“When all kinds of trials and temptations crowd into your lives my brothers, don’t resent them as intruders, but welcome them as friends! Realise that they come to test your faith and to produce in you the quality of endurance. But let the process go on until that endurance is fully developed, and you will find you have become men of mature character with the right sort of independence… (J.B Phillips translation of James 1:2-4)
Only a masochist gets out of bed in the morning in search of trials and tribulations. But if we live in the real world, trouble will inevitably find us.
“Man is born unto trouble, as surely as the sparks fly upwards” (Job 5:7).
Loss, illness, disappointment and discouragement are like gangsters that ambush us along the road of life, sometimes in unexpected ways. As Christians, trials have the power to rob us of our joy and hope. After many years of facing the same enemies in the ring, you may wonder whether you have the strength to go one more round. Trials may make us question whether God has abandoned or forgotten us. Right now anxiety and despair may be your only constant companions. But the Bible calls Christians to stand on the cliff top and view our trials from God’s perspective. We will see three images emerging in the fog below: First, we see a furnace that tests and proves the genuineness our faith. Secondly, we see a personal trainer exercising our muscles for the marathon of life. Thirdly, we see a painstaking builder putting the finishes and unique trademarks on his beautiful building. The power of perspective changes our response to the troubles we face. If you are a Christian, trials hurt like crazy but they are not pointless. Trials produce faces etched with grace and compassion. They develop spiritual hardiness that cannot be learned in the comfort of a lecture theatre or from a life of ease. They produce believers who do not just call themselves Christians, but cry to God as their “Abba” Father. They produce steadfast Christians. That is why trials are not intruders but friends. Sometimes we only know that the faith we profess is a living flame when the lights are turned off all around us.
Today’s text was written by Jesus’s brother, James, to scattered persecuted Christians in the first century. James 1:2-4 (ESV):
“ Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, 3 for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. 4 And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”
Our faith in the furnace
Trials are the furnaces into which our Christian lives are poured to test whether they are real or fake. The result is a faith that is more precious than gold and a life that gives praise, glory and honour to our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1:6-9). Being poured into a furnace is not an intrinsically joyful experience, but a painful one. Yet James urges us to ‘regard’ or ‘consider’ that experience as joy. He asks us to change our mindset to trials.
How on earth can we “count it as joy” when all our human instincts are telling us to hide, run, suppress or escape from the pain? My first responses to trouble are always panic, fear or frustration. Joy is the last thing on my mind. How do we get to the place where we no longer resent trials as intruders, but welcome them as friends? (JB Phillips translation).
The power of perspective.
James says that there is power in perspective. When we “consider” the permanent benefits of trials to train, tutor and test us, God will change our response to them. (It’s like my exercise trainer, Coach Kusch on Youtube! She keeps giving me visions of myself in a bikini to motivate me to embrace the burning in my glutes!) Perspective enables us to see hardship as a basis of joy rather than pointless misery. Verse 3 tells us to look at our circumstances in the light of what we know for sure even when it contradicts our feelings or circumstances: “For you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.” And steadfastness is the only road to spiritual maturity and the crown of life which God has promised to those who love him (James 1:4; 12). Thinking with the destination in mind reminds us that this is not our home. It makes us realise that whatever suffering we endure now is working for our good. Perspective gives us the capacity to be joyful on even the hardest journey.
What does steadfastness look like? (v 3)
Think of what steadfastness looks like in your Christian life. It has to do with spiritual resilience and hardiness. It is the staying power that will get you to the finish line. It is the perseverance that develops from exercising your muscles of faith consistently day after day. Steadfastness cannot be turned on with a switch of willpower or choice. A steadfast heart is God’s gift when we place our confidence in Him. It comes to us when we stand firm in prayer, trust and obedience even when we feel disillusioned, disappointed and distressed. Don’t we all wish we were steadfast Christians who are not buffeted by every wave of life? Steadfastness can only develop when we submit to the testing of our faith, just as Jesus submitted himself to the cross with his eyes focussed on “the joy set before Him.” Jesus is the only perfectly steadfast man that ever lived.
What’s great about the Bible is that its human writers were not monks writing from ivory towers, but role models of faith lived out imperfectly in the real world. Hebrews 11 gives us an idea of the very flawed ‘heroes’ of faith who have gone before us. The common characteristic of each of them is steadfastness in their faith. They believed the promises of God would someday be fulfilled even though they couldn’t yet see or feel evidence of this.
Perfect and complete, lacking in nothing (v 4)
A Christian will never be perfect. But mature faith and Christ-like character emerge from the furnace of trials. That’s because self deception and hypocrisy, self righteousness, selfishness and pride— get burnt up in the flames.
Faith and character bloom and bear fruit in the ashes of disappointment and tears, not in the nursery of constant success and happiness.
Those who “lack nothing” are seeking their happiness in Christ above all else. They are filled with the joy of the Lord and enabled to refresh others along the way. Don’t you long to become mature in your faith, lacking nothing?
God’s grace is sufficient for you
Paul was a man who became mature in his faith, yet he suffered more trials than any of us ever will. Paul tells us that he prayed three times for God to remove a ‘thorn’ in his flesh. We don’t know the specifics of his thorn but we know that it was painful, it had its origin in Satan, and God did not remove it in Paul’s lifetime. Yet Paul shows us what it means to “lack in nothing” in his response to his thorn:
“But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9). Paul responded to his thorn by resting in God’s perfect purposes and grace (Rom 8:28- 29).
It is easy to have faith when everything is going well and our prayers are being answered just as we have asked. But trials force us to practice in real life what we know in theory. Trials show us whether we are women or men of faith. They ask us whether we truly believe that God’s grace is enough for us. Trials break the illusion that we are powerful and in charge. They prove to us that we need the power and grace of Jesus to get us through even a single day. They turn our eyes to look at the face of Jesus.
Turn your eyes upon Jesus
If you are overcome with trials of many kinds today, Jesus encourages you to keep your eyes on Him and not on your troubles:
“I have said these things to you, that IN ME you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world (John 16:33).
Only Jesus is the founder and perfecter of our faith. He showed us perfectly how to face trials of various kinds. He is the point of our lives. His grace is all we need to transform us into His image from glory to glory (2 Cor 3:18). Jesus endured the shame of the cross for the joy of purchasing our redemption (Heb 12:2). That’s why we too can face our trials with an attitude of joy.
Read the story of Horatio G. Spafford (click here). He wrote the hymn “It is well with my soul” after a series of the worst tragedies imaginable. (Click here to listen). He was not writing from an Ivory Tower or a comfortable couch. Spafford’s story helps us to understand what a steadfast Christian life looks like in reality. He inspires us to focus our eyes on Jesus so that we can see our trials in a different light. He shows us what it means to be confidently rooted in Christ even when his world disintegrated. Spafford’s life is an example of how to live out James 1:2-4 in the sweaty, bloody arena of life. Let the words written by this steadfast Christian on a terrible journey in 1873 sink deep into your soul:
When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll
Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say
It is well, it is well, with my soul
It is well
With my soul
It is well, it is well with my soul
Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,
Let this blest assurance control,
That Christ has regarded my helpless estate,
And hath shed His own blood for my soul
My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought
My sin, not in part but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, o my soul
It is well (it is well)
With my soul (with my soul)
It is well, it is well with my soul
“Like a Rock in the Billows”, by Barney E Warren:
Like a rock in the billows I would stable be,
Till the storm is overpast;
Then I long to harbor, Lord, with Thee,
In my heav’nly home at last
If I trust in Jesus, and obey His word,
If I lean upon His breast;
If I keep low down at His feet, I know
He will give me peace and rest.
Like a rock in the billows I would never yield
To the angry tossing wave;
I would cling to Christ, my sun and shield,
For His pow’r alone can save.
Like a rock in the billows of a boiling sea,
When its waters leap and foam,
I would rest secure, my Lord, in Thee,
Till the trumpet calls me home.
Like a rock in the billows I would fearless stand,
And defy the threat’ning blast;
For the Savior holds me by the hand,
Till the raging storm is past.
May the peace of God which surpasses all understanding, keep your hearts and your minds through Christ Jesus. – Philippians 4:7.