Tried But Triumphant (James 1:1–15)

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Here comes trouble

Just before he went to the cross, Jesus promised his apostles: “In this life you will have trouble” (John 16:33). Peter, who was there, would later pass this same warning on to future disciples in his first epistle: “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering” (4:12).

Troubles and trials? That’s a little ambiguous, isn’t it? What would that look like, exactly? What can be expected?

While Jesus and Peter may not have, every Christian that has lived since could give specific examples from personal experience as to what those trials and troubles look like.

We have all faced troubles, are facing troubles, and will face troubles in this life—from health concerns to relational tensions, from financial instability to feelings of worthlessness, insufficiency, or incompetence. Some of the troubles we face are intense and urgent while others are chronic and subtle. Some are external, others internal. The bottom line is that trials are, as Jesus and Peter said they would be, an unavoidable reality of living in a fallen world.

And yet, while their experience may be inevitable, the attitude with which we endure trials is not. 

In the opening pericope of James’ epistle, the author invites us to view our trials—past, present, and future—through God’s eyes. It won’t surprise you to find that things look a little different from up there.

Who’s this from? Who’s it to?

In the opening verse of the letter we learn the identity of both the author and the audience.

James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes scattered among the nations: Greetings (1:1).

We have James, probably the half-brother of Jesus, writing to scattered Jewish Christians (the twelve tribes). If we turn back to the opening scenes of the book of Acts we find that, after Pentecost, where the church began, persecution became commonplace.

So, the church begins with Jewish converts who are immediately scattered because of persecution (see Acts 8:1). Some lost homes, family members, financial stability, and livelihoods. They had real struggles thrust upon them because of their identification with Jesus.

And it’s to these tried young believers James writes. He doesn’t write to deny their hardships or promise alleviation but to, instead, encourage them to endure.

Hardships lead to maturity

And part of his strategy, at least at the outset of his letter, is to show them that, from a heavenly perspective, trials provide opportunities for spiritual maturation. He’s not saying the suffering is good, necessarily, but he’s say that when we do have troubles, from the divine vantage point, they are opportunities to be taken advantage of. How is this the case? James gives five reasons.

First, trials are opportunities to demonstrate joy.

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds (v. 2)…

Biblical joy is deep contentment regardless of circumstances. This is only possible because of a solid trust in the goodness and sovereignty of God. And James is saying, what better time to show off your joy than when common sense would say you have no reason to be joyful?

It’s one thing to say you trust your parachute when you’re standing on the ground; it’s another to say you trust it when you’re about to jump out of a plane. In both cases the trust may have been real and the parachute may have been reliable, but only when you’re falling is the trust easily seen and believed.

Likewise, when we’re under duress the joy we claim to have in the Lord is seen in HD and is undeniable. Trials are opportunities to demonstrate this joy.

Second, trials provide opportunities to develop grit.

… because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance (v. 3).

A muscle only gets bigger when it’s first torn. That’s what happens in exercise: Little tears develop in muscles and, when they heal, they heal stronger. Simply stated: Trauma leads to strength.

The same is true with our faith. Trials train faith. And, after multiple reps, we’re stronger than we were before. But how many reps do we have to do? As many as it takes:

Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything (v. 4).

God wants so badly to strengthen and mature us, that he’ll allow us to endure the trials that will get us there. Like the parent who gives vegetables to their children and insists they be eaten. Why? Because, trust me, it’s good for you.

Do I trust God that much? Am I able to pray from the midst of my trial, “God, take this away from me … but not before it does the work on me you want it to do.”

That’s basically what Paul was dealing with in 2 Corinthians 12:

Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (vv. 7–9).

Paul was allowed to experience a painful trial for the sake of his growth in godly humility. He asked God to take it away but, ultimately, he trusted that God would use it to do the work he intended it to accomplish in his servant.

Trials provide opportunities for God to develop in us the grit and character he wants to see, something that is ultimately for our good.

Third, trials provide reminders of our neediness.

 If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you (v. 5).

Hardships have a way of stripping us of pride and making us face our limitations. When that happens, James says, ask God for the wisdom you lack. He wants to give it and he does so without finding fault! He’s not going to mock you or deride you for asking. He longs to give it!

There is one stipulation, however [1:6–8]:

But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do (vv. 6–8)

Wisdom must be requested in faith, otherwise it’s as useless as a wandering wave. Why? Because asking in faith is evidence we understand our neediness and an expression of our dependance on our God. Anything short of that is insulting.

“God, it’d be great if you gave me wisdom with how do deal with this trial. But, you know, if you don’t, I’ll figure it out.” That type of request shows a self-righteousness and lack of humility God won’t reward.

Trials have a way of providing reminders for us that we’re needy and dependant. And, in our day-in-age, we often need these.

Fourth, trials provide correction of error.

Believers in humble circumstances ought to take pride in their high position. But the rich should take pride in their humiliation—since they will pass away like a wild flower. For the sun rises with scorching heat and withers the plant; its blossom falls and its beauty is destroyed. In the same way, the rich will fade away even while they go about their business (vv. 9–11).

People often mistake affluence for divine favour and this is an error that troubles help correct. The Christian struggling with poverty is invited by James to understand that their poverty is a sign of God’s love and not his displeasure. Why? Because God is paying attention, shaping you, maturing you, and preparing you for his use.

On the other hand, while the rich Christian may believe his wealth shows his maturity and favour with God, James suggests they view their affluence as a reminder from God of the temporary nature of both their wealth and earthly life.

So, we see in verses 9 through 11, that trials can provide correction of error. They can remind us that a lack of trouble is not evidence of God’s favour anymore than trials prove his displeasure.

Fifth, trials provide opportunities for rewards.

Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him (v. 12).

In the Bible, the crown is used to describe a prize of honour, like what’s given to victorious athletes. It’s a reward for accomplishment.

James is suggesting that the more we joyfully endure trials in this life, trusting God throughout, the more we are rewarded both in this life with the satisfaction of pleasing our Lord with our faithfulness, and in the life to come. Blessed is that believer. 

Troubles were promised to us by Jesus, and troubles we experience. But James invites us to see those trials through God’s eyes, as opportunities for demonstrating joy, developing grit, reminding us of our neediness, correcting errors, and adding rewards. 

An important warning

There is a danger associated with examining our trials, and James adds an important warning:.

When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death (vv. 13–15).

Trials are not necessarily sinful but they all encourage the temptation to sin. Financial instability is not essentially sinful, but it provides many opportunities for me to sin—to curse God, steal, or covet others.

Have you ever been tempted to blame God?

“You put that person in my life, God.” “You were the one who took that person out of my life!” “You made me this way, Lord.”

James wants to make it very clear that we are not to pin those temptations on God. He may allow or cause the trial, but he is never behind the temptation. Instead, the temptation comes from within us. It’s our evil desires that lead to sin and sin which leads to death.

We need to be very careful here. We can acknowledge that God allows testing and trials, but he is never the author of temptation. It’s an important warning we all need to heed.

An inviting exhortation

We all have hardships and trials in life. This is part of being sinful people in a sinful worlds. James encourages us to look at these trials from God’s point of view while warning us against blaming him for any temptation we may experience. When we take the divine perspective on our trials we can see that they are actually for our maturation and evidence of his love for us.

And, as we grow in our ability to faithfully endure trials of many kinds with joy in our hearts, who do we become more like? Jesus! Who, “for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of God” (Heb. 12:2).

Jesus didn’t need to mature and correct error, but he was rewarded for his joyful endurance and his display of dependance on the Father.

James is giving an inviting exhortation to all believers here, a call to find joy in the junk of life. Trials are inevitable, but if we, with the Spirit’s help, view these troubles from God’s perspective, we see that he is never out of control, that he’s good and trustworthy and, in that, we can joyfully endure like his Son did. We can find joy in the junk of life.

Once upon a time* there was a wicked witch who lived in a remote cottage in the deep forest. When travellers came through, she gave them a meal and a bed. It was the most wonderfully comfortable bed any of them had ever felt. But it was a bed full of dark magic, and if you were asleep in it when the sun came up, you would turn to stone and she would place you in her statuary, trapped until the end of time. This witch forced a young girl to serve her, and though she had no power to resist the witch, the girl had become more and more filled with pity for the victims. 

One day a young man came travelling and was taken in. The servant girl could not bear to see him turned to stone. So she threw sticks, stones, and thistles into his bed making it horribly uncomfortable. Every time he turned he felt a new painful object under him. Whenever he threw one out of the bed there was always a new one to dig into his flesh. He slept only fitfully and finally rose, feeling weary and worn, long before dawn. As he walked out the front door, the servant girl met him, and he berated her cruelly as he walked out: “How could you give a traveller such a terrible bed full of sticks and stones?” “Ah,” she said under her breath, “the misery you know now is nothing like the infinitely greater misery a comfortable sleep would have brought upon you! Those were my sticks and stones of love.”

God lovingly allows stick, stones, and thistles to be thrown into our otherwise comfortable lives to wake us up from the potential of stunted growth and persistent immaturity, to bring us into deeper reliance on him, and to grow us into the men and women of God he desires us to be. He’s inviting us to live lives marked by faith that the trials of many kinds that we face are actually his stick and stone of love.

*Found in Timothy Keller, The Prodigal Prophet, 143–45.