Trials accomplish two important works in our lives. First, trials improve, or mature, us. Second, trials test our faith. Augustine said:
“Trials come to prove us and improve us.”
I used to be a school teacher, and now I am a pastor. Both professions involve instructing others. I don’t want to sound overly simple, but good teachers provide information people don’t already know. If they already knew it, they wouldn’t need the instruction! Most letters in the New Testament are instructive. There is the occasional time an epistle will say, “I want to remind you…” but primarily they were written to provide new information. This is why James 1:3 is so unique! In the ESV and NIV it says:
You know that the testing of your faith produces [patience].
James was not teaching something new. He was telling readers what they already knew about trials. They test our faith!
There are weaknesses with the English language. One weakness relates to the word “know.” For example, I use the same English word when I say, “I know my dad” as when I say, “I know of Abraham Lincoln.” Obviously, I know my dad much differently than I know President Lincoln. We add the word “of” to differentiate between the types of knowing: knowing someone versus knowing of someone:
- The Greek word for “knowing of” is epistamai. It means, “To put one’s attention on, fix one’s thoughts on, be acquainted with.” This is knowledge, but with no personal interaction or relationship.
- The Greek word for “knowing” personally is ginōskō, and it means, “to learn to know, get a knowledge of, feel.” This is intimate knowledge. Ginōskō is used in Matthew 1:25 to say, “[Joseph] did not know (ginōskō) [Mary] till she had brought forth her firstborn Son.”
Ginōskō is also the word James uses in verse 3 for “knowing.” He tells his readers they know what trials do because they have experienced them before. If you have been through a trial, you also know what they do!
Trials Test Our Faith
Consider these two important Greek words:
- Peirasmos is the word for “trials,” and it means, “proving, adversity, affliction, trouble sent by God and serving to test or prove one’s character, faith, holiness.”
- Dokimion is the word for “testing,” and it means, “the proving; that by which something is tried or proved, a test.”
The definitions are similar because trials are tests and tests are trials. Consider the use of both words in James 1:2 and 3:
My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials (peirasmos), knowing that the testing (dokimion) of your faith produces patience.
Since the words are similar, the verses could say:
- Count it all joy when you fall into various trials knowing the trying of your faith.
- Count it all joy when you fall into various tests knowing the testing of your faith.
Dokimion only occurs one other time, in 1 Peter 1:6–7, which also contains an instance of peirasmos:
In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while, if need be, you have been grieved by various trials (peirasmos), that the genuineness (dokimion) of your faith, being much more precious than gold that perishes, though it is tested by fire, may be found to praise, honor, and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ.
The similarities between James and Peter are strong:
- James says, “count it all joy,” and Peter says, “greatly rejoice.”
- James says, “[trials] test your faith” and, “Peter says, “[trials] prove the genuineness of your faith.”
Your Faith Is “More Precious Than Gold”
Peter does not say the genuineness of our faith is precious “like gold.” He says it is “much more precious.” Why does our faith have this value? We are saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8). Without faith, we have no salvation.
Gold is considered a precious metal along with silver, platinum, and palladium. What do people do with these materials? They test them to prove their genuineness. Imagine someone thinks he is holding gold, but it is only pyrite or fool’s gold. Imagine a woman thinks her husband bought her an expensive diamond ring, but it is cubic zirconia. Dokimion was used for coins to determine their value or worthlessness. R.C.H. Lenski said:
“If we have true faith we ought to be glad to have it tested and proved to be genuine. If I have genuine gold coins I shall welcome any test to which they may be subjected.”
Since our faith is even more precious than gold, then what will God do with it? As Peter said, He will “[test it] by fire” so “that the genuineness (dokimion) of [it] may be found.” In Isaiah 48:10 God said:
“Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver; I have tested you in the furnace of affliction.”
Our faith cannot be subjected to the same tests as cold metals. Faith cannot have acid poured on it, receive the scratch test, or be heated to a certain temperature; however, it can be subjected to trials that reveal its value or worthlessness. Tom Wells said:
“You know why men test gold, why they put it in the fire. They know that if it is gold, fire will not hurt it. Men do not seek to destroy gold with fire. They do not seek to harm it in any way. Instead, they try to prove beyond all doubt that it is gold. And that is what God is doing when He applies [trials]. He seeks to show…that they are true Christians.”
When trials test us, our faith is at stake. When we pass the tests, our faith is shown to be real.
We Need Our Faith Tested to Be Confident in Its Genuineness
Warren Wiersbe said:
In the ‘School of Faith’ we must have occasional tests, or we will never know where we are spiritually.
We must expect trials. This is the case for believers and unbelievers alike. Even the ungodliest people survive some of these trials, and even the godliest people do not always survive trials. For example, cancer is a trial some unbelievers have survived, while some believers have not. This shows surviving (or not surviving) trials does not distinguish Christians from non-Christians:
- The question is not, “Did they survive trials?”
- The question is, “Did their faith survive trials?”
We do not want to wonder where we are going to spend eternity. We want assurance that we have saving faith. James 2:18b says, “I will show you my faith by my works.” While our works do not save us, they are one of the clearest indicators that our faith is genuine. Another indicator is when our faith has survived trials. Trials are painful, but one reason we can “count it all joy” when experiencing them is they give us confidence in our faith. George Muller said:
“The only way to learn strong faith is to endure great trials. I have learned my faith by standing firm amid severe testing.”
He learned to trust his faith because of what it withstood. Trials reveal the condition of our faith. If we are confident in it, we can welcome trials. When our faith passes the test, we can be blessed knowing it is genuine.
Discussion Questions to Answer in the Comments Section
- Why is it important for God to test our faith?
- How can it help your perspective of trials to view them as tests, versus viewing them as unfortunate circumstances?
- Did you previously consider your faith as being “more precious than gold?”
Most of this post is taken from my book, Enduring Trials God’s Way: