The book of James begins with a challenge:
“Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete.” (James 1: 2-4)
Do we consider it pure joy when we receive a cancer diagnosis? Do we rejoice when our spouse loses his or her job? No, this is not what the writer intends. It would be cruel indeed to suggest that the people of Nepal should rejoice over losing their loved ones and homes in the recent devastating earthquakes. God directs His people to “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and mourn with those who mourn.” (Romans 12:15) A characteristic of the indwelling Holy Spirit is that He gives us greater empathy for others. We love our neighbours and care for them. Those of us who minister within the caring realm rely greatly on what the Holy Spirit prompts us to say in relation to suffering, otherwise great harm can ensue.
What then is this pure joy that we are to embrace in the face of suffering? As James notes in the above verses, your faith is going to be tested. A minor annoyance is not really going to test your faith. I’d be a very shallow Christian indeed if I went back to the store to buy those shoes I saw yesterday, found that stocks had run out and cried out to God “ Lord, why did this happen to me?” No, the things which test your faith are major life-changing events such as the loss of a loved one, the breakdown of a marriage, significant health problems, abuse, financial problems, or lack of employment, to name a few.
We do not rejoice because of significant problems, but we as Christians rejoice despite them. We rejoice because we know the presence of our Heavenly Father is with us as we experience them. Never imagine that God is the author of suffering. He created a perfect world in which we were to dwell. It was man’s sinful rebellion which caused our fallen nature, in which sin exists. God Himself paid the penalty for sin through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God’s Son. He gave us the Holy Spirit to be our earthy Counsellor and guide throughout this life when we turn to Him in repentance and faith. This is the Christian gospel.
Christians suffer in this world in which all creation suffers. Every living thing dies. Some suffering is caused by the actions and decisions of others. Some suffering is caused by natural events – floods, bushfires, tornadoes, for example. Some suffering is demonic in origin. Satan was a rebellious, fallen angel whom God banished from heaven and who, the Bible tells us roams throughout the earth with his demonic followers, seeking to tempt and torment humans, to prevent or destroy their relationship with God and to ultimately destroy their lives.
As Christians we need not fear the devil. He is a real spiritual entity, as are demons, but those of us who are Christs dwell in the presence of the Lord and are protected by His Holy Spirit. Satan has no dominion at all over Jesus and His holy angels. If you ever feel threatened by demonic powers you have only to call upon the name of Jesus Christ. We are instructed not to boast in this power however, but to be thankful of our relationship with God (Luke 10:20).
James reminds us that being tested with suffering develops our relationship with God. We persevere. The word persevere comes from the Latin root “per” meaning “thoroughly” and “severe” the word we still use today meaning “strict”, hence the implication of abiding with something tenaciously, no matter what. This is what God requires of us, that we have faith that doesn’t waver, in good times or bad. As the apostle Paul writes in Philippians "I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:14).
Our faith was never meant to be a static thing. Christianity is at its most interesting when our relationship with God deepens and becomes more meaningful. James tells us that perseverance will do a work in us. We will become more deeply dependent on the things of God. We will re-examine our own values and our trust in earthy relationships and pursuits. Our Christian witness may well become more effective, particularly as we reach out to others who experience similar trials. We will have a wisdom and depth of maturity in Christ which we may never have had otherwise. As the author Margaret Clarkson wrote:
“Pain is pain and sorrow is sorrow. It hurts. It limits. It works devastation deep within personality. It circumscribes in a thousand different ways. There is nothing good about it. But the gifts God can give with it are the richest the human spirit can know.”
The Bible reminds us that the things of this world will pass away, even our earthly lives. If we persevere we will be able to say with the apostle Paul “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” (2 Timothy 4:7). We can look forward with joy to an eternal life with Christ in Heaven where our Heavenly Father reigns and where:
“He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Revelation 21:4)
What a wonderful promise! Praise God!