James is an interesting book, written by Jesus’ half-brother to His Jewish followers all around the world. It’s mostly practical, asking and answering the question, “What does your faith look like on the ground?” But it opens without preamble into an instruction to rejoice in trials.
I don’t know about you, but when I read the word “trials”, I automatically translate it into “sufferings”. And there’s no doubt that the early (and sections of the modern) Church faced a good deal of persecution: physical, social & relational, financial & economical, and political. It seems unimaginable to greet these things with joy – as if the Scriptures were calling us to some sort of bizarre masochism.
As we read on, James elaborates on the results of trials, but let’s have a look first at what else the term “trials” might encompass.
I’m a big fan of The Block, a reality TV show where contestant couples each renovate a flat in an apartment building, and compete for the greatest profit margin at auction, keeping any amount over reserve into the bargain. They sacrifice their regular lives on the gamble that the gain outweighs the rigours of involvement. Like most competitions, there are “challenges” interspersed throughout the duration: side projects, often for charities, giving contestants the chance to up their skills and make extra money to put towards their main goal. In many cases the contestants acknowledge that, while finding these tasks difficult, they come out with a sense of joy that they have contributed toward the cause at hand, regardless of whether or not they’ve won.
What if “trials” aren’t only about terrible things happening to us? What if they’re assignments? Opportunities? Side quests, to use gaming parlance? Professional development, so to speak? Pierasmos, sometimes translated temptations rather than trials, is defined as follows:
a putting to proof (by experiment [of good], experience [of evil], solicitation, discipline or provocation); by implication, adversity: — temptation, X try.
Suffering, therefore, is part of the equation, but so is simple testing to see how we handle both the good and the bad that comes our way. The Block contestants get to do exactly that, what with setbacks, do-overs, tradies that don’t come through or cut corners, costly mistakes, unexpected bonuses and expert coaching. In the end, they find the experience ultimately rewarding, affording them both material and personal growth, sometimes to the opening up of new careers and opportunities. And unquestionably it reveals what they are made of.
God isn’t asking us to be masochistic, but rather to see whatever comes our way as an opportunity to grow and gain, even in the midst of sacrifice, hard work and hardship – keeping before our eyes the joy set before us, in order to scorn any shame we might encounter along the way. Nor is God performing random experiments on us, like lab rats. We find ourselves facing things we wish God would prevent. But He is not “finding” us in unexpected circumstances, nor plonking us down in them. He knows we have awakened in a fallen world, in which He will lean on outcomes but will not force any of us to do the right thing. Under those conditions, He has set His face to redeem what He can – and there is much – from the hash other people are making of our lives. God is a master upcycler and (with the greatest admiration and respect) an opportunist. We are talking about the God who makes pearls out of the bits of grit that irritate oysters, who uses the very decay of compost to grow healthful vegetables, turning smog into sunsets and terrible forest fires into terraforming.
Am I smart enough to welcome trials? Can I see them as puzzles to be solved in myself, rather than devastation by which I could be laid low? Can I relish being presented with a dangerous side quest, knowing that I will pick up artefacts/tools/weapons/wealth/energy/provisions for my inventory as I go along? I suspect not, for the most part, even in my most “can-do” optimistic mood. And so God Himself provides the way forward.
It’s okay to be nervous about facing trials. If we weren’t nervous, we would never seek His help. We’d be doing everything in our own strength. I’m nervous about what the trials might contain, and I’m nervous about whether or not I can make the grade – whether I’ve got what it takes.
Trials, God says, develop perseverance. They are like the workouts that enable the athlete to run a marathon without flagging. They may be not only par for the course, but indispensable. While exhausting rather than invigorating, getting pushed to the limit does extend our capabilities. Nobody enjoys the actual sensations of that pushing, but the endorphins and the results are rewarding, yes?
Perseverance, He says, is what brings us to maturity and completes our kit. It has to finish its work, like a course of antibiotics, to bring about this completion. We don’t have to like the taste of the pills, but we do need to be very, very glad they’re available, knowing them to be invaluable. Both trials and antibiotics seem counterintuitive: putting in that which is negative in order to bring about that which is positive, and indeed to put what is wrong in us right.
Clearly, God intends maturity to be achievable. With my emotional nature and constant bumbling, I have at times despaired of ever reaching maturity, wondering if it would take my entire lifetime to achieve. But James does not speak of maturity as the finish line at the Pearly Gates. It’s more like the university degree we get under our belt as we move forward into adult life. It’s not the summation of living: it’s the tool for living.
Maturity, James says, is a state of lacklessness, or completion. I do not think he can possibly mean perfection, or the cessation of growth. There is a completeness where there’s a sense of arrival, yet room to add more and more richness. Think of it again like the Block apartments. A unit with dilapidated rooms is not complete. A unit with sound rooms, fully furnished, is complete. A unit made spectacular with objets d’art is glorious. So then, the Word invites us to renovate our heart-rooms with God, hinting that completion is possible and that we can then go forward from glory to glory.
The first lack we can make up to move toward completion, James says, is the lack of wisdom. And this, it turns out, is a free resource. You simply ask God for it. The only catch is that you have to believe you’re going to get it. Here’s where we can get tripped up. The Word has told us we can ask for anything we need, but has also cautioned us that we don’t get things we request for selfish reasons, or things that aren’t in His will to give us. However, the goal of maturing our own soul is not selfish. Rather, it puts us in a position to outwork love competently – and love is never selfish. It’s a win/win: we are blessed AND we are a blessing. James tells us outright that the request for wisdom is ALWAYS in the will of God. He wants us to be wise. Jesus is wise, is He not? And we are called to become more like Him, are we not? God is neither short of, nor stingy with, wisdom. So if I ask Him but doubt I’ll receive it, what’s really going on?
First, I need to believe God doesn’t see His wisdom as a non-renewal resource, to be parcelled out carefully, and only to “worthy” recipients. What He offers is not a divided pie. It’s more like an information website multiple people can access at once. It doesn’t “run out” or even crash, and you don’t have to earn it.
Second, I need to believe Him when He describes Himself as generous and non-judgmental. God doesn’t see me as a gumby who’s so dumb she has to ask for basic smarts. He knows my limitations and the gap between what I know and what He knows. He probably thinks it’s sharp and commendable to go to the right store for the right product. The decision to depend on God is the smartest one we can make, even in our un-smart state. He wants to be asked, and He takes all comers. When we ask, we are affirming our faith in His nature. We don’t just come to God because of what He has: “I know You are rich, Dad.” We come to God because of who He is: “I know You love me to bits, Dad.”
Third, I need to believe that it’s possible to receive wisdom from God. Can I trust my instincts, forget for a moment that my heart can be deceitful, and make decisions trusting that God has done the necessary direction-nudging in me, giving me the mind of Christ? Is wisdom only for decision making, or is it also about outlook? In that case, I would get to improve in the way I approach life and other people. Wisdom would then be about learning to see things as God sees them. It would be about becoming more like Him.
My thick skull is not a rock He’s made that’s too big for Him to lift. What hubris it would be, to believe my mind so dense that even the wisdom of my almighty Maker cannot penetrate it! He can impart to me anything He likes, and He’s offering wisdom for free, almost begging me to come get it. I think I’ll take Him up on that.
So, to answer my original question about what’s going on when I doubt: it’s failing to trust that God loves me and tells the truth about Himself. And that trust underpins the whole Christian life.
Scripture hints that God cannot/should not/will not give us anything (I’m not sure if this is specific to the wisdom-request, or refers to general asking) that we ask for in doubt. When we ask and doubt at the same time, according to James, we put ourselves at the mercy of circumstance, emotion, and cognitive confusion. Faith in the kind of person God is – generous, kind, accepting, with intelligence that sees us to our core and foreplans all of time – is the path to stability, as well as the key that unlocks the treasury. When He says, “This you can ask for, and I’ll unquestionably give it, because I’m generous,” we’d be nuts to turn Him down. When we say, “I’m asking, but I don’t think You’ll really do it,” we’re calling Him a liar when He has testified about His own identity. He may actually find it insulting, as if we have said, “I think you might love me a little bit, Dad, maybe, some of the time, despite what You claim.” We think we are being humble, calling into question our own worthiness, when in fact we are calling into question His truthfulness, the size of His love, and therefore the content of His character.
Trials are not God’s expressions of suspicion, looking to see how quickly we’re going to fold. They are the natural results of the Fall, recycled by Him into invitations to level up. So it’s wise to embrace them, and if we lack that wisdom, well, He’s holding it out to us.