James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ,
To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion: Greetings.
Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, 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.
It is no secret that life is filled with heartbreak, disappointment, tragedy, and all sorts of different trials. We understand that God has not promised us an easy life, and that He is able to use the junk that happens to us to mature our faith and transform us into the people He created us to be. That is why we should find joy in our suffering, because God is redeeming our pain to make us new creations.
Yet, we also know that this is easier said than done. When our lives are going smoothly, or at least manageable, we can say, "I trust God no matter what happens." Then the clouds descend and the storm hits and before long we are questioning God's heart. Some times we will even begin to question His existence.
How do we make the rubber meet the road here without sounding like a cheerleader? You know the person who says, "Just try a little harder. You can do it. Hang in there." That type of encouragement is worthless. It is like trying to encourage a guy with a compound leg facture to get up and run a marathon, "You can do it. I am in your corner. I will pray for you." We would recognize such behavior as cruel, and rightly so, because the problem isn't a lack of effort but a broken leg. Spiritual growth often isn't about a lack of effort, but it is about a wounded heart. A heart that doesn't trust that God is good.
So how can we use the tragedy and trials in our lives to mature our faith? I think first we have to lay a solid foundation. This has to be done before the storms hit, because once the rain starts to fall it is going to be awfully difficult to make any progress.
“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it" (Matthew 7:24-27; ESV)
The reason it is so important to do the listening and the obey before the storm hits is because that gives us the experience we need to remind ourselves that God is good. He can be trusted to bring us life, even if at the moment the flood waters seem to be winning. Yet, even in the midst of the storm this is where we need to begin. We will not survive, we will not find healing and life, if we do not have the firm foundation of Jesus. So even if it is pouring down rain and the flood is rising we need to spend our time trying to find the rock that will keep us from being swept away.
Second I think we need to daily surrender our lives to God. Read what the apostle Paul wrote in Romans:
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect (Romans 12:1-2; ESV)In other words we have to give up control of our lives. The only way we will be changed is to allow God to change us. If we are going to insist on doing things our way we will never experience the life that God wants us to have. We won't be transformed. We won't be the salt of the earth or light of the world because we will be conformed to the world around us. This is scary because we our handing over the reins of our lives to God, giving Him control, and trusting Him for the results.
That is where the rubber meets the road: trust. Spiritual maturity isn't about trying harder, but it is about trusting more. We learn to trust through experience and so prayer and obedience become the route through which our faith is grown as we come to know that God is one we can trust with our lives.