Sword and Trowel Articles

The Sword & Trowel was started in 1865 by C. H. Spurgeon. It enjoys an extensive readership throughout the world, particularly among ministers and church leaders. It has by far the largest circulation of any magazine (world-wide) adhering to reformed and Baptist distinctive. The Sword & Trowel is now edited by Dr Peter Masters.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

How to Process Trials

From Sword & Trowel 2002, No 2

The letter of James may have been the first book of the New Testament to be written, and if this is so then the theme of how to process trials was the very first written lesson inspired and given to the Christian church. Who was James? Not James the apostle, who was murdered by Herod, but James a half-brother of the Lord (or just possibly a cousin). He was the oldest of four such half-brothers brought up in the same household as the Lord.

Like his brothers, James did not understand the Messianic character and nature of Jesus Christ for most of his early lifetime. Some writers say that James did not have his eyes opened until the Lord individually appeared to him after the resurrection. Perhaps his understanding dawned a little before that, during Christ's death on Calvary. At any rate, James was a 'late' believer.

How could he grow up in the household of Jesus Christ and yet not believe in Him as Messiah? He no doubt believed in Him as an amazing prophet of God Who could do great things. In his own muddled way, he may even have believed in Him as the Son of God, but his understanding was undoubtedly wrecked by his expectation of an earthly Messiah, Who would fulfil a glorious political purpose restoring the earthly fortunes of the Jews, and disposing of the Roman occupation. This was the general expectation of Jewish people at that time.

John's Gospel tells us that Christ's brethren did not believe in Him, which clearly refers to their lack of understanding of His full Messianic mission. They said to Him, 'A person Who does the mighty acts that You do' (for they believed in Him to that extent) 'should just seize rule, and deliver our nation.' They believed in His great power and recognised His perfect holiness, but could not grasp that He was the Saviour of the world.

In due course James became – for about thirty years – the pastor of the church at Jerusalem. Josephus tells us he suffered a martyr's death in AD 63.

From his style of teaching it would seem that James possessed immense energy. Commentators have joined to approve his quality and style of Greek, showing that, although he grew up in a carpenter's household, he had acquired a high level of scholarship. His style of writing doubtless also reflects his preaching, and we see him as being primarily an expounder. In addition, we find rich illustrations and striking ways of compelling attention. In a sense, James was the first, major prototype pastor-teacher in the Christian world, setting a strong example for posterity.

This letter was certainly written before the great conflict with the Judaisers which took Paul and Barnabus from Antioch to Jerusalem around AD 52.

Luther's remark

Dear Martin Luther, great giant of the Faith, called this letter 'a right strawy epistle'. What a dreadful thing to say about any book of the Bible! It is helpful to note that none of his colleagues or successors agreed with him on this. But why did Luther say this about the letter of James? One renowned Lutheran scholar assures us that in reality he liked it, but his dismissive comment was made in a particular context. He was thinking about Paul's letters to the Romans and Galatians, and how full they are of the blood of Christ and justification by faith. And, although there is a reference to justification in the letter of James, there is very little about redemption by blood. This, evidently, is not the purpose of the letter.

A striking expression introduces the first lesson of James, and yet not one so striking as to steal from the weightiness of the message. The 'device' of James actually contributes to the point. He says:

'My brethren, count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations.'

The word 'temptations' does not refer to moral temptation to sin, but to trials. Later in the chapter the subject changes to temptation to sin, but here trials are in view. So, we could read the verse – 'Count it all joy when ye fall into divers trials.'

'When ye fall,' says James, picturing a believer stumbling unexpectedly into some great trial that comes from outside. Hardships often come upon us suddenly. At any time there could be waiting for us a trial or problem. It could be some form of persecution, severe shortage, disappointment, insult, illness, or other affliction. The first lesson in this book on how to live the Christian life, is how to deal with sudden difficulties. James does not begin with comfort, but with the believer's training.

'My brethren,' says the author, 'count it all joy.' Very literally the Greek says – 'Command it all joy,' or 'determine that it will be seen as all joy.' You 'command' an army, and the message here is that we must authoritatively command the mind to consider the trial to be one with a good side, considered spiritually. However hard, I must see that the Lord will turn it to spiritual gain in some respect. I am not told to bubble over with joy, but to confidently say to myself, 'God has allowed this, and something will come out of it for my spiritual good, or for the spiritual advance of others. In the end I, or someone else, will be blessed and deepened.'

How to think

We must 'command' our attitude. We could equally say, 'Deem it all joy, that God will bring His purposes to pass.' Says James, 'Calm down, pull yourselves together, and make this firm affirmation of faith, that if the divine Superintendent of my life has permitted this hardship, it will be used by Him for my good.' The key word – 'count' – points out the chief element of our response to trials. We are to consider or reflect upon certain matters which we will list shortly.

But why does James say – 'all joy'? Can trials ever be 'all joy'? No, of course not. Then what does he mean? He means – count it a cause for thanksgiving and gladness that the entire episode will serve the purposes of God. James is not counselling us to put on joy in order to squeeze out any pain, disappointment, perplexity or unhappiness. If this could be done the trial would not minister to us at all. 'All joy' does not exclude pain or difficulty.

How can a trial be joy in any sense? It becomes a source of joy as we follow the counsel of James and consider the following factors. Firstly, it may be an opportunity to represent the Lord, because others will see how we handle the trial. Secondly, it will prove to us that we have His help. The trial will bring us many clear answers to prayer, perhaps stretched over a long period of struggle, and this will be an adventure in assurance for us. Thirdly, the trial may help us to see more clearly the deficiencies of this fallen world and of this present life, and so build up our estimation of our heavenly destination. Fourthly, and best of all, the trial will bring us closer to the Lord, as we look to Him, depend on Him, and thank Him for every intervention and blessing. We consciously remember that the Lord knows; He is with us; He will limit the burden so that it will not crush us, and He will command the end of the trial.

Let us 'count it all joy' by remembering all the ways in which the trial could prove to be a blessing. We are called to put on the clothing of patient confidence, satisfaction, and assurance. 'Count' or consider means intelligent assessment of the spiritual purposes.

James goes on to say: 'Knowing this, that the trying of your faith worketh patience.' The 'knowing' here is not just intellectual knowing, but experimental proving. It is as though James is saying, 'You have found this already, have you not? This is not just something you know in your head. You have had trials before, and you have proved the Lord in them. This is not, for you, a novel idea.'

The testing process

The word for 'trying' here means testing. Trials are tests of our faith. What is the purpose of the test? It is a positive purpose, and part of a refining process, for dross must be eliminated. So the test is not just to tell the tester whether the material is genuine, it is a stage in the purging away of unwanted impurities.

'But Lord,' we may say, 'I would much rather live the Christian life with nothing but blessing and happiness in my spiritual life. Can't I be honoured and used by Thee all the time?' But then our faith would never be improved, and our patience never advanced. Trials are the means that God uses to bring this about. Through these, our belief, trust and loyalty to God are developed. The apostle Paul says –

'And not only so, but we glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience' (Romans 5.3).

Explaining his own trial of harsh Roman imprisonment he says –

'But I would ye should understand, brethren, that the things which happened unto me have fallen out rather unto the furtherance of the gospel; so that my bonds in Christ are manifest in all the palace, and in all other places; and many of the brethren in the Lord, waxing confident by my bonds, are much more bold to speak the word without fear' (Philippians 1.12-14).

And James says later in this letter:

'Grudge not one against another, brethren, lest ye be condemned: behold, the judge standeth before the door. Take, my brethren, the prophets, who have spoken in the name of the Lord, for an example of suffering affliction, and of patience' (James 5.9-10).

A trial has arisen. How will it help me? Perhaps, to begin with, I could try to find my own way round it, devising a purely earthly solution to the difficulty or need, or resorting to some distraction or entertainment. But this will never be enough, and may involve straining the rules of Christian living. So I am left with only one right way. I will take the pain, pray for help, trust the Lord, and consider the spiritual benefits. Then the Lord will see me through, and my patience and faith will be greatly strengthened.

Perhaps in some great trial of grief or disappointment I will buckle and fall into self-pity and complaining. There is no doubt that although I may feel miserable, self-pity gives a strange, if small, degree of relief. But no, I must not allow that. I must take the course prescribed by James.

My first reaction may sometimes be a fleshly one, but even in this I have a benefit, because I see myself as I really am. Perhaps, before the trial came, I was growing heady, confident, complacent, and satisfied with my spiritual progress. But the trial showed me that my spiritual attainments were far lower than I had imagined, and spiritual realism dawned. From start to finish the trial helps me.

Here is a list of virtues which grow under trial. Steadfastness comes, particularly in prayer. Endurance grows. Trust in the Lord and His Word expands. Appreciation of Christ deepens. Patience is developed. Submission to God's providential will and plan is established. And openness, sensitivity and concern for others is usually produced. Furthermore, if I have become too attached to worldly possessions and ideals, the links are generally fractured, and the hampering ropes cut.

Christians have often reported how they were beginning to think the world was not so bad, and how they had found unbelievers who were very nice people, when suddenly attitudes changed, and antagonism came in. A trial had arrived, but it taught them to appreciate once more the special qualities of the Lord's people, and of the Lord Himself as the only perfect One. Disappointments and trials achieve much.

Believers have also testified how a severe trial has shown them afresh the shallowness and inadequacy of earthly props, and has broken their dependence upon them.

Will trials ever come to a complete end during the course of the Christian life? James replies (verse 4), 'But let patience have her perfect [her complete] work.' The answer is – No. There will be recurring trials until our last day, and each one must be seen through to its end with patience. If we follow the biblical procedure for only a few days or weeks, the gain will either be small, or entirely lost. We must see the whole trial as an assignment from the Lord, which must be faithfully borne and 'prayed through' until the shadow lifts.

The goal or purpose of the trial is stated another way by James in the words – 'that ye may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing'. These are great words which speak of our being presented before God with no damaged department of spiritual life. Every part will have been renewed and blessed by God. Imagine a person who is strong, healthy, but tragically without legs. This so often resembles us in our spiritual lives. If we were to review our department of knowledge, perhaps it would be found in fairly good condition, great doctrines being known and loved. If we were to review other aspects of our lives, such as our effort in witness and service, these too may be found to be fairly vigorous. But what a shame if when we came to the department of patience, endurance, and stability, we were to find we were hopeless, because we had never learned to handle trials in the way that the Lord has laid down. James urges us to work with our trials so that we may become complete believers, making progress in every department of life. Trials help us to remain unattached to the world; to be prepared to make sacrifices; to look to the Saviour, and to value and obey the Word.

How tragic it is that some so-called Christian teachers go round telling believers that they ought always to be happy and healthy. They tell them that bad things only come upon them because they lack faith, and many other ridiculous ideas. But the first book of the New Testament, in the very first lesson on how to live the Christian life, tells us that we will have trials, and that we should value them as bringing spiritual advance.

This brings us to a very remarkable promise, conveyed to us by this great pastor (and martyr). 'If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God.' What kind of wisdom is this? It is clear that the subject has not changed, and trials are the main topic. The question in our mind will no doubt be – 'What can this particular trial accomplish for me or anyone else?' James could well be saying, 'If any of you lacks insight into how this particular trial can be used by God, then pray and God will show you.' It is permissible to pray for a degree of insight into the purpose of any particular trial. We may not be enabled to grasp everything, but we will see enough for us to trust the Lord, and stand. But there is a condition, and James says (verse 6) – 'But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering.'

Asking in faith

To ask in faith for light on a trial means that I come before the Lord and say, 'Lord, I firmly believe that by Your perfect providence, nothing can happen to me unless You permit it. You have allowed it, Lord, and You know what this is about. You will not let me be troubled, tried, and tempted above that level which I am reasonably able to bear. I know I am in Your hands. I know Your eternal and undeserved love is upon me.' That is what it means here to approach God in faith.

To ask for wisdom in faith means that we believe that God is infinitely good and always kind to His people, and that the trial will have a constructive aim both for the sufferer and probably for others also.

The wisdom for which we pray is firstly a clear conviction of the biblical way to handle the trial and an appreciation of the general purposes and gains. Only secondly may we ask for understanding of the possible purpose of a particular trial. We ought always to remember that our wellbeing does not depend upon knowing the purpose, but rests simply on the fact that we are in His hands, and subject to His perfect planning.

'Let him ask in faith,' says James, 'nothing wavering. For he that wavereth is like a wave of the sea driven with the wind and tossed. For let not that man think that he shall receive any thing of the Lord.' What is it to waver? James says it is to be of two minds; alternating between two points of view.

For example, we may believe, positively, we are Christians, that God is with us, and that He will bless in trouble. On the other hand, negatively, we may feel unsure of the last assertion, and think that God is being unreasonable with us, or unseeing and uncaring. That is wavering.

Alternatively, we may really want to live for the Lord, but swing from this desire to the opposite view, namely, that we can only get relief by worldly means. A vacillating believer will receive no help and no light from the Lord. We must cleave to Him and trust Him. We must desire to be sanctified by the trial.

This warning becomes even more emphatic when James says (verse 8) – 'A double minded man is unstable in all his ways.' We may want the Lord one moment, and the world the next. We may want to obey God one moment, and to take the easy way out the next. Such a condition is not merely unstable and unreliable in dealing with trials, but in every aspect of Christian living.

Stages of patience

Patience, steadfastness, and loyalty are not given in their entirety at conversion. A measure of these strengths is given, but a fuller measure is given through difficulties, hardships, and trials. If we will not cooperate with the Lord's purpose in trials, we will never grow in patience, endurance, steadfastness, or loyalty.

Disinclination to rightly handle trials leads to the emotionally volatile kind of believer, sometimes mercurial, always variable, and hopelessly lacking stability. The initial instalment of faith and patience was imparted at conversion, but never built up through testing.

The believer who misses out on faith and patience can become a tragic case of failure. Unhappiness is frequent, and opportunities for being a blessing to others constantly missed through instability. A high degree of emotional self-indulgence is sometimes reached, so that hurt is inflicted on many other people. If we will not process trials prayerfully, trustingly and thoughtfully, we may be sure the devil will take advantage of it.

The question is often asked – 'Why do some believers become disloyal to the Truth, and give up their early allegiance to clear principles of the Word?' Could it be that the instability which toppled them arose from their failure to process trials wisely? Believers who always waver in testing times, become susceptible to the wind, as James warns, and tossed, leading to double-mindedness and instability in all their ways.

Avoiding instability

We do not want to be unstable in faith, temperament, vision, behaviour, love for Christ, marriage, Christian fellowship, service, teachability, worship, or in any other aspect of Christian living. Yet, says James, speaking about handling trials, the double-minded person may be unstable in all these ways. The pastor of Jerusalem, speaking under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, provides a sobering insight into the workings of human nature.

One of the novel and mistaken ideas about how to handle suffering found today in best-selling Christian books is that we can worship our way out of them. We should become so carried away by ecstatic, almost hypnotic pleasure-centred worship, that we are lifted above and out of all our heartaches and cares. This is, of course, exactly what the worldling does through entertainment, drink and drugs. Some modern Christian authors are not merely ignorant of the Word of God and the ways of faith, they give signs of not even being Christians. They think exactly as worldlings do. Trials, as James repeatedly says, are for proving the Lord, tasting His help, and becoming increasingly stable through the development of patience and trust.

James does not give a soft-soap, comfort message, but a promise of triumph when he says, 'Blessed is the man that endureth temptation' (verse 12). The first book of the New Testament does not proclaim: 'Comfort! Comfort! Comfort!' but it points out how to get trained, how to cope, and how to trust, and in the long run this brings us to far greater comfort and assurance than any human, earthly technique could ever achieve.

Without doubt, the greatest source of strength, no matter what the trial, is simply to reflect on the far greater riches that we have in Christ. We have the greatest, firmest and most powerful Friend imaginable. We have the free favour of the Godhead smiling upon us. Through Christ, all our sins are washed away. Through His merit, we will be richly rewarded and compensated for all our pains. Through Christ, we may be certain that even the most harrowing problems will work to our eternal good, and bring a blessing to other souls.

While in the USA not long ago, my wife asked an industrial-scale grower of houseplants what technique was used to cause a flower to appear on a plant on time for its display in a store. The reply, to uninitiated ears, was a surprise. The plants were just put under some form of stress. In a way, they were given a shock. Whether it was an alteration of light or moisture or temperature, stress was the technique. The plant thinks it is going to die, and begins to perpetuate itself in reproduction. What an apt illustration for believers!

Productive stress

When we have a trial or a time of great stress, we are reminded of our mortality, and then our Christian graces flower. We are provoked to pray, to hold on, to trust the Lord, to mount a good witness, to exercise patience and to look to the eternal future. Just as it is with plants, so it is with us. What will our trial be in the days ahead? Will it be some great aggravation, or insult, or loss, or injustice, or betrayal, or disappointment, or tragedy or debilitating illness? Whatever comes, let these directions of James govern our response, so that virtues and graces deepen and grow.