How do you respond to difficulties and suffering? Are your eyes on the “now” or on eternity? James encourages us in 1:12 to persevere with the right perspective and see how these times–however painful or overwhelming– are being used by God to shape and conform us to Christ.
Part 5 of a whole book study series called “True Faith: A Study Through James”
12 Blessed is a man who perseveres under trial; for once he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him.
It’s somewhat startling to consider a person “blessed” when they are suffering or in the midst of struggles. Maybe that’s because our ideas about what it means to be blessed are so varied. As we saw in the last study, mere material prosperity does not mean blessing, and neither do suffering or trials indicate that God has forgotten or turned His back on you.
The word for “blessed” here in the Greek is makarios, giving a sense that this man is happy or to be envied. But it is not being in the midst of a trial that makes the man blessed; it is his perseverance during that trial. It is the growing sense of God’s presence and strength in the middle of it. Further, it is his steady focus on the goal, the prize toward which he strives, which surpasses anything we will go through on this earth.
What does it mean to persevere under trial? Are we expected to just “grin and bear it,” “pull ourselves up by our bootstraps,” to merely “carry on” with a grim set of stoicism on our face and a (however forced) “praise the Lord!” on our lips?
The word persevere means “to endure,” but there is no sense of having to do it alone. It is bearing up and shouldering the burden, but not in your own strength. If anything, a trial is intended to bring you closer to God by showing you how you can’t go it alone. It can be difficult to draw close to Him during times of difficulty. I know my own tendency has often been to withdraw into a darkness and spiritual depression, only being aware of how much pain there is around me. Or I may simply default to thinking about how I can get out of this discomfort by my own means. But that’s not God’s intention for me.
We need to have a right response to and perspective about trials. And a key to doing that is right here in this verse: keeping our focus on the end game. I have heard arguments about being too heavenly minded to be any earthly good, but I have to say, I don’t think the majority of American Christians are in danger of that. More on that topic here.
You can experience this reality (and it is scriptural): the more you focus on Christ and the fact that at any moment you may enter eternity, the more compelled you will be to show Christ to the world during your time on this earth — and particularly during times of struggle. Because that’s what the world really wants to see: a believer who walks through the pressure in a different way than the world. Yes, the scripture and the gospel truth must be told. But the element of a person’s changed life because of that scripture and gospel is also a factor in proving to the world that this “Christianity stuff” is true.
Being Conformed to Christ
Another way we can persevere steadfastly in trial is to understand God’s purpose for us throughout these troubles. Paul writes in Romans:
And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope. [Rom. 5:3-4 NAS]
One reason for patient endurance then is understanding that God means to shape us and conform us more to Christ with what we are facing. James has already exhorted us in verse 2 of this chapter to consider it “pure joy” to undergo trials.
One thing we may be sure of… For the believer all pain has meaning; all adversity is profitable. There is no question that adversity is difficult. It usually takes us by surprise and seems to strike where we are most vulnerable. To us it often appears completely senseless and irrational, but to God none of it is either senseless or irrational. He has a purpose in every pain He brings or allows in our lives. We can be sure that in some way He intends it for our profit and His glory. – Jerry Bridges
We often think of trials as something to pray to get out of as fast as possible. We pray me-centered prayers of escape, desperate for deliverance, clamoring to emerge on the other side, back into our “normal” and comfortable lives. And there is in some sense a reason to pray in such a way that you throw yourself on God’s mercy and acknowledge, as David did in many of his psalms, that God is the only deliverer — whether that deliverance comes now or in eternity.
Hebrews 12:2 adds another aspect to what James is saying here:
fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. [Heb. 12:2 NAS]
Reflect on this and it may change your perspective on your suffering and trials. Christ had such an unwavering focus on his task and purpose that in spite of the utter humiliation of His incarnation, He endured death on the cross for our sins. The joy before Him was the gift of an elect bride, people given to Him by the Father. It is not simply that Christ endured much more than we ever will — of course that is true, but that is just part of it — it is that He never took His gaze off the Father or off the people He came to save. And here in Hebrews, we are exhorted never to take our eyes off of Him.
Why These Trials?
The word for trial and temptation is actually a shared usage (peirasmos) and depends heavily on the context for its meaning. According to biblehub.com, it is used in “the positive sense (“test”) and negative sense (“temptation”).” In verse 12, it is an overall description of struggles and suffering. In the following verses (we’ll get to that next time), James gets even more specific about the nature and source of trials, encompassing the idea of temptation and our response to that.
Trials in the immediate context of this verse gives the idea of testing being a good thing. That if we were not tested, we would not have opportunities to prove the reality of our confession of faith.
Testing also weeds out those with a false idea of what it means to confess Christ as Lord and Savior. It overturns the idea of “easy believism,” that a life of following Christ will be nothing but ease and comfort, that it requires nothing from you and that it costs nothing. There are those who have been incorrectly led to believe that by becoming a Christian, your life will suddenly be easy and you can live it however you like, merely because you prayed a prayer, walked an aisle, or the like.
Some people are under the impression that God’s doing this in some malicious way. Like He just enjoys seeing His creations writhe about in pain or suffering. As though He were a God who moves us about as pawns on His chessboard, poking needles in some and breaking others in half as He goes. But they lack understanding about who God is and how He works.
The writer to the Hebrews exhorts us in this way about how to view suffering:
Endure suffering as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? [Heb. 12:6 NAS]
From this we learn that just as parents discipline and give their children a right understanding of how to live and behave (for their good), so God also does this for those who are His (for their good). You may grow by reading books, praying, fellowship with others, but it is in the crucible of trials where your faith is most sharply and clearly shaped (related: Prov. 3:11-12; Rev. 3:19).
This reference to trial also isn’t just about one or two trials; it’s about a lifetime of them. Because we will not be approved and receive the crown of life until after this earthly life has finished. Be encouraged: even if you haven’t responded in the best of ways to the trial you are in or have just passed through, there’s a lesson God wants you to see in it anyway. For the next time.
Stamp of Approval
for once he has been approved,
Approved means you have emerged from the trial still holding to your faith, and thus proving the reality of your faith. Faith is most clearly proven and articulated by trials and suffering. It is all too easy to profess faith when the sun is shining, you have money in your bank account, and you are perfectly well in all areas of your life (health, family, work, etc.). However, relatively speaking, those moments are few and far between.
The reality of life in this world is that it’s laced with trial and suffering. It is a fallen world with fallen, sinful people in it, and storms are always around the corner. As Dumas wrote in his novel, The Count of Monte Cristo:
“Life is a storm, my young friend. You will bask in the sunlight one moment, be shattered on the rocks the next. What makes you a man is what you do when that storm comes.” – Alexandre Dumas
So the question is, will you respond in faith during your trial and will you walk through it and come out the other side in a worthy way?
Awaiting the Crown
he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him.
The “crown of life” that James writes about here is also called by different names throughout scripture:
In the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day; and not only to me, but also to all who have loved His appearing. [2 Tim. 4:8 NAS]
And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. [1 Pet. 5:4 NAS]
Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath [i.e., crown], but we an imperishable.
[1 Cor. 9:25 ESV]
Is this a literal crown you wear on your head? Probably not, though I will not come down dogmatically on it (I will say that in these usages, it is unlikely). Strong’s indicates that this usage speaks metaphorically of “the eternal blessedness which will be given as a prize to the genuine servants of God and Christ…the reward of righteousness.” It speaks of honor and glory. It also reminds us that we aren’t to look for reward in this life, but in eternity.
The Lord has promised. Let that sink in. Do you realize how powerful that is for your daily life? It is powerful because of who God is. He is trustworthy above all others. What God says will happen, will happen. He keeps His word. He never speaks what is not true.
to those who love Him. The word here agapao may be better translated “loving,” so in other words, to those loving Him, giving the sense of a moment by moment, ongoing choice to put Him first in their everyday thoughts, words, and actions. “When used of love to a master, God or Christ, the word involves the idea of affectionate reverence, prompt obedience, grateful recognition of benefits received.” (Strong’s)
Strength for the conflict and the reward of the victory come from the same hand, and are ours on the same conditions. – MacLaren’s Expositions
To Him be all the glory as He stays constant and faithful in all of your trials!