What Does James 1:2 Mean?

This article is part of the What Does It Mean? series.

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds. —James 1:2

Joy in Trials

The second word in the Greek text of verse 2, charan (“joy”), corresponds closely in sound to the last word of verse 1, chairein. Epistolary sections of James are often stitched together by similar-sounding words, pointing to the author’s skill in the Greek language. Some modern skeptics have protested that a Jewish man raised in Nazareth could never have attained such skill in Greek, but archaeological evidence (e.g., ossuary inscriptions) confirms the widespread use of Greek in first-century Palestine. We should also remember that James may well have employed an amanuensis (secretary), as Paul did (Rom. 16:22). James would have approved the final draft of a letter sent in his name, but it is possible that a secretary fluent in Greek may have helped in the translation or editing of this sermonic letter.

Continuing in humble fashion, James does not apply a heavy apostolic hand upon these scattered Christians. As a servant of the Lord (James 1:1), he addresses them as “my brothers.” An ESV footnote here rightly observes that the Greek word translated brothers (adelphoi) should be understood as referring to both men and women in the Christian community, as “brothers” is similarly understood in the church today. James contains the highest frequency of imperatives of any book in the NT, with the first command appearing in James 1:2: “Count it all joy . . .”

ESV Expository Commentary

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James calls on Christians to reckon any situation, however difficult, as an occasion of intense joy. The Greek word for “all” here serves as an intensifier of “joy.” In other words, not every element of suffering is joy. But, however severe one’s suffering, every trial is a time for intense joy.

This complete joy does not reside in the trials themselves but is concomitant with them—“when you meet trials of various kinds.” The occasion of the trial is a matter of rejoicing, because even in the darkest hour, God is still in control and his divine purposes will prevail. What others mean for evil, God will work for good (Gen. 50:20). All things will work together for the good of those who love the Lord and are called according to his purpose (Rom. 8:28).

Three Greek words, all beginning with “p” sounds, underlie the phrase translated “you meet trials of various kinds” ( peirasmois peripesēte poikilois; James 1:2), an alliterative pattern that again demonstrates the compositional skill of the author. Because James goes on to discuss all sorts of trials—from economic injustice (James 5:4) to physical sickness (James 5:14)—it is important to see the “trials of various kinds” here as referring to any difficulties Christians face in this fallen world. The Greek word for “trial” (peirasmos) can also mean “temptation,” and only the context indicates which nuance is intended. Some scholars have seen an intentional ambiguity throughout the letter—with James implying that trials (which God brings; James 2:20–23) confront the Christian at a moment of temptation (which can never be attributed to God, since he tempts no one to evil; James 1:13). Most English translators see the context of James 1:2 as sufficiently narrowing the semantic range of peirasmos to “trial” and translate accordingly.

However severe one’s suffering, every trial is a time for intense joy.

Trials can cause great anxiety in the hearts of believers, but this understandable restlessness can be calmed by the reassuring knowledge (“you know”; James 1:3) that God is using such trials to refine the Christian’s faith and produce “steadfastness”—endurance or stick-to-it-ness.1

In verse 4, we find the letter’s second imperative: “Let steadfastness have its full effect.” In other words, growth in Christian character (and, specifically here, growth in “steadfastness” or endurance) is a process in which the believer is called to submit to the Master’s sanctifying plan.

The purpose of divinely orchestrated character formation, James tells his readers, is that “you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:4). This exalted description seems eschatological in nature. That is, only in the ultimate glorified state could any Christian decisively be described as “perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” And yet, throughout the letter, James clearly intends his readers to heed his instructions and, as a result, see visible evidence of obedience in this earthly life (James 1:22, 27). Perhaps it is best to say that we experience a partial fulfillment of James’s purpose statement in this imperfect age. God does indeed mature us and make us “whole.” Yet the believer awaits the glorified state to enjoy complete and absolute perfection. Though changed and changing, Christians will continue to fight against sin. It is instructive that the prayer Jesus taught his disciples includes a request for divine forgiveness (Matt. 6:12). The justification of believers is secure before God’s throne on the basis of Jesus’ perfect life and atoning death (Rom. 8:30–39), but we continue to need God’s fatherly/relational forgiveness every day (1 John 1:9). The normal and healthy Christian life is one of regular repentance and faith (cf. thesis number 1 of Luther’s “Ninety-Five Theses”).


  1. Perhaps a decade ago, I somewhere read about “stick-to-it-ness” as a translation of hypomonē. I regret that I cannot locate the source.

This article is by Robert L. Plummer and is adapted from the ESV Expository Commentary: Hebrews–Revelation (Volume 12) edited by Iain M. Duguid, James M. Hamilton Jr., and Jay Sklar.

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