If You Know Jesus, Your Suffering Isn’t Meaningless

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds . . .” – James 1:2

At first glance, James seems a little out of touch with reality. Who in their right mind would advise people to get giddy in the face of suffering? Trials are negative in nature, always bringing some affliction or pain into the life of the one they try. There is nothing pleasant about illness, relational brokenness, persecution, ongoing patterns of temptation, or the million and one other ways Christians can suffer. Yet James tells believers to count it all joy—why?

“ . . . for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” – James 1:3-4

Okay, so James isn’t crazy after all. He’s not telling his readers to find joy within trials themselves; he’s telling them to find joy in the fact that trials are opportunities for their faith to be tested and strengthened. Both Peter and Paul agree with James’ line of thinking when they write:

“In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” -1 Peter 1:6-7

“ . . . we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”- Romans 5:3-5

God working in our suffering to produce endurance, hope, and steadfast faith is a theme found throughout the entire New Testament. But let’s be honest, even though we know God is producing good things within us through suffering, it’s still less-than-easy to “count it all joy.” God may be working for our spiritual benefit within our difficulties, but that doesn’t alleviate the discomfort of those difficulties. The pain is real—and it can be poisonous to our faith, if we let it. I think this is the “testing” to which James and Peter refer. Will we respond to troublesome circumstances by shriveling up in bitterness, doubting God’s goodness, and falling away in faithlessness? Or will we endure the trial with Christ-centered joy, standing firm in faith that God is good and is working for our good?

If you read my blog semi-regularly, you are probably aware that same-sex attraction is an ongoing pattern of temptation I experience. Though I hate these sinful inclinations and wish God would zap them away, he hasn’t yet—he allows this trial to persist in my life. Yes, I called my same-sex attraction a trial. The Greek word James uses for trials in verse 2 is also translated as temptations at other times in the New Testament. I don’t think it is a stretch at all to believe struggling with the flesh is one aspect of what James is envisioning when he writes “trials of various kinds.” God does not tempt us with sin (James 1: 13-15), but he does allow us to endure temptation, testing and strengthening our faith through it.

I can honestly say that, most of the time, by God’s grace, I do have joy in the midst of this particular affliction. I don’t delight in the experience of being sexually attracted to the same gender; the desires are distorted and I hate them. And a particular implication of my ongoing repentance—celibacy (which may be a lifelong deal)—isn’t the most fun thing in the world. But I do believe God is good and lets this weakness linger for my benefit. I’m not aware of every specific reason he allows this trial to persist (and I may never be), but I do know, based on James 1:2-3, that it is serving to strengthen my faith and shape me into a steadfast follower of Jesus—and in that, I rejoice.

But I’m also aware that I have not yet experienced the full pain-potential of this trial. Right now, at twenty-seven years old, being a single guy isn’t all that shabby. The majority of people my age are just starting their careers or are finishing up grad school. No one really expects a guy in his mid-20’s to be married, have children, and be doing the whole suburban life thing. So at this point in my life, I am not an anomaly. But what happens if I don’t meet and click with a woman to whom I’m physically and emotionally attracted? What if I’m 40 and still single? 45? 50? What if I’m single and celibate for the rest of my life? I don’t feel much joy in the face of this possibility—actually, it terrifies me.

I don’t necessarily dread being alone—I dread being viewed as “that weird old man who never married.” Because it is the norm to get hitched and have a family, we view people who haven’t done so as abnormal. We look at elderly men who have always been single and tend to think something is wrong with them. I am so afraid of being looked at this way. It’s been pretty easy thus far as a young person to make friends and forge relationships in the church. But what if, when I’m older and really need meaningful friendship, people are less willing to open their lives to me because, due to their faulty assumptions, they are afraid of me? And don’t tell me, “Oh, that doesn’t happen, Matt!” I get emails almost every week from people who are suffering in this way right now.

Yeah, yeah—I know it’s unwise to assume what the future holds. But I do it anyway. And when I envision a possible life of social isolation, my faith begins to shake. I start feeling less-than-thankful to God for his mercy and grace. I start wondering why a loving God would allow some of his children to suffer in this way. I start feeling like maybe he doesn’t love me—like maybe he doesn’t give a flip about me and just wants to use my suffering to “get glory” for himself. Why must I suffer for God to be glorified? If he really cares about me, why not conjure up another way to go about making himself look great? I mean, is God even good? Can I trust him? Do I even want to love and live for him?

It’s in these moments of doubtful double-mindedness that I must do what James goes on to instruct:

 “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.” – James 1: 5-8.

Trials smother our faith when we lack the wisdom to see them in light of God’s sovereignty and goodness. We need wisdom to see God is sovereign—that he is always in complete control over our trials. We need wisdom to see God is good—that he loves us and wants our joy in him to be full. We need wisdom to see and believe that “the good life” is not found in being trouble-free and comfortable, but in knowing God and becoming more like his Son. And if trials propel us toward a deeper knowledge of and conformity to Jesus Christ, we have all the reason in the world to ‘count it all joy!’

I may end up old, single, and lonely—or I may end up married with five kids and suffering in other ways my imaginative mind has yet to fathom. Whatever form my future trials take, I know my kind and omnipotent God will be working in them for my good. If I seek wisdom to see the affliction rightly, God will use my suffering to solidify my faith in his Son, increase my dependence on his Son, and make me more like his Son. The fires of trials will burn away the unbelieving calluses around my heart, refine my hope, and warm my affection for Jesus. My pain will not be in vain—it will be an avenue by which the Spirit of God becomes increasingly manifest in my life to the glory of God. And in that, I will rejoice!

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