Last year we were dealing with a few challenging issues so I kept a post-it on hand with a verse from the book of James scribbled on it. I didn’t choose it because it provoked a yearning within me to yell out “Amen!” but rather because I just didn’t get it. The verse, found in James chapter 1 verse 2, says: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds.” Some translations even go as far as to say that these trials should be considered “gifts”.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t have a good track record of accepting life’s tests and challenges as gifts. What does that even mean? That God selects our struggles in life just for us and delivers them personally to us for the purpose of shaping our character?
In some scenarios, this seems to be the case. I can look back to seasons in my life that were riddled with arduous and stressful situations. It seems quite plausible to me that God allowed those trials because of the way that they forced me to search His Word for the answers to my problems. Many times I found myself desperately wondering what to do only to open the good book and see that He had foreseen my need for a good Q & A session and had graciously pre-scripted guidelines for me. All I had to do was seek, and the answers could be found.
Finding these answers did more than teach me where to go for solutions. It challenged me to turn from my personal inclinations in favor of God’s perfect methods for living. Does that mean that now I experience perfect living though Him? Not even close. I’m often so distracted by my day-to-day life that I have to learn this same lesson over and over and over again:
I experience a hardship and don’t know what to do; I agonize over all possible avenues; I exhaust myself discussing possible remedies with every respectable person who will lend an ear; I suddenly remember that the Bible might just hold the key, therein, stepping out in faith in one direction or another; I realize for the umpteenth time that I ended up right where I should have begun- as a perpetual pupil of the Most High.
In that respect, these trials have a two-fold benefit of reminding me that I need to seek the Lord’s guidance in life which in turn teaches me how to choose specific, practical re-actions to my circumstances that (I hope) will glorify God and simultaneously be in my own best interest.
Okay, so that addresses challenges that appear to come from God. What about that other stuff in life? The compacted, laden-with-suffering junk that wrecks people’s entire earthly lives- do those trials come from God too?
Sometimes the difficulties we endure are the result of other people’s actions. Let’s face it: some people in this world intentionally do vile, detestable things. There are also people in this world who strive for righteousness, but make colossal mistakes with devastating consequences for those around them. In both of these cases, the acts are a product of their own voluntary decisions- not the result of their being manipulated into evil by the hand of God. He does not inspire evil deeds, but rather beckons mankind towards good. The only way to stop the evil done by others would be to smother humanity’s freedom to choose- and He’s just not going to do that. God does not breathe mobility into humankind and at the same time petrify man’s free will.
In other cases, trials are brought on as consequences to our own flawed choices. We are all well aware that our actions have ramifications. Yet, many of us prefer to reside in the comfort of denial, hoping that we will only experience the good consequences in life and that somehow the bad consequences will be reserved only for others. Then, when bad things happen to us as a result of our own decisions, we seem shocked. Still, there no room to blame God for choices we made for ourselves.
James 2:14-15 explains “But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. 15 Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.”
Accepting responsibility can be grueling at times. I am heart-broken when I witness people suffer, especially at their own hands. I would make a terrible judge because my compassion overwhelms me at times and I can so easily see how someone’s background or circumstances contribute to their poor choices. I personally have made a multitude of depraved decisions in life and have, on such occasions, begged God to be exempt from the consequences. I am not above any of this, but rather I’m just aiming to speak the ugly truth: when I mess up, it’s ultimately my own fault.
Obviously, not all trials are caused by people. There are circumstances in life that seem to come out of nowhere. Natural disasters, illnesses, and unforeseeable accidents can all occur with no known cause or warning. These are the events that are the hardest to explain: why do innocent children get cancer or why do tornadoes demolish entire communities?
I see part of the answer within the first few pages of our life story in Genesis. We long for a beautiful life -a pleasant, harmonious existence- because that is the environment for which we were created. The splendid utopia that was intended for us all was besmirched when a girl took a walk one day and encountered a crafty serpent who snared her with the temptation of a forbidden fruit. He deceitfully disregarded the small print during this transaction-a disclaimer that she already knew but doubted to be true: that the result of her actions would be (a delayed, but imminent) death. Goodbye garden life- hello broken world. Enter pain, strenuous labor (both of the work and child-bearing varieties), strife, frustration and death itself. It seems that cancer and tornados would never have showed up if sin had not entered the arena- but it did, so here we are.
Perhaps one of the hardest Biblical themes to fully reconcile is the fact that our loving, forgiving, fair, redeeming God dispenses wrath. It is easy to fasten ourselves to God’s attributes that render positive outcomes for us. Unfortunately, it would be reckless and foolish to ignore His wrathfulness. From the Great Flood to the Cross, we see the glaring indisputable evidence that God’s wrath must be satisfied. Yet, while there are circumstances on earth, both desirable and not, that occur at the mighty hand of God, this in no way implies that He is EVER responsible for evil. 1 John 1:5 clearly illustrates this point, stating “God is light; in him there is no darkness at all.”
With so much to take into account, maybe you see now why I struggled with fully grasping James’ claim that my trials are actually gifts in disguise and therefore should merit joy. The more that I reflected on it though, the more I kind of got it. I am no expert in theology but I think that maybe the point of James’ message is that difficulties are an inevitable part of daily living. We share this fractured land with a powerful adversary who ensures that corruption, distress, and anguish are deeply interwoven facets of life. But it’s how we grow through hardship that works to our benefit. If we were to be sheltered from every conflict known to man, then we would just be isolated, non-empathetic, shallow shells. Our struggles stretch us, shape us and fundamentally make us who we are. We cannot choose our trials, but we can choose who we turn to in the midst of them. And regardless of the source of my life’s dilemma’s, I hold steadfastly to one remaining fact: that He will no doubt take the crud that seeps into my days and the affliction that strives to steal peace from me at night, and He will transform it into something good…and that seems to me like one of the greatest gifts of all.
Romans 8:28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.
James 1:5-7 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. But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt…