Why? It’s the question that hits first and lingers longest. Why me? Why now? Why this? Most people don’t even try to answer such questions. How could they? That’s what makes the words of James, the half-brother of Jesus so unexpected. He didn’t hesitate to declare that the purpose of all testing is to produce “perseverance” in the life of the sufferer (James 1:2-4). Instead of looking at the disappointments we face, he exhorts us to look beyond the hardship to the character it will produce in our lives.
But the outcome is by no means certain. That’s the kicker. There’s no guarantee that adversity will produce character. That’s why Jesus told Peter, “I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith will not fail” (Luke 22:31-32). Jesus knew that hardship could surely strengthen Peter’s character–provided he would maintain his faith in God. Such a spiritual reality changes how we view adversity. Or, it should. That’s why James told his readers, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials” (James 1:2).
Can you read those words without slamming on your mental brakes? I can’t. The first time I read that line I misunderstood its meaning. I thought he was saying something like, “Rejoice that you have cancer. Be happy your dog just died. Celebrate your business failure.”
On the surface he appears to be saying just that. But a closer look reveals something significant. James didn’t urge us to be joyful because of the trials we face. Instead, he urged us to find joy in the outcome of those trials. We don’t celebrate problems; we celebrate that God can use problems to make us better men and women. Adversity does for our soul what weight lifting does for our bodies. It makes us stronger. It empowers us to finish what we start.
If you’re like me you’d prefer developing internal strength without pain. But that’s impossible. There are no detours around suffering. We will all suffer hardship and disappointment. We’ll experience the betrayal of a friend. We’ll face seemingly endless delays. We’ll know the pain of having well-thought-out plans fail.
While you can’t avoid hardship, you can choose to cultivate joy in the midst of setbacks–by believing God will use them to strengthen your character. That’s the hope you must rivet your attention on, like a guiding star, to help you make it though dark nights.
The next time you want to ask God “why?” Reflect on the words of James. Ask God for the grace you need to see him through the fog of pain. Ask him to enable you to keep trusting in him as he makes you a person who perseveres.
While such thinking may not relieve the pain, it will infuse us with hope because we believe there is a purpose behind our suffering.