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.
Very comforting, Bill. I feel like I’m in the middle of a “delay after delay” type of situation. It’s comforting to be reminded that God has a purpose for that — to strengthen my character. I’m going to save this article for future reference when I’m feeling down.
This is something I have been thinking about lately, with regard to prayer. So many times I am asked to pray for situations in a way that I think is – dare I say – hopeless. Someone in the last stages of cancer will rarely experience a full recovery and live for many years to come. So, my prayers are on behalf of the grieving family and friends who are going to need much grace to come through the trial on the other side with a stronger faith in God and His wisdom.
A friend’s son has begun using drugs and even though I prayed that God would bore a hole through his head and his heart to let some of the Son shine in (he’s not a Christian), I prayed harder for the parents whose own health and well being began to suffer under the pressure of dealing with a youngster determined to take a deadly path.
This scares me of course because my trials have been few and far between. I only hope I will be able to grab onto that promise from James and keep my eyes fixed on Jesus. Practicing myself what I preach and pray for others.