Understanding Our Trials

James 1:2-18 (part 1)

 

Introduction

When it comes to our salvation, the means by which a person comes to have sins forgiven and inherit eternal life is identical in all ages and for all believers. The living out of that experience, however, can vary widely from person to person, place to place, and even generation to generation. I am referring to that which is not necessarily standard for all Christians and that is the path that God has ordained for His people.

 

We are all born again in the same manner, yet as our lives progress, we have experiences that God has ordained particularly for us. I’m thinking of the trials that every believer must face in life. We all come to the gospel in the same way, as I mentioned, but we do not all have the same record when it comes to our ongoing sanctification.

 

James is not so much concerned about how a person is born again as he is with how they live the life that God provides in Christ. Among the many edifying topics in this book is that of trials, by which I mean the episodes that our Heavenly Father appoints for us for our own particular good as one of His children and for His ultimate glory as we persevere by grace. This is the first major topic addressed by James as this letter begins.

 

This letter is addressed to Jewish believers who, due to persecution, were scattered throughout the Roman Empire and who were, in some cases, facing severe trials. James’ use of the phrase “to the twelve tribes” indicates his audience. He is writing to Jews who had believed in Jesus as their Messiah.

 

In vv. 2-18 of the first chapter, James talks about trials. He explains the design of our trials and writes about the purpose behind them. James also distinguishes between trials that God ordains for us and the temptations to sin that arise from within us.

 

  1. The Design of Our Trials (vv. 2-4)

2 Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, 3 knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. 4 And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.

 

How many times have you heard someone question God, even God’s existence, when passing through some difficult circumstance? People who know very little of Scripture often jump to the conclusion that they are being treated unfairly and that must be evidence that there is no benevolent God. For reasons that are grounded in our twisted and sin-corrupted fallen natures, we assume, when we are ignorant of the Bible, that, if there is a God, He would not allow such things to happen to “good” people.

 

It is true that the majority of these kinds of reactions come from people who know nothing about the gospel and, therefore, nothing about the nature of God, His purposes, or His ways. But then there is another category of people who sometimes face extremely challenging circumstances. I am referring to those who are born again, who love God and are attempting to live in an honorable fashion. How should those who are assured that they are God’s children react when they face persecution or hardship?

 

This is not a sermon on God’s sovereign rule over His creation, but we need to be reminded once in a while just what sovereignty means. If God is sovereign over all things, then He is, of course, sovereign over the little things. James is not speaking of how God raises up or puts down world leaders and entire nations; James is concerned with something much smaller in scope—and that is the course of your life.

 

Let me provide you with a simple formula: According to the teaching of Scripture, God oversees everything, including the events of our daily lives. And if God oversees all things, then all things must be serving His perfect purposes. And if all things are serving His perfect purposes, then trials must also be interpreted in that light.

 

Many Christians, nevertheless, when preparing to write about the trials of this life, would not begin by saying: “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials”! By definition, trials are not pleasant experiences. Trials are times when we are pressed, times when we are strained and forced to endure extraordinary circumstances, times when we have no direct control, times when the thought of facing the next few hours or days frightens us.

 

Trials can cause us to fear, doubt, cry, worry, and lose sleep. Trials interrupt the normal routine of life and disrupt families; trials can shatter our confidence and disturb our comfort. Trials hurt; they can be emotionally costly. They can cause everything else in life to come to a grinding halt. Yet this man declares: “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials!

 

James, of course, was well acquainted with trials. As a leader in the early Church, he faced much opposition and was eventually executed, perhaps by stoning, according to various sources. Therefore, whatever we conclude about James, we cannot assume he was out of touch with reality. We must conclude, I believe, that James had a different perspective on trials, not a denial of the reality of trials and difficulties, but a viewpoint informed by a source other than his own heart.

 

Remember that James is writing to people who are presently dispersed in strange places, presently suffering far from their homes. How do you tell them to rejoice even though you know they are in miserable, dangerous, and frightening circumstances? Was it realistic for James to expect these particular Christians to maintain a joyful countenance when they were being persecuted and when they were seeing friends and loved ones abused, and when they knew that returning home was an impossibility?

 

What is joyful about that? What, in that description, is cause for gladness? How can such counsel be given to people whose entire existence has been turned upside down and the cause is directly traceable to their relationship with Jesus Christ? When I think of some contemporary Christian leaders who preach a gospel of prosperity and freedom from worry, I must assume that they have either never read what the Bible says about the course of life to be expected by a Christian or they simply choose to teach something else in order to gain some personal advantage.

 

You cannot stand before people and declare to them that God only wants them to be content and happy and free from burdens and still maintain that you are a preacher of the Word. This kind of heretical instruction brings untold misery into the lives of people who, after trying diligently to follow the preacher’s instructions regarding how to gain happiness in this life, still face trials and still get sick and still lose people they love and still suffer in various ways. They are left to conclude that they simply do not have a faith that is strong enough to believe in what God really wants for them.

 

James had an understanding of the nature of trials. He knew the purpose of trials, for example. Notice what follows that first exhortation: “knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance.” (v. 3) Here is one of the keys to understanding our trials. When we know the design of our trials, we can also begin to comprehend why James speaks as he does.

 

The word translated “endurance” (hupomone) refers to a basic attitude or frame of mind, one which could be described as “patience” or “steadfastness.” In this case, James means having patience through or during a trial; the translation “endurance,” therefore, is good. Remember that James is writing to people in seriously threatening situations; yet, he tells them to be joyful and he tells them how they can be joyful: “know that your trial—the testing of your faith—has a design and the design is your endurance or perseverance in the faith.”

 

Let’s think about what James has just said for a moment. When you find yourself in the midst of some trial and it is causing you anxiety or some uneasiness, knowing that the circumstances have been designed to bring about your growth in holiness does establish a perspective for you from which to analyze, not only what you are experiencing, but also your reaction to it.

 

And, if I may, I want to emphasize that this issue of our reaction to trials is of paramount importance. If God sends trials to further our maturity in Christ, then that truth makes our attitude and our conduct during trials most significant. The perspective James gives is essential to our reaction to trials. What James provides helps us have peace of mind during our testing.

 

James teaches us that trials are not designed to destroy us, but to strengthen us. Trials are not given by God to see if He can make us fall, but are sent by God to train us to stand strong. The trials God appoints for us are training so that we become more like our Savior and leave more and more behind of our old self. Knowing that trials actually purify faith, James adds: “Let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” (v. 4) Trials will, in time, James assures us, make us “perfect and complete” so that we are “lacking in nothing.”

 

The idea behind those two words, “perfect and complete,” is that of a process coming to an end after it has accomplished what it was designed to accomplish. Trials come to us periodically to advance our maturity with the goal of a whole and fully developed faith at some point in the future. Considered in this light, trials are more than helpful, they are necessary. It is only through trials that this maturing process can take place.

 

The most severe trials that I have faced as a Christian have consistently left me with a greater apprehension of the faith, a greater understanding of and appreciation for God, and an improved ability to live before Him honorably. Think of one of those severe times of testing you’ve endured. Would you not say that, in the end, it was a positive influence in your faith? Would you not say that, as a result of that trial, you are more mature in Christ and better able to discern God’s leading? Some of you, I know, can look back and now realize that the tears and the anxiety and the uncertainty that you experienced in a trial actually served to produce growth in you that otherwise may never have occurred.

 

If we put together all the information that James supplies, then we can return to that first statement and understand how and why he says: “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials.” The testing of our faith is necessary, beneficial, and completely desirable—if we truly want to advance in Christ. We are imperfect people living in this world. If we are to grow, then we must face that which causes maturity and, knowing the outcome, we can experience a sense of security and purpose even as we pass through a challenging episode.

 

I’ll close by pointing out that James refers to “various trials,” by which he means whatever kind of trial we happen to face. They can be met with joy if we keep in mind what James has declared. And, to be clear, the “joy” spoken of in this passage is not a superficial happiness that we try to manufacture from our own resources, but is a holy contentment, a divine peace that accompanies us through the valley. And that joy is grounded in the gospel and God’s intention to shape you into the image of His dear Son, the one who gave himself for us on the cross. Trials, as explained by James, therefore, are natural components of the gospel experience.

 

END OF PART 1

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