In the last post we considered that knowing God requires us to come to his message in the Bible with the right attitude, namely one of willingness to learn, to be corrected and to be inspired into practical action by what we read.
Reading the Bible isn’t the only way that a Christian can learn and grow. We finished last time in the letter from James:
Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, 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. (James 1:2–4)
The experiences of life, particularly in times of hardship and suffering, are designed to enable us to grow and mature as Christians. Yet, as with reading the Bible, it will only have the desired effect if we respond with the correct attitude.
What is the correct attitude?
I think it would be fair to say that as human beings our instinctive reaction to pain and suffering is to find a way to escape it. Even as Christians our immediate reaction is likely to be a prayer to God to take pain and suffering away.
There’s nothing wrong with asking for that. In the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus asked for his imminent suffering on the cross to be taken away, if there were any other way for God’s will to be done. There wasn’t, and Jesus accepted that.
What Jesus knew, and what James teaches here, is that unpleasant life experiences serve a purpose. They “test” our faith. What does that mean?
Does it mean that God uses pain and suffering as a test that we must pass in order to prove to him that we have faith?
I don’t think that’s what James is saying. He’s saying that God “tests” our faith in the sense of “refining” it. Just as a metalworker will place a piece of valuable metal into a furnace to refine it by melting away the dross of less valuable materials, God puts us into the “furnace” of pain and suffering to refine and purify the faith that he knows we already possess.
Why does God do this? Why does he use pain and suffering to refine us?
One reason is that among the “dross” he wants to get rid of are natural human characteristics such as pride, self-sufficiency and self-indulgence. Pain and suffering directly attack these sorts of characteristics and remind us that we do not have complete control over our life circumstances.
When our lives are easy and comfortable, we very easily forget God and start to believe not only that we earned our comfort and happiness by ourselves, but also that we don’t need anyone’s help to maintain it.
When the things we enjoy are lost to us and we become very aware of our own fragility, it is much easier to stop trusting ourselves and remember to trust God instead.
Why does James say that we should experience such things as if they were “pure joy”? Is he saying that pain and suffering should make a Christian feel happy?
Again, no. Notice that in verses 2-4 quoted above he uses words such as “consider” and “know”. The joy comes not from our emotional reaction to times of suffering but rather from the knowledge that such experiences give us an opportunity to grow and mature as children of God.
As we saw last time, James promised that God will always provide us with wisdom on request:
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. (James 1:5)
What does this mean? What is wisdom?
In this context it refers to the ability to discern God’s purpose in (and God’s perspective of) what is going in our lives. If we can see our situation from a “God’s eye view” then we can understand how God would have us react to times of pain and suffering.
Many people today say things like “why does God allow suffering?” or “if God was real he wouldn’t allow these things to happen”. Well, here’s the answer. Pain and suffering enable Christians to grow and mature into what God wants us to be. A life of nothing but comfort and happiness would leave us stagnant and childlike in our thinking.
We aren’t God’s pets. We’re his children.
Another early Christian leader puts it like this:
Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? If you are not disciplined — and everyone undergoes discipline — then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all. Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of spirits and live! They disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. (Hebrews 12:7–11)
Whatever God allows us to endure now, no matter how much it hurts us or devastates everything dear to us, our real hope lies in the future, namely a new and indescribably better life when Jesus returns from heaven. That is what God is refining and preparing us for every day of our lives.