In this verse, James provides the first rationale for his command in verse two. Believers are to “consider it all joy” when they fall into various trials because they know (ginōskontes hoti) something: that the trial of their faith produces endurance. James assumes this knowledge on the part of his listeners, as though it constitutes a common stock of knowledge generally available. The word James uses to refer to the testing (to dokimion) of their faith is rare in the Greek, appearing elsewhere only in Psalm 12:6, Proverbs 27:21 (Septuagint), and in 1 Peter 1:7. The Old Testament references provide useful imagery for understanding the nature of trials. As a furnace is used to refine and purify silver, so the tests faced by James’ hearers serve also to “refine” and “purify” them. The imagery of the furnace captures the unpleasant and potentially destructive force and nature of the testing, while the result of the process is seen as valuable and desirable and so as the grounds for rejoicing.
What is being tested is their faith. According to Vlachos, the trial is intended to refine and strengthen a faith that already exists rather than to test whether faith is present or not (18). This idea seems to align with Peter’s use of the same language in 1 Peter 1:6-7 where he speaks of the suffering believers’ faith being proved or shown to be genuine (dokimion). Indeed, many commentators suggest that the purpose of the test is the purification and maturity of the believer (e.g. McKnight, 69, and Moo, 61). In this view, God is the refiner who places his people into the furnace in order to remove the impurities from their lives and so present them as mature.
Nevertheless it is important here to distinguish between purpose and effect when interpreting these verses. It is at least possible that in James’ mind the purpose of the tests is to destroy the faith of God’s people. This is a quite common mindset in the New Testament, and sees the origin of the tests in the more sinister agency of Satan, the “accuser of the brethren” (Revelation 12:10), rather than in the more benevolent attentions of God. Perhaps more directly relevant to this passage is Paul’s concern in 1 Thessalonians 3:5 that “the tempter” (ho peirazōv) might have rendered his missionary labour amongst the Thessalonians vain by the persecutions they endured, or Jesus’ words to Peter in Luke 22:31-32: “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan has demanded to sift you like wheat; but I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail.” In both cases the blowtorch is applied to the believers’ faith with the intent of destroying it, and in both cases there is the theoretical possibility at least, that their faith might actually be lost. Other texts might also be adduced. Jesus warns that “Satan comes immediately” to take away the Word whenever it is sown (Mark 4:15; cf. 2 Corinthians 11:3). The pattern is seen in his own temptations following his experience of the Spirit at his baptism (Luke 4:1-13). The apostle Peter speaks of “your adversary the devil” who prowls around like a roaring lion seeking those whom he may devour. Nor are Peter’s readers unique in this respect: all believers are subject to this common suffering and must likewise stand firm in faith, resisting the devil (1 Peter 5:8-9; cf. James 4:7-8). The classic texts of Ephesians 6:10-18 and Revelation 12:7-17 situate these tests within the broader drama of cosmic spiritual warfare and an apocalyptic worldview.
To read James according to this view is to think of the tests as a threat to faith. As such, they do not have a divinely intended purpose, nor are they “sent by God to teach us or perfect us” as is commonly said in Christian circles. Rather, as specific tactics in an ongoing war against the people of God, they intend not to build or develop faith but to destroy it. Their purpose is not to teach us but to tempt us, not to lead the believer towards maturation but capitulation, so that they lose faith in God and let go of the hope that faith inspires.
It may be that many modern readers react against the apocalyptic character of this worldview and prefer to understand sin and evil in more human or institutional terms, rather than in terms of an evil spiritual personality. In fact, it is possible that James’ central point is retained, even if the apocalyptic background is stripped from the passage. It is possible that the trials arise as an aspect of the church’s location “between the times,” in this period in which the kingdom of God has found entry into the world and is growing in the world but is not yet fully realised in the world. The way of the kingdom is antithetical to the way of the world and results in pressure being brought to bear upon the lives of those who choose this new way. It may be that the tests arise simply as part of the conditions of life, the normal pressures and stresses of existence which challenge the idea of God’s existence or God’s care. The very real afflictions, pressure and suffering experienced by Christians may cause them to despair of God’s goodness or power or both.
James notes that the testing of their faith produces endurance (katergazetai hypomonē). Katergazetai simply means “to produce,” although the erg-root in the verb is related to “work” and so anticipates ergon (“work”) in verse four. The verb is in the present tense, indicating a process or progression culminating in endurance. Hypomonē literally has the sense of “remaining under,” and so bearing up in the midst of difficult or challenging circumstances. It refers not to passive acceptance or resignation in the face of these circumstances, but is an active, strong and positive resistance of them. Hypomonē, therefore, characterises those who hold themselves steady in the midst of pressure. In the early Christian community it was a trait highly valued, for only those who had it would truly endure to the end (cf. Matthew 10:22; 24:13). It is used in the epistles, and especially in the book of Revelation, to encourage the embattled church to stand firm, even to the point of death. It is often paired with faith, the two virtues working together to ensure the believer inherits the eschatological promise (e.g. Hebrews 10:35-36 (cf. 6:12); Revelation 13:10).
James is obviously confident that his listeners’ trials are in fact producing endurance, but is it necessarily so? Assuming the interpretation of the verse given above, this outcome is not fait accompli, but in fact dependent upon the believer’s response to their trials. This helps explain James’ appeal in these verses: it is as they live in accordance with what they know, as they count it all joy in the midst of their trials, that the testing of their faith produces endurance. In verses 2-3, then, James calls on the church to rejoice in the midst of their suffering, knowing that their trials will produce this highly valued virtue. The trial which is intended to destroy their faith will in fact strengthen and confirm it if they will stand fast. Indeed, by standing fast in the midst of the trial, more endurance will develop, and they will grow stronger and have more capacity for steadfastness in future trials.