Living in a fallen and sinful world, Christians are not exempt from experiencing trials, tribulation and suffering. Struggles and afflictions are never far away. Throughout history believers have cried out to God, expressing the same sentiments articulated in Psalm 25, “Turn to me, and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted. The troubles of my heart have multiplied: free me from my anguish. Look upon my affliction and my distress and take away all my sins” (16,17).
A trial is something that troubles and perplexes us. The dark storm clouds of adversity threaten to block out the light of God’s mercy. No child of God escapes affliction. The apostle Paul speaks about how he was afflicted in every way; perplexed, persecuted, struck down, always being given up to death for Christ’s sake (2 Cor 4:8-11). Our Lord Jesus Himself came face to face with many struggles during his earthly ministry. There were times when His human spirit was greatly troubled.
Trials can hit us gradually or quite suddenly. They come in various forms (James 1:2,3). Your trial may be a health concern, financial difficulties or a struggle against a particular sin. It may be a matter of coming to grips with being single, widowed or not being able to conceive children. You may struggle with accepting the Lord’s will when loved ones have done something terrible to you, or if family members stray or do not know the Lord. Trials can come in the form of disappointments, frustrations, misunderstandings, unfulfilled dreams, unmet expectations, hurtful slander, tremendous loss, loneliness, fear, criticism or conflict. In such difficulties our greatest certainties and principles are often challenged. Trials, however, are never an end in themselves but always serve the purpose of testing the genuineness and sincerity of our faith. They are meant to make us secure in the Lord.
A joyful response to trials
In the letter of James we are encouraged to consider it pure joy when faced with various trials. How can this be true? Isn’t joy restricted to good times? Are we to take pleasure in pain and suffering? Not at all! We are able to consider it pure joy when we face trials because we know that every hardship is in the hands of our Lord and Master. He will not use trials against us. Trials are the instruments the Lord uses to form us and to expose the spiritual faithfulness, endurance, growth, maturity and completeness He wants to see in us. They are sent upon us to enrich our faith. He Lord may bring a trial upon us to prod us out of our securities and outward support systems. We are brought to our knees in confession, “Whom have I in heaven but you?” (Ps 73:25).
To have joy in trials is learned just as we learn to be content in whatever state we find ourselves (Phil 4:11). If we value the comforts and conveniences of life too highly, trials will upset us. If we pursue having what we want, trials will cause us to be resentful and bitter rather than joyful and glad. If we live only for the present and forget the future, trials will fill our hearts with gall instead of joy.
Trials cannot be avoided. They must be accepted in faith. If we cannot consider it pure joy when we face various trials then we have to question our values. For once we see the positive purpose of trials we will rejoice. James encourages his readers to have a right attitude toward the difficulties of life.
When you and I meet various trials, we have no choice but to rejoice. For this is just as much a command as “You shall not kill,” or, “You shall not commit adultery.” We are under obligation to consider it pure joy when we face various trials. Most people can look back at a difficulty they experienced and rejoice in the support they received. They consider those memories as joyful. James instructs us to consider it pure joy – even when there is nothing positive about the entire experience.
We can consider it pure joy when we face trials because in faith, we look beyond them. Though tears fill our eyes and anxiety threatens our hearts we believe that through the trial the Lord is fulfilling his purpose. Our Sovereign Lord is leading the way, directing this situation to our eternal benefit. That gives fullness of joy; a pure, total and complete joy in the Lord. Trials pledge better things to come. The sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing to the glory that will be revealed (Rom 8:18). Joy in trials causes believers to consider it a privilege to have their faith tested – not because the trial is so pleasant. They know that through such tests the Lord is drawing them closer to Himself. For isn’t it true that when faced with the struggles of life we are much more aware of the presence of the Lord? When trials are missing, we so easily become sloppy, careless and comfortable in our routines. Bible reading and prayer are done out of habit but lack depth.
The proper and Christian reaction to trials and trouble is not humanistic resignation but joyful acceptance. The Lord will provide us with the strength to help us through it. When we suffer for doing what is right, we have God’s approval (1 Peter 2:20). He will not allow us to carry more than we can bear – even though those who suffer will never find the trial easy; often if it is not until later that we become aware of how the Lord was carrying us through the trial.
The worst of our trials do not even come close to the suffering Jesus Christ had to endure for us. He suffered in ways we cannot even imagine. The author to the Hebrews encourages us to “look to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame” (12:2). Jesus went through trials, looking beyond the suffering to the joy of eternal glory. Our Saviour was able to look beyond his afflictions, while suffering at the hands of men and afflicted by the heavy wrath of God.
Knowing the will of God in trials makes it possible for children of the Lord to sing psalms while being burned at the stake or imprisoned. With tears of grief rolling down their cheeks they can sing praise to the Lord, standing at a grave side. With the ache of loneliness, the pain of physical ailments, the strain of stress and anxiety they can still sing and make melody to the Lord in their hearts.
The apostle Paul was burdened by a thorn in the flesh – something that he had to bear for the rest of his life. Yet it did not embitter him! Instead he exclaimed, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest upon me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:9, 10).
Trials are meant to produce endurance
In the context of speaking about trials James writes, “…because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance” (1:3), When he says, “because you know,” he is not talking about knowledge that comes from textbooks but that which is gained from experience. By going through trials ourselves or by seeing others go through them we learn that the testing of our faith works endurance. Trials are meant to produce something very beneficial for ourselves and for others who see God at work in us throughout the time of testing.
The Lord tests us by means of various difficulties to increase our level of endurance. An athlete will go through vigorous training, exercise and discomfort because he knows it will increase his endurance levels. Similarly, the Lord tests us through trials to make us strong in faith. Implied in the word testing is the idea that what the Lord intends to do with the specific trial will be completed successfully. What comforting thought! When we might think we cannot go further the Lord assures us that we can in his strength. Our heavenly Father preserves to the end.
David expresses beautifully how a trial tested his faith and produces endurance. He proclaims in Psalm 40:1-3, “I waited patiently for the LORD; He turned to me and heard my cry. He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud; he set my feet on a rock, and gave me a firm place to stand. He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God.”
The Old Testament gives us several other examples of perseverance in trials. Job was severely tested when his children and his possessions were taken from him. His own wife turned against him and suggested he curse God and die. But Job remained steadfast. In his adversity and sorrow he praised the name of the Lord. He said. “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised” (1:21). Later, as he sat out on the garbage heap, afflicted with sores and totally misunderstood by his friends he was extremely miserable and troubled. Nevertheless, looking beyond the trial, he breaks forth and sings of his Redeemer, “I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes – I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me!” (Job 19:25-27). That is a marvellous example of how a severe trial produced perseverance.
The second example is from the prophecy of Habakkuk. The prophet cries out to the Lord in his affliction and confesses, “Though the fig tree does not bud, and there are no grapes on the vies, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there be no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls…” (and who would not be inclined to panic and become desperate in such a situation? But the prophet continues) “…yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God, my Saviour.” (3:17-18). In trials we must believe that the Lord God is your strength and your salvation. He will give you what you need to stand firm.
The only way out of a trial is to go through it. The Lord does not promise us a life without troubles and trials but He assures us that He will take us through it. Thus the Lord speaks these consoling words, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. For I am the LORD, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour” (Isaiah 43:2,3).
Let us pray that we and our fellow believers are not overwhelmed by afflictions. The Lord, who created and adopted us to be his children, knows what is best for us. How wonderful that when troubled by trials we can sing, “My soul, why are you sad and grieving, why so oppressed with anxious care? Hope yet in God, his Word believing; For light and joy from him receiving, I’ll praise his Name again and laud my Helper and my God (Book of Praise Ps 43:5)
(Rev P G Feenstra is minister of a Canadian Reformed Church. This article is published with his kind permission. It was earlier published in Clarion, Vol. 53, No 16.)