We began to study the book of James a few weeks ago. At that time I explained that the James who wrote this book was probably the James who was the Lord’s half-brother and who became a prominent figure in the early New Testament church.
And he was writing this book, or this letter, to believers who had been scattered among the nations. They had been scattered perhaps because of persecution. But they were also scattered in the sense that the church is no longer located in one nation only, as was the case in the Old Testament. The church is found everywhere, in every nation, because Jesus Christ is the Saviour of the world.
So, James the Lord’s half-brother was writing to believers who were scattered among the nations. And he was writing them a practical letter. His letter is all about the things we’re to do as believers and it’s about the way we’re to treat one another. It’s about how we should speak to one another and how we should welcome newcomers into the church. ‘Do not merely listen to the word’, James says. ‘Do what it says.’ His book is all about what we’re to do.
But it’s also about our faith as well, and it’s about the things we’re to believe and how we’re to keep trusting in the Lord no matter what.
Trials of many kinds
Today’s sermon could almost be a sequel to what we were hearing last Sunday evening. Last Sunday evening we were listening to the words of the Lord Jesus in Luke 9 where he said that if anyone would come after him, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow the Lord. And when the Lord said that we’re to take up our cross daily, he was referring to the suffering we can expect to face because of our faith in the Lord Jesus. He was talking about suffering for Christ’s sake and for the gospel’s sake. That’s what we were thinking about last week. And now, this week, here’s James, referring to trials of many kinds which his readers could expect to face.
And really, the Bible has a lot to say to us about troubles and trials; and it makes clear that our life here on earth is a troubled life. I think I mentioned on another occasion how I was talking to someone who is having a really hard time at work. It’s a struggle every day. And my friend said he can’t understand it. He was sure it was God’s will for him to take this job. And so, if it’s God’s will for him to work in this place, why is it so hard? Well, I pointed him to this verse to show him that this life is often a troubled life, because James talks about believers facing trials of many kinds.
And Peter in his first letter said something similar. Listen to what he wrote in 1 Peter 1:
In this [the gospel] you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials….
We rejoice in the gospel, but we grieve because of the many trials we have to face. And then later Peter said:
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.
When you go through trials, don’t think something strange is happening to you.
And then there’s Paul in 2 Corinthians 1 who wrote to his readers and said to them that he didn’t want them to be uninformed about the hardships he had suffered. We were under great pressure, he said. Far beyond our ability to endure. We despaired even of life.
And then, in Romans 8 Paul refers to our present sufferings which are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. And, of course, that’s the point, isn’t it? There’s glory awaiting us in the presence of the Lord. But right now, in this life, there’s suffering.
And we need to know this, because often I read modern Christian books or Christian blogs on the internet and they make out that it’s all glory now. It’s all glory now, and the church is going to rise up and sweep through the land and transform the world around us and it’s all going to be great. And individual Christians are going to do great things. But what does the Bible say? It teaches us that the church is often weak and obscure and despised and the life of the believer is going to be marked by suffering and sorrow and trouble. Yes, there’s going to be glory, one day. But not yet. And right now, we need to endure.
But, of course, I don’t really need to say this, do I? We all know this by experience. My guess is that probably all of us, probably all of us, have experienced trials and troubles this past week. And if we haven’t experienced trials and troubles this past week, we can certainly remember occasions not so long ago when life was really very hard for us.
And by referring to trials of many kinds, James is referring to all kinds of trials. So, he’s not only referring to the suffering we might experience because we’re believers. He’s also referring to all the other ways we can suffer in this life. And this past week, I’ve spoken to people, who are going through trials. People have spoken to me about these things or I’ve seen what you’re going through. Or, when we meet for prayer, sometimes the prayers people pray reveal the things that are hurting them most of all. So, it’s trials of many kinds.
And then, James refers to facing trials. Another way to translate that word ‘facing’ is to say we fall into trials of many kinds. The same word was used in the Lord’s parable of the Good Samaritan. Do you remember? The man was travelling along the road from Jerusalem to Jericho when he fell into the hands of robbers. So, we’re going about our daily lives, minding our own business, when suddenly, bang, a trial hits us. It just leaped out at us, from out of the blue. We weren’t expecting it. We weren’t asking for it. We often didn’t do anything to cause it. But, bang! It hits us. That’s what James is referring to. And that’s our own experience, isn’t it? From out of the blue, trials of many kinds leap out at us.
Consider it pure joy
I could just end the sermon here and say:
That’s the way life is, folks. Get used to it!
But James says something surprising, doesn’t he? He says in verse 2:
Consider it pure joy, my brothers, when you face trials of many kinds.
Consider it pure joy. Consider it complete, unalloyed joy. Whenever you face trials of many kinds, regard it as an occasion for joy. What a remarkable thing to say! You see, whenever we face trials, our natural reaction is to be sad and sorrowful. Our natural reaction is to cry or to complain. But James tells us to respond to adversity with joy. What does he mean?
Let me say what he doesn’t mean. He doesn’t mean that we should respond to trials with joy and with joy only. When he says ‘count it pure joy when you face trials’, he’s not saying that joy should be the only response we make. As well as joy, we will react with sorrow and sadness because something awful and painful has happened to us. But as well as experiencing sorrow and sadness, there can also be joy.
And then he’s not saying that we should rejoice because of the trials themselves. He’s not saying we should take pleasure in pain. No, what he’s saying is that we can count it pure joy because of the benefit we receive from our trials. The trial itself is hard. But because of the trial, we receive a certain kind of benefit. And that’s a reason to rejoice. There’s something we gain through going through trials which we could not gain in any other way.
So, what is it that we gain from our trials? Look back to the text. James wrote:
Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance.
Facing trials tests our faith. Now, the commentators discuss what James means by the testing of our faith, because really there are two possible meanings.
The first is that our faith needs to be tested to see whether it’s genuine or not. I was in a shop the other day, and handed over a note to pay for the goods I was buying. And the shop assistant put the note under some kind of device presumably to test whether or not it was genuine. Or, when I was watching TV as a boy, you’d see some character in a movie bite a coin to see whether it was really a gold coin or only fake. Well, our faith needs to be tested to see whether it’s genuine or not.
Later on in his letter, James will say more about this, because it’s clear that there’s faith and there’s faith. There’s a genuine faith, a saving faith, and there’s a false faith, a dead faith, as James calls it in chapter 2. Or think of the Lord’s parable of the seed and the sower. Some of the seed fell on the rocky ground which didn’t have much soil. And so, although the seed sprouted quickly, the plants soon withered because they had no root. And the Lord went on to say that that stands for those who hear the good news, and immediately, immediately they respond with joy. And it seems they believe and have been converted. But they don’t last. They seemed to believe, but it wasn’t a true, saving faith. And it’s interesting because in the Lord’s parable, he says that they gave up whenever what happened? When trouble or persecution comes, they quickly fell away. Do you see? Troubles and persecution test our faith and prove whether or not it’s the real thing. False faith will not last, but a true, saving faith will endure through the test.
There’s that kind of testing: through troubles and trials our faith is tested to see whether it’s genuine. However, there’s another kind of testing. Through troubles and trials our faith is tested in the sense that it’s refined. You know, metal is heated in order to remove the impurities. And so, our faith is heated, it’s tested through troubles and trials, in order to refine it.
We can regard our troubles and trials with joy because there’s something we gain through going through these trials which we could not gain in any other way. And what we gain is the testing of our faith. Through testing, we learn that our faith is genuine. And through testing, our faith is purified and refined by the trials.
And what does this refining process lead to? Well, James tells us: it leads to perseverance. Steadfastness. The picture behind the word is of a person who is able to carry a heavy load for a long time. He’s able to stick at it and not give up. And really that’s one of the greatest qualities a believer can have. Again, if you go back to the Lord’s parable of the sower, he refers to those who receive the word at once with joy. But they don’t last. And that happens so often, doesn’t it? Someone gets very enthusiastic about the gospel. It’s all they want to talk about and they’ll go to every meeting they can and they’ll sign up for missions in the summer. They’re full of zeal. But they don’t last.
That’s not what we want. What we want are believers who are able to keep going, week by week, month by month, year by year. People who will be faithful over the long term. And the way for perseverance and steadfastness and stickability to develop, is through the testing of our faith through enduring troubles and trials of many kinds.
I can think of someone I knew who spent some months working on a building site. And it was hard work. All that lifting, and hauling cement around and carrying bricks from place to place and moving timber. It was hard, physical labour. But at the end of it, I remember looking at him, and what a transformation in his appearance, because he now had all this muscle over his body which he didn’t have before. The hard work gave him a new strength and a new stamina.
So, we can consider it pure joy whenever we face trials of many kinds, not because the trials are pleasant in themselves — they’re not — but because we know the Lord is able to use these trials to test and to refine our faith and to enable us to become strong in the faith so that we’ll be able to keep going.
Or I see these runners, out on the Antrim Road. Every evening, they’re out, pushing themselves along at a steady pace. Well, they’re the ones who will be able to run the marathon successfully. They’ve trained themselves to keep going. Now, we want to keep going in the Christian life, don’t we? We want to keep going until the end. We don’t want to fall back and to fall away from the Lord. Well, the Lord is able to use the trials of this troubled life to refine our faith so that we will persevere right to the end.
Mature and complete
As one writer puts it, we’re not to regard trials as our enemy, and we’re not to resent them as intruders. Instead we should learn to regard them as friends, because of the good which comes from them. And in verse 4 James goes on to say to his readers — and to us — that the testing of our faith and the strength to endure and to persevere which comes from it, produces something else in us which is good. Look at verse 4:
Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking in anything.
All of the trials we face in life are the means by which God works in our life to make us grow and mature as believers. So, think of the carpenter, going back and forth with his plane, over and over again, over a piece of wood to remove the rough parts and to make it perfectly smooth. That’s what God is doing in our life. Over and over and over again, God uses the trials and difficulties we face to remove all that is wrong in us and to make us complete and perfect believers. The process will never be over in this life. We’ll never be perfect and complete in this life. But that’s what God is aiming at in us, and he works in us, over and over again, again and again and again, to make us complete.
And, you see, without the benefit we receive from these trials, we would lack what we need to serve the Lord. Now, we can all think of people we’ve come across who have lacked something important which stops them from being really good at their job. A doctor without a good bedside manner; and all he does is upset and make his patients anxious. A teacher without the necessary patience who is always losing her temper with the children. A painter without a steady hand and a good eye and he’s always making a mess when painting your house. Well, the Lord works in our lives in order to ensure we have all the qualities we need and don’t lack any essential virtue which will prevent us from serving him and glorifying him.
When we have to face trials this coming week, or this coming month, or year, we need to remember and believe that the Lord is able to use these trials to test and refine our faith. and to produce in us the strength we need to persevere. And he uses these trials to help us become mature and complete believers.
And that should affect the way we think about the trials of this troubled life. And it should affect the way we pray whenever we’re facing adversity. You know, someone is not well and we pray for them to be healed. And sometimes that’s all we ask for. Or we’re going through a hard time and we pray that the Lord will help us through it. And sometimes that’s all we ask. But as well as asking for healing and for relief, we should also learn to pray for the Lord to use this trial to test and refine our faith, and to help us to develop perseverance, and to enable us to become mature and complete believers, lacking nothing.
Do you remember how the Apostle Paul prayed three times for the Lord to take away the thorn in his flesh? That’s what we do. We’re sick. So:
Lord, take our illness away.
We’re under pressure. So:
Lord, grant us peace.
But the Lord didn’t take away the thorn in Paul’s flesh. Instead he gave him the grace he needed to endure. And through suffering the thorn in his flesh, Paul discovered something new about the Lord’s strength and power to uphold him. So, whatever troubles we face, whatever trials we suffer, we should be praying for the Lord to use these things to help us to grow as believers.
And, finally, since we all go through troubles and trials, we should also learn to sympathise with one another. And we should learn to be patient with one another. You know, someone annoys us. And we can be very critical of them. But, who knows what trial this person is going through? Who knows what this person has to put up with every day. We get annoyed with them. We find fault with them. We’re impatient with them. Well, perhaps we should remember that this person is probably going through something I know nothing about. So, perhaps I should be a bit more patient with him. Perhaps I should be a bit kinder to her. Perhaps I should treat him with a bit more consideration, because who knows what trial this person is going through right now.
Last week we heard that we’re to take up our cross. This week we’ve heard that we’ll face trials of many kinds. But we can rejoice because even our trials are in God’s hands and he’s able to use them for our good and his own glory.