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The term trials used in this verse means a "test," and it is often translated "temptation" in other contexts. The trials in this case are the tests of faith that come from low-grade persecution from outside the church and from conflict within it. This is hardly a situation in which one would expect to have joy. How then can James argue that we should consider it "pure joy"? Is he some type of masochist? Is it necessary for Christians to deny pain and smile all the time? Our humanity cries out for an honest explanation of such questions, for to deny the reality of pain is a denial of our being human.
James 1:2-4 does not stand alone. It parallels similar sayings in Romans 5:3-5 ("we also rejoice in our sufferings") and 1 Peter 1:6-7, all of which are "chain sayings" that link together virtues, one leading to the next. The situation pictured in all three of these passages is that of persecution. James and 1 Peter picture the persecution as a test of faith, a trial or temptation (the two authors use the identical phrase). Romans simply calls it "suffering" or "affliction" or "tribulation" (the term, like all terms for suffering, indicates persecution or hardship endured because of the faith, not illness). We know something about the type of persecutions that Paul endured; James's community appears to be experiencing low-level economic persecution; Peter's readers have apparently been ostracized from their society and subjected to some violence (although not death). None of these are pleasant situations.
The call to rejoice, however, is not masochistic. Masochism is taking pleasure in pain. The masochist wants to experience pain because it is the pain that gives this person pleasure. In these passages, however, we are not to rejoice in the pain, but in the future reward beyond the pain. James believes we should rejoice because trials give us an opportunity to develop the virtue of perseverance, which will in turn lead to a mature Christian character. We rejoice like an athlete in a practice session. Ath- letes may run or lift weights to the point of pain, but all the time their eyes are set on the big race or game. They rejoice not in the enjoyment of the stress but in the knowledge that their muscles are growing stronger and therefore they will do better when it counts. James is probably dependent upon Jesus: "Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven" (Mt 5:11-12). Here we see why character is important: it will be rewarded in heaven. In other words, faithfulness under pressure today earns eternal reward tomorrow. This is seen in the life of Jesus, who "for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame" (Heb 12:2). This is how Christians are to live. As one writer puts it, James is talking about "eschatological anticipated joy." It is joy not in the present feelings but in the anticipation of praise when one finally stands face to face before Jesus. The joy of that day is tasted in part already in the painful present. Thus Paul and Silas sing in the Philippian jail, not because they enjoyed the beating (although it may have been one reason why they were awake) but because they knew their Lord would more than adequately reward their suffering (Acts 16:25). It is a privilege to suffer for Jesus (Acts 5:41).
This is not to say that we cannot call pain, pain. Paul makes it very clear that he could recognize pain, call it what it is, and experience it with the full depth of human anguish (1 Cor 4:9-13; 2 Cor 4:3-12; 11:23-29). He also left us the example of fleeing from persecution when it was appropriate (Acts 17:10, 13-14). Yet even in such situations he, with James, could look beyond them to "an eternal glory that far outweighs them all" (2 Cor 4:17). We may know less of James's life, but from the passion in his letter there is no reason to believe that on this point he would have disagreed with Paul. His is a real humanity and depth of feeling, but at the same time he looks beyond the present experience to a transcendent reward.
James, then, is no masochist, but he points to an important truth. Only those who are heavenly minded will suffer for their faith in the present. Those who do not have this anticipated joy invest themselves in the present and avoid disgrace and suffering for Christ, for it could cost them all they have invested themselves in. Those who do have James's perspective can be reckless in their obedience to Christ, for any price they may pay today will be paid back with interest by their Lord. And it is that smile of pleasure on his face when he greets them that they rejoice in, for they already see it dimly down the halls of time as the Spirit makes it real in their hearts.
J. J. Thomas, "Anfechtung und Vorfreude," Kerygma und Dogma 14 (1968): 183-206. I have translated the term eschatologische Vorfreude as "eschatological anticipated joy."