“My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing.” (James 1: 2-4)
Can we honestly say that we welcome the trails that come our way? Do we say: “What an amazing trial I am going through! I am so looking forward to what the Lord is going to do in me through it! Thank you, Lord! Bring it on!” Because that is the attitude that James is exhorting us to take on, right at the outset of his letter. And just in case we want to file those verses for later reference, the Holy Spirit gives us another reminder in 1 Peter:
“In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while, if need be, you have been grieved by various trials, that the genuineness of your faith, being much more precious than gold that perishes, though it is tested by fire, may be found to praise, honor, and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ, (1 Pe 1: 6-7)”
Trials are not a popular subject – we prefer healing, grace, faith; in fact anything that focuses on the blessings of our inheritance rather than the hardship of the cross. Resurrection trumps death every time. But the New Testament is peppered with expressions of the joy felt by the early church as they lived under the hammer of persecution, and the inescapable logic of James’s statement is that, through the development of the fruit of patience in our lives, we become people who “lack nothing” as a direct result of the trials that we undergo. So do you want to be perfect and complete? Do you want to lack nothing? The good news is that the perfect work of patience that will bring that about. The bad news is that you need to “fall into various trials” for it to happen.
“Isn’t there an easier way?” I hear. “Can’t I just receive this perfection by faith? Can’t I just be imbued with the perfection of Jesus as I spend time in His presence?”
Unfortunately that is not what my Bible says. Yes, we must spend time in His presence, and yes, we receive our inheritance by faith, but it appears from Scripture that the development of a Christ-like character can only come about one way, and that is when patience is forged in the crucible of our trials. Jesus set the pattern himself when, speaking prophetically about the persecution coming on the church He said: “”By your patience possess your souls.” (Luke 21:19) He gave us the extreme example of patience when, “For the joy set before Him, He endured the cross, scorning its shame…” (Heb 12:2) The word (Greek “hypomonē ,”also translated as endurance and perseverence) used as a verb here by the writer to the Hebrews is the same as that is used by James, when talking about the “perfect work” of patience; and by Jesus when he tells us how to “Possess or souls.” Patience certainly had its perfect work in Him, and because He endured the cross and sat down at the right hand of the Father we too can possess our souls and be seated there with Him.
What have You done?
How can we relate this to our own trials? If you are reading this article you are almost certainly not facing life-threatening persecution, unlike James and Peter. You are not about to be crucified for the sins of the world. But I think that we can find a useful lesson if we look at the actual trial of Jesus before Pilate. The person who sat in the Judgement seat was in the position of the “prince of this world” in terms of worldly authority over the man Jesus. As we know, Jesus referred to Satan as the prince of this world in John 14:30. Here is the exchange between Jesus and Pilate as recorded in John 18:35-36, when Jesus Christ stood before His worldly judge and was challenged to give an account of Himself:
“What have You done?” (asked Pilate)
Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I should not be delivered to the Jews; but now My kingdom is not from here. Pilate therefore said to Him, “Are You a king then?” Jesus answered, “You say rightly that I am a king. For this cause I was born, and for this cause I have come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.” Pilate said to Him, “What is truth?” (John 18: 35-36)
When we face judgement and we feel that we have done nothing wrong, what are the thoughts that we are likely to give voice to? “It wasn’t me/my fault!” “I didn’t touch it!” “Well, you said…” And so on. We all know the script, and we know the sense of indignation and hurt that goes with the injustice of false accusation and blame. But not so Jesus. For the joy set before Him and through His absolute confidence in His identity and His mission, he endured not only the temptation to justify Himself, but also all the mocking, the slaps and the scourging that he suffered even before walking the final path to Calvary; and He spoke only of His Kingdom and its eternal truth. Patience had its perfect work in Him, and He possessed not only His own soul but yours and mine for eternity.
Peter expressed it like this:
“For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps “Who committed no sin,
Nor was deceit found in His mouth”; who, when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously; who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness—by whose stripes you were healed.” (1 Pe 2: 21-24)
It is likely that Peter wrote this letter, and the second one, when he was living in Rome under Nero, not long before his death. Just a few verses earlier, he said: “Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, whether to the king as supreme, or to governors, as to those who are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men…” (1 Pe 2: 13-15) Peter was submitting himself to the ordinances of Nero. This is New Testament patience: the mindset of a man totally sold out to the Kingdom of God.
We do of course face many and varied trials in this life. We are promised persecutions. Illness, poverty, injustice, pain – these are all realities, and in all of them it can be said that when Christians succeed in keeping their hypomonē through them Jesus is glorified, as Peter writes in the second of the opening scriptures. But the trials I am thinking about are not physical hardships, but the emotional trials we can face on a daily basis where our minds are buffeted by negative, defensive reactions to the comments of other people – often loved ones. These may seem insignificant when compared to the trials of cancer or the prospect of martyrdom, but they are part of the very fabric of our relationships; and if part of the preparation of the spotless bride of Christ is for us to be in unity before He comes back for us, we need to deal with it.
Trial by argument
Jesus’s mission was to bring the victory of Love into the world through the cross. When He was on trial His choice was to defend Himself or hold onto His mission. When we are on trial, and the voices that come from the prince of this world are goading us to defend ourselves, we too can make the choice that Jesus made: we can remember that we belong to a kingdom that is not of this world and choose our mission of unity and love over our protestations of innocence. The Lord is our strong tower: if we can hold onto the author and finisher of our faith instead of fighting our corner, we will eventually see His love prevail – because it always does – and patience will have its perfect work.
Love always builds. Love does not focus on self, but on the other. There can be many times in a trial by argument when we know that what we are saying is true; but unless we speak that truth in love the words will be destructive, because the enemy will twist them into a weapon of attack for his own purposes. What is truth? Truth spoken in defensiveness only serves to puff up self, and self will always fall sooner or later; whereas truth spoken in love is what causes us to “grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ.” More than anything, this is what we all want. We know it in our spirits, but it is hidden from our flesh. So if we want to possess our soul we need to listen to the quiet voice speaking into our spirit and ignore the loud ”defend yourself!” clamour of the flesh. We have got used to weddings being postponed because of Covid; we don’t want ours to be put off because of our discord.