Last night we talked about Sunday's sermon on James 1, and we struggled with what the "trials" are that James talks about. Why do some people seem to have a surfeit of trials, while others cruise through life untouched? Are those who escape suffering in this life doomed to a less impressive eternal future?
I can't pretend that we came up with any answers, except that trials are much more personal than we might think, and that comes from how trials fit into our Christian formation.
You see, our Christian walk consists of three distinct stages: coming to Christ, walking with Christ, and dwelling together with Christ in his kingdom. The theological terms for these three stages are: justification, sanctification, and glorification. Our experience of these three stages is quite different.
Everyone comes to Christ in the same way: by repenting from a commitment to the world's plan of self-rule, and through placing our faith in the saving power of his blood. The result of that act of commitment is that "He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son." (Colossians 1:13) We have been adopted by the Father into the family of God. We are now justified (made righteous) before his throne of judgement.
However, while justification sets us free from "the law of sin and death" and allows us to choose God, it doesn't transform our minds into ones that naturally choose God, rather than our own desires. That's what sanctification does. Sanctification is an ongoing process which is different for each Christian. And that's where trials come in--they help us to strengthen our trust in God, they exercise our spiritual muscles.
Finally, when we die (or Jesus returns), we go through the process of glorification. We are only fully glorified at the resurrection, when we receive our "spiritual bodies" which will be ours for eternity. The New Testament points to the reality that our obedience and growth here in this age (i.e. our sanctification) will influence our reward in heaven. I understand the intersection of these teachings as indicating that our sanctification is building our eternal character, which will then be reflected in our spiritual bodies and our ongoing minds and hearts.
So this "light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison," as Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:17.
That makes trials seem even more important! Fortunately, if we boldly trust God, if we place him above any other call on our life, we'll certainly encounter trials. Even everyday life provides us with the opportunity of the trials of placing others above ourselves. If we open ourselves up to the concerns of others, rather than carefully protecting ourselves, we will find abundant trials through which to learn endurance. And we can count that all pure joy!