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Outlook Determines Outcome: The Role of Knowledge in our Experience of Suffering

The key to experiencing joy when confronted with “various” trials is knowledge: Continue reading . . .

The key to experiencing joy when confronted with “various” trials is knowledge: “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for [because!] you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness” (James 1:2-3). This isn’t barren, abstract ideas in the head, but a perspective on life that is shaped and fashioned by looking at things from God’s point of view. Paul said much the same thing in Romans 5:3-4 –

“Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.”

Simply put: Outlook determines outcome! For as long as you have any doubts that trials and afflictions are divinely orchestrated, you will never persevere through them and experience the change that God intends them to produce. Knowledge of God’s sovereign and providential control of all things, both good and bad, is the foundation on which victory over despair is built.

Trials have a unique way of “testing” (James 1:3) our faith. They do it by exposing to us all that is fake and superficial in our relationship with God. If we only love God when he makes life easy, we don’t truly know him or value him or treasure him above all else. Trials force us to ask ourselves a tough question: Is the glory and beauty and value of God more important to me than earthly comfort and prosperity? See 1 Peter 1:6-7.

The end product of this testing is something James refers to as “steadfastness” and Paul describes as “endurance.” But it’s the same Greek word in both passages. The reason they both focus on endurance or perseverance or bearing up under the burdens of life is because the first thing that suffering tempts us to do is quit! That’s the easiest way out. Just give up. Go in another direction. Use whatever drug or diversion or idol or sin that will eliminate the hardship and supply you with pleasure and ease and peace.

The meaning of “steadfastness” or “endurance” isn’t passive acquiescence. This is not mere patience or submission. It is active endurance, the constant and solemn resolve to weather the storm of trial without wavering in our faith that God is really good and worthy of our trust.

I can almost hear someone say: “But of all that God asks of me, endurance is the one thing I can’t give him.” Of course you can’t. That’s because you don’t understand that we don’t give God perseverance. God gives it to us! Listen to how Paul describes God in Romans 15:4-6 –

“For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance [i.e., steadfastness] and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

We do not produce perseverance in our souls. We have no power to supply ourselves with steadfastness. God does it. And he does it by reminding us daily and hourly and minute-by-minute of the truth of all that he is for us in Jesus, as revealed in Scripture. Those reminders, those truths, those glorious realities that God has revealed to us are the raw material which the Spirit takes and imparts endurance and steadfastness in our hearts.

But couldn’t God have chosen some other means or method to help us grow up in Christ? Why trials and afflictions and hardships?

First, suffering drives us into the arms of a gracious and merciful God. “Suffering,” notes Tim Keller, “dispels the illusion that we have the strength and competence to rule our own lives and save ourselves” (49). Suffering awakens us to our weakness and God’s all-sufficient strength.

Second, God orchestrates our suffering to test the sincerity of our faith, to bring to the surface what is real and authentic in our relationship with God and to expose all that is superficial and fake. Afflictions weed out hypocrisy. Faith that only flourishes in times of personal peace and prosperity only to wither during bad weather is a false faith.

Third, we suffer for the benefit of others. When we bear up under burdens we show them that Christ is worthy of our trust and adoration even when all is not going as we might prefer. To endure hardship with joy demonstrates that Christ is enough for us: we don’t need money and health and worldly happiness to find satisfaction and joy. And all of this provides a platform on which the glory and sufficiency and all-satisfying majesty of God is played out in our lives.

This “steadfastness” to which James alludes is not the end game. That is to say, it is merely a step in the direction of greater conformity to the image of Jesus. Let me explain.

How do we grow up in Christ? What are the ways in which our selfish and idolatrous hearts are changed so that we are more concerned about Christ and others than we are for ourselves? Is there a key to experiencing deep-seated, heart-level transformation so that how I think and feel and speak and respond to people looks more and more like how Jesus would think and feel and speak and respond?

Yes! But it doesn’t happen at a singular point in time. There’s nothing instantaneous about it. This sort of alteration in our souls is slow and progressive and incremental. Notice how James puts it in the opening half of v. 4 – “and let steadfastness have its full effect . . .” In other words, don’t impede the process. Don’t put a halt to what God is doing in your life simply because you are impatient or the pain becomes intolerable. Let this work of God in you have time to ripen and grow and reap the moral harvest that God has in store for you.

As important as endurance or perseverance most assuredly is, it’s not the end game here. Rather, James calls on us to make room for the on-going work of endurance in our hearts; that is to say, let it produce the harvest that God designed, namely, the development of a more mature and complete Christian character. And don’t overlook the fact that merely suffering trials and difficulties accomplishes nothing in itself. There must be the proper response in our hearts. Hardship for hardship’s sake is worthless. But hardship for the sake of greater growth and love for God is the aim.

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