By Michael Hoch
What is your theology of suffering? How do you view God in the midst of trials? What will you do, think, and say when faced with hardship? These are important questions because when it comes to suffering and trials it is not a matter of if you will experience hardship but when you will experience it. Most of us have already weathered several storms in life. All you have to do is live long enough in this sin-stained world and you will face difficult days. Admitting the reality of trials, however, is not succumbing to fatalism nor does it have to lead to discouragement. On the contrary, God has well-defined purposes for the difficulties we experience. In order to encourage our hearts and help shape our theology of suffering, let’s explore the rich truths of James chapter one (you may want to follow along in your Bible).
The book of James was written to Jewish Christians who needed to examine their lives and discern if they had a ritualistic faith or genuine faith. James essentially asked his readers, “Do you walk the talk?” Genuine saving faith, he argued, is manifested in godly expressions of faith. His message could be summarized as tests of a living faith or the devoted faith of a faithful doer. Keeping that in mind, the letter begins with the words Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds (1:2).
What a strange statement for 21st century Canadians. We live in a culture that celebrates comfortable living, pursues pleasure, and avoids hardship at all costs. The ideal is a problem-free, painless life that meets all one’s felt needs by way of instant gratification. Contrast that with the definition of trials – anything that interrupts one’s peace, comfort, or pursuit of personal happiness – and it is no surprise we have difficultly making a conscience effort to embrace trials with joy. Trials are hard. They are an affront to our personal agenda. They sweep us off our feet and place us squarely on our back wondering, “What is going on?” and “Why is this happening?” In many cases, trials are accompanied with deep sorrow and even overwhelming grief or anger. Trials are not always pretty, but they are purposeful.
Suffering causes us to wrestle with profound spiritual questions. It has a unique and especially effective way of revealing the urgency of our faith and the object of our hope. In the sovereign plan of God, who works all things for good to those who love Him and are called according to His purpose, trials are a fertile testing ground designed to cultivate our faith and mature us into greater Christlikeness (Rom 8:2-29). James tells us that testing of your faith produces steadfastness and increased endurance results in Christian maturity (1:3-4, 12). Paul adds that endurance produces proven character that results in a hope that does not disappoint (Rom 5:3-5). Peter, likewise, says trials refine our faith and result in praise, honour, and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ (1 Pet 1:6-9). It is good to know that trials are purposeful, but we also need to know how to respond.
James instructs us to ask God for the wisdom needed to joyfully endure trials. Wisdom, in this context, is practically and skillfully applying God’s Word to your circumstances (cf. Jam 1:21-25). It is cultivated by a vibrant relationship with God (Prov 9:10) mediated through His Word (Ps 19:7; Matt 7:24) and through prayer (Eph 1:17; Col 1:9). We ask for this wisdom in faith without doubting or else risk being exposed as a double-minded person. Someone who is double-minded has divided their allegiance between God, the world, and themselves. Such a person is proud; they have not admitted their complete dependence on God (Jam 4:4-6). This person is vulnerable to sinfully responding to trials by yielding to temptations (cf. 1:12-15).
The close cousin of trials is temptation. Trials are hard and must be endured, but our own sinful, self-preserving nature wants an easy way out. We’d rather have our personal plans established than our faith tested. In the midst of difficulties, the lust of our heart quickly desires what we don’t have or what we think will bring relief and unchecked lust results in deadly sin (1:14-15; cf. Ps 73). We must not be deceived. Only Christ will satisfy our souls, which is remarkably true in hardship. He was tempted in every way, yet without sin (Heb 4:14-16). He resisted the sin and temptation of this world to the point of shedding blood (Lk 22:44). We must consider Him who endured such sinful hostility, so that we will not grow weary and lose heart (Heb 12:3-4). Revisit Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane (Mark 13:32-42). Look to Him as our example of suffering (1 Pet 2:21-25). Ultimately, it is the powerful truths of the gospel that give us strength and hope to endure trials (Rom 16:25; 2 Cor 12:7-10). When we cling to Christ, the Author and Perfector of our faith, our self-styled approach to coping with trouble is replaced with complete dependence and willing surrender (2 Cor 4:1-12). The deeper the trial, the greater the potential for purified joy in Christ (cf. Php 3:10; 1 Pet 4:13).
The remaining verses in James chapter one challenge us to hear, receive, and apply God’s Word (Jam 1:19-25). If we delude ourselves by only being hearers of God’s Word without also being doers of His Word, then we will not be prepared when the storm comes. In the end, our theology of suffering is shaped by knowing and living out the truths of Scripture. What you do, think, and say when faced with hardship will depend on who rules your life and what is hidden in your heart. Trials are hard. They strip away the superficial layers of circumstantial joy and cause us to examine our faith. If you want to joyfully endure trials, then make every effort to know God, treasure Christ, and apply His Word to your life (cf. Ps 119, esp. vv. 9-11, 36-38, 49-50, 81-88, 92). It is not easy to go through hardship and pain, but God is in it for your good and greater gladness.