“A dear friend of ours found herself in a sea of troubles. Her husband had gone blind, and then had come down with an incurable disease. She had a slight stroke herself that forced her to retire from her secretarial job and become a full-time ‘seeing eye wife.’ Although they had many friends, they had no children. Attempting to encourage her one day, I said, ‘I want you to know that we’re praying for you.’ ‘I appreciate that’ she replied, ‘What are you praying for God to do?’ As she waited for my reply, I found myself struggling for a mature answer. I had never really been confronted with that question before! After all, when people are suffering, you pray for healing (if it is God’s will), for strength, for special mercy in pain, and so on; and that is what I told her. ‘Thank you.’ she said, ‘but please pray for one more request. Pray that I won’t waste all this suffering.'”1
A request like that can only result from a profound understanding of affliction. When compared with prevailing attitudes on the subject of suffering it is even more remarkable. It is unforgivable in our culture to speak positively of suffering. For most, especially American Christians, even the remotest suggestion that there could be value in our suffering is viewed as uncaring and insensitive. We have been conditioned by our culture to believe the opposite. A collective attitude that exalts comfort and views personal happiness as the end of all things has blurred our perspective. There is no place for pain in American Christianity.
Because of this distorted perception, we rarely stop to search for the “hand of God” in the midst of our trouble. Seeking to understand God’s purposes in our pain is all but foreign. As a result, embracing pain’s role in our sanctification is usually the farthest thing from our minds. As one so aptly put it, “Most people count it all joy when they escape trials. James said to count it all joy in the midst of trials.” We need to come to grips with a significant truth: God’s will is not our happiness, but His Glory. The two may, or may not, be directly related.
Clearly, the lady in this episode had incorporated suffering into her theology. She understood that pain and suffering are a part of God’s plan for His children. Furthermore, her understanding of the place of suffering enabled her to face the trial with a divine outlook. I applaud and admire the fact that her request was not for God to remove the trouble, but that she would not waste it. God give us the strength to make the same request!
Getting his readers to share this remarkable attitude is the express purpose of James’ opening words in his epistle. He wastes little time with introductory formulas (James 1:1) and gets right to the issue bearing down on his heart. James is not going to allow them to waste one moment of their suffering. Right out of the gate he tells them how they can get the most out of their trials (James 1:2-8).
How do we get the most out of our trials? In these familiar verses, James lays out three steps to maximizing the effect of trials in our lives. First, we must embrace trials as God’s instruments of change (James 1:2-3). Second, we must allow trials to complete God’s purpose in our lives (James 1:4). Third, we must view trials from God’s perspective (James 1:5-11).
The Nature of Trials
The first few verses of James’ exhortation include a number of characteristics that are true of all trials. It will be helpful to keep these in mind as we begin our study of James’ instruction:
Trials are intentional. “Testing of your faith” (James 1:3) implies design. Trials are not random occurrences of time and chance. Nor are they the capricious dealing of a despotic deity. On the contrary, God has designed them to fulfill specific purposes in our lives. Knowing they are not arbitrary and fall under the sovereign hand of God can provide us with supernatural peace in the worst of circumstances.
Trials are unavoidable. I had a seminary professor who greeted all incoming freshmen with a hard dose of reality. He would tell each of us, “If your life is good, if all is going well and if all is just as you have planned, you only need to wait. Trials will come.” He was right. Notice that James does not say “if” trials come, but “when” trials come (James 1:2). Trails are a part of the human experience and cannot be avoided. So, stop trying. “For man is born for trouble, As sparks fly upward” (Job 5:7). The sooner we learn how to face them the sooner we can learn from them.
Trials are unexpected. The word “encounter” (James 1:2) means to fall down around or to fall into. It is the same word used in Luke 10:30 to describe the man who was surprised and overtaken by thieves on his way to Jericho. Our trials are like commandos that swoop down on us out of nowhere. Yet, James does not want us cowering in fear wondering when the other shoe will drop. He wants us to have joy.
Trials are unpredictable. James says they are “various” (James 1:2). That is, they are diverse and unpredictable in their nature. They could be short (or long), physical (or emotional) and a personal experience (or the experience of someone else). Often times, trials are those moments in life when we find ourselves saying, “I never thought this could happen to me.”
Trials are painful. There is nothing spiritual about grinning and bearing it. Notice, James does not say that the trial itself is “all joy” (James 1:2). He would be denying the reality of emotional and physical distress. By nature a trial is painful. The word “trial” does not carry with it the concept of a cheerful experience. Rather, his encouragement is to “consider it joy … when we face … trials.” It is the facing, or the awareness of a trial that is in view. When you see one coming, rejoice! We can delight as we consider what the overall experience will yield, and yet we should not deny the pain one may experience undergoing the trial.
Embrace them as God’s Instrument of Change (James 1:2-3)
A number of years ago, a member of our church placed an article on my desk chronicling the extraordinary ordeal of a local family. Both the young mother and the father carried an extremely rare genetic disorder known as Zellweger’s Syndrome. The syndrome results in sever birth defects of newborns. It significantly minimizes their quality of life, as well as their life expectancy. The chances of an individual having the gene resulting in the disorder are one in 160. The odds of two individuals meeting and having a child with the disorder are around one in 100,000.
To this family’s dismay, they beat these dreadful odds and gave birth to a child possessing the syndrome. The child eventually died. After the loss of their baby, the couple took certain necessary medical steps to prevent the same outcome in additional children. These procedures pushed the odds of a recurrence of this disorder to one in two hundred thousand. Astonishingly, at the time the article was written, despite the measures taken to prevent it, they were pregnant with their second child bearing the rare malady.
It was nearly more than the family could take. Although Christians, they struggled to understand why God would allow such exquisite pain, not once, but twice! Remarkably, facing the inevitable reality ahead the mother said, “If God would ask me to suffer this significantly, I think He has something significant he wants to do with it through me, if only in my heart.” Incredible! How could she say that?
Let’s face it, most of us will never undergo a trial that severe. God reserves trials of this magnitude for those who can undergo them and still bring Him glory. “Though He slay me, I will hope in Him” (Job 13:15). Nonetheless, her statement raises a relevant question in light of own experiences. In your severest trial, while in the midst of your greatest pain, would you have the strength to utter the words of this mother? Could you look up from your ash heap and see God’s hand? Could you struggle with why and still trust that God has a purpose in it all? Could you consider it all joy? That’s the heart of James’ first challenge.
Don’t Worry, Be Happy?
Years ago a song was made popular by the catchy refrain “don’t worry, be happy.” Though a pleasant tune, its implicit philosophy has very little bearing on reality. Sometimes, there is nothing to be happy about. When James says “consider it all joy” he is not repeating the adage “don’t worry, be happy.” “Consider it all joy” has very little to do with happiness as we know it. Happiness is tied to temporal circumstances. If events are not favorable, there is no reason to be happy. Joy on the other hand is much different. It is not dependent on the temporal. True joy exists no matter what the circumstance may be.
It is surprising when one notices that “consider” is a command. That changes the tone. This directive is not optional. That seems a tad unreasonable doesn’t it? Can you do that? Can you command someone to be joyful? Undoubtedly, most people would be offended if we handed out the same counsel in their pain. “Just rejoice!” Try and grasp the implication of his command: Consider your pain, your losses, your heartache, your grief, your struggle, your painful memories and, as you do, let them bring you joy. That’s bold! Furthermore, he does not say some of it — just the bright spots. He says consider all of it. Every difficult dimension, every new and unpredicted element is to draw joy out of our heart.
Change Your Focus
Despite the apparent insensitivity in James’ words, his counsel is ripe with wisdom. “Consider” means to make a deliberate and intelligent appraisal. Obviously, he is aware that our mental faculties are the first things we throw over board when the water of our lives gets rough. We do everything, accept think from a biblical perspective.
As everyone around him panicked in the face of the Apollo 13 tragedy, Eugene Kranz, the mission director, gathered himself, quieted his crew and asked the only appropriate question at that moment, “What do we have on the ship that’s good?” Our mindset should be the same. It is imperative that we evaluate (consider) our circumstance in light of what we know to be true about God. We should keep the big picture in view at all times. Stop! Back Up! Get out of the details for a moment; climb to the heights of God’s nature, and get a glimpse of what He is doing.
What exactly should bring us joy when we face a trial head on? Answer: The knowledge that God is using the difficult circumstance to change us, “Knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance” (James 1:4). True joy in the face of a painful experience is had only as we recognize that through the experience God is expediting the sanctification process in our lives. “Knowing” means to “constantly keep a fact in mind.” In order to successfully face a trial, in order to get the most out of it, we have to understand that God is at work in our hearts. These unexpected and uninvited visitors in our lives are God’s instruments of change, and as such they serve His purposes. That is a reason to rejoice!
The image of the crucible and testing process is used throughout Scripture. It is especially popular in the OT. “The crucible is for silver and the furnace for gold, And a man is tested by the praise accorded him …” (Proverbs 27:21). “Thou hast tried my heart; Thou hast visited me by night; Thou hast tested me and dost find nothing; I have purposed that my mouth will not transgress” (Psalms 17:3). James’ draws upon this idiom to illustrate the effect a trial has in our lives.
The crucible was used in firing or purifying metals for the sake of increasing their quality. A metallurgist would take a metal of some sort and put it in a crucible which he would in turn heat until it was liquid. At that point those elements that decreased the quality would rise to the surface and be removed. The process would be repeated until all the impurities were eliminated. Through a trial God removes the impurities of our faith. When the process is finished what’s left is endurance.
Faith that Goes the Distance
Some Bible versions translate this word as “patience,” but in reality it means much more than the modern concept patience carries. It is more than bearing with someone or something and passively waiting on it to end or to go away. “Endurance” comes from two Greek terms, “to remain” and “under.” Literally, it means “to stay under.” It is best translated endurance, or steadfastness, or even staying power. This particular quality is the strength that allows one to remain under a weight or pressure until it is removed or has completed its purpose. This same quality was ascribed to Jesus, “fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross ….” “Endurance” is what’s left when the trial is past. In the end, the pressure of trials helps forge a faith that will go the distance no matter the difficulty. A trial draws out of us a greater trust in the nature and purposes of God. What result could bring more glory to God? What result could have more benefit to us? What result could be greater cause for rejoicing?
Consider this, when the nation of Israel departed Egypt and made their way through the sea, they only possessed a basic knowledge about their purpose and destination. They were going to worship God, and they were headed to the Promised Land. The specific direction and duration of their journey was unknown to them. There were many mysteries ahead. Despite this, their limitations and challenges were overcome by the knowledge of God’s presence as they followed the cloud by day and the fire by night. At the time, knowing God’s presence was more important than knowing God’s specific purposes. A trial is similar. The specific purpose may only be known over time, but the trial itself let’s us know that God is present. We are often unaware of where God is leading, but we know the journey is making us more able to follow. We can embrace trials because we know God is at work.
Allow God’s Process of Change to Run Its Course (James 1:4)
Something about the smell of freshly cut grass in the heat of summer takes me back to my football playing days. What I remember most is the dreaded onset of summer “two-a-days.” In order to get prepared for the season the team would have to suffer through two practices a day for two straight weeks in the sweltering summer heat.
The vilest part of the entire experience was the wind sprints that concluded every practice. We would run to the point of exhaustion. As I stood on the line waiting for the whistle to blow between sprints, I can still hear the coach yelling “Get off your knees! Stand up and put your hands on your heads!”
It was the tendency of every player who was gasping for a breath in the thick summer air to bend over and put their hands on their knees just to get a little relief. Standing up was torturous. But, the coach knew bending at the waist hindered the purpose of the sprints. It diminished the lung capacity. Standing upright with hands on top of your head, although painful, allowed your lungs to fully expand and take in the oxygen your body was craving. We were not allowed to relive the pressure. In order for the process to have its full benefit it had to be fully endured. In the same way, to get the most out your trials you can’t relieve the pressure. You have to stay up under them. Why? Because, for the trial to have its full benefit it must be fully endured.
It’s important to note something at this point in James’ instruction. Notice that there is not a hint of escape in this passage. Not once does he encourage us to find a way out. In fact, the exact opposite emphasis predominates the context. As the saying goes, “God is not so interested in getting you out of it as He is in taking you through it.” His command in verse four is predicated on this truth, “And let endurance have its perfect result” (James 1:4). In other words, do not circumvent God’s process of change in your life by trying to remove yourself from trial. Rather, allow the process of change contained in the trial to run its course and have its perfect result.
A Faith to Stand On
Recently, one of the members of our worship team was sharing the frustrations of music preparation and rehearsals. She was bemoaning the fact that there was never enough time to get ready for Sunday. As we talked she commented, “We simply don’t have enough time to be perfect.” I laughed. She had no idea how accurate her theology was. That same limitation is true for the Christian. In this life we will never be perfect. Our nature forbids it. Whatever James means by “perfect” in this verse he cannot mean it in the sense of sinless perfection.
We will always have room for improvement here on this earth. In this context, the word is better understood as “complete” or “mature”. The “complete result” being referred to here is that of a full-grown faith. As we stay under a trial our faith is matured and strengthened. You could translate this verse as follows, “Stay under the trial and by endurance allow it to have its full effect so that your faith may become full grown under the pressure.”
Why should we endure? “So that you may be perfect and complete lacking in nothing” (James 1:4). James supplies us with two dividends of endurance. Not only will a faith that we allow to be tested be mature, it will also be complete. Where as perfect, or mature, captures the general effect of endurance, complete represents the specific features. As our faith grows to full stature (perfect) under the pressure of trials it will develop all the necessary features (complete) of a mature faith. If we do not allow endurance to have its perfect result, we will have a stunted faith that has not been allowed to grow and fully develop.
“Lacking in nothing” is the second result of endurance. I like that phrase. It means the absence of a deficiency. When we allow God’s process of change to take hold in our lives we can be sure that no area of our faith gets left behind. Endurance, staying under, protects us against major areas of deficiency in our faith. Most often, our greatest energy is expended avoiding rather than enduring. Our first response is to relieve the pressure and get out from under it. We will go to any length to get out from under the weight of suffering.
Many of us have faith that suffers from atrophy because we won’t keep it under the pressure of uncomfortable circumstances.
“In 1982 Russian Cosmonauts returned from space after 211 days. When they arrived back on earth they suffered from high heart rates and palpitations and dizziness. It took them a week to walk again and three weeks later were still undergoing therapy to compensate for atrophied muscles and a weak heart. At zero gravity the muscles of the body have nothing to resist so they waste away. In response specialist invented the ‘penguin suit,’ a running suit laced with elastic bands. It resists every move the cosmonauts make, forcing them to exert their strength. Apparently the regimen is working. We often long dreamily for days without difficulty, but God knows better. The easier our life, the weaker our spiritual fiber, for strength of any kind grows only by exertion.”2
God allows resistance in our life so our faith will grow stronger. If you thwart that process, you will waste away spiritually. The end result will be a faith that cowers under the trials of life.
View Them from God’s Perspective (James 1:5-8)
At certain points within the book of James interpreters struggle to make the connection between the various sections. This is one such section. The apparent lack of continuity is a result of James Old Testament perspective and the fact that he writes as a preacher. This letter is a sermon that comes across in a rapid fire style packed full of images and colorful language. If you are not paying attention, you’ll lose the flow. Fortunately, James leaves little verbal clues scattered like bread crumbs so we can keep up. The “lacking” in verse four is connected to the “lacking” in verse five. We know by this that James is continuing the previous thought.
This new section (James 1:5-12) fits very naturally with James’ opening theme concerning trials (James 1:2-4). Think about it. First, trials are going to come our way. Rather than despair, we should view them with joy as we keep in mind that God uses trials to strengthen our faith (James 1:2-3). Second, letting them apply the appropriate amount of pressure in our lives strengthens our faith (James 1:4). Third, and lastly, the only way to maintain the attitude of Joy that James commands is to view our times of trouble from God’s perspective. In order to approach our difficulties with hope and joy we need a divine perspective. This divine vantage point is known as wisdom, “But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all men generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him” (James 1:5).
The Obvious Reality
Though most translations read “if any of you lack wisdom” (James 1:5), this phrase may be understood generally to mean “since you lack wisdom.” Thematically, “since” clarifies the point. The most obvious need in a trial is the ability to view it properly. Wisdom is indispensable to the entire experience. To face a trial is to come face to face with your own helplessness as a creature.
Admitting our powerlessness over circumstances is a humbling sensation. Our only option is to cry out. That is where wisdom begins. One author put it this way, “The greatest challenge involved in facing a trial is disciplining our minds to seek wisdom from God when we would rather give in to our emotions.”3 James knows this. It’s not if you run out of “know how,” but when you run out of “know how.”
“Lack” means to fall short, or run out. It is an economic term that pictures bankrupt accounts. What James is getting at by the use of this expression is poignant. He is touching on that moment in our hardship when we have run out of angles and options and cry out, “Lord, what do I do now!?” When the pressure is on and your ingenuity is bankrupt. It is that instant when we are reduced to prayer. When all we can do is call upon God.
The Nature of Wisdom
We need to keep in mind that James is not calling for more head knowledge. “Wisdom” comes from the Greek word sophia. This is not the retention of facts. Rather, wisdom is putting the facts we posses into action when it matters most. “One has said that ‘Wisdom is common sense in uncommon degree.’ Another has defined it as ‘The right use of knowledge.’ Another, ‘Pursuing the best ends, by the best means.’ Another, ‘Knowledge using its head.'”
This is the same capacity Solomon cried out for. “‘So give Thy servant an understanding heart to judge Thy people to discern between good and evil. For who is able to judge this great people of Thine?’ And it was pleasing in the sight of the Lord that Solomon had asked this thing. And God said to him, ‘Because you have asked this thing and have not asked for yourself long life, nor have asked riches for yourself, nor have you asked for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself discernment to understand justice, behold, I have done according to your words. Behold, I have given you a wise and discerning heart, so that there has been no one like you before you, nor shall one like you arise after you'” (1 Kings 3:9-12).
Just Ask
James says “Ask … and it shall be given.” What a promise! God stands ever ready to give His children all they require in their moment of need. Jesus touched on this same characteristic in the Gospel of Matthew, “‘Ask, and it shall be given to you; seek, and you shall find; knock, and it shall be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it shall be opened. Or what man is there among you, when his son shall ask him for a loaf, will give him a stone? Or if he shall ask for a fish, he will not give him a snake, will he? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more shall your Father who is in heaven give what is good to those who ask Him!'” (Matthew 7:7-11).
In order to reinforce God’s benevolence towards His children James adds two critical features, generosity and forgiveness. “Generosity” stresses the amount of the gift. It will be more than we expect or deserve. “Without finding fault” stresses God’s attitude. His children can be sure with every request that God will not remind us of our previous failures. He stands ready to raise our heads above the dark clouds of our experience.
Has God placed any conditions on this benevolence? Yes. Faith, “But let him ask in faith.” To “ask in faith” means to ask with a complete confidence that God knows what He is doing and will see us through to the other side. He repeats the same principle, only this time he expresses negatively, “without doubting”. Literally, without “debating with oneself.” That is an apt description of someone doubting God in the midst of a trial. They swing back and forth between trusting in their own resources and trusting in God’s. A weak faith will never fully trust the Lord to see it through a difficulty.
How do you know if you qualify as a doubter? James paints a picture of what one looks like, “the surf of the sea.” The churning surface of a stormy sea is unstable and subject to the elements. Or as James puts it, “driven and tossed by the wind.” That is a doubting faith. Here one minute! There the next! Like water in a storm, a doubter’s faith is randomly tossed about by adverse circumstances.
Someone in this frame of mind “ought not to expect that they will receive anything from the Lord” (James 1:7). Why not? Because they are not truly asking. They are “double-minded”, or “two-souled.” A doubter is divided between two desires; the desire to get out from under the trial and the necessitaty to trust God. Like turbulent waters they can never rest. James’ answer to this spiritual schizophrenia is back in verse five, “let him ask God.” A heart filled with spiritual wisdom will stay put under the provision of God no matter how fearful it might be.
A good friend of mine and I had a chance to travel to Washington State not too long ago. While there we were invited to spend some time with a very special family. Their home was a living laboratory of biblical joy. The parents are a godly and gracious couple who have four boys ranging from there 20s to their early teenage years. They also had two indoor dogs. As you can imagine, this household with four boys and two dogs was a mix between a gymnasium, dormitory, locker room, and cafeteria. This house was a serious beehive of activity. This family had big-time fun!
One of the characteristics of their home that stood out to me was the unending collage of pictures that ran throughout the house. It appeared they had a memory from every important moment of their lives on display. Pictures taped to walls, refrigerators, frames, 4 x 3 posters of the entire family on the stair well. It was evident that this family loved each other and cherished every moment they had together. What they had was rare.
There is a very good explanation for the joy and love we saw in that home. Their joy and love had been forged by suffering. This family had faced an unbelievable number of trials and hardships. One of their sons, their oldest, was recently diagnosed with cancer in his hip. He had his hip removed and replaced with a steel one. His cancer is in remission. Unfortunately, he is “chemoed” out. If it comes back, there is nothing they can do for him. Everyday, he lives with that reality. The gentlemen we had gone up there to visit said he had never met a brighter or more balanced young man in all his life.
It did not end there. The youngest of the brothers has a rare metabolic disorder that has not allowed his body to mature at a natural pace. He is a 12-year-old living in a 6-year-old’s body. His entire life has been a battle. His body cannot keep up with time and is wearing out. The tubes connected to his oxygen tank ran all through the house. He can’t get very far from this apparatus.
On the day we were there the parents had just come in from a doctors appointment where the doctor was preparing them for the inevitable. He told them this sweet young child has anywhere from five minutes to six months to live. Because of the difficult meeting, they were working hard to lift each other’s spirits. They had stopped and gotten about five gallons of ice cream and had them all open on the kitchen table with spoons in hand. And, of course, Mike and I couldn’t insult them.
As we left, the father talked openly with us and told us he hoped the Lord would give them one more Christmas. “But,” he said, “I have never met a person who is more fit for heaven than my little boy.”
I have never been in a house that has more realistic joy in the face of such realistic sorrow! Their joy and genuine faith had been forged in suffering. This family learned to practice each of James’ principles. This family had not wasted one moment of their pain.
1Warren Weirsbe, When Life Falls Apart, p. 101.
2Craig Brian Larson, http://bible.org.
3Carol Ruvolo, Faith at Work, p. 46.

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