How to Handle Hardship

James 1:2-5

July 18, 2010 | Brian Bill

I came across this response from a man who was asked for additional information from an insurance company.

In blank #3 of the accident form, I put “trying to do the job alone” as the cause of my accident.  You said in your letter that I should explain more fully, and I trust that the following details will be sufficient.  I am a bricklayer by trade.  On the date of the accident I was working alone on the roof of a new six story building.  When I completed my work, I found that I had about 500 pounds of brick left over.  Rather than carry the bricks down by hand, I decided to lower them in a barrel by using a pulley which fortunately was attached to the side of the building at the 6th floor.  Securing the rope at ground level, I went up to the roof, swung the barrel out, and loaded the bricks into it.  Then I went back to the ground and untied the rope, holding it tightly to insure a slow descent of the 500 pounds of brick.

You will note in blank #11 of the accident report that I weigh 135 pounds.  Due to my surprise at being jerked off the ground so suddenly, I lost my presence of mind and forgot to let go of the rope.  Needless to say, I proceeded at a rather rapid rate up the side of the building.  In the vicinity of the third floor, I met the barrel coming down.  This explains the fractured skull, and broken collar bone.  Slowed only slightly, I continued my rapid ascent, not stopping until the fingers of my right hand were 2 knuckles deep into the pulley.  Fortunately, by this time, I had regained my presence of mind, and was able to hold tightly to the rope, in spite of my pain.

At approximately the same time, however, the barrel of bricks hit the ground, and the bottom fell out of the barrel. Devoid of the weight of the bricks, the barrel then weighed approximately 50 pounds.  I refer you again to my weight in blank #11.

As you might imagine, I began a rapid descent down the side of the building.  In the vicinity of the third floor, I met the barrel coming up.  This accounts for the two fractured ankles, and the lacerations of my legs, and lower body area.  The encounter with the barrel slowed me enough to lessen my injuries when I fell onto the pile of bricks, and fortunately only three vertebrae were cracked.

I am sorry to report, however, that as I lay there on the bricks, in pain…unable to stand…and watching the empty barrel six stories above me…I again lost my presence of mind and let go of the rope.  The empty barrel weighed more than the rope, so it came back down on me, and broke both my legs.  I hope I have furnished the information you have required.

That’s the definition of a bad day, isn’t it?  Some of you are going through a barrel of problems as it feels like bricks have broken you into pieces.  

As I reflected on what God taught us last week, it strikes me that instead of just moving on to another passage that deals with pain, I want to make sure we’ve fully mined the depth of James 1.  And so, we’re going to do something that I’ve never done before.  We’re going to camp in the same passage again but this time approach it from a slightly different angle.  When we’re finished, I want to make sure that we have a practical game plan to handle hardship.  

I received a moving email from a pastor in South Africa this week who has subscribed to our weekly sermon email list.  Here’s what he wrote: “I had ministry ‘burnout’ during November 2009 and suffered 3 heart attacks and a stroke this year resulting in me not being able to minister at all.  I am, however, recovering slowly at the moment.” After reading last Sunday’s sermon, he added these words: “This week’s message has come as if you have preached it just for me.”  I’ve talked to many others who are striving to personally apply the message so I thought it would be helpful for all of us, me included, to take another shot at this same Scripture and focus more on application than interpretation.

Where do we go from here?  

Please turn to James 1:2-5 and let’s see what God has in store for us today: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.  If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him.”

God works His good through our trials when we pray and when we stay

Here’s what we’ve been discovering the last couple weeks: Trials are designed to teach us so that our conduct and our character changes. And this statement captures our focus for today: God works His good through our trials when we pray and when we stay.  

Pastor Ray preached a sermon some time ago called, “The Sixth Law of the Spiritual Life,” in which he states that there is no growth without struggle.  I was helped personally by four principles that he shared (other ideas in this sermon come from Ray and are used with permission).

  • Because we live in a fallen world, bad things happen to all of us.
  • We have no control over many things that happen to us or to those around us.
  • We do have complete control over how we respond.
  • Our response to our trials largely determines our spiritual growth—or lack thereof.

Let’s follow a simple outline today that focuses on the what, the why, and the how.  

1. What: Consider it joy. 

We see this in verse 2: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds.”  Sooner or later (probably sooner) we will all face trials of various sorts.  The word “face” has the idea of falling or stumbling over a problem.  J.B. Philips offers this paraphrase: “When all kinds of trials and temptations crowd into your lives, my brothers, don’t resent them as intruders, but welcome them as friends!” 

The thought occurs that “counting it all joy” when troubles come is not a natural response.  But that’s the whole point.  He’s talking about a “supernatural” reaction made possible by the Holy Spirit who enables us to see and to respond from God’s point of view.  Counting it all joy is a conscious choice we make when hard times come.  No doubt our main problem comes because we misunderstand the word “joy.”  Here’s a working definition: Joy is deep satisfaction that comes from knowing that God is in control even when my circumstances seem to be out of control.  

I’m told that there’s a pastor in Florida who occasionally throws “Count it all joy” parties. He prepares a nice invitation, sends it out to lots of people, and then waits for the response. “Why are you having this party?  Is it your birthday?  Is it your anniversary?  Did you get a raise?” they ask him. “No, I’m having this party because I’m going through a hard time right now and I want to celebrate because I know God has something good planned for me in the end.”  Perhaps we need to throw a party when we’re in pain.  That leads us to the next step.

2. Why: Concentrate on the benefits. 

We see this in verses 3-4: “Because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance.  Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”  Do you see the word “because”?  And then the phrase, “so that”?   These two verses tell us why we need to consider it joy.  It’s because the two results are perseverance and maturity.  That helps us see that there’s a purpose behind our problems but we’re going to have make a choice to concentrate on the benefits and not drift toward bitterness.  God works His good through our trials when we pray and when we stay.  

When trials come, there’s something we can’t know and something we can know.

  • We can’t always know why things happen the way they do.  No matter how hard we try to figure things out, there will always be many mysteries in life.  I received an email this week from someone who said: “And sometimes the trials seem to be never-ending.  I cannot honestly tell you when the last time I had little pain.  It is with me 24/7.  I have learned a long time ago to not ask why or say it’s not fair.”  God does not explain himself to us, nor does He have to.  As we go through life, we can look back and see many blanks that we wish God would fill in for us.  Most of the time we will carry those unfilled blanks with us all the way to heaven.
  • When hard times come, we can know that God is at work in our trials for our good and for his glory.  I started reading a new book this week by Drew Brees, Super Bowl MVP for the New Orleans Saints.  I really like the title: “Coming Back Stronger: Unleashing the Hidden Power of Adversity.”  When he was seriously injured in a game when he was with the San Diego Chargers, he thought his career was over.  As a born again believer he chose to concentrate on the benefits.  Listen to what he wrote in the introduction: “God, I know if you bring me to it, you will bring me through it.  I know you have a plan, but quite honestly I don’t see it right now.  But I know it’s there.  I know I have to believe…I have to trust you.  And I do trust you.  But it’s hard right now.”

And so, let’s consider it joy, let’s concentrate on the benefits and finally, let’s connect to God’s wisdom.

3. How: Connect to God’s wisdom. 

Check out verse 5: “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him.”  As we learned last week, God gives wisdom when we go through tough times.  When you’re in some sort of affliction and have lost your way, ask God for insight.  While His answer is always personal, I want to conclude today with some wise ways we can respond.  I’m going to go over 12 ways to walk in wisdom in the hopes that maybe half of them will find traction with you.  But remember this, it’s not simply a matter of hearing, it ultimately comes down to doing.  If we look ahead a bit to James 1:22, we read these words: “Do not merely listen to the Word, and so deceive yourselves.  Do what it says.”  All this talking must affect our walking.  God works His good through our trials when we pray and when we stay.  

Walking the Way of Wisdom

Let me go back to the question, “Where do I go from here?”  

Chuck Swindoll writes: “I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me and 90% of how I react to it.”  Here are a dozen ways to react and respond to adversity.

1. Soak up the Scriptures. 

Camp out in the Book of Psalms if you’re suffering.  You and I have to be in the Word every day, even if we don’t feel like it.  One advantage to soaking up the Scriptures is that the truth of God’s Word will settle down deep while you’re going through struggles.  For example, when you feel like God has left you all alone, turn to Hebrews 13:5 which says, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.”  In the Greek, this sentence has five negatives.  Listen to how Kenneth Wuest translates it: “I will not, I will not cease to sustain and uphold you.  I will not, I will not, I will not let you down.”

2. Declare your doubts. 

It’s not wrong to ask questions, or even complain to God.  The Book of Job and many of the Psalms express serious questions to God.  For example, Psalm 10:1 begins rather abruptly: “Why, O LORD, do you stand far off?  Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?”  

Friend, it’s much better to ask God where He’s been than it is to wear your spiritual smiles and act like everything’s going well when you know it isn’t

When tragedy leaves you teetering and tottering, it’s not unspiritual to declare your questions to God.  He’s big enough to handle your hurts.  Friend, it’s much better to ask God where He’s been than it is to wear your spiritual smiles and act like everything’s going well when you know it isn’t.  It’s better to express it to the Almighty than it is to suppress it and live in agony.

3. Worship God while He works out His will in your life. 

John Piper has written an amazing article called, “Don’t Waste Your Cancer.”  He sat down the night before his cancer surgery and reviewed ten ways to make sure we don’t waste any pain that we have.  Let me warn you that his words may strike you as bold and blunt.  In order to help us apply what He’s saying to each of our situations, I’m going to change the word “cancer” to “hardship.”  

  • You will waste your hardship if you do not believe it is designed for you by God. 
  • You will waste your hardship if you believe it is a curse and not a gift. 
  • You will waste your hardship if you seek comfort from your odds rather than from God. 
  • You will waste your hardship if you refuse to think about death. 
  • You will waste your hardship if you think that “beating” hardship means staying alive rather than cherishing Christ. 
  • You will waste your hardship if you spend too much time reading about hardship and not enough time reading about God. 
  • You will waste your hardship if you let it drive you into solitude instead of deepen your relationships with manifest affection. 
  • You will waste your hardship if you grieve as those who have no hope. 
  • You will waste your hardship if you treat sin as casually as before. 
  • You will waste your hardship if you fail to use it as a means of witness to the truth and glory of Christ. 

4. Develop a theology of suffering. 

It was A.W. Tozer who said, “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.”  I’m convinced that many of us have an inadequate, or even an inaccurate, view of God.  Randy Alcorn writes: “We live in an era when popular culture, despite its shallowness, has a far-reaching influence on the average person’s worldview.  This entertainment-driven and self-gratification-obsessed blend of pop psychology, pop philosophy, and pop theology has become its own worldview.”  

Darrell Scott’s daughter Rachel was the first to die in 1999’s Columbine school shootings.  When asked what we should do to prepare for evil and suffering, he answered without hesitation: “Most Christians lack grounding in God’s attributes, including his sovereignty, omnipotence, omniscience, justice and patience.  We dare not wait for the time of crisis to learn perspective.  Don’t be content to be hand-fed by others.  Do your own reading and study, devour good books, talk about the things of God.”

Can I speak bluntly for a few minutes (you’re thinking, “Haven’t you already been doing that?”).  Randy Alcorn points out that prosperity theology has poisoned the church and undermined our ability to deal with evil and suffering.  Some churches, and books, have no place for pain.  One popular author writes: “Biblical prosperity is the ability to be in control of every circumstance and situation that occurs in your life.  No matter what happens, whether financial, social, physical, marital, spiritual or emotional, this type of prosperity enables you to maintain control in every situation.” 

Friends, we overrate health and underrate holiness.  The pastor of the largest church in America writes, “Maybe Alzheimer’s disease runs in your family genes, but don’t succumb to it.  Instead, say every day, ‘My mind is alert.  I have clarity of thought.  I have a good memory.  Every cell in my body is increasing and getting healthier.’  If you’ll rise up in your authority, you can be the one to put a stop to the negative things in your family line…Start boldly declaring, ‘God is restoring health unto me.  I am getting better every day in every way.” (Joel Osteen, Become a Better You, New York: Free Press, 2007, pages 45, 114)

In an “it’s all about me” world, we don’t accept answers that entail our inconvenience, much less our suffering and death.  Friends, study the Scriptures.  Take your family to the righteous men and women in Scripture who suffer and get sick and die.  Demanding that God always heal us and remove adversity is like asking Him to afflict us with spiritual apathy.  After seeing so much food and the outstanding accommodations at a retreat in Texas, a pastor from China that we work with through Keep Believing ministries said this, “There’s just too much. You don’t even need to pray here.”  Wow, I’m afraid that’s a commentary on our Christian subculture here in America.

Did you know that the prayers in Scripture deal far more with spiritual growth than with physical health or wealth?  I love what Randy Alcorn says, “When hard times come, people should lose their faith in false doctrine, not in God.”

5. Don’t unplug or you will unravel. 

There are people who are not here today because they’re angry at the Almighty for something that’s happened in their life.  May I appeal to you to not unplug from church when you’re hurting?  Hebrews 10:25 offers a warning to each of us: “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another-and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”  It’s easy to get out of the habit of going to church.  And, once you establish the habit of going, you will hang in here when hard times come.  Someone said it this way: “Make Sunday attendance a habit so when you can’t praise, you will continue the habit anyway.”  

6. Serve others who are suffering.  

Have you ever noticed how putting others first helps us deal with our own problems?  When God comforts us, He wants to use what He teaches us to help others. We see this in 2 Corinthians 1:3-4: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.”

7. Submit to God’s sovereignty. 

Look at Habakkuk 3:19: “The Sovereign LORD is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to go on the heights.”  Habakkuk holds on to the fact that God is sovereign, which refers to His unlimited power and absolute control.   A deer is swift and surefooted and can scamper up hills and mountains to find safety and freedom even on rocky paths and difficult ground.  Shortly after I became a Christian I read a book called, “Hinds Feet on High Places” by Hannah Hurnard, which is an allegory of the Christian life.  It’s the story of a young woman named “Much-Afraid,” and her journey away from her Fearing family into the High Places of the Shepherd, guided by her two companions Sorrow and Suffering.  

Have you made it to the high places?  Don’t discount the importance of going there with sorrow and suffering.  With God we can rise above our circumstances.  But, you must submit to His sovereignty. 

8. Force yourself to think about God’s faithfulness. 

The prophet Jeremiah’s writings are filed with “why” questions as he lists his grievances with God.  But when he’s finished, he forced himself to think about what is true.  Listen to what he wrote in Lamentations 3:19-23: “I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall.  I well remember them, and my soul is downcast within me.  Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.”  God has a solution to match my suffering but I have to deliberately choose to claim His promises.  

9. Accept what cannot be changed, and allow God to change you. 

Even though your circumstances may not change, God can use them to change you.  Some of us are not growing because we’re stuck in griping mode.  Others of us are trying to control what only God can control.  Is it time to let go?  Is it time to accept the adversity?  Something that’s helped me is to realize that my health situation, at least right now, it the “new normal” for me.  Sure, I’d like to feel “normal” again but maybe this is my normal and I just need to accept it.  To say it another way, it’s time focus on what’s left, not what’s lost.

10. If you want to be better, let go of bitterness. 

Hebrews 12:15 gives us a strong warning about how bad bitterness can be: “See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.” Too many times we speak as if we were involuntarily overwhelmed and had no choice but to be bitter, angry, and hostile.  It’s better to say, “I could give in to anger but by God’s grace I will choose a higher road.  I could turn away from my Lord but I will not do it.”

11. Put your trust in Jesus who suffered in your place in order to solve your sin problem. 

While you won’t be delivered from all evil and suffering right now, you will be when you leave this world.  If you don’t receive Christ into your life, the pain and suffering you’re experiencing now will be nothing like the eternal torment and unending agony that awaits you when you die.

12. Make up your mind to go forward no matter what. 

Pastor Ray came up with this faith formula that is really helpful.

I can’t go back.

I can’t stay here.

I must go forward.

David Livingstone, a pioneer missionary to Africa, returned to Great Britain and was asked, “What do you want to do now?”  I love his response: “I am ready to go anywhere provided it be forward.”   

Maybe we can’t fill in all the blanks but we can move forward by faith, no matter how many bricks we’ve hit.  I’d like you to take a few minutes while we play a video and think through what it is that God wants you to put into practice.  Sometimes God calms the storms around us and other times He calms us within. 

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?