God uses Trials for Good.
Last month I heard about a family who have seen their church split in two. It's been incredibly hard seeing so many brothers and sisters leave their fellowship. I also heard from a friend planning to go overseas as a missionary to a dangerous situation. Sometimes he wakes up in the middle of the night feeling the pressure of what is to come. This week I heard about a church elder who left his wife at home for a meeting only to return to find his wife had been the subject of a racist attack in her own home. All true stories that have happened to followers of Jesus.
Three very different trials. You may know others going through trials. You may be going through trials yourself. How do we see those experiences? So often trials seem nothing but frustrating, painful, grief inducing and desperate. Why does God allow his people to suffer? It is one of the most difficult questions God's people can ask. James gives no complete answer to suffering, nor will we get one tonight. But implicit in what James says is a belief that the suffering of believers is always under the providential control of God, who wants the best for his people. James tells us that God uses trials for good. That is my first point: God uses trials for good.
God Uses Trials for Good
"Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything."
James says they will face trials of many kinds. I think here that trials primarily refer to experiences the church faces for following Jesus: disadvantages in the workplace, the cost of spreading the gospel, the loss of reputation. But they also include the other trials we face in life: the colleague we struggle with; the battle with health; broken relationships in family life. They remain hard trials. But James tells us, God uses trials for good.
How does that work?
Look with me at verse 3. James says,
"you know the testing of your faith."
The everyday trials and the big trials we go through are a form of testing. Our faith in God is put to the test by trials. This testing purifies believers' trust in Jesus. Imagine a goldsmith takes a gold ring with impurities and melts it down to burn out the imperfections. The result is a refined ring. More precious. More pure. When God places us in the crucible of life, his aim is refine our trust in Jesus. Such testing isn't to determine whether a person has faith or not. Rather it is to purify the faith that already exists. Can you see how God uses such trials to refine our trust in Jesus, to produce something even more precious? How else is it good news?
Verse 3 tells us such trials develop perseverance. Today Mo Farrah ran past HTG for the Great North Run. Mo Farrah runs long distance. To do that he needs perseverance. So everyday he hits the gym. He goes out for a run. He develops his perseverance so he can complete the big races. The preacher Martin Lloyd Jones once said trials are like God's gym. Trials are where he builds our perseverance to keep following Jesus. I don't doubt that Mo Farrah on a Saturday morning sometimes struggles to get to the gym. There's a battle of wills between staying on bed or hitting the treadmill. Likewise we all know the battle of living for self or Jesus. Do we show grace to the difficult colleague? Do we cast our anxieties about health to God in prayer? Do we offer forgiveness to the family member that has caused us grief? In each case, faith is being tested. We're in God's gym. When we trust and obey Jesus our perseverance is built up. Trials build perseverance. But it doesn't stop there.
Look at verse 4,
"Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything."
Perseverance leads to maturity of faith. To grow more like Jesus. One day when believers' meet him face to face they will be made complete. What God starts he will finish. So God uses trials for good…
What is the application that flows from this? James says…so rejoice in them. Look with me at verse 2,
"Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds."
This doesn't mean Christians in trials have no other response than joy. It is right to grieve and mourn our world broken by sin. But trials should be an occasion for rejoicing. This means we've got to change how we see trials. So often we see them from our close up perspective, that we lose God's perspective that James shows us.
Here's a close up picture of a famous landmark. Its looks dull. Even ugly. Let's change the angle we see that landmark. The big picture is rather glorious. An intense patch of greenery in a vast city. It's Central Park in New York. So often we see trials in the close up. They are trying. But from God's perspective he is performing a deep work in us. Testing us. Developing perseverance. Growing maturity. A process that starts when people first trust in Jesus, and completed when they meet him one day in glory. We've got to keep both the close up and big pictures together when we face trials.
We must grieve in trials, but can you also see the cause for joy? Do you want to be more like Jesus? Do you want to fully grasp the full glory of heaven when you get there? Then there is no other way but trials. James says God uses trials for good…so rejoice in them.
To consider is to count. To have a conviction about something. If you're following Jesus tonight, will you look back at the trials you've faced and rejoice knowing that God has used even the darkest days for good. There is no trial, large or small, that God has not planned or used to make you more like his son
If you have one, why don't you share one of your stories after the service of how God has used a trial for good? If you know there are challenges approaching in the workplace, in your family, will you be ready to count the trials a joy? Knowing God is at work causing deep change. The Christian life is not a miserable one, crawling along in pain but happy to have an entrance ticket to heaven safely in our pockets. It's a tough life, but one in which God is daily at work to change us and prepare us for glory. That is why James can say we are to consider trials a joy.
Let me clarify, that James is not saying rejoice about suffering. Hard times are still hard times. God uses trials for good. But that doesn't mean we seek out suffering. Nor is James saying keep a stiff upper lip and man up. He's saying in hard times we can find joy in our God. Nor is James saying ignore it. We shouldn't say, "I hate suffering but at least I've got God." James says suffering has a purpose. God uses trials for good so rejoice in them.
James' teaching also shows us that trials often reveal where our joy is really based. If I asked you at the end of the service, "Where do you find your ultimate joy?" Many of us would say Jesus. But the reality is that functionally we find our joy in other places. So for example, you lose your job and end up getting a lower paid job. If the result is that months later you're still bitter and angry about it, it may suggest you're finding your joy in work. Or, if you experience a broken relationship, and month down the line you're still telling yourself you can't be happy out of that relationship, it may suggest you're looking for joy in relationships. Where might you be tempted to find your ultimate joy apart from Jesus? If our trust is in Jesus, then no matter what trials come, our ultimate joy cannot be taken away. In fact, James says the opposite. Trials can only refine our trust in Jesus. God uses trials for good...so rejoice in them.
Despite this, trials are still hard for followers of Jesus. How can we keep the right perspective when we're in the crucible? How do we keep the big picture of what God is doing, and not get lost in the small view? How do we make good decisions when trials offer us hard choices. We need God's wisdom. But wonderfully, God's wisdom can be had for the asking. This leads to my second point:
God Gives Wisdom Generously.
Look with me at verse 5,
"If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him."
The goal of trials is that we should be not lacking in anything. That spiritual maturity can only be arrived at by God's wisdom. Wisdom is the art of living. It is the ability to see life from the God's perspective, the big picture. It is the ability to make good decisions in the light of that. James wants those receiving his letter to know that God gives out wisdom generously.
A few years ago people were handing out Lindt chocolates on Northumberland Street. They had huge buckets of the stuff. They were handing them out generously to anyone who would come. In fact they were so generous they would give them to you repeatedly. I know that because I went back several times in one afternoon. Not once did they say, "You again!" or "Just one more now!" No, you could have as much you wanted. That is what James says God is like with wisdom. He gives it generously without finding fault. He never says, "You again?" or, "Just one more time!" Think of a trial you are facing. God wants to give you wisdom to deal with it. He wants to give you the gifts you need to please him. God gives wisdom generously.
The application is this: so call on him with confidence. Before we move to the next verse, let's quickly apply this. When you're sharing something that concerns you with your housemate or family member as you wash up the dinner pots. As you realise you lack the wisdom you need. Will you stop and pray about the situation? When you're at the back of church and your friend shares with you a tricky situation, and you realise you're out of your depth, will you pray there and then? God doesn't require of us what is beyond our ability. But he is ready to help us, provided we ask. How are we to do that?
Look with me at verses 6-8,
"But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does".
When we pray we must believe and not doubt God. Belief is the opposite of doubt in James. Let's look at the picture of the doubter James paints. The doubter is like a wave. Think of standing on the beach at South Shields on a windy day. The waves chop and change all the time. No sooner does the wind change, does the wave change. The doubter is unstable. But James also says he is double-minded. This person is insincere. They want the wisdom of God one day. The wisdom of the world the next. This person claims to know God, but their thoughts, words and actions contradict that claim. It's not a picture of the doubt believers may experience in prayers from time to time. It's a picture of strong doubting.
There are two consequences of doubting God when we come to him in prayer for wisdom. Firstly, the power of prayer is emptied. The problem isn't intellectual doubt, but a consistent refusal to believe. Secondly, we are made unstable.
Let's apply this. If you're not following Jesus tonight, how do you cope with trials? What do you look to to anchor you in a storm? Trials will ultimately make your life unstable. Trials can steal our loved ones, our health, our possessions that we so often look to anchor us in the midst of trials. James says if we're not secure with God, we are not secure at all. You might well relate to the picture of the unstable wave when life gets hard. James says we will be unstable in all we do if we refuse to believe in the Lord Jesus. In fact, if you refuse Jesus, trials can only ever steal the things you can anchor your life in. Trials take away our loved ones, our health, our reputation, our possessions. Only by coming to the Lord Jesus can there be hope of stability in trials. Trials cannot rob believers of their deepest joy: forgiveness; eternal life. God uses trials for good to deepen believers' trust, and view of Jesus. Where is your life anchored tonight?
If you're already following Jesus tonight, when trials come, is your first instinct to call on God with confidence or it to turn to the wisdom of the world? Do we comfort eat to feeling better? Do we drown out trials with a few beers? Do we turn on Netflix and entertain ourselves out of our trials? Do we bury ourselves in over work without praying to the one who sustains us second by second? When trials come remember God gives wisdom generously…to call on God with confidence. Pray that you would rejoice in trials. That God would do deep work in you. That he would give you wisdom to see the big picture. That he would give you wisdom to make good decisions in tough times. Do you see how calling out to God is that ultimate expression that Jesus is your joy, and stability in times of trial?
Let me close. Trials that often seem nothing but a cause for deep sadness or frustration. James says, followers of Jesus, may well experience sadness and frustration in trials. But God works good in trials… so rejoice in them. God uses them to refine our faith. To grow perseverance and maturity. And he will give us the wisdom we need so his goal is achieved. God gives wisdom generously…so call on him with confidence. Let's do that by closing in prayer…