One of the most common experiences we share as humans is that of suffering, whether it be physical or mental pain, grief and loss, or difficult circumstances. It is one of the things that binds us together as people and one of the things that points to our deep need for a relationship with God through Christ.
In these first few verses of James (1:2-4), we’ll explore a little (certainly by no means all that is contained in the vastness of these few verses) of the thoughts behind being shaped by our trials.
Part 2 of a whole book study series called “True Faith: A Study Through James”
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.
The first topic on James’ mind as he begins his letter is trials, something we can all relate to because we all are going, have gone, or will go through them at various times in our lives.
It’s no accident that James chooses to emphasize the concept of joy with the diminutive word “all.” In Greek, the word (pás) used just before this noun places particular intensity on it — in fact, the highest degree of intensity. So what James is saying here is that we are to have the perspective on our trials of this being a blessing, a divine shaping — perhaps the best thing that could happen to us in an eternal sense. It’s a joy because the Lord loves us enough to shape us through these trials.
We so often look at suffering merely from a human standpoint, and perhaps rightly so as we are temporal in these bodies. And when we hurt, endure physical or mental pain, when we grieve or lose that which we believe to be important to us (be it person or possession), it can appear that God is not being loving.
Trials Are Necessary
I’m going to say a shocking thing to you: it may be the most loving thing God can do to bring you through this trial. I’m not saying you have to force yourself to enjoy the pain or somehow revel in the loss. That would be the opposite (and I believe, an incorrect) extreme. Yet our ideas of love often need some biblical revision as they can tend to veer toward the world’s idea of “love.” In the world’s eyes, to be truly loving God would keep us from suffering or evil of any kind. I argue that as believers, we can expect that suffering is the very thing God uses to lovingly shape and sanctify us.
Note that I would not consider it the best response to someone in hardship to immediately trot out Romans 8:28 or to say to someone who has just lost a loved one, “God’s got a purpose in it,” even though these are theological truths. This is where we are required to balance truth and grace, and to know when it is time to speak truth and when it is time to offer comfort.
The differentiating line here is what James describes as “knowing” the results the trials will bring, spiritually speaking. That is the perspective James exhorts us to: to know that in all things God providentially arranges, He has in mind His good purpose for your sanctification (ongoing, increasing conformity to the likeness of Christ).
So it is not because of the trials themselves that we are to have joy, but because of the effects they will have on our spiritual maturity. We are to rejoice that God our Father loves us enough to take the time and effort to shape us and bring us into a greater conformity with Jesus Christ His Son. In this way, we see God’s unchanging and relentless goodness.
And we will have trials. It is not a question of “if,” but “when.” Our Lord said it concisely:
These things I have spoken to you, so that in Me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world [John 16:33 NASB].
Some translations are even clearer, adding that you will have tribulation. It’s one of those promises we’re not so eager to see fulfilled. In the immediate context in which Christ spoke, he referred to the hostility and persecution that was imminent for His followers, but we can also see the reminders for us in general to seek the refuge, peace, and courage that can only be found in Him (related: Matt. 5:11-12).
Dreading the Tests
Generally speaking, I would say we’re not fond of testing. I remember in school always having a sense of anxiety or unease at the idea of an exam or quiz. I feared failure, whether or not I had prepared diligently for it. As we grow older, often our tests come in the form of difficult people, those individuals you cannot avoid interaction with on a daily basis. They come in the form of financial reversals, unexpected changes in our job situations. They come in the form of health stresses, the need to subject ourselves to and brace for the results of medical testing and diagnoses.
When James refers to “the testing of your faith” in verse 3, he uses the Greek word (dokímion), which indicates a test or trial for the express purpose of proving something out — in this case, proving the genuineness of faith. Peter also speaks of this in the midst of his opening doxology speaking about the believer’s eternal inheritance:
In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials, so that the proof of your faith, [being] more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ [1 Pet. 1:6-7 NASB].
That means we should not only not be surprised by trials, as I pointed out above in light of Christ’s statement, but we should strive to see what God is seeking to work into us through the trial. Better than asking, “God, why?” we can ask, “God, how and what? How can I respond in the way you want me to and what is it you want me to see here? Again, our eyes are not on the immediate but on the eternal.
As You Endure, You Mature
The idea is that we are being prepared here on earth for our life in eternity. And what we endure here, I believe, is intended to create in us a deeper longing to be in the eternal presence of God.
There’s a twofold purpose in trials: 1) they strengthen your faith so that it will endure to the end, and 2) they accomplish and are part (I’d argue a central part) of your sanctification. Paul speaks of God’s intent to follow through to the end in your sanctification in Philippians:
[For I am] confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus [Phil. 1:6 NASB].
Related Study: Joyful Prayer and Thanks
What does James mean when he refers to “the perfect result”? He is speaking here of our sanctification. This idea of perfection is seen — and illuminated by — many other scriptures. Here are just a few examples:
Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ [1 Thess. 5:23 NASB].
Therefore, beloved, since you look for these things, be diligent to be found by Him in peace, spotless and blameless [2 Pet. 3:14 NASB].
We know that we will not attain complete sanctification (or, perfection) in this earthly life. Yet God seeks to attain holiness in us during the journey and to attain it in progressive measure. Why? I asked myself this question many times as I prepared this passage. If I am already positionally justified in Christ, then why bother? Why not just take me out of here the moment after He makes Himself known to me?
I suppose I ask these questions because I so often wrestle with the fatigue and futility of this life (from a solely earthbound standpoint). I ask them also because I’m human and I don’t always respond to these trials with the best of attitudes.
I can’t claim to have short or simple answers to these questions within this post, or even an answer that satisfies our human way of thinking. However, I would suggest that if we strive to see that God does not do things the way we would (lest we make the error of bringing Him down to a human level). Before the foundations of the earth, He decided He would use flawed and fragile humans as a means to show other flawed and fragile humans who He is, what His character is like, and what real love can look like. And to be able to use those humans to interact and relate with others, I believe that we must endure this life.
Related Study Series: 2 Corinthians 1:3-11
Honestly it’s a much shorter journey than we grasp. Time is fleeting, days are numbered, our existence like a vanishing wind. When we can keep this in mind, perhaps we will be better able to maintain the perspective we need to look for what God has in each trial He brings to us. And in turn, we can better understand how to respond and how to pass that response on to others with the short time we are given.
When the Rubber Meets the Road
Here’s an example of the divine and human blend of responding to trials. I am in the midst of learning how to respond to a current financial strain with trust, and I can tell you that my trust didn’t come immediately. I had the anxiety and fear first, then I realized that I was in unbelief. I realized I could look back and see God’s faithfulness, even when the circumstances were rough and things didn’t turn out as I wanted them to. It’s also a daily fight. Because we’re forgetful as humans. We’re so much in the “now” and the “what’s to come,” we don’t remember the “what has been.” We need to remind ourselves daily in scripture and in experience that God has never let us down.
The Good News
You don’t have to go through these trials alone. As a believer, you are never without the strength, refuge, and wisdom of a faithful, loving God. You are never alone, but always in the presence of a loving Father who sent His Son (and Christ went willingly, not under duress!) to endure this difficult life, to suffer beyond anything that we will ever endure, to die and rise again so we could live.