Life is hard. Does anyone reading these words have any question about that? I didn’t think so. Because we live in a fallen world, nothing works the way it’s supposed to. Sin has stained every part of the physical universe. And sin has deeply infected the human bloodstream. Things break. Our bodies wear out. We grow old and die. People kill each other. Marriages break up. Children get hooked on drugs or alcohol or sex. Or all three. Babies are born with defects that cannot be corrected. Priests molest children. Pastors commit adultery. Our friends disappoint us. And we disappoint our friends. One day we wake up to find out that we’re being sued by a former colleague. Or the boss decides that we aren’t the right “fit,” whatever that means.
And so it goes. “Into each life some rain must fall.” I know that’s true because I just saw a girl with an umbrella on a carton of salt. The Sixth Law of the Spiritual Life brings us face to face with a reality that some Christians would rather not talk about. There is abroad in the land today the notion that the Christian life is easy. It isn’t. Whoever said that it was? Jesus did say that his yoke was easy and burden was light, but that was in comparison to the Pharisees, and anyway, an easy yoke is a yoke nonetheless. He also talked about taking up your cross daily, denying yourself, and following him. Nothing easy about that.
The Best Life There Is
Lest I be misunderstood, I hasten to say that the Christian life is the best life there is because it’s the only true life. To know Christ is to know God and to know God is to have eternal life. Jesus himself said that anything you give up will be repaid many times over in this life, and much more in the life to come (Mark 10:29-30). The paradox is this: If you follow Christ, you have to lose your life in order to save it. You have to go to the cross every day in order to discover the power of the resurrection. You have to die to find abundant life. You have to reckon yourself dead to sin in order to experience the fullness of life in Christ.
None of this is easy to do. If you think it’s easy, it’s only because you haven’t taken the Bible seriously. Romans 7 speaks of a “war” going on in the inner life of the believer and Romans 8:13 commands us to “put to death” the deeds of the flesh. Galatians 5:17 tells us that the flesh and the Spirit are continually at war with each other. Christians traditionally have spoken of three great enemies they face: the world, the flesh and the devil. The world is “out there” and all around us. The “flesh” is inside and loves to answer the call of the world. And it seems like the devil is everywhere, like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour (I Peter 5:8).
No wonder the Bible says that “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22 ESV). And that’s why Paul told Timothy to “share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus” (II Timothy 2:3 ESV). The most beloved hymn of all time (“Amazing Grace”) contains a verse that teaches this same truth:
Through many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come.
’Tis grace has brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.
Truly, there are “many dangers, toils and snares” along the road that leads to heaven. The Sixth Law reminds us that those difficulties are placed in our path for our spiritual benefit. This law teaches us that spiritual growth is possible and necessary but it is not instant or easy. There are no shortcuts on the road to glory. As football coaches have said for generations, “No pain, no gain.”
Here are four principles that help us think clearly about our trials:
1) Because we live in a fallen world, bad things happen to all of us.
2) We have no control over many things that happen to us or to those around us.
3) We do have complete control over how we respond.
4) Our response to our trials largely determines our spiritual growth—or lack thereof.
If you flip the Sixth Law over, it looks like this: Struggle in the Christian life is inevitable, lifelong and ultimately beneficial. We encounter God’s grace through our trials in ways that would not happen if the trials had not come in the first place. It takes a mature Christian to understand this principle, and ironically, it is this principle that makes us mature.
Be a Student, Not a Victim
Years ago my friend Jim Warren (longtime host of Primetime America on the Moody Broadcasting Network) passed along this bit of advice: “Ray, when hard times come, be a student, not a victim.” The more I have pondered those simple words, the more profound they seem to me. Many people are professional victims, always talking about how unfair life is. A victim says, “Why did this happen to me?” A student says, “I don’t care why it happened. I want to learn what God is trying to teach me.” A victim looks at everyone else and cries out, “Life isn’t fair.” A student looks at life and says, “What happened to me could have happened to anybody.” A victim feels so sorry for himself that he has no time for others. A student focuses on helping others so that he has no time to feel sorry for himself. A victim begs God to remove the problems of life so that he might be happy. A student has learned through the problems of life that God alone is the source of all true happiness.
In James 1:2-4 we find practical guidelines that will help us be students and not victims when hard times come our way.
I. The Command
“Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds” (James 1:2). James begins by reminding us that sooner or later (probably sooner) we will all face trials of various sorts. The word “face” has the idea of falling or stumbling over a problem. Picture someone driving down the highway in a convertible. The top is down, the music is blaring, and the driver is having a blast. Not a problem in the world, not a care or a concern. Suddenly there is a bump, a jolt, and the car comes to a sudden halt. What happened? The car hit a massive pothole and suddenly the happy journey is over. Life is like that for all of us. No matter who we are or where we live, trouble is just a phone call away. A doctor may say, “I’m sorry. You’ve got cancer.” Or the voice may inform you that your daughter has just been arrested. Or you may be fired without warning. Or someone you trusted may start spreading lies about you. Or your husband may decide he doesn’t want to be married anymore. The list is endless because our trials are “multi-colored” and “variegated” (the Greek word has this idea behind it). Unlike the famous ice cream store, our trials come in more than 32 varieties.
How, then, should we respond to these hard times that suddenly come to us? James offers what appears to be a strange piece of advice: “Consider it pure joy” or “Count it all joy” (KJV). That sounds so odd that one wonders if he is serious. “Count it all joy? Are you nuts? Do you have any idea what I’ve just been through?” It does sound rather idealistic, if not downright impossible. I confess to be being bothered by this so I decided to check it out in the Greek. No help there. The word “joy” means … joy. Pretty simple. So I decided to check out some other translations. One version says, “Be very glad” and another says, “Consider yourselves fortunate.” That didn’t help at all, so I turned to the translation of J. B. Phillips, hoping for some light (if not a way of escape). This is how he handles verse 2: “When all kinds of trials and temptations crowd into your lives, my brothers, don’t resent them as intruders, but welcome them as friends!” Even as I type these words, there is a rueful smile on my face. I think it’s the exclamation point at the end that does it for me. It’s not just “welcome them as friends,” which would be hard enough, but “welcome them as friends!” which to me sounds positively giddy, like I’m welcoming long-lost friends to my home.
A “Supernatural” Response
As I have pondered the matter, and considered my own difficulties with this concept, the thought occurs that “counting it all joy” when troubles come is not a natural response. If we want a natural response, we can talk about anger or despair or complaining or getting even or running away. It isn’t “natural” to find joy in hardship. But that’s the whole point. James isn’t talking about a “natural” reaction. He’s talking about a “supernatural” reaction made possible by the Holy Spirit who enables us to see and to respond from God’s point of view. I conclude, then, that counting it all joy is a conscious choice we make when hard times come. Truthfully, it’s probably a choice we’ll have to make again and again and again. And to do it we’ll have to take the long view of life, to understand that what we see is not the final chapter of the story. If we can make the choice to view life that way, then we can make the following statements about our struggles and our trials:
1) This is sent from the Lord.
2) This is necessary for my spiritual growth.
The first statement reflects a high view of God’s sovereignty. Everything that happens to us is either caused by God or sent by God. If I truly believe that, then I can move to the second statement and begin to look for ways to grow spiritually.
Here’s a practical hint. Don’t trust your feelings! When those you love are in great pain or when you face senseless tragedy or when friends turn against you or when life tumbles in around you, your feelings won’t be an accurate guide. You won’t “feel” joyful or grateful or full of trust normally. You are quite likely to be filled with a whole bag of negative emotions. So don’t judge your circumstances by your feelings. Judge your circumstances by the Holy Spirit and by the Word of God. When you do that, a powerful conclusion emerges: These great trials give me great hope that God means a great benefit to me. Seeing things God’s way doesn’t cancel your trials and it doesn’t turn them into non-trials, but it does transform your evaluation of those trials. You will view them differently because you believe that God intends through them to give you a great benefit that could not come any other way.
This week I read about a pastor in Florida who occasionally throws “Count it all joy” parties. He prepares a nice invitation, sends it out to lots of people, and then waits for the response. “Why are you having this party? Is it your birthday? Your anniversary? Did you get a raise?” they ask him. “No, I’m having this party because I’m going through a hard time right now and I want to celebrate because I know God has something good planned for me in the end.” The thought occurred to me that this is a far better idea than the “Pity Parties” many of us like to throw. Perhaps a group of people going through hard times should come together to throw a “Count it all joy” party so they can commiserate and celebrate together. That’s at least approaching the spirit of our text.
Joy Because God is in Control
No doubt our main problem comes because we misunderstand the word “joy.” In contemporary parlance, the word is virtually a synonym for happiness. Joy to many people speaks of a pep rally or a champagne party or a New Year’s Eve bash. To us, joy means the absence of all pain. But that’s not at all what the Bible means. Here’s a working definition: Joy is deep satisfaction that comes from knowing that God is in control even when my circumstances seem to be out of control. The key to joy is knowing that God is in control. If you know that, you can be satisfied at a very deep level even while you weep over what is happening around you and to you.
During a Bible study this week, a friend pointed me to the story of the death of David’s son in II Samuel 12. You probably remember the details. David seduced Bathsheba, committed adultery with her, and had her husband Uriah the Hittite murdered. Then he married her and they conceived a child together. But the Lord was displeased with David’s sin so he sent Nathan the prophet to tell David that the child would die. When the child was born, the Lord struck him with a serious illness (II Samuel 12:15). In response, David fasted and prayed and cried out to God to spare the baby. He lay on the ground weeping for seven days. His servants begged him to eat but he refused. When the child died on the seventh day, the servants were afraid to tell David because they feared that he might harm himself, so great was his anguish. But David overheard their whispers and asked, “Is the child dead?” When they replied that he was dead, David rose, washed and anointed himself, put on fresh clothes, and went to the temple to worship. Later he returned to his house and began to eat a meal. His puzzled servants couldn’t figure out why he fasted and wept when the child was alive, but when he died, he got up, went to the temple, and ate a meal. David’s response is classic. He told them that he had fasted and prayed while the child was alive, thinking that God might yet spare him. But once the child died, fasting would make no difference. “Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me” (II Samuel 12:23 NKJV). The last phrase, by the way, gives us an early glimmer in the Old Testament of the hope of being reunited with our loved ones after death.
You can search through II Samuel 12 and you won’t find the word “joy” anywhere. Yet I believe this passage offers us a sad and true-to-life example of what it means to “count it all joy” even in the midst of a terrible personal loss. There is no laughter here, only pain and sorrow and weeping over one man’s foolish choices that led to the death of a son. But David’s response teaches us that down deep, far deeper than his sin, he understood God. He wept and prayed and fasted while that was appropriate. When the time had passed, he rose, washed, worshiped, and ate a meal. He understood that even through his tears, life must go on. He could not and should not fast and pray and weep forever. There is a time to weep and there is a time to refrain from weeping (cf. Ecclesiastes 3:1-8).
Sorrow Can Be Selfish
The great 19th-century preacher Alexander MacLaren points out that excessive grief can be selfish:
There are many of us who make some disappointment, some loss, some grief, the excuse for shirking plain duty. There is nothing more selfish than sorrow, and there is nothing more absorbing unless we guard against its tendency to monopolize. Work! Work for others, work for God is our best comforter next to the promise of God’s Holy Spirit. There is nothing that so lightens the weight of a lifelong sorrow as to make it the stimulus to a lifelong devotion; and if our patience has its perfect work, it will not make us sit with folded hands, weeping for the days that are no more, but it will drive us into heroic and energetic service, in the midst of which there will come some shadow of consolation or, at least, some blessed oblivion of sorrow.” (From his sermon on this text: “Patience and Her Work”)
And so I ask this practical question. How can we go on when sorrow has paid us a visit? What shall we do when tragedy strikes and we feel like giving up? Here are five suggestions:
A. Remind yourself of the promises of God.
That simply means, dwell much in the Word of God. Talk to yourself and forcibly call to mind the promises of God’s presence, his comfort, his divine care, and his unerring purpose to mold you into the likeness of his Son. In the darkest hours, the promises will not come easily. You must do whatever it takes to feed your own soul with the Bread of Life.
B. Give thanks for what you can give thanks for.
There are times when thanksgiving seems almost impossible and sometimes even impious. Sin in all its ugliness sometimes comes as an unwanted guest. Should we give thanks for sin? No, never. But even if you cannot give thanks for 99% of what is happening, focus on the 1% you clearly see and give thanks to God for that.
C. Refuse to give in to bitterness and despair.
Here I speak of the conscious choices of the heart. Too many times we speak as if we were involuntarily overwhelmed and had no choice but to be bitter, angry, and hostile. Or we had no choice but to give up our faith in God. Better we should say, “I could give in to anger but by God’s grace I will choose a higher road. I could turn away from my Lord but I will not do it.”
D. Choose to believe in God.
That means exactly what it says. Believe in God! Believe in his goodness. Believe in his love. Believe in his kindness. Faith is a choice made by the heart. If you want to believe, you will believe, and the angels of heaven will come to your aid.
E. Make up your mind to go on with life.
This is what David did. This is what we must do. Grief is good and proper and is healing and even ennobling, but after grief has done its work of healing and helping, then we must move on. The past is gone and we can’t go back. Don’t try. You can’t live in yesterday. And you can’t even live in today. The voice of God calls us onward toward tomorrow. Several years ago I formulated a principle I call the First Law of Spiritual Progress. It goes like this:
I can’t go back.
I can’t stay here.
I must go forward.
Even if we want to go back, we can’t. And we can’t stay where we are. God’s call is always onward, forward, moving out by faith into the unknown future. This is not easy but it must be done. And when we do it, we will discover a well of joy springing up to refresh our souls as we march onward with the Lord.
II. The Reason
“Because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance” (James 1:3). Every word of this verse is crucial. The phrase “you know” refers not to head knowledge (what we sometimes call “book learning”) but to heart knowledge, the kind gained by years of experience. Some things we learn from books, others we learn in the School of Hard Knocks. This lesson comes from daily life. God wants to put our faith to the test. The word “testing” refers to the process by which gold ore was purified. In order to separate the gold from the dross, the ore was placed in a furnace and heated until it melted. The dross rose to the surface and was skimmed off, leaving only pure gold. That’s a picture of what God is up to in our “fiery trials.” We all have to undergo some “furnace time” sooner or later. And some of us will spend an extended time in the furnace of affliction. But the result is the pure gold of Christlike character. Job spoke of this experience when he declared of the Lord, “He knows the way that I take; when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold” (Job 23:10).
What is God trying to do when he allows his children to go through hard trials and deep suffering? There are several answers to that question. First, God wants to purge us of sin and to purify us of iniquity. Second, God uses suffering to test our faith. Will you still obey God in the darkness? Will you serve God when things aren’t going your way? Will you hold on to the truth when you feel like giving up? Third, God uses times of difficulty to humble us. When things are going well, we tend to get puffed up about our accomplishments. But let the darkness fall and we are on our knees crying out to God. Fourth, God definitely uses hard times to prepare us to minister to others. He comforts us so that we may comfort others. I know many Christians whose greatest ministry has come from sharing with others how God helped them through a time of crisis. Fifth, I believe God uses hard times to prepare us for a new understanding of his character. In the furnace we discover God’s goodness in a way we had never experienced it before.
Until your faith is put to the test, it remains theoretical. You never know what you believe until hard times come. Then you find out, for better or for worse. When the phone rings with bad news, when your son winds up in prison, when your best friend betrays you, when you lose your job, when your parents suddenly die, when life comes apart at the seams, then you discover what you truly and actually believe in the depth of your soul. Until then, your faith is speculative because it is untested. You can talk about heaven all you want, but you’ll discover whether or not you believe in it when you stand by the casket of someone you love.
God’s great design is to produce “perseverance.” The Greek word is hupomone, sometimes translated as “endurance” or “steadfastness” or “patience.” In the book of Revelation, this word describes the faith of those brave saints who would not take the Mark of the Beast. Thus it describes a certain kind of “battle-tested” faith that stands up under withering fire from the enemy and does not cut and run. William Barclay notes that in the early church the martyrs gained the respect of unbelievers because in the moment of death, they had this quality. To the very end, they died with their faith intact. Of them it was said, “They died singing.”
III. The Promise
“Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:4). There is a process involved in our trials that leads to a product. Perseverance requires work and faith and hope and dogged determination to hold on to our faith even when the world seems to be disintegrating around us. Perseverance says, “I will not give up no matter what happens or how bad life may be. I will hold on because I promised and because I believe the Lord has something in store for me.” The reward of such gritty stubbornness is genuine spiritual maturity. When trials have finished their work in us, we will not lack anything the Lord wants us to have. If we need faith, we will have it. If we need hope, we will have it. If we need love, we will have it. If we need any of the nine-fold fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23), it will be produced in us. Nothing will be left out; nothing will be left behind.
The great danger is that we will try to short-circuit the process by running away from our problems. Eugene Peterson (The Message) translates part of this verse this way: “Don’t try to get out of anything prematurely!” That’s good advice; it’s not always easy to follow. It occurs to me that you can see the full flowering of this passage in the life of an older saint of God. As I thought about this truth, my mind went to Mabel Scheck who died within the last year after a long battle with cancer. Mabel was in her 80s and had been a member of Calvary Memorial Church for almost 60 years. She and her husband joined our congregation near the end of World War II. He died many years ago and by the time I met Mabel, she was in her mid-70s. Over the years we became close friends. Mabel was full of vinegar and spice and pep and she always was ready with a quip or a comment. Almost every Sunday I would tease her and she would tease me right back. About ten years ago she developed cancer. The doctors did all they could but finally could do no more. She surprised them all by surviving three or four bouts with cancer. I used to kid her that she was living on “Bonus Time” from the Lord. When the cancer came back for the last time, she was truly ready to go to heaven. No fear, no doubts, and no regrets. Shortly before she died, my wife Marlene and I went to visit her. By this time she could barely breathe and her words were hard to understand. But her faith was undiminished. Cancer could take her earthly life but it could not destroy her walk with God. As she labored to get her breath, in a very faint voice she greeted us and said how glad she was that we had come to see her. She wanted to talk about things at the church and to hear the latest news. “I’m ready to go whenever the Lord wants to take me home,” she said. Then she added, “The Lord has been so good to me.” A few days later I spoke at her funeral service.
When I think of Mabel Scheck at the end of her life, two words come to mind: Pure Gold. Through long years of difficulty, God had fashioned truly Christlike character in her. She was mature and complete, nothing was lacking. I think that’s what James means when he says in verse 3, “You know.” We know these things are true because we have learned them by experience and because we have seen them come true in the lives of others.
Things Known and Unknown
Let me wrap up our study with a few concluding words. When trials come (and they will come to all of us eventually), there is something we can’t know and something we can know:
1) We can’t always know why things happen the way they do.
No matter how hard we try to figure things out, there will always be many mysteries in life. The greater the tragedy, the greater will be the mystery. God does not explain himself to us. As we go through life, we can look back and see many blanks that we wish God would fill in for us. Most of the time we will carry those unfilled blanks with us all the way to heaven.
2) When hard times come, we can know that God is at work in our trials for our benefit and for his glory.
To say that is to say nothing more than the words of Romans 8:28. For the children of God, “all things” do indeed work together for good. Sometimes we will see it; often we will simply have to take it by faith. But it is true whether we believe it or not.
And so we are left with the simple words of the Sixth Law of the Spiritual Life: There is no growth without struggle. As long as we live in a fallen world, we cannot fight against this law and win. Your arms are too short to box with God.
Be of Good Cheer!
When Charles Simeon finished his exposition of this passage, he addressed himself to two groups of people. First, there are the timid, those who fear the trials of life. Our message is, Be of good cheer. Fear not. Nothing can touch you that does not first pass through the hands of your Heavenly Father. Though the arrow be shot by the evil one, it cannot touch you unless God should will it so. And your Father who loves you will never give you more than you can bear. Though you may feel that you are far past the limit, you aren’t. God measures his trials along with his blessings. If he afflicts you, it is not to destroy you but to develop in you the gold of Christlike character.
And what shall we say to those who are suffering right now? Should we pity you? No! We should rather congratulate you that God has counted you worthy of such great trials. Nothing is wasted—not your pain, your tears, your confusion or even your doubts. All of it is grist for the mill of God’s loving purpose. “Behind a frowning providence, he hides a smiling face.” Receive with joy what God has given you, and bless his name.
Two Simple Words
In order to make this as simple as possible, I’d like to boil my sermon down to just two words. When hard times come, when trials fall upon us, or we seem to fall upon them, when the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune knock us to the ground, what should we do? Remember these two words.
Pray and stay. Repeat that out loud. PRAY and STAY.
Don’t run. Don’t hide. Don’t shake your fist at God. Don’t start arguing with the Almighty. And don’t waste time trying to make excuses or empty promises. And don’t try to bargain your way out of trouble. It doesn’t work, and you don’t have anything to bargain with anyway.
Pray and stay. Pray and stay. Pray and stay.
Pray: Seek God’s face. Spend time with the Lord. Listen for his voice. Ask God, “What are you trying to teach me? Speak, Lord, and I will listen to your voice.”
Stay: Wait. Be patient. Don’t rush God. (You can’t rush him!) Refuse to run away. Affirm by faith that God is at work even though he seems invisible and your life seems chaotic.
And don’t do anything foolish or hasty. While having lunch with an old friend, he reminded me that years ago he came to talk to me because his marriage was falling apart. In fact, he had made up his mind that he was going to divorce his wife because the situation seemed hopeless. I asked him one question: “Is there any decision you need to make today?” The answer was no. So I told him not to do anything until he had to. Soon after that there was a breakthrough that led to a turnaround that transformed his wife, himself, and their marriage. I had forgotten my advice until he reminded me. If you are tempted to take a quick and easy road out of your troubles, stop a moment and think about it. Do you have to do anything today? Then don’t. Give God time to work. There will be time to “do something” later if you have to.
The Choice is Ours
The Christian way is not an easy way and any representations to the contrary are false. There is an abundant life to be had, and there is spiritual victory, and there is joy in the Lord and the filling of the Spirit, but those things don’t come in spite of our trials. Most often they come through and with and alongside our trials. In various ways we will all struggle every day as we make our earthly pilgrimage. In a fallen world, there can be no other way. And for the most part, we can’t choose our trials nor can we avoid most of them. But we can choose how we respond. That part is up to us.
Joy or bitterness.
Forgiveness or anger.
Trust or unbelief.
Faith or fear.
Love or hatred.
Kindness or malice.
Temperance or self-indulgence.
Gentleness or stubbornness.
Mercy or revenge.
Peace or worry.
Hope or despair.
Our perspective makes all the difference. Our trials are not sent to make us fall. They are sent to cause us to soar by grace. They are not meant to defeat us but to be the means to a greater spiritual victory. They are not intended to make us weaker but to make us stronger. They are not sent to hurt us but to help us. Therefore, we should not complain when hard times come. We should rejoice. And we will rejoice if we believe what God has said. Every hard trial is another step on the stairway that leads from earth to heaven. Amen.