Making Sense Out of Trials

Reading Time: 8 Minutes

James, the Lord’s brother, wrote this letter to churches that were outside of the territory of Israel, sometime before 50 AD. He opened his letter with these words,

“James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ,
To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion:
(James 1.1)

His first theme was an encouragement to make sense out of the trials that come to us.

James 1.2-4 Count it all joy, my brothers and sisters, 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.

Making Sense Of Trials

The famous British Christian author, C. S. Lewis, waited until late in life to marry. He was only married a short period of time before his wife died. As he was dealing with profound grief, the last Bible verse he would have wanted to have quoted to him would have been these verses in James.

Lewis almost lost his faith over the intense suffering he experience with the loss of his wife. Before he completely turned his back on a lifetime of serving Jesus, he had to make sense of what had happened. When James tells people to “count it all joy” when we experience trials, we may better understand his words as a gentle encouragement to make sense out of the suffering we have experienced.

James’ words, “count it all joy,” are his counsel for people to take a look at their trials and to attempt to bring some meaning to them.

The Alcoholics Anonymous teaching on acceptance give some insight to James’ direction to “count it all joy . . . when you meet trials of various kinds.”

“Acceptance is the answer to all my problems today. When I am disturbed, it is because I find some person, place, thing or situation – some fact of my life – unacceptable to me. I can find no serenity until I accept that person, place, thing or situation as being exactly the way it is supposed to be at this moment.

“Nothing, absolutely nothing, happens in God’s world by mistake. Until I could accept my alcoholism, I could not stay sober; unless I accept life completely on life’s terms, I cannot be happy. I need to concentrate not so much on what needs to be changed in the world as on what needs to be changed in me and my attitudes.”

(From: Alcoholics Anonymous (Big Book), 4th Edition, P. 417)

Below are three stories that illustrate the truth that James is presenting in these three verses. Before we look at the stories, let’s examine the logic of why we do well to consider our trials and to attempt to make sense out of them.

James writes that trials produce steadfastness (verse 3). The literal meaning of the Greek word behind “steadfastness” is to “remain under a load.”

The way people get physically stronger is by steadily increasing the weight that they lift. The same is true of runners, who progressively push themselves to run faster or longer distances.

James points out that trials increase our ability to be steadfast (to remain under the load of life). When steadfastness has had its full effect, people will “be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (verse 4).

If being “perfect and complete” seems beyond your reach, you may see the goal as being a more fully developed person or growing in your spiritual life.

Below are three stories that I hope illustrate the benefit of James’ teaching in these verses.

A Ministry Example

A young man once asked an old preacher, “Will you pray for me that I have great faith like you?”

The old preacher agreed, took the young man’s hands into his own and began to pray, “Heavenly Father, I pray that you give this young man nights where he goes to bed hungry, not knowing where his next meal will come from. I pray that he experiences days when his bills far exceed his income . . .”

The young man pulled away his hand and said, “Hey! I asked you to pray that I have great faith, not troubles.”

The old preacher replied, “Son, it is because of nights that I went to bed hungry and hopeless that I came to know God as my provider. If you want to get what I got, you’ve got to go through what I’ve been through.”

How can you truly know God is a healer, if you have never experienced sickness? Or, God as a provider if you have never known lack? How can you know he is a comforter if you have never faced grief?

(From “The Constitution of the Kingdom of Heaven,” by James Williams.)

Bill Wilson’s Experience

When Bill Wilson, one of the founders of AA, had a spiritual awakening and became free from the obsession with alcohol, he felt an absolute necessity to pass this message on. According to one of his friends, Sandy Beach, Wilson knew he had to give away what he had received.

Once he was released from the hospital as a sober man, he went around to the bars. What did he have to talk about? He talked about his huge spiritual awakening. Sandy Beach asks us to imagine Wilson in a bar attempting to talk to a drunk about spiritual awakening. He had no success at all in getting anyone to listen to him.

He went back to the hospital where he had his spiritual awakening and spoke to the psychiatrist who had helped him.

Here is what the doctor told Wilson, “You know, I don’t think that hot flash story is going to work. So, you have to talk about the dead-end nature of the disease. You have to tell them that if they keep drinking, they’re going to just keep going down, down, down, and make it so awful that they’re ready to surrender.”

Beach remarks on this conversation, “You can see how our steps got put into sequence right there. Bill was starting with the twelfth step, spiritual awakening, and ended up putting that at the very end. He determined that the first step was the most important, because unless we can accept all the way down to our very core that we are powerless over alcohol and unless something spiritual helps us, we will never make it.”

(From “Steps and Stories,” by Sandy Beach.)

It is pretty easy to see how an alcoholic’s or addict’s “rock bottom” could be considered to be all joy, if it led to a spiritual awakening, sobriety and meaningful life.

Pray to be Broken

Back in the days of cassette tapes, I listened to a gravely voiced preacher from Texas, whose continual theme was, “pray to be broken.” I don’t think I ever prayed to be broken, but I do believe that anyone whom God uses mightily will first be broken.

Mark it down. If you are going to be used by God, there will come times of breaking. You can count on it.

I know I have had my times of breaking. I hated every one of them and would never have “counted them all joy” when they were happening. Looking back, they did exactly what James teaches. God used them to further my maturity and spiritual life.

I’d like to end this article with a powerful promise from God to us. As you read it, note that “contrite,” means crushed. I used to have a piece of rock in my office to remind me that God couldn’t use my hardness (my own best thinking). However, if the rock of my heart was crushed, it could be molded into anything God wanted to do with it. Don’t miss the fact that the High and Holy God desires to dwell with those who have been crushed by trials.

For thus says the One who is high and lifted up,
who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy:
“I dwell in the high and holy place,
and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit,
to revive the spirit of the lowly,
and to revive the heart of the contrite.
(Isaiah 57.15)


  1. The Bible I use the most titles the book of James “Doers of the Word.” From these opening words, there is a call to change, to grow, to never assume that we have arrived.

    I agree with you, Bob, that there are many experiences in our lives on earth that cannot seem joyful…..but I am reminded that this “joy” is not necessarily “happiness.” I like Rick Warren’s definition of this: “Joy is the settled assurance that God is in control of all the details of my life, the quiet confidence that ultimately everything is going to be alright, and the determined choice to praise God in every situation.” in my mind, it’s closely tied to peace. Internal, eternal joy that God is in control makes all things bearable. Not pleasant. Not happy. Bearable. Strengthening. Opportunity. Learning. Growth. Joy.

    We start by bearing it, then gain strength, see opportunity, learn His viewpoint, grow out of the trial…right into joy.

    I’m excited about diving into the book of James again!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It has been an experience not unlike the way a diamond is produced and made extremely more valuable than the coal it came from. The combination of the coal, extreme pressure and time produce this paradoxical outcome. In most cases, I don’t think anyone would choose a path of trials to produce an outcome of increased faith, but is a common experience that those God has chosen must go through them in order for God to change them right down to the molecular level to produce all the gifts He intends. Like the story of the old and young preacher, I had a younger member of my family tell me he would like someday to be like me. Boy, that could lead to a falsely inflated ego, but my immediate response was, I wouldn’t choose for you to experience what I have in order to be like me, but rather, I would advise you to seek God with your whole heart, to be what He would have you to be. Thank you Jesus for what you have brought me through, and thank you that we still have a road ahead of us together to get down, but I am convinced by what you have done that we are going to make it!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Denise and Lee, both of you have known a serious level of suffering. James is “strong medicine” that can only be taken when we are ready to receive it. I appreciate both the trials you have experienced and the insights you have shared. May God bless you richly.


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