Count it All Joy: Trial, Temptation, and the Coronavirus Pandemic

Sermon preached on James 1:2-4 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Online Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 03/22/2020.

Sermon Manuscript

With the coronavirus pandemic and now the shelter in place orders, these are strange times. Such times can bring a swell of different emotions and reactions. This can range from fear and anxiety and panic to anger and frustration. Probably an uncommon reaction would be joy. Yet, it’s such joy that our passage commends to us today to consider in the midst of varying circumstances. To be more specific, it calls us to considering finding joy in the midst of various trying circumstances.

Let’s begin then today in our first point by considering the kinds of trials that are in view here. Look with me at verse 2. It says, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds.” The Greek word for “trials” here carries a wider range of meaning than the English word “trials”. It is also sometimes translated as “temptation”. I would prefer if translations translated it like that, as “trials and temptations” instead of simply one or another. In English, the word “trial” can refer to something that tests the character of something else. Whereas in English, the word “temptation” can refer to something that tries to lure someone into sin. Both “trial” and “temptation” are in view in verse 2 which is why James says he is referring to “various” trials. He’s invoking the whole wide range of usage for this word of trial and temptation. That’s why he can go on to speak about how these will test our faith in verse 3. And its why in verses 13-14 he can then also talk about temptation to sin, using the verb form of this same Greek word.

In the context of the epistle of James, we are given the example of Job to illustrate this. At the end of this epistle, in James 5:11, Job is mentioned as a way to return to this theme of trials and temptation. Job was tempted and tried by many hardships that Satan was allowed to afflict upon him. Job lost his financial prosperity, his children, and his health. Job’s life became one trial and temptation after another!

My point is that our passage today is getting us to think of a wide set of circumstances that might try or tempt a Christian. Sometimes verses in the Bible that deal with Christian trials deal specifically with Christian persecution – persecution that comes to a Christian from the world because of our faith. While this passage would include that, it also includes much more. Anything and everything that a Christian faces in life that either is a trial of faith or a temptation to live contrary to our faith is being addressed here.

Brothers and sisters, we are in trying and tempting times. Bear with me as I state some of the obvious aspects of our current trials and temptations because stating them can help us to begin to process them in the way this passage is calling us to process them. These trials and temptations include the coronavirus itself in terms of the health risk and threat it poses. That threat very possibly will go from just a theoretical threat to an actual health trial that either yourself or someone you personally know is undergoing. It may be a member or members in our church. It may be family members or friends. The threat of the coronavirus is a trial to our faith and we should consider in what ways it tempts us toward sin. That will only increase if you or a loved one contracts the disease.

These trials and temptations also include the economic impact of our current situation. The stock market has experienced a major crash and that can have real immediate financial effects, especially for people relying on their investments during retirement. There are people out of work whose jobs are not deemed “essential” but can’t be done remotely from home and therefore they stopped receiving their normal paycheck. The economic impact is also a trial to our faith and we should consider in what ways it tempts us toward sin.

These trials and temptations also include now the shelter in place mandate by the government. This inherently curtails personal freedom. It comes with that the challenge of isolation, that can be especially difficult for those living alone. It changes plans. Events have been postponed. Vacations are being canceled. Even how we do our church ministry and conduct worship is being greatly affected. The impact of sheltering in place is also a trial to our faith and we should consider in what ways it tempts us toward sin.

So then, having stated some of the primary trials and temptations currently at hand, let’s now turn in our second point to consider how all this tests our faith according to verse 3. That’s the language of verse 3 – that these trials and temptations test our faith. This word “testing” in the Greek refers to how something is proven to be genuine. These trials and temptations test to see if our faith is genuine or not. Some people, when faced with the trials of life, might turn away from God never to return. Others, by the grace of God, in the midst of the most extreme trials, have remained steadfast in their Christian faith. Verse 3 describes these trials of life that test the genuineness of our faith. Of course, such faith comes as a gift from God and so we rightly praise him when our faith is proved in these ways.

But let me add another component to this. Part of the testing of someone’s faith is in terms of the fruit of that faith. This is a major theme in the book of James, that true faith is demonstrated in how it is lived out. This is the background for next chapter’s idea that faith without works is a dead or counterfeit faith. So then, the way trials and temptations test our faith is not only in whether we will continue to claim a profession of faith during those circumstances. But the test includes how our faith lives itself out under the pressure of trials and temptations.

True, we won’t respond perfectly in this life to each trial and temptation. That’s even part of our how faith is grown through this testing. Part of the sense of this Greek word here for “testing” includes a proving in the form of a refiner’s fire. As our faith is tested, impurities are being refined away so that what comes out of it is a more proved, more genuine, more pure form of faith. And so, the struggles we have when our faith is tested is part of how trial and temptation can demonstrate our faith – a faith that is being refined through the process.

And so then, let’s get specific then for our circumstances. Let’s think through different specific ways our faith is being tested right now through the current trials and temptations that are before us. One way our faith is tested is in the temptation to succumb to fear at this time. I say “succumb” to fear, because fear in itself is not sinful. In fact, a right use of fear is a very important God-given gift. Its use can help us avoid danger and take prudent precautions. In fact, there is surely a lot of good use of fear that we should be employing right now. But we also know there is a wrong use of fear. Fear that allows anxiety to rule our hearts or mindless panic to govern our lives is wrong. Fear that derails our trust in the LORD is wrong. As this test of faith comes, may we remember the words of Philippians 4:6-7 that call us to bring out anxieties and worries to God in prayer, seeking that peace from God that surpasses all understanding.

Another way our faith is tested at this time is in the temptation to sinful anger. Like fear, anger is not inherently sinful. Surely Paul was right to be angry when he saw all the idols in Athens in Acts 17:16, for example. Likewise, we all know that the circumstances we are in right now can be very frustrating. They can incline us to grumbling and complaining. But let us remember the words of Ephesians 4:26 that say to us, “Be angry and yet do not sin.” That means when we find ourselves upset about the things going on right now, we must first ask if we should be angry about the specific thing we are upset about. And if so, then we must look to channel that anger into righteous responses. And if we aren’t to be angry, we must prayerfully look to put off that anger and replace it with godly thinking.

Another way our faith is tested at this time is in the temptation to dishonor or disobey the civil government. Passages like Romans 13:1-7 call us to honor and submit in the LORD to the governing authorities. Some Christians greatly applaud the government’s response to the coronavirus, some greatly disagree with it, and others are somewhere in between. It’s not really a test of our faith when we submit to the government when we agree with their decisions. But it is certainly a test of our faith when we honor and submit when we disagree. That test has been very real for Christians when the shelter in place order has the ramification that we can’t assemble in person for corporate worship – we are living in rather unprecedented circumstances! But if there is any disagreement with government decisions, let’s make sure we are finding righteous venues for expressing those concerns or for seeking change. Thankfully, the government of our land does have various ways to participate in government compared to many other times and places.

Related to this, another way our faith is currently being tested is regarding charity toward our fellow saints among differences of conscience. What I am referring to is that some Christians strongly hold that the current coronavirus response and precautions being taken are prudent and appropriate. There are other Christians who believe they are an over-reaction and even destructive. There are others who hold various views in between. Let us remember to have charity with one another. It is one thing to have charitable discussion, debate, and disagreement. But it is another thing to sin against each other by things such as harsh language, impugning motives, or belittling comments. Satan would love to use this opportunity to divide the church when this is a time more than ever that we need to be coming together as a church. Now more than ever we need to excel in our love for one another that God commands for his people. On a similar note, I’d humbly ask if you don’t agree with some aspect of how our church leadership has responded in all this, I’d ask for a lot of grace. None of us have ever had to lead a church through such times and I’m sure we’ll learn a lot through the process!

Another way our faith will be tested during this time is with regard to having love for our neighbor. Now I’m not referring to just how we love our fellow Christians. I’m referring to how we love anyone and everyone around us who is in need because of everything going on. Time will tell how we can best help. Maybe for now it’s little things like going out of your way to find a way to support a small business struggling to survive amidst the current business constraints. Maybe it’s the elderly neighbor down the road who’s sheltered in place and home alone who would love a phone call from you. Maybe it’s a neighbor with some financial needs and you are able to help out. Remember that Jesus said the second greatest commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself.

Another way our faith will be tested during this time is regarding your commitment to Christian fellowship and worship and ministry. During this time, creativity will be needed to continue living out the Great Commission. Yes, we are providentially hindered from physically gathering for a time. But that must not mean that our ministry as a church should be on hiatus until the shelter in place order is lifted, nor should our Christian faith go on hold until then. The Lord’s Day is still a day to be observed as holy unto the Lord. Certainly, our private exercises of worship must continue. Heads of households, if you haven’t already been doing so, now is the time to begin doing what you should have already been doing — lead your family in family worship. You are still a disciple of Christ and discipleship is still needed. The fellowship of the saints still needs to find ways to be expressed as a congregation. Your spiritual gifts by which you edify and nurture fellow church members are still needed to be used – and you still need the spiritual gifts of others to nurture and edify you.

Will you remain committed to faithful participation in the body of Christ and in this local church family in whatever ways you can? Will you remain committed to discipleship and ministry in general? I commend to you the example of Paul’s prison epistles. It’s generally believed that Paul wrote Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon when he was in prison. He was obviously providentially hindered from normal Christian fellowship and participating in the normal corporate worship of the church. But he didn’t take a hiatus from church ministry. Rather, his ministry adapted, and we have some of the most edifying treasures of Scripture as a fruit of his ministry during that time.

So too, our church leadership has put into place some ways for us to continue ministry as a church during this season. Hopefully, these temporary measures will only be for a few weeks. It may be for a couple months. Please do what you can to make use of them. One thing that we especially encourage is for you to make use of the weekly Lord’s Day fellowship assignments. We will be posting new assignments for each communicant member each week. If you are not a communicant member but want to get on the rotation, let me know. The hope is that you contact the person in the afternoon on the Lord’s Day. Ask them how they’ve been doing during this shelter in place. Ask them how their faith is being tested and grown during this time. Swap prayer requests. Be praying for each other.

Those then are some examples of how our faith can be tested during the trials and temptations of this unique season that we are in. Let’s turn now to our third and final point which is to bring it back to the call of verse 1. “Count it all joy”. We are to count these trials and temptations that we are going through right now as not only joy but “all joy”. That’s a struggle. But notice that it says “count” it all joy. The word “count” could also be translated as “consider” or “reckon” or even “impute”. The idea is that these trials and tribulations are not joyful in themselves. No, they are great challenges. But we are called to mentally assign joy to these difficult circumstances.

Why? Well, especially because as the text says that they are opportunities to grow our faith in steadfastness. As our faith is tested and proven through such circumstances, the impurities are getting refined away and our faith is grown. A fruit of this is a perseverance and steadfastness that we wouldn’t have had apart from these challenges.

Let us then find a joy in these strange and difficult times. Let us see the opportunity here. I actually think there can be ways our faith and our fellowship will grow through this that it wouldn’t have otherwise.

And as we conclude then with this point of a growing faith, be reminded who are faith is in and why we should value having such a steadfast faith. Well, the person our faith is in is Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. And his help for us continues even beyond what he did at the cross to die in our place for our many sins. But his help also continues for us in that while he is not with us physically for now, he is the one who has suffered in all the sorts of ways we have been, and has been tempted in all the sorts of ways we have been tempted – yet without sin. This Jesus then is seated at God’s right-hand interceding for us. Continue to bring your prayers to him and look to him to grow your faith in steadfastness through these trials and tribulations.

Well the value of having such a steadfast faith is said just a few verses after our passage for today. James 1:12, “Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.” This is the goal for our faith. It’s our sure hope as those who trust in Christ. Let us find joy in today’s trials and tribulations as they prepare us for such a glory. May even now, in our trials, seek to live the life that we will live with Christ for all eternity. Amen.

Copyright © 2020 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.