Learning to Overcome

One summer while I was in college I worked as a ministry intern at a small church near Philadelphia. I did some teaching, preaching, event planning, working with youth, among other things. I also led a small group bible study during the week and the book of James was the topic. On the very first night I was excited and nervous to lead it. Everyone arrived and after we got some snacks we began the study. There were probably 10-15 people there. I began to read:

“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)

After reading this passage I stopped and made some nervous comments about the verses until I was interrupted by an older gentlemen in the group. He was a Vietnam vet who had always been very friendly to me but something upset him about what I just read.

He said, “Joy, I’m supposed to find joy in the terrible things that have happened to me? That makes no sense. I can’t do that Drew.” He then went on to describe all the medical conditions that he was suffering due to his service in the war and the chronic pain that he was in. He talked about how he had recently been diagnosed with cancer and he only had a few years to live at best and they wouldn’t be good years. He said that all he could do was get by hoping that heaven would be a better existence than he has now. He said he couldn’t possibly rejoice.

He was visibly emotional and began to cry and decided to leave and I walked him out to comfort him, but I wasn’t successful. This man was hurting, in pain, and dying and he desperately needed a word of encouragement and what he heard in these first words of James was, “Suck it up man, It’s good for you.” These are hard words to hear, seemingly patronizing and dehumanizing, when we are in such pain and suffering.

Many of us, if we cannot relate to this man, can see where he is coming from. We all have experienced hurt and pain and we assuredly have witnessed many of our friends and family endure a lot of it. How can joy be anywhere near the experience of suffering that comes with trials.

What exactly does James mean by considering our trials a joy? Here is what he is not saying.

  • He is not saying that we need to be happy no matter what terrible things befall us.
  • He is not condoning masochism here.
  • He is not saying, “Death in family…rejoice.” “Loss of job…slap on a smile.” “You got a disease…be glad because it’s good for you.” That’s not what he is saying.
  • Joy is not to be found in a painful act. We are never to rejoice in the act of bringing pain to ourselves, or to others, or in the experience of others causing us suffering.

What is joy then? Joy is not a superficial happiness displayed in a fabricated grin. Joy isn’t an emotion like happiness. Joy is an inner state of being that supplies a constant stream of peace and hope to someone no matter what circumstances, good or bad, unfortunate or blessed. This inner state of being is supplied to the believer by the Holy Spirit through faith. Someone who believes in Jesus and the eternal life that he brings and the hope that he promises can have joy, an inner sense that it’s going to be ok, because they trust in the goodness, faithfulness, and power of God to make things ok. If not soon then someday. If not in this life then the next. It doesn’t mean that you will always be happy, or pain free, but it means that through Jesus we are guaranteed restoration and this can give peace and hope. This fact can get us through. Or can it?

We know that all of us will go through trials or tests because of the phrase: “whenever you face trials.” Not “if” you face them but “whenever” you do. This experience is a guarantee. All of us will have things happen to us in our life that will qualify as a testing or trial. “Whenever” means it’s coming, has come, is here, or more likely – it’s all three.

I believe that James has a particular trial in mind that the Jewish Christians he is writing to are facing. Their particular trial is persecution that is making them poor. We see this later in the letter when he says, “Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? Are they not the ones who are blaspheming the noble name of him to whom you belong?” (James 2:6-7). The early Jewish Christians main trial was dealing with persecution that was leading to poverty. He is telling them to find joy even in the midst of physical, emotional, and financial trials. This persecution was seriously testing how genuine their faith was.

Trials, like the people they test, come in many shapes and sizes. James says that there are “trials of many kinds.” Anything that happens to you causing you to show your true colors qualifies as a trial. The word trial means test. Testing what? Testing how much you really trust Jesus that everything is going to be ok.

James goes on to say, “You know that testing produces perseverance.” This is not new to these Jews. The Jewish Christian would already know this because they’ve read the Old Testament. They are very familiar with how Israel was tested often. They remember the wilderness, the laws God gave them, and the exile when they didn’t obey. Testing was a part of their history…and ours too.

But knowing and doing are two different things. And this really separates the wise from the fool. The fool knows what to do and doesn’t do it. The wise man knows what to do and executes it. Here is my working definition of wisdom: “Wisdom is acting on what we know to be God’s best for our life.” Wisdom is not just knowing but acting on what we know God would have us do.

“Wisdom is acting on what we know to be God’s best for our life.”

We can know that we will be tested, but the question is, “what will we do when it comes later this afternoon, tomorrow, next month, or right now?” Trials reveal our true character. James sees the great potential in the trials we face to produce something important…perseverance. He says, “Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” Perseverance is the gateway to maturity in faith. God wants us to be mature lacking nothing. The only way that this can happen is if we persevere through our trials.

What is perseverance? I often thought of perseverance as endurance, some translations even use “endurance.” When I think of perseverance or endurance I think of a long-distance runner. Someone who pushes through the pain to finish the race. Someone who keeps on running no matter what. This is a great analogy. Paul even liked that one (1Cor 9).

This is important: Biblical perseverance has to do not just with finishing but with how you run when you’re hurt. Some Christians think that the finishing is all that matters. Hold on the faith in Christ until the end, go to church, and avoid the big sins until you die. Yes, perseverance has to do with holding on until the end. It is about the prize we will receive but it also has to do with the way you handle trials when they happen.

This is important: Biblical perseverance has to do not just with finishing but with how you run when you hurt.

If you snap at your family every time you get angry and you never get any better have you really persevered?

If you give into the same sin (in the name of weakness) your entire life without improvement have you endured?

If your life is a string of failures without growth have you persevered?

What will God think of someone who cannot deal with any trial that comes their way without getting ugly?

To endure through trials means:

  1. You don’t give up on God. In suffering you call on him. You seek his wisdom in his Word and in prayer. You keep your faith. You hold on to faith.
  2. You don’t give in to sin. This is related to the first one but deals with the character that you show as the trials are happening. This doesn’t mean that you can’t question and even get angry. But it means that you don’t run away from God to other means of “strength.”

Now a word about the nature of trials.

We can’t say, and shouldn’t say, that all bad things that happen to us are for the purpose of making us more mature. God doesn’t cause all bad things to happen to us just to grow us. God doesn’t make all bad things happen period. Bad things happen in this world for several reasons and we don’t know all of them. But we do know that sometimes they happen because of your sin or others, or because of the fallen senseless world that we live in, or maybe its just an accident. We can’t blame God or even a person for all of them. In the end, we don’t know why each bad thing happens only that they do.

I was in a car accident that was my fault in high school in which I was the only one to not be seriously hurt. In fact, there was one fatality. This was a very difficult thing for me to deal with as a teenager and it is still hard. Do I believe that God caused that to happen just to teach me something? To think so would be sick. I don’t think so. I think I took my eyes off the road and was talking with my sister and I missed a turn. That’s what happened. This accident brought suffering and pain to many people.

God does not cause evil to happen to bring good out of it. Accidents, natural disasters, and personal tragedies happen because we live in a fallen world. We live in a world where the innocent suffer, young children starve, poverty cripples most the population, and heart attacks kills fit 45-year-olds. It doesn’t always make sense but it’s the world we live in. God is working to restore the fallen world not to cause any of its problems.

God is working to restore the fallen world not to cause any of its problems.

The question I want to go back to is, “How will we react when trials strike?” How we react to trials and suffering reveals our character and God can use that to mature us. He doesn’t necessarily cause the trial but he can use it. God can bring good out of bad. God also promises to be there with us when we suffer and he hurts along with us no matter how senseless the suffering.

Let me give you a couple of scenarios. You don’t really know how good that basketball recruit is going to be until you get him on the floor with real talent and in a real game situation. You don’t know how an employee is going to work out until you hire her and get her on the job.  You don’t know how a star-studded Brazilian lineup is going to play until you put them in the World Cup (without Neymar and Tiago Silva). You don’t know what a player, employee, or team is made of until you get them out there in a real situation, when there’s no time to think, real adversaries, real pressure, real sweat, blood, fear, pain and stress.

It is the same with us Christians, we can talk till we are blue in the face, and sometimes I do, about what we are to believe, who God is, what Jesus has done for us, and how we are to live our lives for God. And I’ll continue to do that because it’s all true. But it gets real when the trials and suffering hit. All the teaching goes out the window because there is no time to think, there’s only real life situations, real adversaries, real pressure, real sweat, blood, fear, pain and stress. And how will you react? Will you overcome? Will you make it? When suffering and pain hit you and make you raw emotionally and drained spiritually, this is when you need to keep endurance in mind.

We can all learn to overcome like Cody in this video:

The only way we can consider our trials joy, is when we know that our trials can be overcome through Jesus. If you don’t know how to overcome your trials…ask and he will give it to you. Seek his wisdom and he will give it to you. Ultimately, we can always have joy as Christians because those of us that endure will have a crown of life with our name on it.

James says, “Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him” (1:12).

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