Here’s a passage of Scripture that used to really bother me:
“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” (James 1:2-4 NIV)
Consider it pure joy to face trials? Was James on drugs?! Did he get some weird kick out of pain and suffering? Come on, surely God does not expect us to delight in our suffering?
Yet this is Scripture – I can’t dismiss it because I don’t like it! I took a closer look… what did James know that I didn’t?
The answer came as I worked through the rest of the text. Our joy is not in the trial. Our joy is in what we know will follow the trial! James had faced major persecution for his faith. I’m sure he didn’t enjoy that. But when he looked back, he noticed something. Those trials had brought about changes within him… Good changes! He was more mature. He was a better disciple of Jesus and a better leader of the church.
What happened? He tells us:
– his faith was proven to be genuine, and
– he grew in maturity.
Let me explain:
1. Trials test – and prove – our faith. (“…testing of your faith…”)
Persecutors wanted James to renounce his faith in Jesus and stop his ministry. If he did so, the persecution would have stopped. He had to make a choice. He had to answer some big questions. Is this worth it? Do I really believe this? Is this worth suffering for? Is this worth dying for? James had to make up his mind. His faith was tested – and proven true.
It’s easy to declare faith in Jesus when it’s popular – like in a church gathering. It’s easy to declare faith in Jesus when life is going your way. It’s not so easy when our faith is unpopular – like in some hostile workplaces or some families. Suddenly it’s easier to be silent! It’s also not so easy when horrible things happen that make no sense to us. Why did God allow that? Do we still trust him?
To me, the most graphic portrayal in the Bible of faith being tested is Job. Listen to how Satan challenged Job’s faith:
“Does Job fear God for nothing? … Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has? You have blessed the work of his hands, so that his flocks and herds are spread throughout the land. But now stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face.” (Job 1:9-11 NIV)
The devil was partly right. Job had good reason to put his faith in God – God’s blessings were wonderfully evident in his life! The question was, would he still trust God if blessing was replaced with suffering? God allowed Job to face enormous suffering – his faith was surely tested to its core! And his faith was proved to be genuine.
Trials test our faith. It is easy to be “full of faith” in the good times – but when bad times come, we find out how full of faith we really are! The hard truth is, we only know how real our faith is when it has been tested.
We don’t like being tested, but when our faith is proved genuine, God is glorified! Peter put it this way:
“…for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith – of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire – may result in praise, glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed.” (1 Peter 1:6-7 NIV)
Trials test and prove our faith. That glorifies Jesus!
2. Trials make us stronger. (“Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”)
Trials take our faith to the gym! Do you want to be strong in your faith? Do you want to be mature and complete? Then you will have to exercise your “faith-muscles”!
The appealing form of “faith-gym” is stepping out in faith beyond our “comfort zone” – like going on an outreach, or praying for the sick in hospital. But there is a less glamorous – yet extremely effective – exercise routine that God can put us through – trials.
Trials are “boot camp” for faith. Trials are like a sports coach – they push players beyond themselves, ignoring protests that “I can’t do any more!” That kind of training is not enjoyable – it makes us sweat and strain. But this kind of training makes us stronger and tougher.
Trials give us two options – give up or persevere. When we persevere, we exercise our faith. Are we happy with the trials? No! Do we hope they will end soon? Yes! But persevering though times of trial strengthens and matures us.
Here are some ways that trials mature and complete us:
1. Trials mature our faith
We learn to trust God because we know who he is, not because of what he is or isn’t doing. He is great… he is good… he loves us – so much that he gave Jesus to die for us so that he could adopt us as his own children. This is true whether things are going our way or not.
2. Trials mature our theology (our view of God)
We have to wrestle with big questions like “why did God allow this?” and “why does a good God permit these things?” Our theology develops room for the mysteries of God’s ways.
3. Trials mature our character
Our faith is no longer “weather dependent”! Our moods no longer go up and down with our circumstances. We become able to persist through hardship and opposition. We also become humbler and gentler. When we’ve struggled, faced our weaknesses and fears, and “come to the end of ourselves”, we learn humility!
4. Trials mature our “ministry”
Our trials make us better “ministers”. We become kinder, gentler and more understanding to others who are struggling. We become better listeners, better counsellors and deeper thinkers.
In the end, James says, we become mature and complete. That’s a magnificent outcome! Who doesn’t want to be mature and complete?! And that’s why James says we can consider our trials joy! The trial itself does not bring joy; anticipation of maturity and completion does!
As a young believer, I was taught that faith could be exercised to take us out of our trials. But James and Peter teach us that faith must take us through our trials. Faith is proven IN our trials.
So how should we exercise our faith in times of trial?
1. Don’t panic! Don’t have a faith crisis!
Listen to Peter’s encouragement in 1 Peter 4:12 NIV:
“Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.”
Peter teaches us that trials – even “fiery ordeals” – should not surprise us. We should not think it “strange” or “out of order”. This may challenge your thinking! Some of us believe that God will shield us from suffering, but Peter says fiery ordeals are “normal”!
We need to guard our minds when trials come. The devil may level all manner of accusations – at you and at God. Like: “You have sinned greatly so God is punishing you severely.” “You have disqualified yourself.” “You are now broken and finished.” “God has written you off”. “Everything is out of control.” When these accusations fly, we need to remember what the Bible has taught us. Fiery ordeals are not abnormal. They can happen to the most devoted disciples of Christ.
I don’t want to prophesy “fiery ordeals” over anyone – but I do believe we need to take a good look at the Scriptures and embrace the possibility. That way, if we do experience fiery trials, we won’t have a crisis of faith.
2. Don’t run away or bale out! Embrace the trial!
I don’t like problems. In my thinking, if there is a problem, you must fix it! If there is danger, you must avoid it! So when trials come, my reflex is to do all I can to end it as soon as possible. It is tempting to run away or back off at the first sign of trouble or persecution. But James teaches us to embrace the trial. He also urges us to stay the course of the time of testing: “Let perseverance finish its work…” If we bale out, then the work remains unfinished. We must allow God to do all that he wants to do in us as we persevere through the trial. We need to hang in… to hang on to God and to godly people who will hold us up in prayer. If we do, God will do all that he wants to do in us and bring us through the time of testing matured and completed!
3. Look past / look over the trial to what God is going to achieve.
It is easy to get bleak during times of testing – especially when they go on for a long time. The “situation on the ground” is very real and very pressing. We can get tired, even disillusioned. So we need to keep things in focus – to see the “big picture”. When perseverance has finished its work, we will be mature and complete. When our faith has been proven genuine, Jesus will be glorified. All trials – even the really long ones – will eventually come to an end, and we will reap a reward. When our trials feel overwhelming we need to step back and look beyond the trial. This will come to an end. Perseverance will finish its work. Jesus will be glorified. We will reap a reward. These perspectives will give us courage.
The greatest example of this perspective is Jesus:
“…let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, FIXING OUR EYES ON JESUS, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. FOR THE JOY THAT WAS SET BEFORE HIM he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” (Hebrews 12:1-3 NIV)
Jesus agonised through Gethsemane. He agonised through being falsely accused, flogged and crucified. What got him through all that? This text tells us that he endured it all because he knew “the joy that was set before him”. When we experience our trials, we need to look to Jesus and follow his example – look beyond the present, look over the trial to the future glory – this will power us through!
Let me end where we began – with James 1:2-4 NIV
“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”
Let’s lose our fear of trials! Even “fiery ordeals”! God is with us! He is good! He is our Heavenly Father! He will bring us through every trial… and as we exercise our faith and trust him through them, he will mature us and complete us.
We may even find ourselves quoting James as we rejoice in the work God has done in us!!