Trials and Perseverance

Trials and Perseverance

James 1:2-8

If you’ve ever gone through a hard time (and who hasn’t), then you’ve probably heard one or more of the following:

“That which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.”
“Rain on your wedding day is good luck.”
“When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”
“Everything happens for a reason.”
“When one door closes, another opens.”
“Every cloud has a silver lining.”
“God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.”

We have dozens of sayings like this, all designed to find the positive in a negative situation.  Some of them are silly (Why would a rainy wedding be good luck?).  Some of them are inspiring (Keep running, team – what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger!).  A few are built on shaky theology (If everything happens for a reason, does that imply that God is responsible for evil?  And if God doesn’t give you more than you can handle, well, it seems I can handle a whole lot more than I want to).

These expressions have their place.  It helps to have a good pep talk when we’re down.  But when a really serious challenge comes up, these same phrases can turn to bitter medicine.  When my “cloud” is a category five hurricane, it doesn’t help to know that there’s a silver lining out there somewhere.  When I’m buried under a crushing pile of “lemons,” don’t talk to me about lemonade.

For that reason, I have mixed feelings about these expressions.  They’re nice and all… but when things are really bad, I need something more.

I need James 1:2-3.

James 1:2-3 has long been one of my favorite verses.  But this week, it hit me differently than it ever had before.  As I read it, I noticed for the very first time how much it sounds like something on the list above.

Listen for yourself:

“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds…”

Don’t that sound suspiciously like “rain on your wedding day is good luck”?  Or, “everything happens for a reason”?

Absolutely it does.

But there’s more to this expression than anything else on our list, and I’ll tell you why.

For starters, this isn’t silly.  James is naming honestly that we face trials – and lots of them.  The NRSV says “various trials.”  The NIV says “trials of many kinds.”  Life provides a virtual cornucopia of trials.  There’s girl problems, boy problems, money problems, housing problems, job problems, social problems, political problems, race problems, family problems…  According to Jay Z, there’s at least 99, right?  We’ve got all kinds of problems, and James doesn’t make light of them.  Sometimes, life’s trials are a lot bigger and meaner than lemons or closed doors.

So we’ve got problems; now we’re in need of some inspiration to get us through them.  Here’s how James provides that inspiration:  “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.  This is kind of like “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” except with a clearer purpose.  As our faith is tested, James says, we gain perseverance, and perseverance leads to full maturity in our faith.

See, James doesn’t make lofty promises.  James doesn’t say, “the testing of your faith produces wealth,” or, “health,” or even, “the testing of your faith will eventually make everything turn out all right.”  It’s a realistic purpose:  “the testing of your faith produces perseverance.”  I know – sometimes we want to be promised lemonade, or a happy marriage, or wide-open doors toward a successful future.  But look:  sometimes we don’t get to make any lemonade out of our lemons.  That’d be an unrealistic promise, and James isn’t making it.  But always this is true:  “the testing of your faith produces perseverance.”

And perseverance is a powerful thing.

The Greek word here (hypomone) conveys something like endurance, steadfastness, or constancy.  It’s a determined patience that keeps its focus even in the face of a challenge.  Think of a marathon runner who keeps plodding along at the 20th mile.  Perseverance is the thing that gets us to the finish line.

I’m no marathon runner.  In fact, it took me years to run much more than a mile.  I’d run a mile and hit a mental wall – I’d stop and take a walking break, and from there I couldn’t ever seem to pick up that running rhythm again.  Then a marathon-running friend gave me some powerful advice.  “To keep running, let yourself run as slow as you need to – even if you’re just barely jogging.  Just don’t let yourself fall into a complete walk.”  When I tried her advice, I found that it worked.  It didn’t change me into a marathon runner, but by running (very) slowly I could get myself to keep going, and if I kept going then the miles would slowly add up.  Over time, I could run a little more, and a little more, and a little more…

That’s the power of perseverance.  Trials build perseverance, and perseverance leads to full maturity in our faith.

And maturity in our faith is the real end-goal.  If you read beyond verses 2 and 3, James starts talking about God as our source of wisdom.  Make that our only source; we don’t go to God with a half-hearted, “Maybe You can help with this and maybe You can’t, but I’ll ask and give it a try…” No, James calls for a single-minded full-dependence leaning on God – because God is the source of whatever wisdom we need.

This is a difference.  In many of our “it’s gonna get better” expressions, we are the source (we’re strong enough to keep going! we’re clever enough to make lemonade!). In others, it’s as though life is designed to turn out happy in the end (just keep going through those open doors, because everything happens for a reason!).  Sometimes, yes, life turns out happy.  And sometimes, we are clever/smart/strong enough.  But not always.

The only always is God.

So – are you going through a hard time?

Well, I’ve got some words of wisdom for you:

“That which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.”
“Rain on your wedding day is good luck.”
“When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”
“Everything happens for a reason.”
“When one door closes, another opens.”
“Every cloud has a silver lining.”
“God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.”
“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know the testing of your faith produces perseverance.”

 You problems are real and hard and terrible.  But as you go through them, you’ll learn how to keep going – even if ever so slowly.  And you’ll be able to do that not because you’re so great… but because our God is so great.  God will be with you; God will not leave you.  You can make it.

Amen.

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