A blessed man is one enduring trial, because after being approved he will receive the crown of life promised to those who love him [God]. . . . We consider blessed those who endured.” (James 1.12 5.11a)
The church’s happy heroes are those who endure trial many times over and for a lifetime.
“Trial” (peirasmos) could just as easily be translated “testing” or “temptation.” Be it God’s faith-refining tests hijacked by Satan to threaten faith or the world’s faith-stretching trials, James “refers to any difficulty in life that may threaten our faithfulness to Christ: physical illness, financial reversal, the death of a loved one” ). James’ wording suggests that he is not thinking of any particular trial, but of the nature of essence of ‘trial'” (Douglas Moo, The Letter of James, PNTC: 70).
James means far more by “endure” than merely “outlast” or “survive.” Biblical endurance means one maintains his faith and love for Jesus though everything and everyone would have him abandon his Lord (cf. Mt 10.22, Mk 13.13). Even (or especially) in death Jesus and the eternal life he’s guaranteed with his blood will remain the Christian’s greatest treasure. Christians will rather die sooner in Christ than live forever without him. James appealed to Job for an example of one who endured (Jas 5.11). Therefore, biblical endurance confesses “Though He slay me, I will hope in Him” (Job 13.15).
Endurance or perseverance does not say, “I’m going to beat this thing” or “This will only make me stronger.” God-rewarded endurance says, “Though this thing beat me, I will not leave my Lord.” Crowned perseverance says, “Though stripped of all my strength, I will still boast in the strength of my God.” Our Jesus will be just as, and even more, worthy of our praise though the world be stripped out from under us.
Whatever it is, wherever it is, whenever it is that would strain worship, the church’s happy heroes are those who endure it and gladly rejoice in Christ. Again and again and again, they endure and love Jesus all the more (cf. 1 Pt 6-9). They have scars healed over by the balm of the gospel.
Of course, James’s perspective is a long-term one. Christian perseverance is one with a view towards the crown of life bestowed in the last day who refused to love any god but God. Those who love God persevere in and for God with a view to being crowned in the last day by God. By “crown,” James probably envisioned the race winner’s ivy wreath (1 Cor 9.25). And “of life” probably defines what that crown is (i.e. “the crown, which is life”). Therefore, the Christian is one who has endured to the end, giving Christ his due with their last breath, and thereby crowned with eternal life.
1. In a church age addicted to celebrity, let us be reminded that the kingdom is not built on one-trick ponies. We love the latest, greatest, slicked up, LED-bedazzled personality whose image is sharp, ministry large and campuses multiple. Let us remember that the kingdom of Christ advances on the back of anonymous, gospel-wrinkled men and women.
We should celebrate the silver-haired, battle-worn pastor who has suffered decades of scars from church folk and worldly enemies, but who still smiles when he opens the Bible before the flock. We should rejoice in the widow with her gentle handshake as she leaves the Sunday gathering, whose heart remains faithful to Bridegroom Jesus. As much as we love the latest video from our faux-hawked, bushy-bearded ministerial hero, we are more impressed by the brother wounded daily by wolves at the factory and remains energized by the gospel. We are eager to hear the gospel hope overflowing from our sister with a wayward daughter more than the raspy lyrics from our worship leader.
2. In a church age suffering gospel anemia, let us be reminded that endurance is part and parcel of the gospel. There is no believing of the gospel, receiving of Christ, following him that is not marked by lifelong painful perseverance (1 Cor 15.1-3; cf. Mt 10.22; Mk 13.13). Responding to the gospel is not a one-time decision anymore than saying “I do” is a one-time declaration. By declaring “I do” at our wedding we devote our lives to one spouse, living wholly and solely for the well-being of another. I don’t say “I do” and then go about living as though “I don’t.” In declaring “I do” on our wedding day, we announce the beginning of ten thousand more days of an I Do life. Likewise, repentance from sin and faith in Christ are are not assured by a checkmark on a card; it is proven after a lifetime of faithful obedience. In repenting and believing God is graciously launching our new lifestyle marked by the lordship of Christ.
That’s what James means by “being approved” by God. We don’t endure trials so that God will approve us. Our endurance is God’s way of proving who are truly his (Mt 7.24-27). The people God saves are the people who die stronger in faith than when they began. The evidence of salvation is not found in how one begins in faith but how one ends in faith. Jesus taught us that there are many who seemingly start well in faith but who don’t end well (Lk 8.4-15). They start with all pomp and praise, but simply fizzle out. And those who don’t finish well are not be considered God’s children. God’s true children “hold [the gospel word] fast, and bear fruit with perseverance” (Lk 8.15).
New, fresh faith is certainly exciting and often the focus of many churches. In fact, virtually every denominational survey a pastor receives asks about new members, conversions and baptism. What’s new and how big is it? Rarely, if ever, do they ask about perseverance. No survey has asked, “Among those who lost jobs last year, how many remain faithful in the life of the church?” I’ve never read a survey that asked, “Among those who buried a spouse last year, how many are using their mourning to instruct younger women?” I’ve never had a survey ask, “Of those you’ve baptized in the last ten years, how many remain faithful to their baptismal confession by regularly eating the Lord’s Supper?” If we’re honest, we care far more about fast starts than slow finishes.
Let us be faithful with the gospel because Jesus loved his own “to the end” (Jn 13.1). We should celebrate new faith (Lk 15.7, 10) but not as an end in itself. We celebrate new faith praying to see it wrinkled, scarred up and weathered in years to come.