What is the darkest or most difficult experience you have had to date? Christian author Randy Alcorn was asked that question, and posted his answer on his blog and Facebook page recently, talking about a difficult time for his family where he felt like his church leaders also let him down. In the Facebook comments below his story, other Christians shared a variety of difficult personal experiences including: watching a spouse have a stroke, witnessing a parent have a hard attack, losing a 6-year-old child, losing a brother to suicide, finding out a spouse had committed adultery, losing parents in an accident, having abusing parents, having an abusive spouse, and losing a 13-year-old child.
Some of you can or will identify with the heartbreak of a such events, that have an impact well beyond the initial crisis. Other trials may seem less heartbreaking initially, yet can take a serious toll over a period of time. The largely secular society we live in wants to maximise pleasure, and minimise pain. Yet no matter how much we try to minimise pain, none of us can completely avoid it. Are there any real answers or hope for suffering when it does come? The approach James, the younger brother of Jesus, takes in James 1:1-18, ( NIV, ESV) is extremely helpful. As we look at this section of his letter we can notice: 1) The expectation of various trials, 2) Some benefits of trials, 3) Some dangers of trials 4) Some resources Christians have as we face trials
1. The expectation of various trials,
V2 says consider it pure joy, not if you face trials, but when you face trials, whenever you face trials of many kinds. Not all of us will experience the same trials. The word translated ‘many kinds’ here is a very wide word that takes in a whole variety of difficulties and trials Christians can face. James tells us we should expect them, just as Jesus also had said: In this world you will have trouble (John 16:33). Paul said, We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God (Acts 14:22)
We should expect to face trouble. In v9-11 James refers to both those who are rich and those whose situation in life is more humble. James says no matter how rich you are, you will ultimately fade away like a wildflower does. Most of you remember not that many years ago, Kerry Packer was Australia’s richest man. He could afford the best doctors, the best medical help, his life was saved on at least two occasions through significant medical help, yet even with all he had, he got to the point where he lost his health.
Rich or poor – difficulties, trials and death will ultimately affect us all. If you haven’t experienced any difficulties yet, don’t worry – you will. All you have to do is live a little longer! Christians should expect trials. That does not mean becoming gloomy about the prospect, James tells us here to consider it joy to face trials. How can he say that?
2. Some benefits of trials,
The Bible is not simplistic about trials. Trials can be heartbreaking, there’s nothing enjoyable about losing someone you love, or facing physical pain or abuse, the Bible doesn’t call us to enjoy pain, it can be right to grieve or weep. Yet James says here ‘consider it joy’ as we face them. To ‘consider’ means to think, to adjust our minds, so that we can have an attitude of joy even at the same time as we feel the deep grief, pain, or even frustration that trials can bring. To help us develop that attitude of joy, James points us to some of the benefits trials can bring:
a) Testing of your faith (v3)
James refers to trials or troubles in v3, as testing of our faith. It’s good to have our faith tested to see whether or not it is genuine.
Recently at Sovereign Hill in Ballarat, we saw a man melting gold at a high temperature – 1200C. The gold went this bright orange colour, the process was used to purify the gold, the high temperature causes the dross to separate and be left behind, and what is left is the genuine gold. Peter talks about suffering using that image in 1 Peter. He says our faith is worth even more than gold. Our faith is proved genuine as we face the fire of various trials.
Sadly, some will turn from God as they experience trials. If a trial turns you from God permanently, it shows your faith is not genuine. Going through difficulties, tests our faith, makes us consider whether we really love and trust God no matter what.
b) Endurance / Perseverance (v3)
v3 says this testing develops endurance or perseverance. A genuine Christian in the Bible is someone who endures, or perseveres in their faith in Jesus to the end. Remember the parable of the sower? Some hear the gospel, get excited for a while then lose interests, others fade or choke under the pressure of trials or the deceitfulness of wealth, but seed in the good soil, continues to grow and produce fruit.
We have come to share in Christ if we hold firmly till the end the confidence we had at first (Hebrews 3:14)
If you watched any of the Commonwealth games recently, I’m sure you’ll appreciate that no athlete won a gold medal, simply by turning up, they went through hours and years of training to develop their endurance for when they compete. Trials are one of the ways God develops our endurance, our perseverance, our desire to hold firmly to him to the end.
Many trials involve losing something we love, a person or a possession, or part of our health. When that happens we’re forced to think – do I love God more than whatever I am losing? If I lose this person, or thing, but still have God, will that be enough for me? Trials help us to see how much better God is than anything else. As we see more clearly how much more valuable it is to us to have God, our perseverance grows, things that might have competed with God, become less and less appealing in comparison.
c) Maturity (v4)
v4 Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.
Under God’s hand trials can help you to become a more godly spouse, more content in your singleness, a more godly parent, son or daughter, a more godly worker, a better person to live with as God strips away your love for other things, and helps you treasure him more and more.
If the highest goal you have in life is to be rich and comfortable, James command to consider it pure joy whenever you face trials, makes no sense at all. However if your highest goals, are to know God and to grow in godliness, James makes a lot of sense, we can see why we should consider it joy, because trials, test our faith, help us develop perseverance and bring maturity.
d) Crown of life (v12)
v12 Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.
Trials will produce present benefits, but also have future benefit. Trials don’t in any sense help us earn our way to heaven. Only Jesus death can save you and earn you forgiveness and the crown of life, but just as Jesus suffered for his people, so we can expect to suffer if we trust him, and wait for his appearing.
Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven (Matthew 5:11-12)
For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. (2 Corinthians 4:17)
When Paul spoke of light and momentary troubles, he was referring to being imprisoned, being stoned and left for dead, being beaten, being ridiculed and slandered, being abandoned. Yet he considers those troubles light and momentary in comparison to the eternal glory that is waiting for him.
Think about this quote for a moment: Whatever change or trouble a child of God meets with, it is all the Hell he shall have (Thomas Watson). If you are a Christian, the troubles you experience in this life are the closest you will ever get to hell. They will be nothing in comparison to the torment of being shut out from the presence of the living God forever, and nothing in comparison to the joy of receiving the crown of life, and the unhindered presence of God.
If you’re not a Christian, and you continue to resist God, this life will be the closest you will ever to heaven. You have nothing good to look forward to, only terror. James tells Christians to consider it joy as you face trials, because of the great benefits trials bring, both in this life and the life to come.
3. Some dangers of trials
a) Doubt and Double-mindedness v6-8
In v6 James refers to doubt. All Christians will experience doubts of some kind. It’s not wrong to ask big questions, to think things through, to pray and wrestle with issues you’re finding difficult. Yet there is a sort of doubt that is wrong and dangerous, and James shows us the characteristic of that doubt, by using a second word in v8 –double-minded. Jesus tells us we can’t serve two masters. You cannot serve God and money. You can’t expect to grow through trials if you are double minded. If you say you love and trust God, but you actually love or trust something else as much or more, that’s going to show up in times of testing. Trials that are difficult become devastating when we’re double-minded. Trials can help us ask the question Elijah asked, “How long will you waver between two opinions?….If the LORD is God, follow him!”
b) Being enticed by your evil desires (v13-15)
v13 When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; 14 but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. 15 Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.
Our biggest problem in trials, is not the external issue we face, but the internal desires of our heart. If you’re facing sickness, the medical issue you face is very real and pressing and obvious, but a greater issue you face is how your heart responds to that issue. Will you respond with faith in Jesus and love for Christ no matter what happens? Or will that issue lead to anger, or fear, excessive anxiety or bitterness as the evil desires in your heart, give birth to sin.
Trials give us a great opportunity to look at our hearts: Sickness, like any other weakness and trouble, can force us to stop and face ourselves, to stop and find the Lord. I may find sins I’ve been too busy to notice: neglectfulness, irritability, indifference, self-indulgence, unbelief, joylessness, worries, complaining, drivenness in work, trust in my own health and ability. (David Powlison) 
Trials can be used by God, to expose the sin that’s in our hearts, and help us to see things we may have been ignoring. A great danger of trials is that we fail to notice those evil desires, and desires like selfishness, or self-pity, or bitterness begin to grow and we turn more and more away from God.
4. Some Resources Christians have as we face trials
a) The example of Jesus (v1)
As James writes about trials in these verses, he very obviously has in mind the suffering Jesus went through. Look how James identifies himself in v1: he calls himself a servant of…the Lord Jesus Christ. That was a big statement, considering James was Jesus’ younger brother. I couldn’t imagine one of my younger brothers describing themselves as a servant of me. (I wouldn’t mind it, but it’s never going to happen!) And I know they would never call me Lord – the same word the Jews used to translate God’s name in the Greek Old Testament. Yet James is calling himself, a servant of his older brother – the Lord Jesus Christ. James didn’t always think this highly of Jesus, during Jesus ministry we read how his own brothers didn’t believe in him (John 7:5).
Yet 1 Corinthians 15 tells us that after Jesus rose from the dead, he appeared to James. James became a believer in Jesus. In fact, history tells us James died for his faith in Jesus. He was told to tell people to stop believing Jesus, but he refused. As he was being brutally martyred, he prayed that God would forgive those who were harming him. James doesn’t just talk about suffering, he showed that he knew how to suffer well. James knew the suffering Jesus went through so he could be forgiven. If you turn back a page or two in your Bible, you’ll read this: Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. (Hebrews 12:2-3)
Jesus considered it joy to face trials – not because he enjoyed the pain, but he knew the good that his trials would achieve. Jesus, like James, doesn’t just tell us to suffer, he leaves us an example to follow.
b) Generous heavenly Father (v5,17)
Some use trials to say, there’s no God – how can there be a god, if this is happening to me? But trying to push God out of the picture, doesn’t change your trials, they’ll still be there, and it doesn’t solve the intellectual issues, it opens up more difficulties, like: if there is no God, why is it that I think of things as good and evil anyway, why is that so universal in human beings? Trying to push God out of the picture takes away one of the greatest resources you can have for trials, a loving generous heavenly father:
v5 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….v17 Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.
The prayer we most want to pray in trials is for God to bring them to an end, to get rid of whatever it is that’s causing the trouble. God may do that, yet God knows what’s best for us better than we do. He knows that often what’s best for us, is for that trial to not yet come to an end, as he has more for us to learn, such as the sufficiency of his grace in our weakness. One prayer God will always answer in trials, is for wisdom: wisdom so we can know how we can live for him through this trial, wisdom so we can see what lessons God wants us to learn, as we go through the trial. Wisdom so we can grow in maturity. James says: ask for wisdom and it will be given.
c) God’s powerful word of truth (v18)
v18 refers to God’s word as the word of truth. James reminds us how powerful this word is: it is through this word that Christians receive the new birth. In a world of deception, half-truth, spin and lies that can make our trials even more difficult, what we most need to hear is God’s powerful word of truth. A couple of weeks ago, when I was sitting with my child in hospital, I picked up my Bible to read my chapters for the day, and I remember reading a phrase from 2 Samuel 22, where David says: God rescued me, because he delighted in me. I started thinking about the assurance that David had, that God delighted in him, not because of anything David had done, but simply through God’s grace. If you had that assurance, it wouldn’t matter what trials came up against you, it wouldn’t matter what others thought about you or said about you, it wouldn’t matter what pain you went through, you’d know God was using it for you good. You would know God delighted in you. If you are a Christian, you can have that assurance – God does delight in you. God demonstrated his love for us in this, while we were sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8) What shall we say in response to this, if God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all, how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?(Romans 8:31-32). When you’re going through trials, what you most need to hear is God’s powerful word. Pick up your Bible and read it, even though you may not feel like it. Get a recording of the Bible, so you can listen to it. Memorize it as a way of helping you dwell on a few verses. Come to church, even though you may not feel like it, let God’s powerful word speak to you and transform you, and help you to grow through your trials.
Related posts: Trusting God through hardship
 David Powlison, The Journal of Biblical Counseling, Winter 2005