts painful training with weights or long-distance running in order to increase his strength and endurance, so the Christian must accept trials as useful and necessary to increase his spiritual strength and faithfulness.
May we always remember that any trial we are presented with will either make us stronger if we endure it without sin, or it will make us weaker if we give in and quit. Each trial is a test of our faith; each trial is like a big stone that has been dropped in front of us. Are you going to trip over that stone and stumble, or are you going to use it as a stepping-stone to maturity?
One of the best New Testament examples of rejoicing in trials is seen in Paul and Silas. After they were severely beaten, thrown into prison, and put into stocks for preaching the gospel, they were found praying and singing to God at midnight (Acts 16:25)! They didn't moan or complain about the difficult situation they were in; they trusted God, rejoiced, and certainly grew stronger spiritually as a result. May we respond to our trials in like manner.