The Pressure of Trials

The Point:  Joyful trust in God will see you through all trials.

Joy in Various Trials:  James 1:1-2.

[1]  James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion: Greetings. [2]  Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds,

[1-2]  James reminds his readers that God brings difficulties into believers’ lives for a purpose, and that this purpose can be accomplished only if they respond in the right way to their problems. Implicit in what James says is a conviction that the suffering of believers is always under the providential control of a God who wants only the best for His people. James does not suggest that Christians facing trials will have no response other than joy, as if we were commanded never to be saddened by difficulties. His point, rather, is that trials should be an occasion for genuine rejoicing. The word that is translated trials has two distinct meanings in the New Testament. They can denote either an outward trial or process of testing or they can denote the inner enticement to sin: temptation or tempt. The latter meaning is seen in verses such as 1 Timothy 6:9: But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation; and in James 1:13-15: Let no one say when he is tempted. The context around James 1:2 makes it clear that the correct translation here is trials or testing since they have as their purpose the testing of faith and need to be endured. What were the trials that James’s readers were enduring? Poverty must certainly have been prominent among them. James’s letter is filled with references to poverty and wealth and he makes clear that at least the majority of his readers are poor. James 2:6-7 makes pretty clear that religious persecution was one of the causes of the poverty the believers were experiencing. Rich people, who were slandering the name of Christ, were exploiting the Christians and dragging them into court. But contributing to their poverty as well was their situation as exiles, forcing them to establish themselves in a new and strange situation. And this in turn suggests that the trials James mentions include more than religious persecution. By stressing that the trials were various (of many kinds), James deliberately casts his net widely, including the many kinds of suffering that Christians undergo in this fallen world: sickness, loneliness, bereavement, disappointment, etc.

Testing of Faith:  James 1:3.

[3]  for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.  [ESV]

[3]  Why can believers react to trials with so strange and unexpected a response as joy? Because we know that God uses trials to perfect our faith and make us stronger Christians. So runs James’s answer in verses 3-4. He touches here on what must have been a standard early Christian encouragement to suffering believers, because both Paul [Rom. 5:3-4] and Peter [1 Peter 1:6-7] say much the same thing that James says here. Trials, James explains, involve the testing of your faith. Testing translates a rare Greek word, which is found elsewhere in the New Testament only in 1 Peter 1:7: the tested genuineness of your faith. It is used outside of the Bible to denote the process of refining silver or gold, and this is the way James uses the word. The difficulties of life are intended by God to refine our faith: heating it in the crucible of suffering so that impurities might be refined away and so that it might become pure and valuable before the Lord. The testing of faith here, then, is not intended to determine whether a person has faith or not; it is intended to purify faith that already exists. Testing produces, first of all, steadfastness (perseverance). The picture that this word presents to us is that of a person successfully carrying a heavy load for a long time. The New Testament repeatedly emphasizes the need for Christians to cultivate this quality of steadfastness when facing difficulty [Luke 8:15; 2 Thess. 1:4; Rev. 2:2; 13:10]. Like a muscle that becomes strong when it faces resistance, so Christians learn to remain faithful to God over the long haul only when they face difficulty. The term faith is complex. In Jewish contexts it carries many of the features of the Hebrew word which implies not just belief in something but also fidelity, commitment, and truth. James sometimes is considered to be a book about “works,” but in fact James’ great concern with faith is what drives the entire book. His concern with works results from his concern with genuineness of faith, precisely because faith is so important.

Perfect and Complete:  James 1:4.

[4]  And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.  [ESV]

[4]  When faith is tested, then, the immediate result is, or should be, steadfastness. But valuable as it is, steadfastness is not itself the final goal of testing. Rather, James says, believers should let steadfastness have its full effect. James writes, first, that the benefits of testing come only to believers who respond to them in the right way: Christians must let steadfastness or endurance do its intended work. But, second, what is this perfect and complete effect that steadfastness is intended to achieve? The phrase could denote the full extent of the perseverance itself. But James’s deep concern throughout the letter that believers respond to God’s grace with sincere obedience suggests rather that the word effect here summarizes the many dimensions of the ideal Christian character. The use of perfect brings to our attention the third question that this exhortation of James’s raises. The Greek word here has a meaning that can go in two slightly different directions. In Greek moral philosophy, this word usually had the meaning perfect. But in the Old Testament to be perfect came to mean “complete” or “mature.” The difference between perfect and complete is not very large. For the Christian who has attained completeness will also be perfect in character. James, we must remember, is presenting this as the ultimate goal of faith’s testing; he is not claiming that believers will attain the goal. But we should not lower the bar on the expectation James sets for us. Nothing less than complete moral integrity will ultimately satisfy the God who is Himself holy and righteous, completely set apart from sin. The last words in the verse underscore this point: when endurance is allowed to run its course and attain its goal, believers will be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. The word complete suggests the idea of wholeness and soundness, in contrast, for instance, to ill health. Testing, James suggests, is intended to produce, when believers respond with confidence in God and determination to endure, a wholeness of Christian character that lacks nothing in the panoply of virtues that define godly character. This concern for spiritual integrity and wholeness lies at the heart of James’s concern, and he will come back to the matter again and again [see 1:7-8 and 4:4-5].

Paul and James both say that we should rejoice in our trials because of their beneficial results. It is not the adversity considered in itself that is to be the ground of our joy. Rather, it is the expectation of the results, the development of our character, that should cause us to rejoice in adversity. We rejoice because we believe He is in control of those circumstances and is at work through them for our ultimate good. As Jesus taught in John 15 the healthy vine requires both nourishment and pruning. Through the Word of God we are nourished, but through adversity we are pruned. Every adversity that comes across our path, whether large or small, is intended to help us grow in some way. There are several things we can do in order to learn from adversity and receive the beneficial effects that God intends. 

1. We can submit to it, not reluctantly but voluntarily. This does not mean we should not use all legitimate means at our disposal to minimize the effects of adversity. It means we should accept from God’s hand the success or failure of those means as He wills, and at all times seek to learn whatever He might be teaching us. 

2.  We should bring the Word of God to bear upon the situation. We should ask God to bring to our attention pertinent passages of Scripture to show us what He intends to teach us. Adversity enhances the teaching of God’s word and makes it more profitable to us. It works to transform head knowledge into heart knowledge. 

3.  We must remember past adversities and the lessons we learned from them [Deut. 8:2-3]. 

Specific objectives when facing trials of various kinds.

1.  God prunes us so that we will be more fruitful. 

2.  It causes us to grow in holiness [Heb. 12:10]. What is the connection between adversity and holiness? Adversity reveals the corruption of our sinful nature. It shows us where we are weak or lacking in bearing the fruit of the Spirit [Gal. 5:22-23]. God uses adversity to enlighten our minds about our own needs as well as the teachings of Scripture. As we look to God to use his discipline in our lives, we may be sure it will in due time produce the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it [Heb. 12:11].

3.  God teaches us through adversity to rely on him instead of ourselves. We must learn and relearn that apart from me you can do nothing [John 15:5]. If God is going to use you and me, He will bring adversity into our lives so that we may learn experientially our dependence on Him. 

4.  Perseverance is the quality of character that enables one to pursue a goal in spite of obstacles and difficulties. The Christian is called to pursue with diligence the will of God. We see here a mutually enhancing effect. Adversity produces perseverance, and perseverance enables us to meet adversity. But we cannot grow in perseverance until we have learned the lesson of dependence.

5.  God also brings adversity into our lives to equip us for more effective service. Pruning, holiness, dependence, and perseverance all contribute to making us useful instruments in God’s service. Only to the extent that we ourselves have been comforted and encouraged by the Holy Spirit through His Word will we be able to comfort and encourage others. Adversity in our own lives, rightly responded to, enables us to be instruments of comfort and encouragement to others [2 Cor. 1:4]. 

6.  The Fellowship of Suffering. Trials and afflictions have a leveling effect among believers. They also have a mutual drawing effect among believers. They tend to break down barriers between us and dissolve any appearance of self-sufficiency we may have. 

7.  Perhaps the most valuable way we profit from adversity is in the deepening of our relationship with God. Through adversity we learn to bow before His sovereignty, to trust His wisdom and to experience the consolations of His love, until we come to the place where we can say with Job, I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you [Job 42:5]. In Philippians 3:10, Paul tells us of his great desire to know Christ and become more like him. Suffering or adversity is at the heart of gaining this knowledge because the ultimate purpose of experiencing adversity is conformity to Christ. We can rely upon the truth that God has a purpose in every pain He brings or allows in our lives. If, instead of fighting God or doubting Him in times of adversity, we will seek to cooperate with God, we will find that we will be drawn into a deeper relationship with Him. We can be sure that in some way He intends it for our profit and His glory. 

Andrew Murray:  the process of growth through enduring various trials: 

1. Remember it is by God’s will that you are in this situation. Rest in that fact. 

2. Realize that He is going to keep you in His love and give you the grace to behave as His child in the midst of the difficulty. 

3. He is going to make the trial a blessing, teaching you lessons that He intends you to learn, working in you His grace. 

4. He is going to bring you out of the trial eventually. The results may not be what you expect. His methods may be surprising. But inevitably there will be an exit.

Questions for Discussion:

1.  What does it mean to deem trials and tests pure joy?  (God is looking for us to reach the point in our walk with him where we can have joy in the midst of adversity.  This joy is a genuine peace, a right attitude, a heart of contentment, an honest submission to the Father’s purpose and plan.  It requires total trust in what He is doing in our lives.  It is the joy of expectation and anticipation regarding the outcome.  Real joy is the result of what is on the inside; it has nothing to do with what is happening on the outside.  Real joy can be found only in Christ, and not in our circumstances.) 

2.  What progression of the Christian life does James describe in 1:3-4?

3.  What James says in 1:3-4 and similar ideas are repeated over and over in Scripture. Read the following cross-references about what they say about trials and suffering. Matthew 5:11-12; Romans 5:3-5; Hebrews 2:10; 12:10; 1 Peter 1:6-7. What can we conclude from these passages?

4.  How is it possible to cultivate joy amid trials? See Romans 15:3, 13; Ephesians 3:14-21; Hebrews 10:19-25.


James, Don Anderson, Loizeaux Brothers.

Trusting God, Jerry Bridges, Navpress.

James, Dan McCartney, ECNT, Baker.

The Letter of James, Douglas Moo, Eerdmans.

The Message of James, J.A. Motyer, Inter-Varsity.

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