No Pain, No Gain
by Mark Dever
Sometimes Scripture is just not obviously true. It is certainly true. Scripture is always true. Sometimes, however, Scripture is just not obviously true to us. At the beginning of James’ letter, we are told that we should “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials” (James 1:2 NASB). Now, if we’re honest with ourselves, we know that this is not obvious to us.
As Christians, so much of the Bible is so clearly true. We know that God made the heavens and the earth, and that the heavens tell of the glory of God. When my family and I were on an island off the coast of Florida not too long ago, we all stood there amazed, night after night, as our eyes — used to being blinded by urban light — beheld the glory of God as we looked up at more stars than we had ever seen in our lives. When the Bible tells us that the heavens declare the glory of God, we know it! We believe it. We’ve seen it.
When the Bible tells us that the wages of sin is death, we’ve seen that too. We’ve seen the lives of those we know and love corrupted and wasted and spent by sin. We’ve felt its destructive tug in our own lives. It is obvious to us that this part of the Bible is true. But when we come to this little letter of James, and we read these lines in 1:2, even our normally believing minds stall and sputter like an ailing car. “Really?” we wonder. We consider. We look at the trial — whatever the trial, “various trials” James says — and we look at joy, and we think, “These two don’t go together!” We think joy comes by avoiding a trial, not by encountering a trial. Joy doesn’t come when you encounter a trial, does it? I guess the answer to that depends on what we’re really living for. If the goal of our lives, above all other goals, is ease, then trials are, by definition, bad. On the other hand, if we think that God is up to something in our lives then it’s not surprising to us that God wants to change us.
But change is always hard. Change in our language or our loves, our diet or how we spend our days is difficult. And though conversion is an instantaneous work of God’s Holy Spirit in our lives, sanctification is a lifelong process. Sanctification — being made holy — will involve effort today and effort tomorrow. James wrote this letter confronting sinful attitudes in these early Christians that needed to change. Their attitudes toward the poor needed to change. Their attitudes toward the rich needed to change. Perhaps it was their entire understanding of love and willingness to practice it that needed to change.
I can remember times in my life when I have felt overwhelmed by all that needed to change in order for me to continue to follow Christ. Such times didn’t come because I started committing some new sins, but simply because God’s Spirit had patiently worked more understanding in my heart of my own sinfulness and self-centeredness. His quiet work of conviction peels back layers of apparent obedience and lovingly reveals sin. This sin is to be repented of. I must change.
But how can I change? I must have faith. I must believe what God has told me in His Word. I must see that what comes first to my thoughts is not always reality. Those could be fears and worries and anxieties as I think about the new year. Or those could be thoughts of pride and a wrong self-satisfaction as I consider the last year. Faith comes by hearing God’s Word and believing what He says. And that is the key to trials being considered occasions for joy.
Look again at what James wrote in his first chapter: “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 nasb). God in His lovingkindness sends His children trials in order, ultimately, to make us perfect and complete. He did that with Job and with Joseph. And He does that with us as well.
Embracing trials doesn’t mean that we are to pretend that they are not trials. It simply means that we are not to let our reactions to them be determined by how they first feel to us. How many times do parents have to do this with children? Or doctors with patients? Or good public servants with constituents, if they’re to serve them well? (I live in Washington, D.C., after all!)
And we should be encouraged by remembering that God is glorified by our perseverance in trials. First Peter 4:19 says, “Those also who suffer according to the will of God shall entrust their souls to a faithful Creator in doing what is right.” Through every trial we learn that God is enough. We don’t need this or that good circumstance in order to feel that it’s worthwhile to serve God and to love Him. Like Paul with his thorn, by considering trials as part of our faith in God, we display His strength through our weaknesses. “No pain no gain” is true not just of muscle mass but of our spiritual maturity, our Christian character, and somehow, it seems, even of God’s glory.
For God to try us and to display His strength through our weaknesses is a wonderful privilege — even if it doesn’t always seem like it at first.