Why does God test us as James 1:3 describes? Tests prove “the genuineness of our faith” (1 Peter 1:7). Read or listen to this chapter from Enduring Trials God’s Way to learn how trials prove your faith!
Table of contents
- God Tests Us to Prove Our Faith
The text in this post is from Enduring Trials God’s Way: A Biblical Recipe for Finding Joy in Suffering, and the audio is from the accompanying audiobook. I am praying God uses the book and audiobook to strengthen your faith and exalt Christ!
I used to be a school teacher, and now I am a pastor. Both professions involve instructing others. I do not want to sound overly simple, but good teachers provide information people do not already have. If they already knew it, they would not 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 1:3 is not teaching something new. He was telling readers what they already understand 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 1:3 uses 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—they test your faith.
God Tests Us to Prove Our Faith
Augustine said, “Trials come to prove us and improve us.” This quote identifies the two purposes trials accomplish. We discussed trials improving (maturing) us. Now we will discuss trials proving our faith.
Let’s begin with two other 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 James 1:3: “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 1:3 and 1 Peter 1:7 are strong:
- James 1:3 says, “count it all joy,” and 1 Peter 1:7 says, “greatly rejoice.”
- James 1:3 says, “[trials] test your faith,” and, 1 Peter 1:7 says, “[trials] prove the genuineness of your faith.”
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; therefore, nothing could be more valuable.
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 means to put someone or something to the test, with the purpose of discovering the person’s nature or the thing’s quality.MacArthur, John F. The MacArthur Bible Commentary. Thomas Nelson, c2005, p. 1881.
Dokimion was used for coins to determine their value or worthlessness.
If our faith is even more precious than gold, then what will God do with it? As 1 Peter 1:7 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:
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.Wells, Tom. Christian: Take Heart! Banner of Truth Trust, Car-lisle, PA. 1987, p. 150-151.
Thomas Kempis said, “Adversities do not make a man frail. They show what sort of man he is.” When trials test us, our faith is at stake. When we pass the tests, we prove the genuineness of our faith. The question is: to whom?
Trials Test Us and Prove the Genuineness of Our Faith to Us
As already discussed, we should 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?” When our faith survives trials we can be confident in the genuineness of it:
In the “School of Faith” we must have occasional tests, or we will never know where we are spiritually.Wiersbe, Warren W. The Wiersbe Bible Commentary: Old Testament. David C. Cook, 2007, Colorado Springs, p. 86.
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:
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.Lenski, R.C.H. “The Interpretation of the Epistle to the Hebrews and the Epistle of James” Augsburg Fortress Publishers, October 1, 2008. p. 525
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.
Trials Test Us and Prove the Genuineness of Our Faith to Others
In the Parable of the Soils, the seed represents the Word of God, and the soil represents our hearts:
Matthew 13:5–6—“Some [of the seed] fell on stony places, where they did not have much earth; and they immediately sprang up because they had no depth of earth. But when the sun was up they were scorched, and because they had no root they withered away.”
“Stony places” refer to shallow soil on top of a bedrock layer, where there is not much depth of earth. As a result, when this soil (or heart) receives the seed (or Word of God), it will not establish deep roots. Think of people who receive God’s Word enthusiastically—they are excited about their new faith and “immediately [spring] up”—but they do not last. Their faith does not have deep roots. It looks good at first, but trials reveal it was not genuine:
Matthew 13:20–21—“He who received the seed on stony places, this is he who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet he has no root in himself, but endures only for a while. For when tribulation or persecution arises because of the word, immediately he stumbles.”
Sadly, we have all seen people like Jesus described—joyful until they experience trials. How many times have you been at church and heard, “Hey, what happened to so-and-so?” Then someone replies, “Oh, they went through this trial, and they have not been back.” Without roots, the insincerity of their faith is exposed, and they revert to their lives before the seed fell on their hearts.
First John 2:19 says, “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out that they might be made manifest, that none of them were of us.” Before “they went out” they looked saved. It was only them going out that revealed “they were not of us.”
Unbelievers can look like Christians. The church at Sardis was filled with people who appeared to be Christians, but Jesus told them, “I know your works, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead” (Revelation 3:1). Sardis looked so good it developed a reputation (a name). Observers thought this was a thriving church because of how much it had going on physically (you are alive). Jesus looked at them and knew they were a church of unbelievers—spiritually dead people.
Trials often reveal that people, such as those in Sardis, are unbelievers. Tying together Jesus’ words in Matthew 13:6 and 21 reveals that “tribulation or persecution” caused their faith to “wither away.” Sometimes people supposedly get saved and those looking on say, “They are so on fire for God!” That might be true, but until their faith survives trials, it is difficult to be confident.
Trudging through the Swamp of Despair
John Bunyan’s famous book, Pilgrim’s Progress, is an allegory, which means the people, objects, and locations are reflections of their names. The main character, Christian, is reading a Book (the Bible) when Evangelist directs him to leave the “City of Destruction” (the world) to go to the Celestial City (heaven). Soon after Christian begins his journey, Pliable (someone easily swayed without commitment) joins him. At first, Christian and Pliable look equally committed, but that quickly changed when they experienced a trial.
We will pick up when Pliable asked Christian about the blessings he could enjoy when they reached their destination:
Pliable: “Come, neighbor Christian, since there are none but us two here, tell me now further, what the things are? And how to be enjoyed, whither we are going?”
Christian: “I can better conceive of them with my mind than speak of them with my tongue: But yet since you are desirous to know, I will read of them in my Book.”
Pliable: “And do you think that the words of your book are certainly true?”
Christian: “Yes verily, for it was made by Him that cannot lie.”
Pliable: “Well said, what things are they?”
Christian: “There is an endless Kingdom to be inhabited, an everlasting Life to be given us, that we may inhabit that Kingdom forever.”
Pliable: “Well said; and what else?”
Christian: “There are crowns of glory to be given us; and garments that will make us shine like the sun in the firmament of Heaven.”
Pliable: “This is very pleasant; and what else?”
Christian: “There shall be no more crying, nor sorrow; for He that is Owner of the place will wipe away all tears from our eyes.”
Pliable: “And what company shall we have there?”
Christian: “There we shall be with seraphims, and cherubims, creatures that will dazzle your eyes to look on them. There also you shall meet with thousands, and ten thousands that have gone before us to that place; none of them are hurtful but loving and holy, every one walking in the sight of God, and standing in His presence with acceptance for ever. In a word, there we shall see the elders with their golden crowns. There we shall see the holy virgins with their golden harps. There we shall see men, that by the world were cut in pieces, burnt in flames, eaten of beasts, drowned in the seas, for the love that they bare to the Lord of the place; all well, and clothed with immortality, as with a garment.”
Pliable: “The Hearing of this is enough to ravish one’s heart…my good companion, glad am I to hear of these things; come on, let us mend our pace.”
Everything sounded great to Pliable, just like the blessings of Heaven, eternal life, crowns, and glorified bodies sound great to everyone. Pliable was so excited he even told Christian to walk faster! But then…
Just as they had ended this talk, they drew nigh to a very miry Slough that was in the midst of the plain, and they being heedless, did both fall suddenly into the bog. The name of the Slough was Despond. Here, therefore, they wallowed for a time, being grievously bedaubed with dirt; and…began to sink in the mire.
They reached their first trial—the Slough (swamp) of Despond (despair). The words “they being heedless” mean they did not see this coming, which is similar to James 1:2 saying we “fall into…trials.” We unexpectedly experience trials like Christian and Pliable unexpectedly fell into this swamp. The story continues:
Pliable: “Ah! neighbor Christian, where are you now?”
Christian: “Truly, I do not know.”
Christian’s response captures the way we often feel during trials: “Things are confusing right now. I do not understand what is happening.” We might lack understanding, but understanding is not of greatest importance. Of greatest importance is enduring—continuing to push through the mud. Christian did. Pliable did not:
At that Pliable began to be offended, and angrily said to his fellow, “Is this the happiness you have told me all this while of? If we have such ill speed at our first setting out, what may we expect between this and our Journey’s end? May I get out again with my Life, you shall possess the brave Country alone for me.” And with that he gave a desperate struggle or two, and got off the mire on that side of the Slough which was next to his own house; so away he went, and Christian saw him no more.
In chapter 1, we discussed the frustration people experience when they wrongly believed the Christian life would be free of difficulties. Pliable is a perfect example. He “[begins] to be offended, and angrily” criticizes Christian. His expectation of further trials was correct, and so he abandoned Christian as quickly as he had joined him. Pliable is like the people who show up at church one day—they look like they are along for the journey—but when troubles arise they leave as suddenly as they came. He looked enthusiastic earlier, but the trial revealed his faith was nothing more than a desire for blessings, with no commitment to Christ.
When Christian later met Goodwill (Jesus), Goodwill said, “How sad it is concerning Pliable in that he had such little appreciation of the heavenly glory to come, so much so that he did not consider it worth encountering a few hazards and difficulties to obtain it.” This assessment of Pliable is true of everyone who turns back from following Christ when trials arise. These people are the opposite of the Apostle Paul who said, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18). Keeping eternal blessings in mind is one of the best ways to stay encouraged during trials. With so little desire for spiritual realities, Pliable quickly found himself discouraged by the physical and ready to depart.
Later Christian spoke about Pliable with his companion, Faithful:
Christian: When I first set out on my pilgrimage, I did have some hope for that man. But now I fear he will perish in the imminent destruction of the City.
Faithful: They are my fears for him as well.
Pliable departed to avoid his present suffering, but just as Goodwill rightly assessed that Pliable did not think of the glory of heaven, he also did not think of the punishment of hell. When people leave the faith because of suffering, little do they realize the trial they are presently enduring is mild compared to the eternal torment they will suffer for abandoning Christ.
One of the great blessings associated with persevering through trials and proving faith to be genuine is the confidence that hell will not have to be endured. Instead, there is the encouragement that comes from the words of Revelation 21:4: “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.”
Trials Test Us and Prove Genuineness of Our Faith to God
God reveals Himself through the pages of Scripture. He shows His character and the decisions He makes. We see how He deals with people, and one of the most common ways is through testing them. Here are a few examples:
- Exodus 20:20a—“Moses said to the people, “Do not fear; for God has come to test you.”
- Job 23:10—“He knows the way that I take; When He has tested me, I shall come forth as gold.”
- Psalm 66:10—“You, O God, have tested us.”
Why does God test His people? So He can know them! This is made clear in the Old Testament by understanding two Hebrew words. Nacah is the Hebrew word for “tested” or “proved,” and it means, “To test, try, prove, tempt, assay.” Yada is the Hebrew word for “know,” and it means, “to know,” but, like ginōskō, it is describing intimate knowledge: “Adam knew (yada) his wife, and she conceived and bore a son” (Genesis 4:1). David used both words when asking God to “test” him to “know” his heart:
- Psalm 26:2—“Examine me, O LORD, and prove (nacah) me; Try my mind and my heart.”
- Psalm 139:23–24—“Search me, O God, and know (yada) my heart; Try me…see if there is any wicked way in me.”
When God tests people, it is not to imply He did not already “know” them. Nacah is also translated as “prove,” because when God tests us with trials, He is proving what is in our hearts:
Losses and disappointments are the trials of our faith, our patience, and our obedience. When we are in the midst of prosperity, it is difficult to know whether we have a love for God or only for His blessings. It is in the midst of trials that our faith is put to the test.Fawcett, John. Christ Precious to Those Who Believe. Bottom of the Hill Publishing, 2013, p165.
Consider these accounts that reveal God’s testing through trials:
God Tested Israel
Moses could not go with Israel into the Promised Land. Deuteronomy contains his final words to the people he loved and led for forty years. In chapter 8, he discussed the difficult time of testing in the wilderness, and why God put Israel through it: “You shall remember that the Lord your God led you all the way these forty years in the wilderness, to humble you and test (nacah) you, to know (yada) what was in your heart” (Deuteronomy 8:2). God tested Israel in the wilderness to know them.
Fast-forward to Israel entering the Promised Land. God left the enemies in Canaan. Why? Again, God wanted to test Israel to know them: “[The Canaanites] were left, that [God] might test (nacah) Israel [by them] to know (yada) whether they would obey [His] commandments” (Judges 3:4). God tested the Israelites to know (or prove) whether they would obey Him.
God Tested Hezekiah
Hezekiah was one of the greatest kings in the Old Testament, but he failed when Babylon sent messengers to visit him. This evil nation was the superpower of the day and Hezekiah pridefully wanted to impress them; therefore, he showed them his nation’s wealth. Second Chronicles 32:31 gives spiritual insight into what took place: “Regarding the ambassadors [from] Babylon…God withdrew from [Hezekiah], in order to test (nacah) him, that He might know (yada) all that was in his heart.” God tested Hezekiah to know (or prove) what was in his heart.
God Tested Abraham
People struggle with God’s command for Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac. How could God want a father to sacrifice his own son? God did not want Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. We know that because He stopped it from happening. In Genesis 22:11–12a, the Angel of the LORD said, “Abraham, Abraham! Do not lay your hand on the lad, or do anything to him.” The repetition of Abraham’s name shows the urgency with which God prevented it, and not only was Abraham not to sacrifice Isaac, he was not to “do anything to him.”
If God did not want Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, why did He ask him to do it? The answer is revealed at the beginning of the account: “Now it came to pass after these things that God tested (nacah) Abraham” (Genesis 22:1). This was always only a test. It was never about Abraham sacrificing Isaac. It was only about whether Abraham would sacrifice Isaac.
This is probably the most fitting picture of a test in all of Scripture. Scholars take notice of the first time God uses a word. It is called “The Principle of First Mention,” and the idea is when a word occurs for the first time it reveals the truest meaning. Genesis 22:1 is the first time God uses the word nacah. There were more painful tests—such as what Job experienced—but as far as having faith tested, it is hard to imagine anything tougher than Abraham’s experience. He is the “Father of Faith” (Romans 4:11–18) and fittingly He faced the premier test of faith. After he passed, God said, “Now I know (yada) that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me” (Genesis 22:12b). God knew the courageous man who dared to pick up the knife would not have hesitated to perform the sacrifice.
The account might look foreign to us because God would never command us to sacrifice a child. There is a relationship though—God tested (nacah) Abraham to know (yada) him, and God tests us to know us. When Abraham’s faith withstood the test, the Angel said it revealed his fear of God. When our faith withstands tests as James 1:3 and 1 Peter 1:3 describe, it reveals our fear of God, which is “the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 9:10).
- 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?” How has your view of your faith changed since reading this chapter?
- Describe hypothetical people who represent the “seed that fell on stony places.” What made them look like Christians before the trial? What changes took place during or after the trial that made them look unsaved?
- When you have experienced a trial and felt tempted to turn back as Pliable did, what truths can you draw from God’s Word to encourage yourself?
- Can you think of other Scriptural examples of people who experienced trials and proved the genuineness of their faith? What about individuals who proved their faith was not genuine?