James 1:12 “Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.”
More than one person I have known has described the trial of the moment as “hell on earth.” Some have even suggested that, since they have suffered hell here, heaven must be waiting for them when life ends. They see their trials as some kind of cruel payment plan God has concocted for purchasing a place in paradise.
Our earthly trials don’t accrue as credit in our spiritual accounts. They won’t pay for eternal life. Jesus took care of that on the cross. He suffered literal hell there, not virtual hell. He did so in place of you and me. Nothing we suffer now can equal or add to the payment he has already made. The children’s song “God loves me dearly,” has it right in the second verse: “Jesus my Savior himself did offer. Jesus my Savior paid all I owed. Therefore I’ll say again, God loves me dearly. God loves me dearly, loves even me.”
This is why James can talk about “the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.” There is still a connection between our trials and the crown of life God has promised. Since our trials are a tool God uses to build our faith’s perseverance, they help to ensure we have what we need to receive God’s promise at the end. They aren’t the cash that pays for our crown, nor even the hand that receives it. But they are the exercise that makes sure the hand of faith is still reaching, and still open, when God is ready to give the gift he promised.
Since the gift is the crown of life, doesn’t that help us to see our trials as blessing? Perhaps you know that the ancient Greeks and Romans had two kinds of crowns. One was the jeweled and golden crown of the king, the diadem. It symbolized his power and authority. It said to the people, “I am the king. You are not. Bow before me and do what I tell you to do.”
The other one, the kind James mentions, was the crown of victory, the stephanos, (from which we get our name Stephen). It was a crown made of branches from an olive or laurel tree. Sometimes the kings and emperors wore this crown, too on return from battle as the conquering general. Sometimes it was worn by athletes who had just won a race, much as we give out medals and trophies.
At the end, God gives us the victor’s crown of life. It acknowledges our life here has been a bloody battle, a grueling race, an exhausting competition. He doesn’t sugar-coat it. Life for his people is hard. It always has been. But we have survived it all and win the prize! You will be the one on the victory stand. You will be the one for whom heaven is throwing the ticker-tape parade. You will be the one who isn’t wearing just some twigs around your head. You will be dressed in life, eternal life, life the way it was originally supposed to be–without the trials and the pain that may be useful now, but never pleasant. If they make even the tiniest contribution to ensuring that blessing becomes our own, that is reason enough to persevere under them.
Bill was a member of a church I once served. If you asked Bill how he was doing, his stock answer was always the same: “It’s a beautiful day.” It was a beautiful day, even if it was pouring rain and the tornado sirens were going off. It was a beautiful day even if it was bone-chilling cold and the heat wasn’t keeping up. It was a beautiful day even if he was going into the hospital for some uncomfortable and unpleasant procedure.
I don’t know if Bill had James’ words in mind, but his life certainly reflected them. Don’t let your trials rob you of your joy now, or the life to come.