There are people who come to church, profess Christ, and get baptized — but as soon as trouble comes into their life, they vanish. They stop showing up at church, and often they never come back. Maybe they get burned in a relationship, or they have a loved one die. But whatever it is, something overwhelming comes along, and these professing believers shake their fists at God and walk away. It happens all the time.
Last time we saw that trials have the effect of testing our faith to show whether it is genuine. And most of us can remember a time when we saw someone around us fail that test. But that raises a question: What is different about genuine faith that makes it strong enough to endure trials?
Let’s look again at James:
Blessed is the man that endures trials, for after his trial is over, he shall receive the crown of life, which the Lord has promised to them that love Him. (James 1:12)
First, consider that the word for “endure” here is hupomen, which has a meaning beyond simply gritting your teeth and getting through something. It more so has the idea of patiently, triumphantly being the victor over something. The point is that the person who claims to be a Christian and then comes out a winner through trials, never giving up his faith or abandoning God, shows himself to be a genuine Christian.
Now, James calls those who persevere “them that love Him.” That’s really the essence of our attitude toward the Lord as genuine believers: We love Him. Salvation is not merely transactional; it is all about a love relationship. This makes James’s phrase, “them that love Him,” a wonderful definition for describing the true Christian.
A Christian is not someone who simply, at one point in time, believed the truth. A Christian is someone who has an ongoing love for God, and whose love holds fast even in trial. I mean, what would we say about a “loving” marriage or friendship if the love crumbled when the going got tough? That sort of love is no good.
We can then say that genuine love for God keeps our faith alive in trials. No matter what the struggle, what the difficulty, we endure because love holds us fast.
Some years ago, Gardiner Spring was a pastor in New York City. He wrote of the persevering power of love this way:
If a man in his supposed love to God has no ultimate regard except to his own happiness, if he delights in God not for what He is but for what He is to him, in such a sentiment there is no moral virtue. There is indeed great love of self, but no true love of God. But where the enmity of the carnal mind is slain, the soul is reconciled to the divine character as it is. God Himself in the fullness of His manifested glory becomes the object of devout and delighted contemplation. In his more favored hours, the views of a good man are in a great measure diverted from himself. As his thoughts glance toward the varied excellence of the deity, he scarcely stops to inquire whether the being whose character fills his mind, and in comparison of whose dignity and beauty all things are atoms and vanity, will extend his mercy to him. (Essays on the Distinguishing Traits of Christian Character, pages 46-47)
All of that to say, the bond that ties a man or a woman to God is the bond of love — not just superficial affection or sentiment but a true bond of love that can endure any trial. Gardiner Spring then poses a series of helpful questions for self-examination:
Do you love God for what you imagine Him to be or for what He is? Are you pleased with His character and do you love every part of it? Do you love His holiness as well as His grace, and His justice as well as His mercy? Do you love Him merely on account of His love to you, or do you love Him because He is, in Himself, lovely? Do you love Him merely because you hope He will save you, or do you think you should love Him if you supposed He would damn you? Is your love to God supreme? Whom do you love more than God? In whose character do you behold more beauty? Whose blessedness is the object of warmer desires or more vigorous exertion? To whom are you more grateful? (Ibid., page 49)
Now, there are some things that do not prove true love. Outward morality doesn’t prove it; there are many people who are outwardly moral who do not love God. Theological knowledge doesn’t prove it; there are many people who know a lot about theology. That does not necessarily mean they love God. Religious activity doesn’t prove genuine living faith. There are all kinds of people engaged in religious activity who do not love God. Even the conviction of sin and the fear of judgment do not necessarily prove genuine saving faith.
What, then, does prove that love is genuine? James’s answer is, “Trials.” If you react to suffering like those I mentioned at the beginning, who walk away when life becomes difficult, it becomes plain that you never had real love. But if you persevere, you will prove that your love is genuine, because real love for God is what keeps believers anchored in suffering.
Of course, knowing this doesn’t keep trials from being profoundly difficult. So next week we will begin looking at practical ways to endure in the midst of suffering.
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