Is it possible to grow stronger in the troubling times? Enjoy this excerpt from my book, JOY & THRIVING.
Our eyes flooded with tears as we drove away from the doctor’s office. We felt overwhelmed. It was a chilly, gray, and windy November morning. Nanc’ and I had just learned that we were having a miscarriage. As we returned home, a storm was hovering over our region. We were devastated. How could life possibly feel any worse?
Pulling into our drive, the wind grew more severe. As we approached the house, we discovered that chunks of our roof were lifting and blowing off. I remember sitting in our bedroom, bawling together, and listening to the shingles fly from the top of our townhouse. It was one of those days when you wonder if someone secretly taped a “KICK ME” sign on your back. The winds of trouble had rolled into our lives with gale-force strength. It was ugly and crushing to our souls.
James says, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds . . .” (1:2). Notice, it’s not if. From James’ perspective, troubles are not a college elective you opt to take because you might have some casual interest. Here’s the harsh reality. They happen whenever. Troubles and trials are a very normal part of life.
Some translations say “various” trials. The word can also be translated “many-colored.” Troubles come your way in all shapes, sizes, and flavors. And “come your way” has an even more picturesque idea. Literally, the ancient language says, “when you fall into troubles.” Think of your car sliding off the road into snow or your tractor getting stuck in a muddy hole. Most of us know all too well what it feels like to fall into troubles.
We’ve got Trouble, with a capital T!
Pandemics, market meltdowns, and black holes of anxiety carry angst way beyond Professor Hill’s fabricated crises in The Music Man. Our own genuine capital T troubles should not really surprise us. Unfortunately, in our quest for carefree, always-happy, healthy-wealthy, and rose-colored lives, we get shocked every time trouble hits. It might help our overall world-and-life view to realize that troubles are part of the normal fabric of life. It’s as if James is saying: get used to it!
That’s not ultra-pessimism, just a dose of reality. Some systems of theology and versions of church popularize the notion that God only ever wants to bless your life with smooth sailing, tranquil waters, and endless happiness. “You just have to be spiritual enough, faith-filled enough, positive enough. Then all your dreams can come true.” Hearing what James teaches us is essential to a better understanding of genuine life and true faith in King Jesus.
Sadly, COVID-19 devastated lives in our local nursing homes. A dear and godly man from our church—immensely loved by his wife, children, and grandchildren—was among those stricken with the dreadful illness. In those weeks before he stepped into Jesus’ presence, none of his family were able to visit him. Goodbyes had to be said over the phone. It was tragic. I stood at the graveside with his precious family, overwhelmed with them in the realization. He was gone. Treacherous illness descended on this man and his family. It felt so unfair. He had lived an upstanding, generous, devoted life.
Such a twisted, cursed outcome never seems to add up, no matter how much we tap the calculator keys. James knew it too, and so did those early Christ-followers, “the twelve tribes scattered abroad.” They were facing the distance, persecution, famine, and opposition. How could a good and loving Father let such things happen?
James realized a vital truth we need to realize. Trials and troubles do come; there’s no escaping them. We cannot stop them. We can’t catch lucky breaks by doing a bunch of righteous deeds. You might think that would be ideal, but life has never really worked that way. Ours is still a sin-cursed world. We are still awaiting Christ’s glorious return and the ultimate renewal someday in his wondrous new kingdom. James challenges us, whenever trials come—and it’s inevitable, they will blow your way—we are to “count it all joy.”
Count it all joy? Really?!
Really? I know what you’re thinking. “You’ve got to be kidding! Count it all joy? That’s outrageous. Who in their right mind can rejoice over COVID-19 or a miscarriage?” And to make matters worse, the attitude James is calling for is not some flighty joy, like “good feels” born of happy days and fun circumstances. Phillip Keller explains that
the joy which is a hallmark of God’s Kingdom is not a state of happiness dependent on changing circumstances or on what is happening around us. It is, rather, a serene, stable spirit known only to those who enjoy the presence of God’s person within their lives. They sense and know that the King is in residence. In this awareness, there lies enormous assurance and quiet joy . . . free from fear and joyous with the strength of God, no matter how tempestuous life may be.[i]
James is calling us to develop such deep-in-our-souls satisfaction and contentedness, no matter what blows our way. Do you sense the King is in residence? Are you enjoying his presence?
Jesus’ brother says, “Calculate troubles as fresh opportunities.” He was calling those early Jesus-followers—and us today—to take a very intentional outlook. A deliberate, chosen frame of mind. This is crucial, because we too often react instead of respond. We freak out in ugly anger or loopy worry or dismal depression. We think, “Woe is me! No one else has ever had it this bad.” Or “I’m a victim.” Or “It’s all over; this is the end; I will never recover.” It’s our knee-jerk reaction to say, “That’s it; I quit. I’m not going to even try anymore.” So, we give up in whatever arena we are experiencing troubling times.
It’s “giveupitus.” We give up on our family. We give up in school. We give up in the business. When you find it’s not easy being a committed follower of Jesus. When your choices are not wildly popular with your family. When people at work are bringing pressure on you to compromise your values. When you’ve been rejected by someone because you follow Jesus. When the winds of the COVID-crisis season are blowing even more shingles off your roof. It’s tempting to say, “I give up on passionately pursuing and following Jesus!”
Notice James’ aim with such intentional outlook: all joy! Here’s an opportunity for truly abundant, exuberant, overflowing joy. Again, real joy goes beyond our normal ideal feelings of situational happiness. Instead, this joy is deep in your soul satisfaction, no matter what your circumstances. It’s born out of resilient faith, a serious trust in God’s loving, good, and all-wise plans.
A million-dollar question
In verse three, James describes troubles as “the testing of your faith.” Such a test aims to prove something is genuine. Will the renowned expert on The Antiques Roadshow verify the dusty, ugly vase some dude bought at a yard sale is the real McCoy, worth thousands more than he paid for it? James claims that trials prove our faith is the real deal.
But what is faith? There’s a million-dollar question. Faith gets tossed around in mainstream media along with buzzwords like love, sex, and cheeseburgers. All sorts of feel-good-ism and self-help is often associated with today’s popular talk on faith. But what is it, really? Erwin Raphael McManus astutely explains: “To the best of my understanding, faith is trusting God enough to obey what He has said, and hope is having the confidence that God will do everything He has promised. One pushes you; the other pulls you.”[ii] I love such an explanation. Faith is grounded in serious substance. With substantive faith, we dare to take God at his word and trust his promises are really true. Then we choose to live all of life like he will do exactly what he said he will do.[iii]
What if our tough times are really the best times for growing stronger? James explains what such testing of your faith produces. Greater endurance! It’s stick-to-it perseverance. You remain patient in the midst of the suffering. Perseverance means you stand your ground in the trouble. Like Rocky being bludgeoned blow after blow by Clubber Lang in Rocky III. Though he’s exhausted from being pounded, Rocky stays on his feet. He keeps bobbing and taking more of the beating, just waiting for the right opportunity.
Though James originally struggled to believe, his encounter after Jesus’ resurrection awakened his own faith (1 Cor 15:7). Those early days for Jesus’ family and friends were fear-filled with the threat of persecution. It was here that James joined the fellowship (Acts 1:14). In such a crucible of controversy, as the early church was getting started, James’ own endurance began to grow. Eventually, he became a key leader and was recognized as a “pillar” in the growing movement (Acts 12:17, 15:1-29).[iv] Perseverance means you hold on and hold up under the pressure. It’s staying power! We all need such endurance, the grit to persevere, especially in times like these.
What’s typically required for us to thrive under pressure? You only build more muscle by adding weight and repeating more reps. You will likely add distance and improve your running time as you doggedly push up the same painful stretch of hills day after day. You resist your every urge to give up. Stronger character only grows in our lives through experiencing troubles, and continuing to climb.
Choose joy when you encounter suffering, and you will build the kind of memory muscle necessary for thriving. You’ll develop greater tenacity in your own soul as well as greater capacity to share joy and thriving with family, neighbors, coworkers, and other friends. Notice what James says next. “Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (vs. 4).
One of God’s greater aims as we persevere in troubles is to hand-craft our genuine completion, a more thriving maturity in Christlike character. Here’s motivation to fully embrace the work God wants to do in your life through troubles and suffering. Why? The pay-off will be huge! You will become a different kind of person—complete, mature and developed—more like James’ big brother Jesus. You’ll have a deeper inner framework, primed and ready to graciously bless neighbors, coworkers, family, and others.
Serious question. Do you really believe your life can look more like Jesus? Ponder that. Too often, we stay stuck in the hole we fell into. We just wallow in the mud. When I take personal stock, I am afraid I’ve spent too many days making excuses, hiding behind my sorry circumstances, or collapsing again under the weight of my troubles. James urges us to buy into something richer and wiser. Living with more thriving, Christ-like tenacity can be a reality. But you have to choose joy in your various trials. And keep choosing joy. As you do, you’ll grow that stronger perseverance and be ready to live on mission for King Jesus in greater ways!
Reflections to help you grow stronger and thrive
What’s are the current troubles you’re facing? What’s your current trial feel like, and how are you handling it?
How might your situation and attitude look different if you choose real joy?
What will it take for you to see your troubles as opportunities for growth? Who could help you frame your situation with such perspective during this season?
Describe two or three tangible ways you can persevere right now. Paint a picture for yourself of what thriving endurance would look like.
Pray with an eager, teachable spirit. “Lord, show me more. Please grow me more.” Tap into deep determination based on Christ’s strength.
[i]W. Phillip Keller, A Layman Looks at the Lord’s Prayer, Chicago: Moody Publishers, 1976, p. 71.
[ii]Erwin Raphael McManus, Seizing Your Divine Moment, Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2002, p. 146.
[iii]I am forever indebted to Dr. James Lytle, long-time friend and professor. I first heard him share this understanding of grounded and active faith when I was an eighteen-year-old, sitting in his “Building a Biblical Lifestyle” class.
[iv]Richard J. Foster, Streams of Living Water, New York: Harper Collins, 2001, p. 68-9.