How do people face life’s tests? God’s providence gives believers daily quizzes and periodic final examinations in Christian living. Some persons react to life’s tests with denial. They say: This is not happening to me. Others react with escape; they turn to marijuana, cocaine, or a promiscuous one-night stand. Still others respond to trials with a shallow, humanistic optimism. In a tiny church where members quoted their favorite verses each Sunday, one elderly man cited the same one every Sunday. His favorite verse was: “Grin and bear it.” Many whine at life with a perpetual four-part anthem in a different minor key each day: “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen.”
Can Christians respond to trials differently? James stressed that they can. Believers can face life’s testing times with joy because they understand God’s purposes in the test. People’s outlook determines their outcome. However, believers must recognize the reality of life’s testing times. James wrote, “when you meet various trials” (1:2), not: if you meet various trials. Testing times come to every believer. The Greek word translated “trials” may refer to testing or to tempting, depending on the context. In verse 13, the same word refers to temptation. In verse 2, it refers to tests which prove Christian character.
God tests believers to bring out the best; Satan tempts them to bring out the worst. A person chooses whether or not tests become temptations. Trials may refine people or ruin them, depending on their reactions. God’s intention in every test of health or wealth is positive. The word trial indicates a test that discovers the nature or quality of the person being tested. James’s words remind readers that whether they face trials is not the main point, but whether the trials make or break them. People may lose their wallets or their businesses. They may have blisters on their fingers or aneurysms on their arteries. They may have their plans for tomorrow crushed or their plans for a lifetime wrecked. The test may come in a doctor’s diagnosis; a teenager’s temper tantrum, friction at the office, or the pettiness of a good friend.
Although life’s trials definitely come, they appear at indefinite times. The Greek word for “trials” gives the English word pirate. Like pirates, trials ambush the unsuspecting saint. James stressed that believers “fall” (KJV) into trials. That is a technicolor word. Jesus used the same word to indicate the hapless traveler to Jericho who suddenly “fell” into the midst of thieves (Luke 10:30). The same word indicated a ship that suddenly was stranded on a sand bar (Acts 27:41). James saw believers facing unwelcome, unexpected, and unavoidable encounters with life’s tests. More than coming at indefinite times, life’s tests are personalized and synchronized. James used the colorful word translated “various” (1:2). The word could be translated multicolored. In the Septuagint, the same word was: used to refer to Joseph’s many-colored coat. A trial comes to match every color of one’s personality; Trials have people’s zip codes and thumbprints on them. What may shake the foundations of one person’s life may not even touch another. God asked only Abraham, not Joseph or Moses, to sacrifice his son. Jesus asked only the rich young ruler to sell everything, not Nicodemus. He had a trial matched to test the faith of each -person, but no trials were exactly alike.
Trials not only come personalized, but they also come synchronized, all., at once. Shakespeare said: “When sorrows come, they come not single spies, But in battalions.” Everything happens at once. Trials of health lead to trials of wealth. These lead to vocational trials, domestic trials, and emotional trials. Jesus’ closing parable in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 7:24-27) is about two builders who faced rain on the roof, wind on the walls, and water rising up to eat away the foundation—all at the same time. “Various trials” are just that: many simultaneous testing times.