Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything (James 1:2-4).
Does God send trials—like cancer—to test faith and produce perseverance? I don’t believe so. I agree with John Boykin (The Gospel of Coincidence), who maintains that God normally plays no direct role in everyday events, good or bad.
Many people I talk with are upset by the suggestion that God is not causing their circumstances. But while I’ll grant that there is Scripture to suggest that He is, there is just as much Scripture to suggest that He is not. James opens his letter by talking about trials but curiously never ever implies that God is sending them. Quite the contrary. He says,
When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full grown, gives birth to death. Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers (James 1:13-16).
Boykin points out that “trial” (v. 2) and “tempt” (vv. 13, 14) are the same word in Greek. James is saying, “Don’t blame God for trials; they come from human sinfulness (among other things).”
Bad things happen because we live in a broken world full of selfish people—including ourselves. We make choices that have consequences and God seldom interferes in this process of cause and effect. He certainly can; it’s just not his MO. Poor diet and a polluted environment cause cancer. Drunk driving leads to deadly accidents. Irreconcilable differences fracture families.
The belief that God is the direct cause of all that happens raises serious questions about his character. What would you think of a “loving” father who occasionally pushes his son down the stairs so he can console the injured child? Or a renowned physician who secretly injects her patients with a painful virus so she can cure it in some just to enhance her reputation?
God doesn’t have to initiate trials to use them in our lives. But this too is conditioned on our response. We have to have the right attitude in order to benefit from painful ordeals. Considering them “pure joy,” that’s the hard part!