The Apostle James, one of many authors of the Bible, had the unique distinction of being the half-brother of Jesus Christ. Can you imagine growing up with Jesus as your older brother? I’ll bet James wished he had a drachma for every time his parents said, “why can’t you be more like your brother?”
James’ letter, found at the tail end of the Bible, is interesting because it was composed at the time when the church was in its fledgling stage–an odd collection of Jewish people experimenting with the new, faith-based religion introduced by Jesus. James’ letter is often called the “proverbs of the New Testament” because it is filled with practical applications of faith, presented in somewhat of a random fashion. Because of its practicality, James is probably one of the most commonly read books in the Bible.
The beauty of the Bible is that God inspired its authors to write what they did. As such, it is living and active, unmatched in its ability to penetrate and expose the darkest secrets of man and to reveal divine intention and purpose for our existence. As a result, you can re-read any biblical book and find new and profound truths, if you are seriously looking. This was true in my recent re-reading of James’s letter. It must be the fiftieth time that I’ve read James’ letter, and I’m still finding fascinating truths that explain my circumstances and give guidance for how I should live. This time, what struck me most about James’ letter is the importance of trials in my life, and how I respond to them. Right off the bat, in the second sentence of his letter, James points to trials as the key ingredient to help me achieve my highest goal as a Christian–maturity and contentment in Jesus Christ.
Trials. Usually what comes to mind when we think of trials is persecution. Believers in the Far and Middle East are certainly experiencing trials of this kind. By contrast, American believers have had little or no persecution. That may change soon.
But I don’t think persecution is really what James is talking about when he talks about trials. Look at the rest of his letter. Nowhere do you see any discussion of physical abuse, confiscation of property, restriction of freedom, or false accusations. Only in the context of a warning to wealthy landowners not to be greedy does James mention any kind of oppressive persecution. What James does talk about reveals a different side of trials that we don’t often consider. He talks about trials in the form of common and ordinary relationships. His premise is this: God uses relationships to test your faith, and He’s looking for you to respond to those tests properly. James says if you endure–if you hang in there and persist in love and compassion in obedience to God, trusting Him and depending on His provision through each relationship–you will become “perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”
When James says you will become perfect, he doesn’t mean you will be flawless. No one in this life will ever be that. He’s saying that if you endure through the trials, your faith will be refined, like precious silver refined in a silversmith’s fire. You will become mature in your faith and sincere in your love, all byproducts of contentment in Christ.
Since trials are so important for the refining of our faith and achieving our ultimate aim, we should seek to understand what they really are. In his letter, James does us the favor, showing that our relationships are really “trials of many kinds”. But before we look more deeply at trials, let me state some overarching assumptions. First, it is safe to assume that trials are difficult things. If they weren’t difficult, if they didn’t cause us to be uncomfortable, we would have little motivation to pay attention to them. Trials are by nature challenging, uncomfortable, and unnerving. If you never feel challenged or unnerved in your daily life, there is a good chance you are missing out on something. You may be avoiding trials, and as a result, your faith is stale. Second, it is also safe to assume that trials won’t go away easily or quickly. They take time. Not just minutes or days, but often months, years, and even decades. God intentionally gives us lengthy trials because only by patient waiting do we grow in faith and become more complete in Christ. Third, as I have said before, trials always involve relationships with other people. This is perhaps the most important takeaway from James’ letter. When we start recognizing our relationships as trials to be endured and lived out in faith, we gain tremendous understanding and motivation to do good in each relationship. That, I think, is a great secret that not many believers grasp today.
In every example in his letter, James describes trials in terms of relationships. He talks about treating people equally, not based on their appearance or social status (James 2:1-13). He talks about recognizing and helping people you come in contact with that are in need (James 1:27, 2:15-16). He talks a lot about communication–the careful use of words–so vital in maintaining healthy relationships (James 1:19, 1:26, 3:1-12, 4:11, 5:9, 5:12). He talks about quarrels and conflicts with other church members (James 4:1-4), an inevitable and inescapable reality anytime people with a wide variety of histories, cultures, and persuasions try to interact. He even talks about employers and proper treatment of employees (James 5:1-6). In every case, James describes trials in terms of relating to other people.
Let’s think about what that means. Consider the relationships you have today–your spouse, children, friends, neighbors, fellow believers, coworkers, classmates, and extended family. Has it occurred to you that your greatest trials, the tools God intentionally uses to bring you to maturity and contentment in Him, could be sitting across the dining room table from you, or walking past you in the hallway? These relationships are the exercise grounds where you put faith into practice. God designed faith to be exercised in the context of relationships. The second greatest commandment given by Jesus Himself is to “love your neighbor as yourself”, which James describes as “the royal law” since it was the decree given by his half-brother, the King of Kings. An essential part of growing in faith is learning how to love the people God puts in our path.
I’m the kind of person that hates conflict. I’ll do anything to avoid it. If someone disagrees with me or is contentious, I’ll tend to back away. That’s a problem because when I excuse myself from the trial, my faith remains stagnant. I need to put myself into the trial and let my faith be tested. Only by hanging in there, crying out to God, and the living presence of Jesus Christ working in my heart, will I be strengthened and empowered to be patient, to love without measure, to be generous and compassionate, to be respectful, love, and to say what needs to be said. Only then will my faith be refined. Only then will I inch a little closer to contentment in Christ.
Maybe you have a spouse who is difficult to love or has significant needs (just ask my wife if you need further explanation). You try to be kind and loving, but you just don’t seem to be making any progress toward growing together, being united. Instead, there is conflict, bitterness, and annoyance over little things. The temptation is to walk away, to convince yourself that you deserve happiness, and that there are plenty of other fish in the ocean that can give you that. Instead, put yourself in the trial, and stay there. Learn to love your spouse even when you don’t feel like your love is reciprocated. God sees that, and can give you longevity, the ability to keep going. Let your love stand the test of time; an enduring love that bends, but doesn’t break. Hang in there month after month, year after year.
Maybe you have a rebellious child. You try to be kind and loving, but the older they get, the less they have to do with you. You grow incredulous. You think you deserve better, so the temptation to grow bitter and resentful beats at the door of your heart. The temptation is to walk away, to throw up your arms in disgust and close off your heart to that rebellious child. Instead, put yourself in the trial. Love that child with endurance even when you feel dishonored. God sees that, and hears your many prayers for that child’s salvation. He’s big enough to do something about it and He is compassionate enough to want to. Hang in there month after month, year after year.
Maybe there’s a needy person next to you on the bus, a perfect opportunity to exercise faith, to meet a need, to fulfill the royal law. But you close your heart and refuse. Instead, put yourself in the trial reach out in love and meet the need.
Maybe your employees are feeling overwhelmed and undervalued. You are too busy or selfish to realize it. Instead, put yourself in the trial and be generous, gracious, maybe even sacrifice some of your wealth to make someone else happy.
Putting yourself into trials like this may cost you time, may be inconvenient, may go against what you think is fair, and may cause some financial strain. Some trials may cause you to go through a humbling experience, exposing your selfish ambition, pride, and lust. Some trials may cause you to regret some careless words spoken to a neighbor. Some trials are long and drawn out, so frustrating you feel like you can’t take it anymore. If that weren’t enough, you have to overcome the three enemies of faith–doubting, your innate desire to be financially secure, and the lust of your selfish, fleshly nature. But if you want to enrich and deepen your faith, if you want to experience unprecedented levels of peace and joy, you need to stick it out. Trust the God that is testing your faith, and cling to His provision and desire to help you through it. As James points out, we know God is compassionate, as He demonstrates in the examples of Job and many other prophets of old. His testing won’t last forever, so wait for Him.
The key to strong faith is patience, endurance, and waiting–things we’re not very good at these days. We like quick fixes. There is no quick fix when it comes to faith, so if you insist on quick fixes, you have to change the way you think. You have to endure trials like a farmer who waits patiently before harvesting the crop. That’s an analogy I and my Iowan friends can appreciate.
- II Peter 1:19-21
- Hebrews 4:12
- James 1:3-4
- James 2:8
- James 1:5-15
- James 5:7-11
- Lamentations 3:19-32