In his excellent book, Trusting God, Jerry Bridges provides a compelling illustration of the necessary relationship between experiencing trials and growing toward spiritual maturity. He writes:
One of the many fascinating events in nature is the emergence of the Cecropia moth from its cocoon—an event that occurs only with much struggle on the part of the moth to free itself. The story is frequently told of someone who watched a moth go through this struggle. In an effort to help—and not realizing the necessity of the struggle—the viewer snipped the shell of the cocoon. Soon the moth came out with its wings all crimped and shriveled. But as the person watched, the wings remained weak. The moth, which in a few moments would have stretched those wings to fly, was now doomed to crawling out its brief life in frustration of ever being the beautiful creature God created it to be.
What the person in the story did not realize was that the struggle to emerge from the cocoon was an essential part of developing the muscle system of the moth’s body and pushing the body fluids out into the wings to expand them. By unwisely seeking to cut short the moth’s struggle, the watcher had actually crippled the moth and doomed its existence.
Bridges then rightly makes this application:
We can be sure that the development of a beautiful Christlike character will not occur in our lives without adversity….However we shrink from adversity and, to use the terms from the moth illustration, we want God to snip the cocoon of adversity we often find ourselves in and release us. Too often we do not fully submit to the trials that God sends our way—choosing instead to be released from difficulty. As a result, we forego opportunities to have our faith-muscle strengthened.
As James writes his letter to Jewish believers who have been scattered due to persecution, he recognizes they are suffering a variety of trials, such as poverty and oppression (1:9; 5:4). James now presents us with a test of the authenticity of faith, that is, specifically, how we respond to trials. Daniel Doriani writes, “Our response to trials reveals our heart condition.”
God wants us to respond properly to the trials that He has sovereignly appointed for the growth of our faith and Christ-likness. To help us learn how to respond this way, James reveals four ways that trials test us and, therefore, benefit our spiritual growth when we discipline ourselves for perseverance. In today’s post, we will think about the first way.
TRIALS TEST OUR POSTURE (vv. 2-4)
How should we stand; how should we conduct ourselves while in the midst of trials? The half-brother of Jesus teaches us in James 1:2-4. Pause for a moment and read those verses.
- The response to trials (v. 2a)
The Christian response to trials is distinct from that of an unbeliever. The word “consider” is a command which calls for a certain attitude, a certain mindset. In other words, it is our duty to pursue an attitude of joy in the midst of trials. When we fail to do so, it is sin. “All joy” does not refer to joy in the trial itself, but in knowing that God’s good and perfect will is sure to be carried out as a result of this trial. James is not saying to us, “Now, no matter how painful your suffering is, just put on a happy face. Pretend if you have to. Whatever you do don’t let anyone know how deeply you are really hurting.”
James is not encouraging us to live in denial. Trials are hard. Trials do hurt, but the joy of the Lord is the believer’s strength. Jesus teaches in Luke 6:22-23, “Blessed are you when men hate you, and ostracize you, and insult you, and scorn your name as evil, for the sake of the Son of Man. Be glad in that day and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven. For in the same way their fathers used to treat the prophets.” In other words, biblical joy does not equal earthly happiness. It is also not dependent on our circumstances. For example, the Apostle Paul was in prison for his faith when he wrote to the Philippian believers, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice!” (Phil. 4:4).
- The reality of trials (v. 2b)
Notice that James says, “when you encounter various trials” not “if.” Whether or not we suffer is not a choice, but our response to trial is a choice. As believers in Christ, we should not be surprised when terribly difficult times come upon us. We should expect them (see 1 Peter 4:12-13).
The word “encounter” means to fall around (KJV “fall”). Luke 10:30 illustrates its meaning: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among robbers.” In other words, the man’s trail was unexpected. This is a bit strange. Trials are to be expected and yet we encounter unexpected trials. What James seems to be saying is the reality of trials should be expected; we are not able to expected what they will look like or from where they may come.
Our trials are “various”(poikilos), of many colors, i.e. many varieties, kinds, diversity. The same word is used to describe the cloak that Jacob gave to his favorite son, Joseph, in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament. In other words, there is not simply one kind of trial that afflicts Christians, but there are many different kinds. At the same time, no two believers are tried in exactly the same way either. If we hypothetically say there are ten different kinds of trials, we do not all necessarily suffer in all ten ways to the same degree. Yes, we suffer common testing (1 Cor. 10:13), but at the same time the trials are custom designed for us by a loving God.
So there is a sense in which trials are expected and unexpected at the same time. They will come. Therefore we should expect them. Yet they come unexpectedly. We cannot predict their timing, severity, or the uniqueness of their appearance.
- The reason for trials (v. 3)
James says our trials are for the purpose of “testing” our faith in order to produce endurance. This word is only used here and in 1 Peter 1:7, where Peter instructs us to respond to trials with this same joy. The word “testing” means to try in order to approve. So, God does not put trials into our lives to show us that we are a failure, but rather to approve our faith, to make it more authentic. He wants us to be confident that our faith is genuine and growing. He is not content with our level of maturity, or Christ-likeness, and, therefore, will do all that is necessary to cause us to grow. God does not ordain trials to set us up for failure but to prove the reality of our faith in a way similar to the process of purifying metals; our faith being more precious than gold itself, which is perishable. When we submit to the will of God in our trials, we learn to say with Job, “When He has tested me, I shall come forth as gold” (Job 23:10).
The character quality of endurance is priceless. “Endurance” (hupomone), a compound word from hupo (meaning “under”) and meno (meaning “to stay, abide, or remain”). Thus, the word pictures someone who successfully carries a heavy load for a long time without trying to escape. God tests our faith in order to build the character quality of endurance into our lives. As Kent Hughes says, “The more tests we pass, the tougher we become.”
- The result of endurance (v. 4)
God is performing this sanctifying work in and through suffering “so that [here’s the purpose] you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” The phrase “perfect and complete” speaks of that which is finished, whole, and mature. God’s goal in our trials, which is only reached if we endure, is spiritual maturity. The word “perfect” (teleios) refers to that which has reached its goal. What goal? God’s goal for every believer, as stated in two key New Testament passages, which is maturity in, and conformity to, Christ (Ephesians 4:11-13; Romans 8:28-29).
We can and should be joyful in the midst of trials because God has a specific purpose in mind for us. He is developing within us godly, Christlike character. Jesus teaches us, “I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit, He prunes it so that it may bear more fruit” (John 15:1-2).
Jesus’ illustration of pruning is very beneficial to our understanding of trials. The goal in pruning a tree is to remove unwanted growth, diseased, or dead branches in order to produce a better bloom and a greater abundance of fruit. By removing older branches, the younger ones are encouraged to grow stronger in order to take their place. If trees could talk, they would admit to the pain of pruning, but they would also testify to the more abundant fruit they bear in a future season. Out of a loving desire to see us be fruitful for Him, God prunes us so that we will bear more and more fruit.
In obedience to God, we must learn to let the trials that come into our lives serve their God-intended purpose: to produce the character quality of endurance—a mark of Christian maturity—which is the end result of responding in faith while under trial. When we fail to respond to God’s trials in a manner that exhibits childlike faith and trust in Him, we need to confess this to God and receive the forgiveness that comes from the fountain of His grace in Christ.