“Just grin and bear it” is advice we sometimes give to others (and ourselves) when we are called to endure something painful or uncomfortable. The situation is made worse when others expect us to enjoy what they are offering. Maybe it is Aunt Lisa’s “famous” fruit cake which is so dry you can barely swallow without a half gallon of water at hand. Or something more serious like listening to your boss give terrible advice which you know will ruin the company. Either way, the saying implies whatever “it” is, is usually unpleasant. Acting out one thing when you have strong feelings to the contrary can be extremely difficult.
That being said, it seems odd that James seems to give similar advice in James 1:2: “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds.” The word for “various” in this verse comes from a Greek word where we get our word “polka dotted.” That is, it seems James says we should be happy when we encounter trials of different shapes and sizes. Yet, is the Spirit giving us a divine “grin and bear it” command? If you’ve ever endured difficulty, you may even be somewhat offended by this statement. Are we just supposed to put our happy face on when we discover a terminal illness? When our loved ones pass from this life? No, not quite.
For James, the trials that the Christian endures have a purpose and an intended outcome which tempers the despair of the believer: “For you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (v. 3-4). For James, trials are opportunities to test the faith of the Christian in order to produce steadfastness, ultimately resulting in the perfection of the saint. Interestingly, James later makes it very clear that God doesn’t tempt us to do evil (v. 13). Yet, while God doesn’t tempt us to do evil, He does test us to produce good—and sometimes the trial is the same. For the child who has no outlook and goals in life, the algebra test administered by the teacher is simply another opportunity to cheat; for the student trying to get into an elite university, it is an opportunity to excel.
James’ point is this: As the Christian is faced with trials of every shape and size, he can find an eternal purpose in all of them, and in this he should find great comfort and joy. Everyone suffers—believer and nonbelievers alike—yet the question is, how do you view your trails in the long run? Non-believers will find very little purpose in their difficulties. They may become a “better person” because they overcame cancer, but to what end? To simply die a few years later? Even if it transforms you into a more altruistic individual, what ultimate value does any of it have if there is no afterlife? Suffering, apart from purpose, brings despair; suffering, with the grace of an eternal outlook, produces joy. James isn’t encouraging Christians to look at life with rose colored glasses but challenging them to see a transcendent purpose in the smallest misfortunes.
The particular characteristic that suffering produces in the Christian is endurance or steadfastness. Trials are viewed throughout scripture as the real test of genuineness (Matt. 10:22; 1 Pet. 1:6-7). Generally, we might view these trials as persecutions due to our faith. While this at times is true, it doesn’t necessarily mean this in the context of James. Again, James is discussing struggles of all shapes and sizes: the hot water heater in your car is busted; the whole family comes down with a stomach bug over holiday season; your spouse suffers from chronic illness and you have to cancel your vacation; your boss is a jerk and it doesn’t look like he is leaving soon; the government is hiking the taxes and pressuring your business. The list could go on. Everyday difficulties we face every year. James contends that in every one of them is an opportunity to grow in our faith, becoming more resolute in our hope, love, and joy in Jesus.
Notice the text says we must allow this steadfastness to have “its full effect” (v.4) which is “perfection and completion.” That is, these transformative trials take time as it chisels away our imperfections and makes us whole once again. We like quick fixes to our problems, but shortcuts rarely work; faith is a long road of obedience. It will take time before you are able to look back on your trails with joy, seeing the work of Christ that they have produced in you. In fact, the ability to do such is the characteristic of a mature saint—one which is accomplished only through suffering.
In all of this, the believer must keep his eyes on a God who wants him to come to a place where he “lacks nothing” (v. 4). This is an interesting word choice, for suffering often produces lack—in comfort, in happiness, in pride, in peace. Yet, the promise for the believing Christian is that, if they continue to hope and trust and God, He will bring them through their trails to place of no lack. The Father will not leave his children empty handed. He will continue to work and mold them so that He can bless them. Nothing will still the Father from transforming and blessing His children—not even the greatest of miseries.