Chapter 1

Understanding The Trials That Trouble Us

Getting through a season of trouble is a lot like surviving a roller-coaster ride—except that we do not volunteer for trouble, and trouble was never intended to be fun.

Trouble is filled with stomach-wrenching drops, dips, and sudden curves. And just when we think we’ve caught our breath, we’re dropping again.

If we didn’t know better, we might think that this roller-coaster ride is a random experience, that somehow the forces that lift us up and push us down are whims of fate.

Thankfully, it’s not a random ride at all. Those who understand the work of God in and through our troubles know that He does not abandon us to disaster. Rather, with all the strength of His character, He provides a well-engineered superstructure that supports the process along a carefully planned set of tracks and guardrails. Even when the ride is too hectic, unsettling, and twisted for us to sense the presence of His support and guidance, it’s still there. Our only hope in it all is to stay in the car and find something solid to hold on to through every turn of the experience.

When trouble invades our comfort zones, two needs rise to the top: the need for understanding (to find answers to the probing and disturbing questions that crowd our minds and souls) and the need for healing (to feel better and to finish the problem). Of the two, understanding is the key to managing the problem effectively to its ultimate outcome. Without the understanding that produces the right answers, there is no sense of direction and no hope in which to feel secure.

How should we view trouble? The apostle James used a specific word for trouble that leads to a helpful understanding of what trouble is. The essence of this word led J. B. Phillips to paraphrase James 1:2 by saying that when troubles come, “Don’t resent them as intruders, but welcome them as friends!”

When James wrote, “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials” (Jas. 1:2 NASB), his choice of words is strategic. The Greek word for trial is a word that means “to examine or test for the purpose of proving or revealing something about the thing tested.” It is a test that reveals something for a specific purpose.

Of all the things we could say about trials— that they are disappointing, discouraging, humiliating, uncomfortable, painful, and disheartening—God sees them, among other reasons, as tests that reveal our true selves. It’s a sure thing that in trouble, the real me becomes apparent quickly. Trouble is revelatory.

Trouble is one of God’s ways of examining our lives. When we are on “Easy Street”—and thank the Lord that He lets us come up for air periodically—it is hard for us to know what we are really like. We can carry on a cosmetic existence and fool ourselves, and most people, about our true nature.

But when trouble hits our lives, what we are really like is quickly revealed. Trouble shows our friends, our spouses, our children, and our acquaintances what we are like. Even more unsettling, it forces us to start seeing ourselves for what we really are.

I am committed to the sanctification process in my life, to becoming increasingly pure as I grow in my walk with God. Yet sanctification is tough, even in situations that are not life threatening.

Several years ago, when my son was a student playing basketball, it was a trial to see him sitting on the bench when he should have been playing. A small trial, but a revealing one. Worse yet was what it was like when he got into the game and the referee started to harass him. As I rose out of my seat, I began to “express myself,” only to feel my wife tug at my coat: “Joe, you’re the president of Moody Bible Institute,” she would remind me. There is much in me that needs to be worked on. More important than the “obvious lack of judgment by the coach or the referee” was my lack of maturity in terms of self-control and Christlikeness. The pressure of the “trial” during the game gave me a good look at myself and showed me areas in which I needed to grow.

Without that strategic perspective, we tend to focus on the external aspects of our problems. Yet if we keep in mind that trouble is in part intended to reveal the “real me” so that we may grow, our focus in pain will move from pity to the production of God’s glory in and through us.

What good is trouble? Among other things, trouble reveals where I am in the growth process in terms of my conformity to the image and character of Christ. It gets me beyond assumptions to reality. Am I a forgiving person? Am I kind? Understanding? Just? Loving? Helpful? Patient? Or am I angry, slanderous, self-centered, inflexible, manipulative, weak, and ill-equipped to respond to trials correctly?

It is helpful to see ourselves as we really are. Trouble reveals that, and it turns the agenda toward the things in our lives that need to be changed so that we can grow to be more like Him—and that, of course, is the purpose of our redemption (Rom. 8:28-29) and one of God’s purposes in trials (Jas. 1:2-4). William Coltman was pastor of Highland Park Baptist Church in Detroit, Michigan, for more than 40 years. He served with dignity through many difficult times. At one point in his life he was falsely accused of moral indiscretion, and his wife refused to go to church with him. Each Sunday she left the house to attend another church down the street. His secretary of many years told me that through it all she “never heard him say a negative word about anyone!” In the test, his character was revealed and Christ was glorified.

What are trials anyway? Often they are tests to let us know where we are in the process of growing up in Him.

James 1:2 goes on to qualify the nature of these tests by saying that “many kinds” of trials will enter our lives. Knowing what kind of trouble to expect is a great help in being ready to meet that trouble.

The Scripture speaks of at least seven different kinds of trouble.