God uses many different kinds of trials in our lives in order to mold, awaken, and mature us, i.e., to make us lovely, Christlike people. These sources for trial can be compared to various things in life, for example, a hammer, a file, or a furnace. A. W. Tozer explains,
Now, the hammer is a useful tool but the nail, if it had feelings and intelligence, could present another side of the story. For the nail knows the hammer only as an opponent, a brutal, merciless enemy who lives to pound it into submission, to beat it down out of sight and clinch it into place. That is the nail's view of the hammer, and it is accurate, except for one thing: The nail forgets that both it and the hammer are servants of the same workman. Let the nail but remember that the hammer is held by the workman and all resentment toward it will disappear. The carpenter decides whose head will be beaten next and what hammer shall be used in the beating. That is his sovereign right. When the nail has surrendered to the will of the workman and has gotten a little glimpse of his benign plans for its future it will yield to the hammer without complaint.
The file is more painful still, for its business is to bite into the soft metal, scraping and eating away the edges till it has shaped the metal to its will. Yet the file has, in truth, no real will in the matter, but serves another master, as the metal also does. It is the master and not the file that decides how much shall be eaten away, what shape the metal shall take, and how long the painful filing shall continue. Let the metal accept the will of the master and it will not try to dictate when or how it shall be filed.
As for the furnace it is the worst of all. Ruthless and savage, it leaps at every combustible thing that enters it and never relaxes its fury till it has reduced it all to shapeless ashes. All that refuses to burn is melted to a mass of helpless matter, without will or purpose of its own. When everything is melted that will melt and all is burned that will burn, then and not till then the furnace calms down and rests from its destructive fury.1
Suffering is no fun. Sometimes God uses a hammer-at least it feels that way-and at other times he uses a painful file. He even uses a furnace, though perhaps not as often, being ever mindful that we are made of dust. Suffering is gut wrenching and drawn out at times, but the one thing that you must know, Christian, is that God is with you through the whole ordeal. He has focused all his energies on you and will never leave your side, though for a moment it may seem as if he's abandoned your heart and fled from your thoughts.
But how should we respond to suffering? Sometimes we balk at the very thought of it. It's unthinkable to us that our heavenly Father would even permit, let alone design suffering into his plan for our lives. We persist in this illusion even though scripture clearly teaches us that God creates both light and the darkness, peace and calamity, though only for our good.
Now there are various reasons why we suffer. Some times we suffer because we've made patently impetuous and poor decisions. And so we're in the process of reaping what we've sown and God permits it to teach us that His glory and our good are all that matter to Him. This does not mean that you cannot ask God to end the trial. He may say "No," but in his infinite wisdom and mercy He may grant your request as you humble your heart and return to your Savior. It may, however, be better to ask for wisdom in the midst of a trial, rather than ask God to immediately end it. Nonetheless, God is infinitely merciful, taking delight in His people and listening to their cries for help (Exod 3:7)!
But there are seasons in our lives when we suffer though we've not sinned in any specific way. We all realize that we sin each and every day of our lives, but that is not the same thing as committing a particularly egregious sin or developing an ongoing pattern of unbelief or moral impurity. In short, there are times when we suffer-whether at the hands of other people or circumstances God sends our way-simply because God is working in our lives to purify, strengthen, and enlarge the room in our hearts for Him. So has God brought a hammer into your life lately? Is He working away with a file? Or do you feel like you're in the furnace right now? What is God's overall wisdom to us in these circumstances? Listen to James:
1:2 My brothers and sisters, consider it nothing but joy when you fall into all sorts of trials, 1:3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance. 1:4 And let endurance have its perfect effect, so that you will be perfect and complete, not deficient in anything. 1:5 But if anyone is deficient in wisdom, he should ask God, who gives to all generously and without reprimand, and it will be given to him. 1:6 But he must ask in faith without doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed around by the wind. 1:7 For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord, 1:8 since he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.
Suffering is no fun. But James doesn't tell us to consider it fun! He tells us to "consider it all joy." Going to Disney's Theme Park is fun. Suffering daily with illness, losing a business, or grief through any form of loss...well, that's not fun! But such trials can be processed with joy, be they a hammer, file, or furnace!
Yet you ask, "How in the world can a person consider the trials which have surrounded them, like a pack of hungry wolves, all joy?
Don't psychiatrists preach that such a perspective usually evidences gross denial, plain and simple? And don't the experts claim that such people should immediately go on medication or be locked up before they explode?
But again, James doesn't say, "Deny that you're in a real tough battle right now." He doesn't say, "Deaden the pain though binging and purging, through more movies, through other forms of escapism." He actually tells us to consider our trials, that is, he encourages us to give careful thought to what's going on in our lives. And he tells us to do so in a certain way, because of what will happen in and through us as a result. That's materially different.
First, James encourages us to consider, regard, or view these trials with joy. And, "no," he's not joking! We are to welcome difficulties as we would an old and dear friend. Think of an old friend you haven't seen for years. Think of meeting him/her again. Would your face be downcast when you saw them? Would you offer them bitterness, anger, and a pouting attitude? No! You would receive them into your home, delighted that they had come to visit. You would open your heart to them and receive them with joy! So it should be with trials...at least according to James.
But, James tells us not to welcome trials simply with joy, but to welcome them with all joy! Our joy is not to be mixed with anything but more joy. It is to flow like pure brook water, untainted with the dirt of unbelief and bitterness.
But why? Why should we consider the trials in our lives with all joy? Answer: Because we know what trials accomplish in us. We are being tested so that we might look more like Christ in terms of patience/endurance. In short, we are being tested so that we might become mature and complete, with a pure and undefiled faith. We go through testing so that we might not lack anything!
Have you seriously considered that before? If you deeply want to grow in Christ, to enjoy greater intimacy with Him, and to reflect his persevering heart in your experience, then welcome trials with joy. Like the words of faithful friends, they cut deep, but in the end, you're a more Christlike Christian! In the end, your family benefits. In the end, the church is blessed. In the end, the world is changed!
But there's a second reality that empowers us toward rejoicing and joy in the midst of trials and it is this: if we're being tested, there must be Someone giving the test! Thus we know that we are not suffering for something, but for and with Someone...We're suffering at the nail-pierced, blood-stained hands of Christ Himself. He has designed the particular trial through which we're passing and He will carry us in it-carry us, I say, with those blood-stained hands!
So, if you know Him and today there are no particularly difficult trials in your life, consider yourself blessed and thank the Lord. But if you know Him, and you're passing through the fire today, then consider it all joy; welcome the various and diverse trials as old friends! Know that it is Christ himself who is working out his great plan in your life and that nothing can separate you from His love (Rom 8:38-39). He is only working spiritual fruit in you so that you might be mature and complete and that you might in turn enjoy Him more.
If you do not know the Lord today, then listen to what he's telling you through the difficulties of life. You were not made to "go it alone." You were designed for relationship with people and, most importantly, with the Ultimate Person. Trials are God's knock at your door. Don't tell Him He has the wrong address. Rather, welcome Him in and watch how everything changes!
1 A. W. Tozer, The Root of the Righteous, as quoted in Charles Swindoll, ed. The Tardy Oxcart, 581.