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Can God be Trusted in Our Trials?
By Anthony T. Evans
Moody PublishersCopyright © 2004 Anthony T. Evans
All rights reserved.
Our Trials have a Positive Purpose
When I was growing up, I used to get irritated whenever my favorite television program was pre-empted by those tests of the Emergency Broadcast System, which would be used in case America was attacked or some other disaster occurred. When it was time for one of those tests, normal programming was interrupted, and a voice announced, "This is a test."
The nice thing about the television tests was that they only lasted about sixty seconds, and then normal programming resumed. Superman always caught the bad guys and rescued Lois Lane, and everything was cool.
But the Bible makes it inescapably clear that life's trials are not sixty-second interruptions, after which things return to normal and everything is cool again. That's why we need to learn the purpose God has in our trials, the spiritual resources He has given us to be victorious in any trial—and, maybe most important of all, His faithfulness to us throughout the process of enduring our trials.
Let me begin by offering a biblical definition of trials. Trials are adverse or negative circumstances that God either brings about directly or allows in order to develop us spiritually. Trials come in all sizes and colors: physical, financial, relational, emotional, and spiritual, just to name a few. The Bible's most comprehensive statement on life's trials teaches this foundational truth. The apostle James writes: "Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing" (James 1:2–4).
There are several key concepts in these verses that we need to talk about, but the one that usually throws people is the Bible's command to count our trials as "all joy." That doesn't seem to make sense. How can we be joyful in the middle of a trial when everything is going wrong? Remember, trials by definition are negative circumstances. But God steps into the middle of our trials and tells us to be not just joyful but overjoyed that these things have come. How can we do this? We can do it because we know something important, which is explained in James 1:3–4.
As negative as our problems seem, they are always there for a positive reason, which is to develop us spiritually. God is not telling us to be joyful about the pain but about the purpose and the outcome of the pain, which is our spiritual completeness and maturity.
Joy vs. Happiness
That may sound like "preacher talk," so let's see how we can have overflowing joy in—or in spite of—our trials. Notice first that the Bible does not say, "Count it all happiness." The reason is that happiness is largely driven by circumstances. It depends on what happens. If your happenings happen to be good, you'll be happy. You get a raise on the job, and you're happy. But get a pink slip, and you're sad.
In other words, happiness is basically a feeling. It is located in our emotions and subject to all their fluctuations. Our emotions cause us to react, not to think. That's why we jump in fear when the monster appears out of nowhere in a horror movie. When we do that, we are reacting to a complete fantasy that we know isn't true. But it still has the power to scare us, because emotions don't stop to take into account whether what we are seeing is true or make-believe. Our feelings respond to the information fed to them, whether it is true or not. This is not the joy that's available to us when we run into a trial.
Adding It Up
The word for "consider" in James 1:2 is a mathematical term. It means to add things up, to take an accounting of your situation. James wants you to add up the reasons for your trials, the growth and blessing that God wants to bring from them, and come up with "all joy" as the correct answer.
James is talking about divine mathematics here, because trials seldom add up or make sense if you look at them solely from the human perspective. Our first response is usually something along the lines of "Why is this happening to me, and why now? What did I do to deserve this?"
You may not have done anything in particular to bring on the trial. James is not talking about those problems we create for ourselves by our sin and poor choices. (James 1:13–15 deals with these.) We know that from the word encounter (v. 2). That means something you run into, not something you bring down on your own head. We will encounter trials just by being alive. They are inescapable.
If your house is like mine, you get mail addressed to "Occupant." You don't have to be anybody or do anything to get a letter like this. It just finds you because you happen to be living in your house. I'm not suggesting that the trials God sends or allows are random. Just the opposite, in fact. What I'm saying is that all we have to do to be candidates for trials is to occupy space on this planet. Jesus told His disciples, "In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world" (John 16:33).
This Will Be on the Test
Trials are unavoidable—but that doesn't mean they have to be unprofitable. When God tests you, it's time to learn another lesson so you can move to the next spiritual level. Like a good teacher, God tests us to prepare us for the next grade in life.
You probably remember being tested in school to see if you were ready to advance to the next grade. The bad news was that you had to take the test, but the good news was that when you passed it you demonstrated that you were ready for the next level. Of course, once you got to the next grade you also encountered a new level of testing, but that was part of the process.
God has the same purpose of growth and advancement in mind for us when He tests us. You can count it all joy that God takes the time to test you, because it means God is calling you to move on. He wants to see you succeed so you will grow.
We often complain that our trials are too hard for us, but think about it. Aren't you glad you aren't still struggling with the same temptations and obstacles you faced as a new believer (if that is truly the case)? I sincerely hope that, if you have been a Christian for some time, you have made enough spiritual progress that you can look back and say, "Oh yes, I used to really wrestle with that issue. But I've learned some valuable lessons that have made that problem seem to fade away."
Now don't misunderstand. I'm not talking about being perfect but about growing toward maturity. Can you imagine anything sadder than a forty-year-old man who is still fighting the temptation to steal change from his daddy's dresser or swipe a cookie from his mama's jar? But this is exactly where a lot of Christians are in their lives. They aren't passing God's tests, so they are stuck in kindergarten, spiritually speaking.
You need to know some other things about the trials God sends. Like a good teacher, God only tests you on information that is available to you in His Word. So if you are going through a trial, you can ask the Holy Spirit to reveal to you the truth or the lesson God wants you to know.
You also need to know that God believes in retesting until you pass. So if you don't want to be an adult sitting in a kindergartener's chair, take heed to the trial you are in and make sure you are diligently seeking God's mind on it. You can do that with confidence because James 1:3 says that God has a good purpose behind it.
Our Trials Are Custom-Made
Another important aspect of our trials and their purpose is that your trials and mine are designed with our names on them. They are custom-made. This means, for instance, that you can't say to God, "Why do I have to go through this physical suffering when Joe and all my other friends are feeling great?" Neither can Joe say to the Lord, "I don't understand why I'm struggling so hard financially and barely making it when Pete and the other guys are paying their bills easily."
Peter had this problem, as described in John 21:18–22. Jesus had risen from the dead and was restoring the disciples, and Peter in particular, to the ministry. Jesus told Peter he was going to die a martyr's death.
But Peter seemed to be more interested in the trials God had in store for John, because Peter said to Jesus, "Lord, and what about this man?" (v. 21). Jesus answered by telling Peter that John's future was none of Peter's business. "You follow Me!" (v. 22) was all that my man Pete needed to know.
It's Important Not to Quit
Here's one more important principle about trials before we move on. Don't get discouraged or frustrated and quit before the test is complete. Don't answer half the questions and then leave the room. James wrote, "Let endurance have its perfect result" (1:4). In other words, take the whole test or you will stunt the growth process God has built into your trial.
A little boy saw a cocoon wiggling on the side of a tree. He knew it was a butterfly struggling to emerge, and that when it came out it would be beautiful. The boy watched the struggle for a while because he wanted to see the butterfly come out and fly away, but he grew impatient as time passed.
So the little boy decided to help the butterfly, which he figured had to be exhausted by now. He broke the cocoon open, but the butterfly inside was unable to fly because its wings were not strong enough. What the boy didn't know was that the battle to shed the cocoon is necessary to develop and strengthen the butterfly's wings. The butterfly he "helped" was grounded because the boy let it out too soon.
You and I will stay grounded if we don't let patience have its perfect work. You may not like your trial, and that is very natural. Jesus certainly didn't enjoy His severe trial in Gethsemane the night before His crucifixion, when His sweat became like drops of blood. But His prayer to God the Father was "Not My will, but Yours be done" (Luke 22:42).
In fact, check out the story in Luke's gospel and you will discover that Jesus' greatest moments of agony occurred after He had yielded His will to the Father. The Savior had to be strengthened by an angel (v. 43), and then the Bible says He sweated bloody drops (see v. 44). But He endured all the way to the cross.
My point is there's nothing wrong with feeling the pain as you endure a trial. But don't cut the trial short, or you won't get the strength that the trial is designed to deliver. Remember that God has His hand on both the clock and the thermostat in your trial, and He has promised that you will not be tempted "beyond what you are able" (1 Corinthians 10:13).CHAPTER 2
God Gives Us Wisdom to Handle Trials
James 1:5 is a great promise that God will supply the wisdom needed to endure a trial and come out victorious on the other side. The Bible says, "But if any of you lacks wisdom [to let endurance have its perfect result], let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him."
Wisdom for the How, Not the Why
Let's not misread this promise. God is not saying that He will always answer the why question of your particular trial. Actually, He has already answered it by telling us that our trials are designed for our good and our growth.
So the wisdom God wants us to ask Him for is not the why of the trial but the how: that is, "Lord, I need Your wisdom to know how to react to this trial so that I am faithful to You in it and experience the growth and blessing You have for me."
Biblically, wisdom is the ability to apply divine truth to the various circumstances of life. What we need to know in our trials is the right life application to make. That's a tall order, which is why God promises us not just a trickle of divine wisdom but an overflow. God promises to answer us generously, which allows us to see the problem or the trial from His perspective and not merely from the physical realities that we observe around us.
We Need to Ask in Faith
This promise is mind-boggling, but there's a condition attached to it. We may lack wisdom, but that's no excuse for a lack of faith. We read in James 1:6–8, "But he must ask in faith without any doubting, for the one who doubts is like the surf of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind. For that man ought not to expect that he will receive anything from the Lord, being a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways."
Being double-minded means you can't make up your mind whether you really want God's wisdom or not. You can't decide whether you want to hang in there and complete the test or bail out and take the seemingly easy road. A double-minded Christian is a schizophrenic saint whose divided mind and wishy-washy attitude don't exactly move the Lord to answer his prayer. Why? Because "without faith it is impossible to please [God], for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him" (Hebrews 11:6). God does not fellowship with unbelief.
But what happens too often in a trial is that we vacillate from God to man, from the spiritual to the physical, from the human to the divine perspective. This doesn't mean we should not seek counsel from spiritually mature people, but when we are double-minded we don't elicit God's response. The reality is that far too many Christians are attempting to live in both worlds, but what they wind up with is only man's view, because God says a person like this cannot expect anything from Him.
How to Be Single-Minded
You may be saying at this point, "How about a real-life illustration of what it means to be single-minded in a trial and see God's blessing?" James took care of that for us in James 1:9–11 with an example we can all identify with: money. "The brother of humble circumstances is to glory in his high position; and the rich man is to glory in his humiliation, because like flowering grass he will pass away" (vv. 9–10).
What we have here are two people in a trial involving money. The poor man is scratching to make ends meet and trying to get out of the hole. The rich man either has lost most of his wealth or is experiencing a problem that is teaching him how unimportant and temporary money is in the big picture of life and how quickly riches can be swept away (see v. 11). He may have been getting too materialistic, which the phrase "the rich man in the midst of his pursuits" suggests.
In any case, what does the Bible tell both men to do? James says, "No matter whether you lack money, have all the money you need, or are in the process of losing most of your money, get your praise on." That's what "glory" means in this context. No matter what you are going through, you can praise God and be joyful when you focus on the spiritual realities of God's unfailing love for you, His firm control over the trial, and His promise of power and wisdom, not only to endure the trial but to come out victorious over it.
It Has to Go Through God
One reason the book of Job is in the Bible is to teach us that not even Satan can come against us without going through God first. Of course, there is a lot more going on in this story, but Job 1–2 reveals that the devil had to check in with God before he could touch Job. That's comforting, but the hard part for us is that God gave Satan permission to go after Job. Satan had already accused Job of serving God only because God blessed him (see Job 1:9–11).
Satan was saying that Job had it easy because he had no opposition. We don't have the space here to explore all the deep questions that the book of Job raises, but several things are inescapably clear.
First, God permitted Job to endure trials more severe than any of us will ever face. Second, Job's trials involved the opposition of Satan trying to break his faith and make him turn away from God. And third, everything that touched Job passed through God's hands first.
Why did God allow Satan to reach Job? Because God, for His own wise purposes, wanted to test Job. And in order to do that, He allowed the devil to bring adverse circumstances into Job's life. I'm not saying that every trial we undergo is the devil coming head-on at us. But we can be sure the enemy of our souls is lurking somewhere, seeking to turn a legitimate trial into a temptation to disobey God.
This difference in perspective is critical. A trial can become a temptation if we succumb to the pressure and bail out on God. It's very interesting that, in the New Testament, the same Greek word can be translated as "trial" or "temptation," depending on the context. Satan wants to turn God's trial into his own temptation, which is why we need divine wisdom to handle it.
Winning the Crown of Life
Now before you start feeling too heavy about all of this, let's go back to James 1 and consider this promise:
"Blessed is a man who perseveres under trial; for once he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him" (v. 12).
This crown is usually understood to be a reward we receive in heaven. But the context of James 1 suggests that this crown is not a reward in heaven but God's smile of approval on us in history when we endure the trial victoriously and He takes us to the next level of spiritual maturity.
We can see the crown of life being rewarded to Job at the end of his ordeal. Like a good mystery, Job has a surprise ending, because God doesn't answer the burning question of why Job underwent such intense suffering when he had done nothing wrong. Instead of answering the why question, God revealed Himself to Job in such an awesome display of His majesty and power that Job fell on his face.
Excerpted from Can God be Trusted in Our Trials? by Anthony T. Evans. Copyright © 2004 Anthony T. Evans. Excerpted by permission of Moody Publishers.
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