Trials 2 - What is a trial?
The great writer and church leader John Calvin refers to the trials James 1:2 speaks of as, “any adverse thing… [that] tests our obedience”, by which he means anything that brings into question our trust in God.
Calvin’s use of the word “any”, along with James’s “various kinds” gives us a very broad definition. It could be something that is momentary, or it could last for years; it could be personal to you or affecting a whole nation; it could seem to be bad luck or it could be the result of a personal attack; it could involve family, friends, your church, your education, your health, your career…
What counts as a trial varies from person to person. Say you’re a student teacher at a secondary school who is really busy with assignments and placements. If you get into a conversation with a pupil who is doing their A-levels and they tell you what a hard time they are having, you’d probably struggle to suppress a knowing smile as you compared what they considered ‘pressure’ to what you were experiencing. But if you then spoke to a qualified teacher with more responsibilities than you about your pressures they’d probably respond to you in a similar way. And if a head of department with their own children as well entered the staff room they would trump all of you! On and on it goes, because “various kinds” of trial come to different people. Each person in this scenario is experiencing a trial, and each trial is legitimate to them. The point is not how your struggles compare with other people’s but how they affect you.
A trial doesn’t have to be a massive thing that you could sell to one of those ‘true life stories’ magazines or write an inspiring book about, it’s simply something that tests you.
(As a side point, you will not bless anyone who is suffering by saying to them, ‘You think you’ve got it bad, let me tell you about my problems!’ I hope that what follows in this series will give you some useful suggestions on how to deal with your own trials, and how to help others.)
What trials are not
If you’re a Christian, trials are not God’s punishment of you for your sins. Some of us have come from backgrounds where God was wrongly presented as a tyrant who is always looking to whack you for going out of line, and any of us can get this false impression, so this is important.
On the cross, Jesus Christ took the punishment from God for every sin you have committed. When He cried out, “It is finished” (John 19:30), He was referring not only to the completion of His great mission, but to your sin account: the debt you owe to God for all your rebellion against Him. What we have translated “It is finished” means “paid in full”. It’s a business term meaning “no further payment is required”. That is true for you forever if you have put your trust in Jesus as Saviour and Lord. Hence Paul could say, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 8:1) So trials are not punishment for a Christian’s sins.