Why Trials Come

James 1:2-8

July 11, 2010 | Brian Bill

I begin today with a series of questions from someone who attends our church.  She has been wracked with worry and pummeled with pain: “Why does it seem some people just can’t get a…break?  It isn’t right and it isn’t fair to those of us who are trying to start over…Why do things always have to happen to my family?  I mean I know it’s just not mine but…I thought I had stopped it when I let go of some of my pain.  Did I do something to deserve this?  I just want to give up…I want to fight…I want to run…I hate this.”

Most of us have been there – at times we feel like throwing in the towel and then we want to fight and then we want to run away, but most of all, we just hate going through hard times.  We’re continuing in our series today called, “When Life is Hard” as we look at the common question, “Why Do Trials Come?”  

You may be like some hunters I read about that were trying to cash in on a bounty of $5,000 for capturing wolves alive.  This turned Sam and Jed into fortune hunters.  Day and night they scoured the mountains and forests looking for their valuable prey. Exhausted one night, they fell asleep dreaming of their potential fortune.  Suddenly, Sam awoke to see that they were surrounded by about fifty wolves with flaming eyes and bared teeth.  He nudged his friend and said, “Jed, wake up! We’re rich!”  Some of you are facing a pack of problems and some wolves of worry right now.

Am I willing not only to hear God’s answers, but to embrace them?

The “why” question hits the hardest and it hurts the most; and it’s the question that lingers the longest.   Before we look at this each of us need to face another question: Am I willing not only to hear God’s answers, but to embrace them?  In order to get us ready, let’s take some time right now to pray.  Tell God that nothing is off limits; that anything He wants to show you from Scripture is fine with you, no matter how difficult it is to hear.  If you’re not willing, tell Him that, too.  You might want to say, “God, it’s too hard and I’m not sure I want to hear what you have to say.  But Lord, I can’t go on like I have been, so I’m willing for you to make me willing.  If you choose to not change my circumstances, please change me.”

Please turn to James 1:2-8.  This book, inspired by the Holy Spirit, was humanly written by James, the brother of Jesus.  It was addressed to people who had experienced pain and persecution and had been scattered to different places.  This book, similar to the Book of Proverbs in the Old Testament, deals with the practical aspects of the walk of faith. If we have faith that works, it will be seen in how we face trials (chapter one), how we treat people (chapter two), how we talk (chapter three), how we deal with sin in our lives (chapter four) and how we pray (chapter five).  It’s interesting that the very first topic that James tackles is how to treat our trials.

Add Up Your Adversity

I think we could nominate James 1:2 as one of the most outrageous statements in the entire Bible: Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds.”  In just 108 verses, James has 54 different commands – and this is the first one.  Because this verse is so powerful, let’s look carefully at the various phrases.  

Consider it…”  Before most everyone is here on Sundays, I do a microphone check.  Some who arrive early like to tease me that I can only count to three because I usually say “Check.  Check. 1-2-3. Check.”  Just to show that I can go higher sometimes I go all the way up to five!  This word “consider” carries with it the idea of counting.  It’s literally the idea of “pressing your mind down on something.”  The picture is that of one leading his or her mind through a reasoning process to arrive at a conclusion.  And the tense conveys urgency.  We’re to weigh our worries, calculate our trials and put them in perspective.  The challenging part of this is that some of us have a hard time even getting to “three” because the junk in our lives has jettisoned our joy.

I like what Warren Wiersbe writes: “Our values determine our evaluations.  If we value comfort more than character, then trials will upset us.   If we value the material and physical more than the spiritual, we will not be able to ‘count it all joy!’  If we live only for the present and forget about the future, the trials will make us bitter, not better.”

Friends, we need to recognize why we’re here.  It’s not for our pleasure but for His purposes.  It’s not for our happiness, but for our holiness.  The life of a true Christian is all about displaying the superiority of the life lived in God.  Whatever you’re facing today, whether it’s a health situation or money problem or prodigal child or relational rupture or depression, right here, right now, in that situation, you have the opportunity to shine for Christ.  I just heard this week that those who find their purpose in life on average end up living seven years longer than those who don’t.

“Consider it pure joy…”  The unanimous testimony of the writers of the New Testament is that we can find jubilation in the midst of tribulation.  1 Peter 4:13: “But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ.  If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you.”  Instead of whining, we can worship.  Instead of just telling people that we’re “surviving” we can actually give testimony that we’re thriving through Christ.  The only way I know do this is to recognize that there’s a purpose in all of our problems.  James is not saying the trials are joyful in themselves but are a means to an end which is joyful.  In other words, joy in trials comes from knowing that the outcome will ultimately be positive.

We tend to equate “happiness” with joy but they are two totally different ideas because they each spring from a different source.  One comes from the world around me.  The other originates directly from the Spirit of the Living God.  Happiness is conditioned by and often dependent upon what is “happening” to me.  If people treat me well, if things are going OK in my life, then I’m happy.  If my circumstances aren’t favorable, then I’m unhappy. 

Beth and I will celebrate our 25th Wedding Anniversary this week.  I still can’t believe she said “yes”!  And neither can she!  I ran across this story this week: “On the back of a wedding anniversary card were some wiggly lines drawn by our 3-year-old grandson.  Alongside was a note from our daughter explaining that Trevor told her what he had written: “I’m writing a letter for your love and happy adversity.”  Into every anniversary comes some adversity.  Every marriage I know of has gone through some messy spots.

God’s Word Does the Work

Pastor David Platt describes an experience he had with some Asian believers in an underground house-church.  

On my first day with these believers, they simply asked me to lead a Bible study. “Please meet us tomorrow at two o’clock in the afternoon.”  So I put some thoughts together for a short Bible study and went to the designated location, where about twenty house-church leaders were waiting.  I don’t remember when we started, but I do remember that eight hours later we were still going strong.  We would study one passage, and then they would ask about another…it was late in the evening, and they wanted to continue studying, but they needed to get back to their homes…so they asked, “Can we meet again tomorrow?”

I said, “I would be glad to.  Should we meet at the same time?”  They responded, “No, we want to start early in the morning.”  I said, “Okay.  How long would you like to study?”  They replied, “All day.”  Thus began a process in which, over the next ten days, for eight to twelve hours a day, we would gather to study God’s Word.  They were hungry…one of them approached me.  “We have never learned any of this truth before, and we want to learn more.”  Then she dropped the bomb.  “Would you be willing to teach us about all the books of the Old Testament while you are here?”  I laughed.  Smiling, I said, “All the Old Testament?  That would take a long time.”

By this time others were joining in the conversation, and they said, “We will do whatever it takes…” So that’s what we did…On the next-to-last day, we finished in Malachi…so the last day I started teaching on a random subject.  But within an hour I was interrupted by one of the leaders.  “We have a problem,” he said.  Worried that I had said something wrong, I responded, “What is the matter?”  He replied, “You have taught us the Old Testament, but you have not taught us the New Testament.”  I smiled, but he was serious.  “We would like to learn the Old Testament today,” he said.  As other leaders across the room nodded, I had no choice.  For the next eleven hours, we walked briskly from Matthew to Revelation.

Just imagine going to a worship gathering in one of those house churches…The Asian believer who is taking you gives you the instructions.  “Put on dark pants and a jacket with a hood on it.  We will put you in the back of our car and drive you into the village.  Please keep your hood on and your face down.  When you arrive into the village under the cover of night, another Asian believer meets you at the door of the car.  “Follow me,” he says.  With your hood over your head, you crawl out of the car, keeping your face toward the ground.  You begin to walk with your eyes fixed on the feet of the man in front of you as he leads you down a long and winding path with a small flashlight.  You hear more and more footsteps around you as you progress down the trail.  Then finally you round the corner and walk into a small room.

Despite its size, sixty believers have crammed into it.  They are all ages, from precious little girls to seventy-year-old men.  They are either on the floor or on small stools, lined shoulder to shoulder, huddled together with their Bible in their laps.  The roof is low, and one light bulb dangles from the middle of the ceiling as the sole source of illumination.  No sound system.  No band.  No guitar.  No entertainment.  No cushioned chairs.  No heated or air-conditioned building.  Nothing but the people of God and the Word of God.  And strangely, that’s enough.  

God’s Word is enough for millions of believers who gather in house churches just like this one.  His Word is enough for millions of other believers who huddle in African jungles, South American rain forests, and Middle Eastern cities.  But is his Word enough for us?

Friends, joy comes only from God and arrives only when we wade deeply into His Word.  I like the definition of joy from one pastor: “Joy is a supernatural delight in the Person, purposes, and people of God.”  A supernatural delight in the purposes of God means you know there’s something bigger than yourself going on here.  Joy in trials says, “I’m going to find a way to trust Him even though I’m not seeing Him.”  

“Consider it pure joy my brothers…”  This word “brothers” is a term of affection, a phrase that communicates that we’re all part of the family of God.  James is giving this command as a plea based on relationship.  The other thing that strikes me is that joy is reserved for believers.  I’m mean, really.  Only a Christ follower would ever consider a trial joy.

“Whenever you face trials…”  The New King James (no, that’s not LaBron, which by the way, I think he took the easy way out by going to Miami) translates it this way: “When you fall into.”  That’s how it feels, doesn’t it?  You’re just minding your business and bam!  Notice it doesn’t say, “if” you fall into trials but “when” you face them.  I like the picture painted in the Amplified Paraphrase: “whenever you are enveloped in or encounter trials of any sort…”

This week we took Lydia to the college she’ll be attending in order to register for fall classes.  Yes, I cried.  I can’t imagine what I’ll do when we drop her off in September.  She met with an advisor and picked out her classes.  While she will have some electives, most of the classes for freshman are requirements.  It strikes me that trials are not an elective class but a required course for the Christian.

Chester Harding was painting Daniel Boone’s portrait in 1820, when Boone was nearly 86 years old.  Harding asked Boone if he had ever been lost during his travels.  Boone replied, “No, I can’t say as ever I was lost, but I was bewildered once for three days.”  My guess is that some of you feel lost and almost all of us have been bewildered by trials

“Of many kinds…”  In the Greek translation of the Old Testament, many kinds is the same phrase that is used to describe Joseph’s coat of many colors.  I haven’t been able to attend the Vermillion Players’ “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” but I’ve heard it’s outstanding.  How many of you are involved with this?  Joseph’s coat, as seen on the front page of the Daily Leader this past Thursday, is multi-colored.  Our trials are so different from each other, aren’t they?  What you’re going through is probably different than what I’m going through but that’s because God desires for each of us to grow through His own customized training program.   

Some suffering is tough and tragic and many trials are difficult and devastating.  We should never wish that we had someone else’s trial because God is using that individual’s tough time to accomplish His purposes in that person’s life, and He has something different that He’s trying to teach you.

It’s getting a bit heavy in here, don’t you think?  I have some beach balls and I thought if we bounced them around during the rest of the sermon we might all stay a bit more focused and it might even keep some of you from falling asleep.  Your assignment is to keep them up in the air and to not let them hit the ground.

The Good That Comes from the Bad

Let’s look now at James 1:3: “because you know that the testing of your faith develops…”  The word “testing” here refers to how precious metals are heated until they become liquid and all the impurities rise to the top so they can be scraped off.  Job 23:10: “But he knows the way that I take; when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold.”

Erwin Lutzer reminds us that, “God often puts us in situations that are too much for us so that we will learn that no situation is too much for Him.”  Do you know what God’s number one purpose is for you and for me?  To make us more like Jesus and He uses the junk in our lives to get us there.  There are some benefits that come from bad things.  We see this from the word “develops.”

1. Trials produce staying power. 

The word that James uses is “perseverance.”  This is translated as “patience” in the New King James or “endurance” in the New American Standard.  The Greek word comes from two words – one means to “remain” and the other means “under.”  The testing of your faith produces the ability to remain under.  This is counter to how most of us react to a trial because we just want out, we want to get on top, not be “under.”  He wants us to stick with it, to hang in there, to not bail on our marriage or our child.  Quitting short-circuits the good that God wants to bring from the bad.

I heard about an old dog that fell into a farmer’s well.  After considering the situation, the farmer decided that neither the dog nor the well were worth saving.  So, he decided to bury the old dog and put him out of his misery. When he began shoveling, the dog went hysterical.  But as the farmer kept on shoveling, and the dirt hit his back, a thought struck the old dog.  Each time a shovel full of dirt hit his back; the dog would shake off the dirt and step up.  So, blow after blow, the dog would shake it off and step up.  No matter how painful those shovels of dirt were, the old dog fought panic; he just kept shaking it off and stepping up.  Finally, the dog, battered and exhausted stepped triumphantly over the wall of that well.  What he thought would bury him actually benefited him because of the way he handled his adversity.

God chooses what we go through; we choose how we go through it

Perseverance is the ability to shake it off and step up when a load of trials are dumped on you.  God chooses what we go through; we choose how we go through it.  Why is it that so many people don’t “remain under” the trials that they face?  There were 100 people surveyed to find out what they wanted to do instead of hanging in there.  Here are the top four answers:

  • “I want to complain.” We’re going to let people know how we feel about our frustrations.
  • “I want to lash out.”  Unfortunately, we often take it out on the people closest to us.
  • “I want to bail.”  This isn’t what I signed up for when I got married.  That’s not why I became a mom or a dad.
  • “Take me out.”  I’d rather be dead than go through this.

I’m sure you’ve heard the joke about someone saying that they want patience and they want it right now!  Actually, if you want to become more patient, then get ready for some problems to come your way.  Amy Carmichael writes: 

No wound?  No scar?
Yes, as the Master shall the servant be,
And pierced are the feet that follow Me…
Can he have followed far
Who has no wound nor scar?

2. Trials lead to life transformation. 

Once we persevere, our trials can lead to transformation.  We see this in verse 4: “Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” The idea here is that perseverance brings us to the “intended end.”  If we persevere under pressure we will become mature.  The phrase “not lacking anything” means that all the necessary parts are present.  If you and I want to be mature and finished, with no needs, then we must learn how to stay under our suffering.  Only those who go through some messes will become mature.  This is far from easy.  

John Eldredge tells the story of a Scottish discus thrower from the 19th century.  He lived days before professional trainers and developed his skills alone in the highlands.  He made his own discus from the description he read in a book.  What he didn’t know was that the competition discus was made of wood with an outer rim of iron.  His discus was made of pure metal, four times heavier than the ones used by his would-be challengers. This committed Scotsman trained day after day, laboring under the burden of extra weight.  He marked the record distance and kept working until he could throw that far.  Of course, when he arrived at the competition, he was handed the official wooden discus.  He threw it like a tea saucer.  He set new records and for many years, none of his competitors could touch him. As Eldredge reflected on this story, he said, “So that’s how you do it – train under a great burden.”

3. God gives wisdom to help us understand. 

James 1:5 is one of those verses that gets quoted a lot but in the process gets taken out of context.  Let me remind you that we’ve been learning to consider it pure joy when we face trials and we’ve focused on some of the things that trials produce in our lives.  Having said all that, most of us are still going to have some questions.  It’s normal to wonder why.  God is promising here that He will give wisdom when we’re wondering why we’re going through such hard things: “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 established last week, wisdom refers to the ability to judge correctly and then to follow with correct conduct.  That certainly applies to tackling trials, doesn’t it?  God gives in two ways…

  • God gives generously.  This is in the present tense which shows that God just keeps giving and giving and giving.  That reminds me of Ephesians 3:20: “Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us.”
  • God gives graciously.  Notice that when God gives wisdom He’s not out to find fault with us and He gives it to all, without playing favorites by bestowing wisdom on just a few.  For those of us in Christ, we need to claim the promise of Romans 8:1: “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”

Friend, ask God for wisdom, for insight into the next gap He wants to fill between who you’ve been and who He wants you to be.  We need wisdom in our trials so that we will not waste our trials and miss what it is that God wants to teach us.  Ask Him for staying power even while you’re suffering right now.  We have some handouts available today that show the difference between what we say and what God says.  The first section focuses on our problems and the next column gives us God’s promise followed by a Scripture reference.  I’ll just pick one to illustrate.  You say, “I can’t figure it out.”  God says, “I will direct your steps.”  This is from Proverbs 3:5-6.

4. Ask God to deal with your doubts. 

We see this in verse 6: “But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind.”  The oil spill in the gulf has demonstrated what wind and waves can do.  If you and I don’t deal with our doubts the tar balls will keep rolling onto the shores of our souls.  Speaking of beaches, let’s think about those beach balls you’ve been hitting around.  The doubter is like a beach ball that gets hit and tossed around.

If you and I don’t really want to stand up under and know how it is that God wants us to grow, verse 7 is like a slap in the face: “That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord.”  Do you really want wisdom?  Then you must be willing to receive whatever God wants to do in you, trials included. 

According to verse 8, a doubter “is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does.”  John Bunyan in “Pilgrim’s Progress” called this, “Mr. Facing-Both-Ways.” A doubter is like someone with two souls, a fence sitter who is trying to have it both ways: “I want what God wants, but I don’t want what He wants.  I want to grow but I also want to gripe.  I want to learn but I’m tired of feeling like a loser.  I want to get better but I kind of like staying bitter.  I want to be reconciled but the thought of revenge seems so sweet.”  When we’re conflicted like this, we end up becoming very unstable.  This word was used to describe one who is unsettled, unsteady, staggering, and reeling like a drunken man.  Someone has said if your heart and mind are divided, trials will tear you apart.  

Someone once asked C.S. Lewis, “Why do the righteous suffer?” To which he replied, “Why not?  They’re the only ones who can take it.”

Taking it Home

I want to give you some homework today.  You were given four index cards in your bulletin.  I’d like you to them home and fill them out.  You can start now if you’d like but I think you’ll need some time.  Let me go through each card so the assignment is clear.

  1. WHAT HAPPENED TO ME?  Simply write down the details of your trial.
  2. WHY AM I HERE ON EARTH?  What’s the purpose of my life according to God’s Word?
  3. HOW CAN THIS TRIAL ADVANCE THAT PURPOSE?  What can I do today to advance the purpose of displaying the superiority of a life lived in God?
  4. WHAT RESOURCES CAN I ACCESS THIS MOMENT TO HELP ME?  If you’re a follower of Christ, you are one of God’s children and have the strength and comfort of the Holy Spirit within.  You have the Word of God giving wisdom to direct your path.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?