“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.” – James 1:2-3
I think can conclude that the last two years in seminary have proven to be two of the hardest years of my short, 23.5 year life so far. Between adjusting from college to young adult life, starting off in a new school, and struggling as a young (and very stupid) pastor, life has not really been “joyful” lately. There’s been a lot of things that have made this pursuit of happiness a hard task – my life situation changing radically (not to mention barely surviving off $600/month, resulting in my first encounter with pneumonia), realizing that friends are much harder to come by after college, still being hundreds of miles away from family, being smacked in the face with the ugliness of my sin, struggling with loneliness, and now figuring out how to lead a group of apathetic teenagers to come to know the Savior.
There have been many times these past couple years when I just wanted to give up, to quit seminary, move back home and be with my family and friends, and not have to live such a crazy life of full time school Monday-Thursday to full time work with part time pay Friday-Sunday. There’s been many times when I’ve prayed “Lord, why are you bringing me through this? Why me? Why all this, all at the same time? Is this how my life is going to be like for the next two years?” Looking at my life on the outside, I sometimes just want to get into my comfortable bed, huge down blanket, and just hope the stress and sorrow will go away when I wake up, not wanting to deal with anything (and many times that’s been the case).
Amidst all this, I’ve been trying to figure out how I can rejoice through it all. How can I rejoice, James? How can I rejoice when I’m fighting and struggling, but my sin seems to be winning? How can I rejoice when I don’t look forward to waking up the next morning?
“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds”
Some commentators say that the trials James is talking about can only refer to “poverty and oppression,” or “social rejection and economic boycotts.” But the Greek can literally be read “a diverse manifold of tests or trials.” I’m not sure if James had specific trials in mind, seeing as he wrote “To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion,” figurative for the many believers scattered throughout the Mediterranean. He seems to be speaking in a general way, to a general audience, who will face a wide, general range of tests, trials, or even temptations (peirasmos, BDAG – “temptations, enticements to sin”). But the main thing that James wants his readers to do is to “Consider” them all as “joy.” It’s an imperative, “Consider it all joy!” Basically, “Rejoice!” But why James? Why the heck should I rejoice when these trials, no matter how big or small they are? Thankfully, unlike many in our churches who simply respond to suffering and cries for help with an un-compassionate, “Just rejoice!”, James knew we might question, and continues to explain why.
“for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.”
Now equating these trials, testings, and temptations, with the testing of our faith, he comments that it produces steadfastness. Steadfastness in what? What kind of steadfastness? “Patience, endurance, perseverance.” And finally, he tells us even why we should desire perseverance…
“And let steadfastness (perseverance/patience) have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”
Does that mean when I suffer, God will give me everything I need? Does this mean that if I face trials and tests and temptations, God will provide for all my needs?? I suppose. But I think what James has in mind is much more sanctifying work… “that you may be perfect and complete.” James’ greatest encouragement to Christians who are struggling and suffering through trials, is that this is how God will sanctify us. This is how God is completing us as His children, is perfecting us in and like Christ… through suffering.
For the last six months I’ve been studying through the epistles of Paul to the Philippians, to the Colossians, the Thessalonians and the letter of Peter to the believers in Asia Minor. And throughout all of these letters, the theme of suffering always seems to come up, both to rejoice in suffering, and how God is perfecting and sanctifying us in suffering. I remember reading through these epistles and thinking to myself, “I don’t think I’ve really experienced much suffering as a believer yet.” And I remember even praying that God would take me through suffering so that I would cling to the Cross. I prayed that God would make me suffer so I would desire nothing but Him, and that my need for Him would multiply, my cherishing of the Gospel would be magnified like no other.
Last night as I was praying and reading through this text, I realized that I was getting what I had prayed for. I realized that I need to be more careful what I pray for. I realized that my work has been hard, my ministry sapping the life out of me, feeling unbearably sorrowful over my sin and past actions, and suffering in this life of shepherding… all because I had prayed for it. Dangit!
God is giving me trials. God is taking me through a season of suffering, it seems. God is sanctifying me. God is producing fruit in my life. God is causing me to rejoice in nothing but the Cross. God is doing it because He loves me.
Now, rather than praying that God would take these trials away, I’ve been praying that God would give me the strength to keep going. To keep fighting for holiness. To keep fighting to love Him and desire Him alone. To keep rejoicing because He is working in me, to bring me to full perfection and completion, to conform me into the image of his Son.
“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.” – Romans 8:28-30