15 December 2017

Going Through Troubles

James 1:2 “Consider it pure joy my brothers and sisters whenever you face trials of many kinds!”

Many of us have been watching the Olympic Games this year. Did you see the mountain biking? The competitors have to race their bikes up the mountain, through the mud, over the rocks, round the bends, between the trees, and down the hills. Life’s a bit like that. As we race through life, we have to cope with all kinds of terrain – sometimes we feel like we are flying down the hills at top speed and life is exhilarating and going well; at other times we are struggling uphill, dragged back by the mud; other times it’s the rocky road, with all kinds of troubles; and occasionally, as we saw in the Olympic race, we slip and take a crash, injuring ourselves and others.

So how do we handle the rocky times, the breakdowns, the crashes? It was a question that must have been in the forefront of James’ mind as he wrote his letter to his fellow Christians, because it is the first thing he talks about in his book, in chapter 1 v 1-12. James was the brother of Jesus, who initially opposed Jesus but then came to faith, saw him raised from the dead, and became leader of the church in Jerusalem. He saw troubles and trials and persecutions first hand. What does he have to say about going through troubles?

Accept that Troubles Come

“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds” (v2).

What is a trial?

Before the Olympics, athletes take part in their country’s trials, where their abilities and athleticism is put to the test to see if they have the quality of performance needed to compete. For the Christian, a trial can be any adversity that tests the quality and genuineness of our faith in God.

As James writes, trials are “of many kinds”. In his letter he mentions persecution (1:1), poverty, possibly famine (1:9, 2:1), bereavement (1:27), and sickness (5:14). We cannot be sure of all the circumstances James would include in his term “trial”, and we must be aware that he is not giving us an easy answer for why people suffer. Also, what James says here is not all that the Bible says about suffering – turn to any of its books and you will read more. Nevertheless, he is teaching us how we can handle troubles and what God can do through them.

One important step is to accept that trials will come. James says, “whenever you face trials of many kinds”. He tells us that we should expect trials. We should not be surprised when we go through difficult times. Remember Jesus’ words in John 16:33 “In this world you will have trouble…” Be realistic: accept that troubles will come.

Consider how you react

How do we react when troubles come? Some of course say that troubles mean they cannot believe in God at all, that if there was a loving, powerful God then He should stop all suffering. It’s a very understandable point, and suffering does often cause us to question. However, if there is no God, then life is just random, troubles have no meaning, and there is little hope that life could ever be any better. Perhaps we deny that we’re struggling. Maybe we indulge in self-pity, thinking that no-one else has it as bad as we do. Perhaps we find ourselves bitterly complaining to everyone about everything in our lives, as if nothing is positive. We may react with fear, worried that our whole lives are caving in, that we will lose all that is dear to us, fearing the worst, and expecting that we will not cope.

All of these are natural reactions, but what is James’ suggestion? Certainly not a natural reaction and something we may not want to hear: “Consider it pure joy…” (v2)

Consider it pure joy? Is James mad? What does he mean? We may think joy is just another word for happiness, but the Bible doesn’t mean that when it speaks of joy. Joy is not happiness, or a fake smile, or blind optimism. Joy is much, much deeper. Joy is a spiritual quality that affects our whole being. It is the ultimately positive outlook that we can have when we see things from God’s perspective. It is about knowing God and His love, trusting Him and drawing peace from Him. Ultimately it is even more than a choice we make; it is a gift God gives, a characteristic He produces in us, and it can especially occur in the midst of sadness, pain and tears. For example, in 2 Corinthians Paul talks about his sufferings, including imprisonment, violence, hunger, sleepless nights, and so on, and he describes himself as “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Cor 6:10). Sorrow and joy together. The Bible is remarkably honest about the sorrows of this broken world, but it also points to the possibility of joy in the midst of that sorrow.

James says, “Consider it pure joy…” There’s a choice, a decision for us to make over how we react. Hebrews 12:1-2 says, “fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.”

I’ve seen it myself in the Christian suffering from cancer, in the bereaved believer, in the follower of Jesus who is facing death. They looked to their Saviour and they chose joy in the sorrow.

Understand what God can do

Why should we consider joy in our troubles? James goes on to give some reasons.

“… because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” (v3-4)

We have a chain of events here – trial > test of faith > perseverance > mature faith. God’s aim for us is that we become more like Jesus, and He is able to use the difficulties in life to do this. He takes us, makes and shapes us, knocks off the rough edges. He works with us until we are the finished article, the person He made us to be, the person He saved us to be, a person in the image of Jesus Christ. So joy comes from knowing that even though troubles bring awful sorrow, amazingly our sovereign, gracious God can turn them around to work for us, not against us.

The Scriptures are filled with this principle. For example, Peter writes in his first letter, “you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire —may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls” (v6-9).

Paralympic Athlete Anne Wafula Strike (On Your Marks DVD) said “It’s in the lowest moments of my life, that’s when Jesus is most real.”

A living example of this is Joni Eareckson Tada who has spent over thirty years in a wheelchair after a freak accident in her youth left her paralysed. She now leads a Christian organisation that spreads the Gospel across the world amongst people with disabilities. God turned immense trial into incredible triumph. She likens suffering to the training an athlete goes through in order to get fit, “Suffering provides the gym equipment on which my faith can be exercised.”

Keep your eyes on the prize

raBut is it worth it in the end? No doubt an athlete asks that question as day by day they get up early for a day of hard, tough training. What do they do for motivation? They think of the prize, they imagine winning the gold medal. And that’s what we’ve to do too. In verse 12 James lifts our gaze beyond this world to our heavenly prize:

“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.”

Troubles sap the life out of us when we think this life is all there is, but when we hold on to the promise of full, real life with God forever – the promise of life without troubles forever – we get the strength to keep on going in all of life’s trials. As the apostle Paul wrote: “our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all” (2 Cor. 4:17).

So how can we get the help we need to choose joy in the sorrows, to understand how God is at work, to keep our eyes on the prize? James mentions two examples: fellowship and prayer.

(i) Fellowship

“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters…” (v2).

In the Christian church we are not meant to suffer alone. Church of all places is meant to be the place where we receive love, support, care from the wider Christian family. So if you are going through tough times, get the help of close Christian brothers and sisters. And if you know someone who is travelling a rough road, get alongside them and bring some roadside assistance. Talk together, share together, pray together, give practical help.

(ii) Prayer

“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” (v5).

When we go through hard times, don’t we feel like we don’t know what to do, how to behave, where to turn? We lack wisdom, which is not just making good decisions, but living in a godly way. In his typically practical way, James says, ‘Pray. Ask God.’ Traditionally, James is known as ‘old camel knees’ from the calluses he built up from hours spent kneeling to pray, so he lived this out himself.

James doesn’t give us all the answers we’d like to the problem of suffering but he reminds us that we will cope with trials when we accept they are a normal part of the Christian race, and choose to react with joy in our sorrow when we know God powerfully and lovingly can use troubles to make us Christ-like; and when we know there’s the prize of heaven to come.

WORDS James Rogers