We do this once or twice every year, usually for around six weeks, and it's always a great experience.
This week, the topic is 'The Pressure of Trials'. As I did my own small group work and studied the first four verses of James, and as I listened to Chip Henderson (the author of our study guide) talk on DVD and read what he wrote, I could not help but ask,
"What is God's role in a trial?"
- Did God cause the trial? Was He directly involved in the creation / execution of the trial that came on me?
- Could God prevent the trial? Did God have the power to save me from the trial before it happened?
- Or, was God more like a gatekeeper? Imagine that your life is like a house in the middle of a property surrounded by a fence. There is a gate that opens to let things into your life and closes to keep other things out. The one who opens and shuts the gate doesn't really cause the stuff that comes in, but he controls the passage. So, is God sort of the passive gatekeeper, allowing trials to enter my life for some kind of Divine purpose?
These are important questions, because how you think about God, see God, and relate to God are directly tied to your own understanding of God's role in a trial. If God caused the trial, than God is to blame for our suffering. I can think of one or two times when God clearly orchestrated something that felt painful to me. This is the exception, but to say that God never orchestrates a trial is not true.
The writer of Hebrews put it like this:
Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? If you are not disciplined—and everyone undergoes discipline—then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all. Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of spirits and live! They disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness. (Hebrews 12:7-10, NIV)
Twelve years ago, when I was still the pastor of my first church, a group of people from another church started talking to me about becoming their pastor. This church was larger, had a staff, a huge facility, a nice location, and a willingness to do some new things. I was convinced that this was the move I needed to make. Susan and I prayed and prayed. We were invited out there (2 hours away) on multiple occasions and had great chemistry with the people. And then, right when we thought they would offer me the job, they picked...the other guy. I was devastated! In my mind, I was already there! For me, this was a real and bonafide trial.
But only a few months later, PCC was born. Susan and I look back now and THANK God for bringing that trial to us, because if we had gone to that church, we would have missed the miracle of the unbelievable movement of God we are a part of today.
Still, I think most trials are NOT orchestrated by God. And while God sometimes steps in to prevent a trial, most of the time God doesn't intervene in the natural realities of our world. We live in a broken world, which includes pain and suffering. Perhaps sometimes we're spared because God grants us a get-out-of-jail-free card. But this is very rare, in my experience.
So what about God as a Gatekeeper? Chip Henderson says, "God will allow pain into your life for the purpose of making you to be more like Christ." While this is certainly true some of the time with some of our struggles, pain, and trials, I think it's dangerous to apply this kind of thinking to all pain and suffering. I once heard a theologian named Frank Tupper do a series of lectures on this. He said something like, 'we never stand at someone's bedside who's arm had been cut off and pray that God would grow it back, because we know that God doesn't work that way. He rarely violates His own laws of physics."
Suggesting that God knowingly allows all trials to happen is almost the same as saying He causes them.
Nothing in James 1:1-4 addresses the source or cause of our trial. Rather, James' point is to address our response and perspective when trials come.
Because God has made something good happen out of every single trial I've ever faced, I can "consider it joy when I face trials of many kinds because I KNOW" - from experience - that God is going to do something good even when I'm in the middle of something bad. It doesn't mean he caused it or was some passive participant in creating my trial.
God's role is to be bigger than my trial and to give me what I need to persevere through it!