The Epistle of James has sometimes been accused of emphasizing works too heavily and underplaying the importance of faith. In fact, Martin Luther famously called James a “straw epistle,” believing that it failed to exalt the work of Christ through faith the way that Paul’s letters did.
Martin Luther made many true observations, but this isn’t one of them. James is very much an epistle about faith. For James, works serve simply as a test of faith’s genuineness. And the same is true of trials:
Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. (James 1:2-3)
The word translated “various” is poikilos, meaning “many-colored” or “varied.” The idea is that trials come in many different forms. And the word for trial is peirasmos, which has the idea of a disruption. This word has been mistranslated before as “temptation,” but the word doesn’t necessarily denote a solicitation to evil. Rather, the word suggests a difficulty that puts someone to the test. In fact, the verb form of peirasmos means exactly that: “to put someone to the test.”
Every trouble that comes into your life, whether large or small, becomes a test of your faith. You either pass or fail. Passing the test keeps it a trial. Failing the test turns it into a temptation. And if you eventually sin because of it, it becomes a successful temptation. On the other hand, if you are victorious over the trouble, it proves itself to be a successful trial.
To say it another way, a temptation leads you to sin and makes you fall. A trial leads you to strength and makes you stand.
We should note that James does not draw a distinction here between internal and external trials, and we shouldn’t either. I have found in my own life that every external trial soon becomes an internal one, too. No trial of significant weight ever stays on the outside; it’s when the suffering gets into my mind and festers there that the real testing begins. So James does not have only external trials in mind here as he writes. These “various trials” are both external and internal. They come in the form of disappointments, frustrations, misunderstandings, unfulfilled dreams, unmet expectations, loss, loneliness, fear, criticism, persecution, and conflict. And regardless of whether they start as external or internal trials, they always serve the same purpose: to test the authenticity and strength of your faith.
What you do through a trial will reveal whether you really believe God and are genuinely saved, and it will also reveal how strong that saving faith really is.
So, if this is God’s purpose in sending us trials, then this should change how we approach them when they come. When we suffer, we ought to take the opportunity to carefully examine how we react, and we ought to use those symptoms to diagnose the health of our faith.
Is your pattern one of perseverance? Or when trials come, do you always fall into sin and unbelief? Either way, the pattern is a reflection of what is true in your heart.
Robert Johnstone, writing in a commentary on James many years ago, said this:
James shows that where there is but an empty profession or a mere dreamy sentiment, unbased on firm and intelligent convictions of truth, the fire of trouble will burn them up … But where there is true faith, affliction naturally leads to deeper thought than under other circumstances on sin and its desserts, and thus frees the heart from the control of self-righteousness. The source of weakness leads to earnest wrestling with God in prayer, and experience of the sustaining grace thus obtained strengthens and exhilarates hope with regard to the time to come. (A Commentary on James, pages 31-32)
That is a very rich and loaded statement, but the main idea is this: Put a false Christian through a test, and inevitably it will burn him up. Put a true believer through a test, and it will drive him to despair about his own weakness and cause him to lean on the strength of God.
Trials destroy imitation faith and strengthen true faith. In both cases, trouble is a painful but gracious blessing. But what exactly is it that keeps genuine faith alive under fire while the superficial faith burns? Next time we will look at the fundamental difference between the faith that fails and the faith that passes the test.
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