When we find ourselves smack in the middle of a trial in life, it’s easy to find the encouragement of James a bit…well…irritating:
2Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, 3for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. 4And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. (James 1:2-4)
Count it all joy?! What could possibly be joyous about our trials? All too quickly, we become defensive, self-pitying, and bitter. F. B. Meyer writes:
How often do professing Christians adopt a hurt and injured tone in speaking of God’s dealings with them! They look back upon a sunny past, and complain that it was better with them before they entered the wicket gate and commenced to tread the narrow way. Since that moment they have met with nothing but disaster….And they complain that the service of God has brought the misfortune rather than a blessing. (Abraham, or the Obedience of Faith, p. 45)
But in fact, we actually come to know God’s grace through our trials–so much so that learning the fullness of God’s grace is not possible apart from trials.
And so, after YHWH calls Abram to leave his past behind in order to move to the Promised Land of Canaan, Abram immediately faces a great trial:
10Now there was a famine in the land. So Abram went down to Egypt to sojourn there, for the famine was severe in the land. (Genesis 12:10)
Famine in the Promised Land? If YHWH called Abram to leave his past life behind and move to the Promised Land, how could there possibly be a severe famine in the land? Had Abram misunderstood the call? Had he disobeyed at some point, triggering God’s wrath?
No. We read in Genesis 12:4 that “Abram went, as the LORD had told him,” and we hear YHWH confirming his promise to Abram in 12:7: “To your offspring I will give this land.” If anyone could be fully “within the will of God,” Abram was.
God’s Grace Through Trials
Typically, we identify God’s grace as the absence of trials in our lives. Abundance, comfort, and happiness are what we would consider the telltale signs of God’s grace. So, when we begin to experience trials in our lives that we cannot link to a specific sin that we have committed, our nice, neat categories to comprehend God’s grace begin to fall apart, and we are left with three choices for interpreting the events we are facing.
First, we can adopt the perspective of Job’s friends. Their view of God was to see him operating exclusively on a quid pro quo (this for that) basis. When Job was healthy, wealthy, and happy, this was clearly a sign of God’s pleasure and blessing upon Job. But when Job lost his health, his wealth, and his family, these disasters were clearly a sign of God’s displeasure and wrath against Job.
The concept that God might be testing and refining Job was completely outside of the box in which they had placed God. What is fascinating about Job, though, is the way in which Job moves from complaint and lament (“Why did I not die at birth, come out from the womb and expire?” – Job 3:11) to a desperation for pleading his case before God in confidence that he will be acquitted (“Oh, that I knew where I might find him, that I might come even to his seat!” – Job 23:3-5) all the way to a kind of peace with the knowledge that wisdom to understand his situation is known by God alone, and therefore we must fear God and turn from evil (“Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom, and to turn away from evil is understanding.” – Job 28:28).
This is the second approach. At some point, we come to learn that our trials come by God’s grace, and that God carries us through trials by his grace. At first, we might scramble to justify ourselves (“I don’t deserve this!”), but then we are driven to God with an intensity that we would not have known apart from the trial (“How long, O Lord?”). And through the trial, we come to experience a level of intimacy with God that we could scarcely have imagined before the trial.
It is toward this outcome that God sends trials into our lives. As painful as they may be, trials are the only way in which we can come to learn the depths of God’s grace. And for this reason, we may count our trials as joy even despite their pain, just like James says.
Abraham and the Third Approach to Trials
Unfortunately, there is a third option available to us when trials come into our lives. While the other two options both assume that God is fully in control of the situation at hand, the third approach believes it necessary to take matters into your own hands.
Rather than pleading with God about the trials, this approach assumes that we must fix our own problems by our own cleverness, even if it means disobeying what God has called us to in our lives.
And this is exactly what Abram did. When the severe famine entered the land, Abram simply packed up, left the Promised Land that God had called him to, and moved down to Egypt. From a human perspective, this approach made perfect sense, since it gave Abram a way to escape the famine without straying too far from the Promised Land.
But God had not commanded Abram to leave. And so, because of Abram’s disobedience, he would learn the grace of God in another form: as completely unmerited favor.