Like the inhospitable cold corridors of the emergency hallways we entered, so were the years of trials and tribulations my family endured. Life-altering pain, weekly doctor’s visits, IVs, and deeply weary souls underneath it all consumed the last five years of our life. Like a thief who comes to steal, it has physically, emotionally, and spiritually robbed us, leaving us depleted, weary, and wondering if we would survive. Joy has been rarely perceptible through our enduring loss. However, the seeds of a greater work, and yes, even of a greater delight have begun to sprout and flourish as we peer under the surface of what God is doing. A work that God is doing not only in us but in all who endure trials.
Joy does not arise naturally from us as we suffer the effects of the fall of this life. Why would James exhort the readers of his epistle to “count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds” (James 1:2)? His words seem to be jarring initially, especially at the beginning of a letter to exiles who have been dispersed from their homes. We would expect words that seem more sympathetic, perhaps, intermingled with pity and compassion. The brother of our Lord, however, gets straight to the point and exhorts the opposite expression of natural emotion—joy amid trial. These seemingly cold words of James are actually filled with warm gospel truth and hope as they point the troubled soul to the root from which the true healing balm comes.
Our hearts often pleaded for God to remove our burden as it felt all-consuming and far too weighty to bear, and yet in those moments we found deeper appreciation for the sufferings of our Lord. Jesus needed to withdraw to a solitary place in the garden of Gethsemane and plead in sorrowful anguish to have this cup removed, yet He surrendered to the will of the Father. As He hung on the cross, with His earthly life excruciatingly draining away, He recognized and even delighted in a work greater than the pain. The salvation of the world was taking place through the anguish of His soul (Isa. 53:11); redemption through His suffering and His shedding of blood (Heb. 9:22). If God used the worst suffering for the greatest good, then surely He can and does use our suffering for good as a part of His greater redemptive work.
The gospel story demonstrates that all suffering comes from the hands of a loving Father who has redeemed His own and cares enough never to waste a trial without its having its perfect work. As we waded deep tumultuous waters, these trials began exposing our fears, frailties, and lack of childlike trust, yet all the while they simultaneously strengthened our feeble frame and developed aspects of our faith that would not have been exhibited otherwise. The trials He sends are not consuming but rather refining and produce needed and necessary results. As an old hymn states, “The flame shall not hurt thee; I only design thy dross to consume, and thy gold to refine.” Only the God of the gospel can do such a work as that.
Joy is cultivated in our hearts and minds when we trust that the Lord is doing this refining work in us as we are experiencing our earthly trials. Making complete that which would otherwise be incomplete. James clearly states this end goal when he says that trials happen “that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:4). That perfection comes in being made like the perfect One, the Lord Jesus Christ. Christlikeness is taking place through our affliction and suffering.
Trials are not evidence that the Lord has forgotten or forsaken; rather, trials are sure proof that the Lord is performing His redemptive work in us. Like a master weaver, God uses the seemingly dark threads of trials to accent parts of His masterpiece that would otherwise be inadequate without these threads. Joy comes in knowing that the God-ordained process of being made more complete is presently at work and will not cease until the day we are made like His Son. As painful as the process is and will be, what a joy it is to be shaped and molded to better reflect the One we love.
Sovereignly sent and used by the Almighty, trials ought to be seen as badges of honor in the life of the believer—a worthiness that is given to those who suffer well in the Lord. Job’s trials came because he was upright and highly regarded of the Lord (Job 1:8). James, likewise, says, “Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial” (James 1:12). Much like a military uniform would display decorated service through many conflicts, so too a battle-tested soldier of Christ is distinguished by his trials. Though not meritorious in themselves, trials bring us great reward because through our trials we share mysteriously in the suffering of Christ (1 Peter 4:12–13). Our suffering does not add to Christ’s work, for His suffering is sufficient to save (Rom. 3:21–26). Moreover, suffering rendered unto Christ is painful. However, it culminates in glory and eternal joy, a joy that commences here below as we walk the path of trials.
James’ stark opening is the reality-rattling truth that is needed to wake the troubled mind and soul from the difficult circumstance to the deeper—and often unseen—work that the Lord is doing. Does that mean we will always be able to discover the redemptive nature of chronic illness, a cancer diagnosis, or the tragic death of a loved one? Certainly not on this side of glory. Yet, we can be confident that He who has begun a good work in us will bring it to completion in the day of Christ Jesus and that no tear or sorrow will ever be wasted in the greater plan of our Sovereign Lord (Phil. 1:6).
Apart from grace, the outward circumstances of our situation would have led only to self-pity and doubt of God, but the anchor of Scripture and God’s redemptive work in Christ Jesus have led us to discover in Him a much deeper joy—a joy that is known by His children alone. Take cheer, troubled one—the Lord’s work is not done. The same Lord that used the cross for the redemption of the world is at work in your trials for His greater purposes. In this, we can have joy.