Last month we considered some rather extraordinary advice, namely, that Christians should ‘count it all joy’ when they ‘fall into various trials’ (James 1:2). Why should we be joyful in the face of trouble?
Scripture gives us four reasons, the first being that trials are sent by God to refine and purify our faith, as we saw in the last article. But what other reasons are there for joy in tribulation?
Sharing the sufferings of Christ
The second reason for accepting trials joyfully is that believers thereby share the sufferings of Christ. Trials and difficulties bring us into what the apostle Paul calls ‘the fellowship of his sufferings’ (Philippians 3:10). Peter agrees: ‘Beloved, do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you as though some strange thing happened to you; but rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ’s sufferings, that when his glory is revealed you may also be glad with exceeding joy’ (1 Peter 4:12).
These Scriptures tell us that when the believer suffers he shares the sufferings of Christ. What does this mean?
This issue has two dimensions, the first of which we might call ‘mystical’ because it relates to the union of the believer with Christ. The apostle Paul writes: ‘I count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord … that I may know him and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings, being conformed to his death if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead’ (Philippians 3:8). The apostle is appealing to the concept of the believer’s identification with Christ.
According to the Scriptures, the believer is crucified with Christ, buried with Christ, raised with Christ, exalted with Christ, and seated in the heavenly places with Christ. Again and again the New Testament writers use the expression ‘in Christ’ to describe this mystical union between the believer and his Lord. To put it simply, the believer benefits from all that Christ is, and all that he has done, only by virtue of this union with his Lord.
It is in this context that the apostle desires to know ‘the fellowship of [Christ’s] sufferings’ and be ‘conformed’ to Christ’s death, since it is by these sufferings and this death that he was reconciled to God. By these also he is ‘crucified to the world’, dying to sin and to self (Galatians 6:14). He seeks to attain to the resurrection of the dead, both spiritually (risen with Christ that I might live to God; Galatians 2:19-20) and, ultimately, physically also.
However, this mystical dimension to our suffering with Christ is not all. There is also a very practical dimension, and this is referred to in Hebrews 13:12-13 where we read: ‘Jesus also that he might sanctify the people with his own blood suffered outside the gate. Therefore let us go forth to him, outside the camp, bearing his reproach. For here we have no continuing city, but we seek the one to come’.
He is reminding us that Christ was rejected by this world and crucified. Just as the bodies of sacrificial animals were burned outside the camp in the days of the Tabernacle, so the enemies of Christ would not crucify him within the city. They took him outside, and crucified him there. It was a symbol of his rejection by society, by man. He was put beyond the pale. Likewise, believers must be willing to go out into the cold.
We may be very comfortable ‘in the camp’, at ease in the society of men and the anonymity of the crowd, drifting along with their standards and their religious formality. The recipients of the Hebrew epistle were comfortable with their religion, because they were accommodating the gospel to the law of Moses. They wanted to have it both ways: the blood of Christ as the source of forgiveness and salvation, but the old Mosaic covenant to maintain the traditions of their fathers. Why? Because then they were accepted by their peers, causing no offence, part of the crowd, within the city, part of the comfortable huddle of human society.
Outside the camp
Many are like them today. By all means let us be religious, they say. In fact, religion is enjoying something of a renaissance in polite society, as men tire of barren materialism. Religion is ‘in’. But it must not be exclusive religion that claims that it alone is true. We must be inclusive, inoffensive, tolerant, doing nothing to upset the sensibilities of non-Christian religions and unbiblical movements. Do not all roads lead to God?
But the writer to the Hebrews says you cannot have it both ways. Where is Christ? He is not here in the city. He is outside on the cross. You have to go out, leaving behind the comforts of human approbation. You have to be willing to join Christ as somebody rejected, disposed of, written off, cruelly treated and crucified. If you are going to be united with Christ you cannot stay here in the camp. You have to go out, sharing Christ’s rejection and the enmity of men.
As he concludes this great epistle, therefore, the writer cries, ‘Let us go forth to him outside the camp bearing his reproach’. To share the sufferings of Christ is a very practical matter.
The power of Christ
Thirdly, we should rejoice in our trials because they reveal the power of Christ. The passage concerning Paul’s thorn in the flesh is a case in point. The apostle was suffering from some weakness or disability. He pleaded with God that it might be taken from him, but God declined, saying ‘my grace is sufficient for you, for my strength is made perfect in weakness’ (2 Corinthians 12:9).
What is Paul’s reaction? Is he disappointed or angry at the providence of God? No; he recognises that there is purpose in his suffering. Does he say, ‘Therefore I will rather boast in my infirmities that the power of Christ might rest upon me’? No. He actually said, ‘Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities…’ One can almost see the joy breaking through the clouds as Paul pens these words.
Why is Paul so glad? Because, he says, the power of Christ will rest upon me. ‘We have the sentence of death in ourselves’, he writes elsewhere, ‘that we should not trust in ourselves but in God who raises the dead’ (2 Corinthians 1:9). He concludes, therefore: ‘I take pleasure in infirmities, reproaches, needs, persecutions, distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong’.
All kinds of trouble
Notice how inclusive Paul is in describing the nature of these different trials. He talks about ‘infirmities’, that is, physical problems, old age, things of that nature. He then mentions ‘reproaches’, times when we have to go ‘outside the camp’ and accept rejection by men. Then there are ‘needs’, or necessities, which includes financial problems and privations of various kinds. ‘Persecutions’ are mentioned, to be sure, but only as one among many problems that he encountered. Finally, ‘distresses’ cover a multitude of emotional difficulties common to man.
Because Paul saw every moment of his life as being ‘for Christ’s sake’ he also saw that every problem that afflicted him could be viewed as something given in the providence of God. Furthermore, whatever its nature, the affliction was designed for his good and his blessing. The particular blessing in this case was that his weakness provided a demonstration ground for the power of God.
There is always a danger of depending on ourselves. We think, ‘I can do it; I can handle that; I’m stronger than others’. The danger is, of course, that ultimately self-reliance will prove insufficient for the trials of life. But what wonderful peace comes to those who admit their weakness and trust instead in the power of Christ. Paul takes pleasure in infirmities, rejoices in trials, so that in his weakness the very power of Christ might come upon him.
The fruits of patience
Fourthly and finally, we can rejoice in our trials because they make us patient. John tells his readers that he was their ‘companion in tribulation and in the kingdom and patience of Jesus Christ’ (Revelation 1:9). Tribulation makes us patient. As we turn back to James, we see he is exhorting us to patience or endurance (the Greek word can be translated either way). ‘Knowing’, he writes, ‘that the testing of your faith produces patience. But let patience have its perfect work that you may be perfect and complete lacking nothing’ (James 1:4).
Trials, then, set off a learning sequence. In Romans 5:1 Paul avers that ‘being justified by faith we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ’. This is a wonderful statement and we glory in the truth it expresses. But he continues, ‘we also glory in tribulation’. Why? Because ‘tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope. Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us’.
These verses show that the sequence of growing more mature in the things of God is triggered by trials. Trials produce perseverance. And James says we must let patience have its perfect outworking. Let it do its job. What is that job? To take us from patience to experience, from experience to hope, and from hope to the knowledge of the overflowing love of God, poured out within our hearts. And that love and that hope have a single focus, and that is Christ.
Faith’s triumph, therefore, will lead us once again to the Lord Jesus Christ, to behold his glory. It will enable us to ‘run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith. Who, for the joy that was set before him, endured the cross, despising the shame, and is sat down at the right hand of the throne of God’ (Hebrews 12:1-2 KJV).