How Do We Handle Trials?
Living in a fallen and sinful world Christians are not exempt from experiencing trials, tribulation and suffering. Struggles and afflictions are never far away. Throughout history believers have cried out to God, expressing the same sentiments articulated in Psalm 25, “Turn to me, and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted. The troubles of my heart have multiplied: free me from my anguish. Look upon my affliction and my distress and take away all my sins.” (16, 17)
A trial is something that troubles and perplexes us. The dark storm clouds of adversity threaten to block out the light of God’s mercy. No child of God escapes affliction. The apostle Paul speaks about how he was afflicted in every way; perplexed, persecuted, struck down, always being given up to death for Christ’s sake. (2 Cor 4:8-11) Our Lord Jesus Himself came face to face with many struggles during His earthly ministry. There were times when His human spirit was greatly troubled.
Trials can hit us gradually or quite suddenly. They come in various forms. (James 1:2, 3) Your trial may be a health concern, financial difficulties or a struggle against a particular sin. It may be a matter of coming to grips with being single, widowed or not being able to conceive children. You may struggle with accepting the Lord’s will when loved ones have done something terrible to you, or if family members stray or do not know the Lord. Trials can come in the form of disappointments, a struggle withdepression, frustrations, misunderstandings, unfulfilled dreams, unmet expectations, hurtful slander, tremendous loss, loneliness, fear, anxiety, criticism or conflict. In such difficulties our greatest certainties and principles are often challenged. Trials, however, are never an end in themselves but always serve the purpose of testing the genuineness and sincerity of our faith. They are meant to make us secure in the Lord.
A joyful response to trials
In the letter of James we are encouraged to consider it pure joy when faced with various trials. How can this be true? Isn’t joy restricted to good times? Are we to take pleasure in pain and suffering? Not at all! We are able to consider it pure joy when we face trials because we know that every hardship is in the hands of our Lord and Master. He will not use trials against us. Trials are the instruments the Lord uses to form us and to expose the spiritual faithfulness, endurance, growth, maturity and completeness He wants to see in us. They are sent upon us to enrich our faith. The Lord may bring a trial upon us to prod us out of our securities and outward support systems. We are brought to our knees in confession, “Whom have I in heaven but you?” (Psalm 73:25)
To have joy in trials is learned just as we learn to be content in whatever state we find ourselves. (Phil 4:11) If we value the comforts and conveniences of life too highly, trials will upset us. If we pursue having what we want, trials will cause us to be resentful and bitter rather than joyful and glad. If we live only for the present and forget the future, trials will fill our hearts with gall instead of joy.
Trials cannot be avoided and they need to be accepted in faith. James encourages his readers to have a right attitude toward the difficulties of life. We are under obligation to consider it pure joy when we face various trials. Most people can look back at a difficulty they experienced and rejoice in the support they received. They consider those memories as joyful. James instructs us to consider it pure joy, even when there is nothing positive about the entire experience.
We can consider it pure joy when we face trials because in faith we look beyond them. Though tears fill our eyes and anxiety threatens our hearts we believe that through the trial the Lord is fulfilling His purpose. Our Sovereign Lord is leading the way, directing this situation to our eternal benefit. That gives fullness of joy; a pure, total and complete joy in the Lord. Trials pledge better things to come. The sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing to the glory that will be revealed. (Romans 8:18) Joy in trials causes believers to consider it a privilege to have their faith tested — not because the trial is so pleasant. They know that through such tests the Lord is drawing them closer to Himself. For isn’t it true that when faced with the struggles of life we are much more aware of the presence of the Lord? When trials are missing we so easily become careless and comfortable in our routines.
The proper and Christian reaction to trials and trouble is not humanistic resignation but joyful acceptance. The Lord will provide us with the strength to help us through it. When we suffer for doing what is right we have God’s approval. (1 Peter 2:20) The Lord will not allow us to carry more than we can bear — even though those who suffer will never find the trial easy. Many times it is not until later that we become aware of how the Lord was carrying us through the trial.
The worst of our trials do not even come close to the suffering Jesus Christ had to endure for us. He suffered in ways we cannot even imagine. The author to the Hebrews encourages us to look to Jesus, “the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame.” (12:2) Jesus went through trials, looking beyond the suffering to the joy of eternal glory. Our Saviour was able to look beyond His afflictions, while suffering at the hands of men and afflicted by the heavy wrath of God.
Knowing the will of God in trials makes it possible for children of the Lord to sing psalms while being burned at the stake or imprisoned. With tears of grief rolling down their cheeks they can sing praise to the Lord, standing at a grave side. With the ache of loneliness, the pain of physical and mental ailments, the strain of stress and anxiety they can still sing and make melody to the Lord in their hearts.
The apostle Paul was burdened by a thorn in the flesh — something that he had to bear for the rest of his life. Yet it did not embitter him! Instead he exclaimed, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Cor 12:9, 10)
Trials are meant to produce endurance
In the context of speaking about trials James writes, “…for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.” (1:3) When he says, “for you know” he is not talking about knowledge that comes from textbooks but that which is gained from experience. By going through trials ourselves or by seeing others go through them we learn that the testing of our faith works endurance. Trials are meant to produce something very beneficial for ourselves and for others who see God at work in us throughout the time of testing.
The Lord tests us by means of various difficulties to increase our level of endurance. An athlete will go through vigorous training, exercise and discomfort because he knows it will increase his endurance levels. Similarly, the Lord tests us through trials to make us strong in faith. Implied in the word testing is the idea that what the Lord intends to do with the specific trial will be completed successfully. What a comforting thought! When we might think we cannot go further the Lord assures us that we can in His strength. Our heavenly Father preserves us in such a way that we will persevere to the end.
David expresses beautifully how a trial tested his faith and produced endurance. He proclaims in Psalm 40:1-3, “I waited patiently for the Lord; he inclined to me and heard my cry. He drew me up from the pit of destruction, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure. He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God. Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the Lord.”
The Old Testament gives us many other examples of perseverance in trials. Job was severely tested when his children and his possessions were taken from him. His own wife turned against him and suggested he curse God and die. But Job remained steadfast. In his adversity and sorrow he praised the name of the Lord. He said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” (1:21) Later, as he sat out on the garbage heap, afflicted with sores and totally misunderstood by his friends he was extremely miserable and troubled. Nevertheless, looking beyond the trial, he breaks forth and sings of His Redeemer, “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another. My heart faints within me.” (Job 19:25-27) That is a marvellous example of how a severe trial produced perseverance.
The second example is from the prophecy of Habakkuk. The prophet cries out to the Lord in his affliction and confesses, “Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls…” (and who would not be inclined to panic and become desperate in such a situation? But the prophet continues)…“yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation.” (3:17-18) In trials we must believe that the Lord God is your strength and your salvation. He will give you what you need to stand firm.
The only way out of a trial is to go through it. The Lord does not promise us a life without troubles and trials but He assures us that He will take us through it. Thus the Lord speaks these consoling words, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.” (Isaiah 43:2, 3)
Let us pray that we and our fellow believers are not overwhelmed by afflictions. The Lord, who created and adopted us to be His children, knows what is best for us. How wonderful that when troubled by trials we can sing, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.” (Ps 43:5)
Rev. P.G. Feenstra
Former minister of Grand Valley Canadian Reformed Church