“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” or so the saying goes. I’ve always taken a little issue with this colloquial advice. I know it is supposed to be a motivational statement—and we certainly can learn, heal, and grow from difficulties—but there are also difficulties that neither kill us, nor make us stronger. In fact, some difficulties can be emotionally, or even physically crippling. Some difficulties harm us and we’re never the same afterward.
I’ve often wondered the same about faith in trials. Do trials always produce faith? Certainly, passages such as James 1:2-4 point to the possibility of fruit in the lives of Christians who are going through hardships. It says,
“2Consider it a great joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you experience various trials 3because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance. 4And let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing” (James 1:2-4).
Whether persecution for their faith, poverty or legal trouble due to their social status, or the myriad of other issues that the early church Christians might have been facing, “consider it a great joy” would not have been the easiest advice to take. It’s difficult to hear, but James wants us to recognize the greater importance and value that faith in our eternal God carries, when compared to any temporary difficulty of this world. Because of this, he essentially says, consider it joy when you go through hardships, because your faith will grow as a result.
A sister passage in 1st Peter 1:6-9 depicts a similar situation where faith is tested, refined, and purified by trials. Peter compares our faith to gold that is purified by fire (trials), and as it is heated, the impurities are melted out. The word for “tested” can also be translated “approved”, which conveys the idea that the “test” will reveal a sincere or an insincere faith. So a trial has the capability of demonstrating if our faith is pure (sincere), or not. And then, as we go through that trial, our faith can also be refined, purifying it, and making it stronger.
So does every trial in every situation produce a growth in faith in anyone? I don’t believe it does. If I want my faith to grow through a trial, I believe two things are necessary. First, I need to have faith in God to begin with. Something cannot grow if it does not exist. A trial can certainly bring someone to faith in God, but for someone to grow in faith, their faith must already exist. Second, the language in James 1:2-4 implies that even if we already have faith, we have a choice in how we respond to a trial. The mere fact that James tells Christians to “consider it a great joy” when they face trials, implies that we have the choice to do the opposite. If joy weren’t a choice, we wouldn’t need encouragement to choose it. Isn’t this perfectly obvious to us? I mean, how joyful are we when we go through something difficult in life? Joy is certainly not my natural reaction to difficulties, and I suspect it’s not yours either. James also uses another word in verse four that raises the same implication. He says “LET endurance have its full effect” (emphasis mine). This, again, implies a choice. And if we DON’T “let” endurance have its full effect, then we won’t go on to the maturity of faith the trial is intended to produce. Therefore, in a passage about trials, James ensures we know that our choices have an impact on the faith that will be produced out of trial.
This is the crucial point that we often miss when we are going through a trial. Our faith will not automatically grow just because we go through a difficult time. In fact, it’s very common for people to get angry with God and push God away when they go through something difficult. I’ve counseled with people who refused to go to Church or read Scripture because they were angry with God. We blame Him or doubt Him. But do any of those things help us grow? Of course not! If we stop looking at Him and to Him through the trial, if we put distance between us and God, if we hide ourselves in other pursuits, if we quit spending time in His Word, in prayer, worship, or other Spiritual disciplines, how can we grow? God knows that pushing Him away might be our natural reactions to hard times, which is why he inspired James to encourage us to do the exact opposite.
You see, this passage in James is a charge to us. It is a challenge to change our posture toward God during trials – to keep looking to Him, no matter how difficult life can be. It’s a call to be faithful to God, no matter how easy or tempting another course may be. As life knocks us down, let us lean on God. As trials test our faith, let us seek Him so that we can be found pure and continue in Him that our faith may grow even deeper, sincerer, and stronger. The bottom line is this: When we go through a trial, our initial reaction might be to run from God. We might turn from him and let that difficult time drive us away from God because we are angry, frustrated, afraid, or filled with doubt. But here is the charge of James: when you feel this way, when you go through a trial, and you are hurt, afraid, or angry, choose to seek God all the more. Don’t hide from Him. Instead, look to Him. Trust in Him. Let your faith be tested and found pure. Choose to let your faith in Christ endure through all of life’s trials so that you may grow to “be mature and complete, lacking nothing.”
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