Sovereignty in Suffering
In God's sovereignty we may suffer, but in His goodness, at the right time ... He will restore. (Psalm 71:20)
Turning Trials into Treasures
Series: The Book of James - When Faith Works
One test concerning the genuineness of a diamond is for a jeweler to place it in clear water. A real diamond will sparkle with a special brilliance, while an imitation stone will have no sparkle at all. When placed side-by-side, even an untrained eye will be able to easily tell the difference between the two. And in a similar way, there is a test that makes clear the kind of strength and genuineness of faith that resides within a believer. It is a test that will show if faith is alive or dead. It is the test of suffering in our lives. This is the test that is spoken of first in the book of James. Throughout this letter of James, he will contrast the sparkle of true faith verses the signs of dead faith.
Back in 2013, I was pastoring in South Korea and was able to witness a church come alive as we lived out our faith in ways I had never seen before. It was a special season of ministry where we were able to bring change in Korea as a church. Within a few years, we were able to change 15 laws (10 concerning trafficking and 5 concerning adoption), we helped rescue and restore many survivors of sex trafficking in Korea, Thailand, Cambodia, and the Philippines. We were a part of a growing adoption and orphan care movement for Asia, and helped many single moms and vulnerable groups in Korea. We were becoming alive in our faith because it was no longer just an individual faith that was expressed only on the weekends. It was exciting to see a church rise up that was committed to declaring the gospel as well as demonstrating the gospel in our cities and through our lives.
This book of James was a key part of our understanding the biblical basis through which we were living out our faith. And this first in a series of studies will look at how true faith works.
The letter begins with this:
James 1:1 ESV James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion: Greetings.
James was the brother of Jesus and a leader in the church in Jerusalem. James is writing this to the churches dispersed in the region and around the world to those going through suffering and he is seeking to connect what we believe with how we live. And speaking to the suffering today, his word is one of pastoral encouragement so we see suffering in its proper light. And when we are able to see it properly, we can also turn these trails into treasures.
So how can we turn trials into treasures? One thing we must do is ...
Trust God through every trial
James 1:2 ESV Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, 3 for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. 4 And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.
He begins by saying, “Consider it all joy” or pure joy when we “meet trials of various kinds.” Sounds strange at first, doesn’t it? How in the world can we be joyful during our difficulties? Why does he say this to believers?
Because trials can deepen and develop our faith in a way that nothing else can.
The joy we have is not in the suffering but in the fruit that comes out of suffering in the end. Just as the joy of childbearing is not in the pain of labor, but in the joy of delivery and seeing the child in the very end.
Stacy was the wife of one of my youth pastor’s back in Korea and she went through over 36 hours of labor! That is a pain that no man will ever know. The joy of hearing someone go into labor is not because the mom is experiencing deep hurt, but because we know very soon, there will be great happiness at the birth of a child. So consider it a joy when you are in the pains of labor because you know that it’s just a matter of time before you will see new life.
For the believer in Christ, all pain serves a greater purpose. All pain.
How do we know this? Verse 3 says:
3 for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.
All pain is a test of faith.
What do we believe about God?
What do we believe about God’s promises?
Will I still trust in God’s Word?
Will I still trust in God’s character and goodness?
Nothing tests our faith in God like suffering. Nothing.
Suffering reveals faith. And it refines faith. But it also stretches faith and and it strengthens faith, when we choose to trust Him. We can trust God in our suffering because God is doing something in the midst of it. God is producing something within the pain.
3 for you know that the testing of your faith produces ... steadfastness.
God is doing something in us, producing something in us, during the trial … as we trust.
If you are a child of God, then God brings pain not to punish us, but to purify us and to prune us. Therefore trust Him through every trial! In Christ, all things have a purpose. And even pain has a redemptive purpose. For God is committed to savings and to sanctifying us to be more like Christ.
Romans 8:29 ESV For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.
God is not committed to your comfort but to do whatever it takes to conform you into the image of His Son. So the question in our suffering is not, “Why?” - which is often the first question we ask. It is not about asking, “Why are you doing this?” or “Why did you allow this?” That question has already been answered. God has allowed it into your life in order to somehow, someway, form Christ in you.
So instead of asking, “Why?”, the better question to ask is, “What?” “What are you trying to do in me through this situation to make me more like Christ?”
But it’s so hard to believe and see what God is trying to do, isn’t it? It’s hard to know what steps to take in the midst of our suffering. This is why we need His wisdom to guide us. So in order to see your suffering properly, and in order to respond to suffering properly, we need wisdom from God. Therefore pray for it.
So verse 5 says:
5 If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. 6 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.
So pray in faith, without doubting His goodness or His character. Because the one who doubts God’s character and goodness is unstable. Why? Because there is no foundation. Thus, they will move because of the wind. But people of faith will move because of the Word. True wisdom is more than just “what to do”, it’s about knowing who to trust and who to follow.
7 For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; 8 he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.
He will not receive what he asks for because his hands of faith are not held out to trust that he will receive something good from the Father’s hand. A sign of trust is seen in open hands to receive.
When my son, Enoch, was 2 years old, he would smile at everyone, but he wouldn’t go into the arms of everyone. He would only open his arms to those whom he trusted. And that’s a reflection of our hearts too. We open up our hearts and hands and arms only those that we trust. And in our storms, God is asking us to open our arms, trust Him, and enter His embrace.
9 Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, 10 and the rich in his humiliation, because like a flower of the grass he will pass away. 11 For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. So also will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits.
Why does James suddenly talk about money after talking about trials and suffering? And why does he say the rich are in a lowly position while the poor are in a better position? It’s because difficulties reveal our dependance. Hard times show us what we are holding onto for strength, comfort, and hope. For those with great wealth, the temptation is to trust in bank accounts to get them through life.
How do you answer this statement: “As long as I have _______________ in the future, I’ll be okay.”
As long as I have money?
As long as I have a spouse?
Or as long as I have God, I’ll be okay.
When life gets hard, we see what we are depending on to get us through. Some people will shop, others will sleep, many will eat, and still others will drink coffee to get them through hard times. But faith-filled people will pray and trust God though every trial.
Another element of handling trials properly is when we ...
Treasure God through every trial
James 1:12 ESV Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.
Blessed and happy is the one who remains steadfast in faith, trusting in God under trials, because when we have passed the tests of suffering, pain, and loss, and still trust Him, we will receive the crown of life - faith’s reward.
Look again at what the end of verse 12 says:
James 1:12 ESV Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.
He doesn’t say to those who “trust Him”, it says for those who love Him! What is that test? It is a test for you to see who you love more! Do you love yourself more or God? Do you love comfort more or God? Do you love pleasure more or trust treasure in Christ? Because holding onto Christ in the midst of pain and suffering is declaring from your heart, “Jesus, I love You more.” It’s telling Jesus that we love Him more than comfort, more than our loss, and even more than our lives. That kind of heart brings great glory to Jesus and brings a crown of life on your head.
One of my favorite songs that reminds me of this kind of love is the old song from Hillsong, Jesus Lover of My Soul. The chorus goes, “I love You, I need You, though my world my fall, I’ll never let You go.”
I think that line depicts the kind of love this verse is talking about. So many times we love to declare how God’s love is unconditional love for us. No matter what happens, no matter what we do, God loves us. Without condition, He loves us! And what an amazing love that is. We celebrate and sing about His unconditional love for us. “I could sing of your love forever, and ever, and ever.” But how often do we declare and celebrate and sing about our unconditional love for Jesus? How often do we say that no matter what happens in my life, no matter what God chooses to do, no matter what He chooses to take away, my love for Him will remain. Even if I never get that job, or spouse, or child … that though my world my fall, I’ll never let You go. “No matter what, Jesus, I’m going to love You anyways.”
This is the anthem of the redeemed and regenerated heart that’s been washed by the blood of Jesus and won over by His love. So as we celebrate God’s unconditional love for us, let us in return, declare our unconditional love for Him! That is what it means to treasure God through every trial. It is saying that more than anything else, during this time of suffering, we love Him more.
I treasure and love Jesus … more …
Those who have been given the grace to truly love God will last through the trials.
But this is precisely the area that Satan attacks in us when pain comes. The enemy’s target of attack is centered around our faith and our love.
13 Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. 14 But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. 15 Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.
When life is hard, we naturally want to please our flesh. So in times of hardships, many give in to temptations. We will often compromise, saying to ourselves that it’s too hard. I need this. I need to give myself this personal pleasure to make up for this time of pain. What we need to see is that every temptation is drawing us to love something more than Jesus. That is the essence of sin. Temptation is a desire to dishonor God and dethrone God from the center of our lives. We want to call our own shots, take control, and be our own god.
So in verse 13, James is reminding us that God does not tempt us. It is never God’s desire to see us fall into sin. Rather, His desire is to see us fall on our knees before the cross and surrender our sins to Him.
Every time you fall, it’s time to crawl … back to the cross and begin again.
When you discover that it’s not about our love or our goodness, but His, then you begin to see the worth of the Savior and the treasure that He is. And in so doing, you are able to treasure God through every trial.
And a third thing we learn about navigating through our times of trial is the need to ...
See the true God through every trial
James 1:16 ESV Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. 17 Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. 18 Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of first fruits of his creatures.
James now says, “Do not be deceived!” Don’t be deceived by lies or by false images of who our God really is. God is not out to get you. God does not want you to fall or fail. If you are in Christ, God is not mad at you! He is mad about you! One of the biggest struggles during our suffering is to see God properly - not through the lens of pain but through the lens of God’s promises. But it’s always hard to see clearly when your eyes of full of tears.
So James tells us in verse 17:
Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.
What does this teach us about God? It tells us that only good gifts come from His hand. In fact, all that is good in life come from Him. Every good gift - family, friends, food, fellowship, are all gifts from God. So James reminds us to know who our God really is:
Warren Wiersbe once said, “When God permits His children to go through the furnace, He keeps His eyes on the clock and His hand on the thermostat. His loving heart knows how much and how long.”
How you see God determine how you act around Him.
And what you do after you sin reveals who you believe our God to be.
A dear sister at our church, Buri, had just came back from a 3 month trip to the US visiting organizations and groups that are fighting human trafficking. In every major city of the US there are many South Korean women who are victims of sex trafficking. She was able to talk with these Korean women because the women wouldn’t open up and speak with the US police or aftercare workers. When the police asked the survivors how they became victims or how they ended up where they were, they would all initially lie and say they weren’t victims and that nothing was wrong with them. The police would say, “We’re here to help you and keep you safe.” But the women would not believe it.
When finally given a safe environment to speak honestly with Buri other team members from Korea, they finally opened up. They shared that, yes, they were victims of human trafficking. And yes, they were in serious need of help. When Buri asked, “Why didn’t you just tell the police this. They are here to help you!” They just could not believe it. Why? Because in Korea, they saw the corruption in the police force. They see the badge, but they also see deception, corruption and oftentimes they see someone they must service for free when they see the police.
They could not see the police in the US as people there to help them because of the harm that they experienced with the police in Korea. Their false perception kept them from getting the help and freedom they needed.
And in a similar way, many people today have a false image of God. They think that He’s out to get them. Or they think that He doesn’t really care about us. That false image (or lie!) prevents them from getting the help and the happiness that is found in Him. Instead of running to Him, we run away from Him. And that is exactly what the enemy wants us to do. And that is exactly why in every temptation, the devil casts doubt into God’s goodness towards us.
Only when we believe God to be who He says He is in the Bible, a good God and good Father, who does not change, then we can have hearts that are free to trust. Only when we believe truth, will we be set free to run into His arms with childlike confidence and faith. It is crucial to see the true God through every trial if we’re going to be able to go through that trial with faith.
Mike Leake, in his book Torn to Heal, says: “The Bible holds out a theology of suffering that has a good and sovereign God standing over every second of our pain, going through it with us, and ultimately bringing us out on the other side with more lasting joy in Himself.” That is the aim of our God.
So what will turn our trails on earth into crowns of treasures in eternity? Faith that will trust in the Suffering Servant. Faith in the One who took our suffering and sin upon Himself so that one day, suffering and sin would finally be no more … forever. That is the hope we have through every trial, “looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:2) We look to Him because He will carry us through the fiery storms and He will faithfully carry us home.
Eddie Byun is Associate Professor of Christian Ministry at Talbot School of Theology. He is the author of the award winning book Justice Awakening, Praying for Your Pastor, and Praying for Your Missionary. He is also the Executive Producer of Save My Seoul, an award winning documentary about sex trafficking in South Korea. He lives with his wife and son in Irvine, California.
"However, I consider my life worth nothing to me if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me - the task of testifying to the Gospel of God's grace."
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