Most of the time we don’t know what we’re made of until we’re tested. It’s true for the runner attempting a marathon, for the first-time parent raising a child, for the high school student taking the SATs, or for the cancer patient facing a long battle for health. The same is true for our faith. We don’t know how genuine and real it is until it’s tested by trials and suffering.
After introducing his letter, James immediately launches into a discussion of this issue. He writes, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance” (NIV). I love the Greek word used here for perseverence, hypomone, not just because it’s fun to say, but because it means more than just a passive waiting. Rather, it indicates an active tenacity and stick-to-it-iveness.
There is a difference between someone who looks at trials of many kinds (i.e., big or small, physical, financial, or emotional, etc.) and sees them as things to be endured and someone who sees those same trials as opportunities to grow and attain a fullness of joy they have never experienced before. Notice that James says to “consider” those trials as joy, not that they actually are joy. It’s not going to feel good at the time, and it doesn’t mean that God delights in our suffering, but it is inevitable that trials will test our faith, and when our faith is genuine, its testing will produce the valuable character trait of perseverance.
Joy primarily comes after a trial, for it’s at that point that we can look back and see what we’re made of. And when we know that our faith is real, don’t we feel more at peace when facing new trials? For when we have persevered in one trial, even a little one, we are that much more sure we can persevere again. I believe that to persevere in the hypomone sense is to face suffering with the intent to “get the most out of it.” Since suffering is inevitable in this life, I want to respond in such a way that I become better rather than bitter. We all know someone who is enduring incredible difficulties and yet has a cheerful disposition or a calm trust in God. But we also know those who blow all of their little sufferings out of proportion, complaining about what one could call “first world” problems.
Regardless of the size or type of our trials, James doesn’t intend to downplay our sufferings. But he does want to change our perspective. I am intrigued at the way he says “you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.” He is confident that as believers, his brothers and sisters in Christ have all experienced growth in perseverance. So, like an older and wiser sibling, he is reminding us of the perspective we need to keep in order to find joy on the other side of, and perhaps even in the midst of suffering. We need to remember that we have survived and grown before, and we will do so in the future as we continue to trust in Christ.
Personally, I’m glad that James begins his “life apps” with an acknowledgment that we are engaged in trials and testings. I need to be reminded of how far I have come in order to keep persevering in this process of becoming who God meant for me to be. There are no pat answers to why we suffer in this life, but I agree with James that there is a process of testing and growth that we can see and rejoice in, and each trial that results in perseverance can strengthen our resolve to face the next one head-on. May God grant us all the perseverance we need in our trials today, as well as a perspective of joy and peace as we trust in him.