We have a lot of people here at First Baptist Church who are going through different “storms” in their lives right now. My own current battle with dysautonomia is well-known to most of you. But I know that I am not the only person in our church who is going through a trial. Our whole church staff has been hit hard – with illness, deaths in families, family crises. People throughout our church are undergoing trials. For example, Bro. Kyle told me the other day that just in the choir alone, there are 25 different people who are going through various storms: whether it is cancer, or another illness, or a family trial, or a financial or work crisis – 25 people just in the choir! In many different families, and in many different ways, our church is going through the fire right now. I know that many of you would say, “Count ME in that number; I am going through the fire right now too!”
That is one of the reasons I am convinced that this Book of James is just the right book for our church right now! When he writes in his first words of instruction, “Count it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials”, he is writing to people like US! The first-century Christians James addressed were facing suffering. There are evidences of that all through the book. So much of the Book of James deals with how God’s people, those with genuine faith, are to respond to the trials they were facing. It shows us “What Tested Faith Looks Like”.
I. The Certainty of Trials
He begins by saying, “Count it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials” It is significant that he says: “WHEN you encounter various trials” – for there is no question that you are going to face them! It is not “if”, but “when”!
We really need to get into the mindset of expecting that we are going to have trials. Unfortunately, many of us have gotten into the bad habit of thinking that the goal of life is to go along without any difficulties or obstacles. We need to ditch that kind of immature and unrealistic thinking. Where did we get that idea? We didn’t get it from the word of God. God NEVER promised us that “all will be smooth sailing” – in fact, what Jesus DID promise is that “in this world, you will have tribulation”!
I Peter 4:12 says, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you”
He says “don’t be surprised.” But we are, aren’t we? We always seem surprised when something hard, or painful or difficult happens to us. “You had a trial? Oh really?! What a shocker!” Of COURSE you did! That is what happens in this world!
It would be like a young man going out for football for the very first time this August, and going out to the practice field for his initial practice, and getting knocked down by one of the other players. What if he came running back to you on the sideline, crying, “He knocked me down!”? You’d say, son, that’s what happens out there! You had better expect that in football. Getting hit in football should not be a surprise!
Many of us need to learn the same thing about life. Getting hit is going to happen in this life. We are going to get hit; we are going to get hurt. This world is not heaven; the sooner we realize that, the better off we will be. THIS is not the place of perfect rest and perfect health and perfect circumstances. This is not where you get “your best life now”! This is not that place. Do not be surprised when you have trials here on earth. That is what is supposed to happen here! It is not a matter of “if”, James says, it is “WHEN”.
Now these inevitable trials are of different kinds: James calls them here “various” trials – some are of one kind; some are of another. Some are financial, or family-related; some are of the heart, some are of the senses, some are related to persecution. You may have some, I may have others. But we will each have some of these “various trials.” We should all prepare ourselves for them, and expect them.
The Jewish wisdom writer Sirach wrote:
My son, when thou comest to serve the Lord, prepare thy soul for temptation. Set thy heart aright and endure firmly, and be not fearful in time of calamity … accept whatsoever is brought upon thee, and be patient in disease and poverty. For gold is proved in the fire, and men (are proved) acceptable to God in the furnace of affliction.”
Words like those should be shared with every Christian when they make a commitment to Christ. Your faith WILL be tested in the furnace of affliction to see if it is real. Watch for it; expect it. Don’t act like some strange thing is coming upon you, as Peter said. You WILL be tested! Trials are a certainty.
II. Our Response To Trials
So if our trials are certain, one might say, “Ok, then let’s ‘grin & bear it.’” Let’s get this over with. That might be the world’s attitude towards trials. Summed up in a word, they might say something like, “trials are necessary but bad.” James says that is NOT the attitude of the follower of Jesus towards trials. As in so many things, our attitude is to be exactly the OPPOSITE of the world’s. He says we are to “count it all joy” instead.
This theme of rejoicing in trials is found repeatedly in the word of God:
— Romans 5:3 “We also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance, and perseverance proven character, and proven character hope …”.
— I Peter 1:6 “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, maybe found to result in praise, honor, and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”
— Psalm 4:7 “You have put gladness in my heart, more than when their grain and new wine abound.” The world rejoices when they have plenty of grain & wine – in other words, when circumstances are good. But the Bible says the Christian can rejoice even in what people would call “bad” circumstances of trials and difficulties.
Now, that is not a call for us to engage is some kind of mentally unbalanced “masochism” in which we try to make ourselves happy to suffer. Rather it is a response of faith. He says “CONSIDER it all joy.” The word “consider” here means that it is a response of faith. It doesn’t “look” good”; it doesn’t “feel” good; we aren’t denying that. But by faith we choose to believe that there is something good behind it.
Now let me make a point right here: James says “Count it all joy MY BRETHREN.” He is speaking to people who are committed followers of Jesus Christ. It is only that person who can know that God is doing something profitable in their trials. People are often fond of quoting Romans 8:28, that God causes all things to work together for good, but they ignore the rest of the verse: “to those who love God, and who are called according to His purpose.” You must know for sure that you are truly a follower of Christ for this to be true for you. So right now, let me ask you: Do you know that? Have you ever realized that your sins are evidence that you have rebelled against the Lordship of God in you life, and that Jesus Christ died on the cross to pay for your sins, so that you might turn back from your sins, and obey God by following Him? Has that ever really happened to you? If not, that is the first thing that you need to do today: confess your disobedience to God, ask Him to forgive your sins, and commit to following Jesus as your Lord & God. Once you know that you belong to Him, then you can know that He is using everything that happens in your life for His good purposes, and you can have joy even in your trials.
III. God’s Purpose for Trials
Well, what ARE God’s purposes for our trials? As we mentioned last week, James was writing to Jewish Christians, many of whom had grown up with the traditional Jewish outlook on suffering, that it is caused by one’s sin, and is therefore if you suffer, there is shame and regret in it. They would say that God’s purpose in our suffering is to punish us for what we have done. Now, we must admit that there is some suffering which we bring on ourselves; we can’t discount that. For example, Joe McKeever, who has spoken in our church, wrote in his blog in January, 2010:
Drunk and speeding and going around a curve on a country road, Edward slammed his car into a tree. Doctors told me he was lucky to be alive, that he had broken almost every bone in his body. The woman in the car with him was killed.
When he recovered to the point where he could speak, Edward said to me, “Brother Joe, why did God do this?” I said, “He didn’t, my friend. You did this all by yourself without any help from Him.”
So there definitely ARE sufferings that we bring upon ourselves, no doubt. Some of you may be suffering today, and there is no mystery about the cause it; you are very well aware of the sin or the foolish choices you made that have brought you where you are.
But the Bible also makes it very clear that not all suffering is a result of our personal sin. In John 9, the disciples asked Jesus who had sinned, this man or his parents, that he would be born blind, and Jesus answered, “Neither.” Not all suffering is a result of sin. James says here that as a Christian, you are to have a different perspective on trials, because you believe that if God allows it, because He has a good purpose for it.
A. For one, they test the genuineness our faith.
James calls it here “the testing of your faith.” Our faith must be tested. We have said many times that not everyone who claims to have saving faith in Jesus really does. Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord’, will enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” Many make “professions” of saving faith, but few truly have “possession” of saving faith. There is a sifting process which must place, to “sort out” those who truly believe. And that “sifting” takes place through the fire of trials. This is just what we see in word of God:
— I Peter 4:12 says, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing.”
— I Peter 1:6 “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, honor, and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”
Peter, who was writing to another group of Christians who were experiencing trials, made it clear that the trials were like a “fire” which tested their faith, to reveal whether it was genuine. We need to understand that trials are a very necessary process for demonstrating the reality of our faith.
This hit home afresh to me the other day, when I was praying for a house church in Southeast Asia. I had a prayer request from my sister, who works there, that they had seen 8 new people make professions of faith there, but that they were now being persecuted by the authorities. At first I started praying that they would be spared persecution, but as I prayed, the Lord reminded me that He has a purpose for this: they had just made professions of faith in Jesus, and this trial was necessary to test their faith, to see if they were really committed to Jesus or not? Should I pray for them NOT to come to a time of testing of their faith? NO! This MUST happen; they MUST be tested, they MUST go through the fire to prove their faith.
You may know someone who is going through this very thing right now. They are really “going through the fire”, and you feel sorry for them, and wish they didn’t have to go through this – but they HAVE to! You cannot pray for them to avoid this; the faith of every believer must be tested in the fire.
And the same thing is true for you and me, too. Our faith is tested by the trials we face, to show whether it is genuine or not. Suffering has a way of laying bare what you really believe. You don’t play little “religious games” when you are suffering. If your faith isn’t real, it goes out the window when difficulties come!
My personal faith has been tested in recent months: do I still believe, even if I can’t preach, or have a full-time ministry? Is this just a “job” for me, or do I really believe these things for myself? I have found that the answer, in my lowest moments, is YES, I do believe this. Like Job I have said, “Though He slay me, yet I will trust Him.” But my faith has been tested in this fire. And some of you may be in that same place right now. God is letting you go through the fire of testing, to prove that your faith is real.
B. There is a second purpose we see in this text: Our trials help mature and grow us.
James says: “The testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” The word “endurance” is the Greek word “hupomene” – Hupo, meaning, “under”, and meno, meaning “to abide”. It is a picture of someone “abiding under”; “persevering” underneath a heavy load.
But James says the endurance which we build under trials is not the end; it is a means to the end: he says: “Let endurance have its perfect result THAT (which is a purpose word) you may be PERFECT and complete.” God’s goal for our trials, James says here, is that they will help us to become “perfect and complete.” Now, the word “perfect” here does not mean what we often think of with the word “perfection.” It is the Greek word “teleios”, which means, “mature.” It is used of a plant which has grown up to bear fruit, or an animal which is “full grown.” So he is not saying that trials are going to make us “perfect”; they are going to make us “mature.” They grow us and mature us in our faith.
This is God’s goal for us: to grow to spiritual maturity. Paul wrote in Ephesians 4:13 that the goal of our church ministry is to grow “to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ.” God’s goal is for us to grow to be like Christ in spiritual maturity. But how do we get there? Through enduring trials! Our trials are a VITAL part of our growth process.
We as Christians need to understand that God’s goal for us is NOT for us to be “fat & happy”! If many of us were honest, we would say that our goal for life is to just be “happy”, and for nothing bad to happen, and for everything to just go smoothly and well without any problems. But I’ve got to tell you: that is not God’s goal for your life! God’s goal for you is to become spiritually mature; to become like Jesus. And He knows very well that you are not going to do that if you never face trials.
So, far from seeing our difficulties as “bad”; we should see them as part of God’s growth process for our lives. This takes getting a whole different mindset. We tend to think that things that are “hard”, are “bad.” But instead, we need to think of them as like weight lifting. Lifting weights is hard, but it builds your muscles. And that is what God’s purpose for our trials does. It builds our spiritual “muscles” and makes us more like Christ.
Howard Cannon sent me a story which illustrates this truth: “The Cocoon”
A man found a cocoon of a butterfly. One day a small opening appeared, he sat and watched the butterfly for several hours as it struggled to force its body through that little hole. Then it seemed to stop making any progress. It appeared as if it had gotten as far as it could and it could go no farther. Then the man decided to help the butterfly, so he took a pair of scissors and snipped off the remaining bit of the cocoon.
The butterfly then emerged easily. But it had a swollen body and small, shriveled wings. The man continued to watch the butterfly because he expected that, at any moment, the wings would enlarge and expand to be able to support the body, which would contract in time. Neither happened! In fact, the butterfly spent the rest of its life crawling around with a swollen body and shriveled wings. It never was able to fly.
What the man in his kindness and haste did not understand was that the restricting cocoon and the struggle required for the butterfly to get through the tiny opening were God’s way of forcing fluid from the body of the butterfly into its wings so that it would be ready for flight once it achieved its freedom from the cocoon.
Without the struggle, that butterfly would never grow to maturity, and fly. And God knows that the same thing is true for us. He uses our struggles to mature us, and make us stronger. I know personally that is my own testimony:
There are lessons I would never have learned had I not suffered.
There are studies I would never have made had I not suffered.
There are scriptures that would have never come alive had I not suffered.
There are prayers I would never have prayed had I not suffered.
There is confession that would never have been made, had I not suffered.
There are sermons I would never have preached had I not suffered.
There are ministries I would never have had, had I not suffered
There are people who would never have been blessed, had I not suffered.
There is a maturity that would never have come had I not suffered.
There is praise that would have never been given to God, had I not suffered.
And I am certain the same thing will be true for you, too. God is using your suffering and trials to grow you, mature you, and make you more like Jesus.
3) They glorify God
Another reason why we can “count it all joy” when we experience trials is that we can do it for the glory of God. Many people regard an absence of suffering as a sign of God’s blessing upon a person. But that is not necessarily what we see in scripture. Job was one of God’s most choice servants, and it was actually because he WAS that God allowed him the privilege of suffering to honor Him before the watching angels! And think about the Lord Jesus: God allowed the One Person He loved the most, to suffer the most!
And He will do the same with us. He will allow us to suffer, that He might be glorified in us. And it is a privilege when He does. Philippians 1:29 “For to you it has been granted for Christ’s sake not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake.”
Samuel Rutherford, who pastored in Scotland in the 1600’s, wrote to one of his parishioners who was been arrested for his faith:
“And because you are the first man in Galloway called out, and questioned for the name of Jesus, His eye hath been upon you, as upon one whom He designed to be among His witnesses. Christ hath said, Alexander Gordon shall lead the ring, in witnessing a good confession; and therefore He hath put the garland of suffering for Himself, first upon your head.” (Rutherford’s Letters, p. 55)
If God wills it, this can be OUR privilege too: to glorify Him in our illnesses, our trials, our persecutions, our hardships; to declare to the world and to the watching angelic powers that our God is worthy – through the way we endure our trials! Mark Dever said in his sermon on James 1 that though we can sing at the top of our lungs for 100 million years in heaven, we won’t have this privilege there: to demonstrate in our trials here on earth that our God is sufficient! We have the privilege of glorifying God in our trials.
We can rejoice in our trials, because we have an opportunity to demonstrate that our faith is genuine; because it gives us an opportunity to grow spiritually, and most of all, to glorify our God.
Robert Browning Hamilton wrote a poem entitled, “I Walked A Mile With Pleasure”:
I walked a mile with Pleasure;
She chatted all the way;
But left me none the wiser
For all she had to say.
I walked a mile with Sorrow,
And ne’er a word said she;
But, oh! The things I learned from her,
When sorrow walked with me.
God has purposed that we will learn much from our sorrows and trials – about ourselves and about Him. Your trials, as difficult as they may be, are not “bad”, and they are never wasted – IF you know that you belong to the Lord, and if you will seek to learn, and to glorify Him through them. That, James says, is “What Tested Faith Looks Like”!