As we waited at the top of the 3 km interval on Tuesday morning and watched one of the runners disappear unassailably, one of my running buddies, Pete, rejoiced that his next campaign on the north-west shelf had been delayed ten days. This was good news: he gets to enjoy a full week of school holidays with his kids that he wouldn’t otherwise.
As we pretended to stretch a little longer, he told the reason for the delay.
Pete’s a pipeline engineer. The procedure before commissioning each section of the pipe includes rigorous testing – it’s important for establishing that the integrity of the pipe is as it should be.
The testing involves forcing high-pressure air through the pipe to reveal any weakness. When the routine work has been completed, and the integrity established, the tests are a matter of course.
Except for when it hasn’t. When a pipe has barely been welded at all.
It turns out that one of those sections of pipe had only been ‘spot welded’. Spot welding is done so that the pipe can be sealed and painted but it’s just a cosmetic band-aid before the real welding is completed. Someone forgot to do the ‘real welding’ bit.
The pressure was introduced to the section of pipeline and, for a while, all was well. In fact, everything was fine up to 90% of total pressure. At this point, the spot welds shrugged their shoulders and gave way. Apparently, it doesn’t look pretty when a pipeline section gives way under that sort of pressure, yet it’s far more preferable than the calamity caused if it were to happen on the ocean’s bed.
The failure of the section of pipeline was a quality failure and, given the nature of documentation and procedures, alarms went off in tall buildings around the country. Work stopped, and people hopped on planes to investigate how the things got this far before the final test exposed its inherent weakness.
We’ve just started working through the book of James at The Big Table. James wastes no time at all in diving into the problems and possibilities of pipelines that lack structural integrity. He introduces himself, then cuts to the chase.
It’s not unusual for me to have thoughts while I’m running that I’d like to write about (like this one) and I like to think that James was no different. I like to imagine that he’d been running and praying and had a revelation about the power of trials and testing in producing integrity and steadfastness. He runs in, saves his run, uploads it to Strava, and gets writing:
Count it all joy, friends, 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.
The part of Pete’s story that stayed with me as I took off on that first 3 km interval was the 90% moment. 89% is a whole lot of pressure. I’m assuming that the testing of those pipes is more rigorous than anything experienced once commissioned, so 89% of full testing load is enormous pressure. Yet, even at 89%, some superficial band-aids were up for the job. The moment it got really serious, though, it was game over. Because spot welds are no substitute for structural integrity.
Trials reveal the character that has been developed away from the trial. They reveal the wisdom deposited away from the strain of 100% pressure. Not only do they reveal the work that has already taken place, but trials are also an environment for greater growth.
All the air pressure could do in the pipeline test was reveal weakness. James says that trials are ‘joyful’ (yep, that’s what he says!) because they can do more than reveal weakness, they can develop strength and build faith muscles.
How does that make them joyful? The answer is time.
You can only consider a trial a joy when there is something greater at work than the trial. When there’s a pay-off that makes endurance a worthy goal.
James is in no doubt. Trials of various kinds – emotional, spiritual, relational, financial, vocational, physical – test our faith. They force our perspective into the open. They reveal our goal. If comfort is our goal, we’ll do whatever we need to, to get out of the trial prematurely. We’ll choose lesser things in which to place our hope as a quick escape. We’ll try short term band-aids that won’t last to get us out away from the potential fruit of those trials.
There’s also an inclination in a godless variation of the trial that makes it a moment for self-drivenness and self-dependency. Perhaps to join along with Kelly and sing: “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, Stand a little taller…What doesn’t kill you makes a fighter”. But this is nowhere near the ballpark to which James is headed. He isn’t headed for a place of self-reliance but God dependency, and in that place, He’s able to do his finest perfecting work in us.
Trials are common currency in our humanity and brokenness. They shouldn’t surprise us – they’re on tap for all regardless of whether our hand is up. Does this make James mean for saying to ‘count it all joy’? No, the contrary, it reveals once more that God is able to work all things together for good. Even, and particularly, trials.
When God is our goal in the trial, joy is possible. Because when we place our trust in Him in the midst of the trial, we declare that He is bigger than the trial. King over the flood. Mighty to save. The God of all creation and the maker of heaven and earth.
The full effect of a trial is only known after the trial. James is not pretending it’s pretty, nor is he suggesting that we should be inviting and excitedly anticipating trials. There’s no element of masochism going on here. It’s a bigger story than that.
The trial yields steadfastness. It’s an invitation to run to God for wisdom that perhaps we didn’t even know we needed. And it’s to discover all over again that we are loved by a Father that longs to give generously without reproach. A Father that doesn’t necessarily extract us from a trial but allows it to be a seedbed for the cultivation of deep joy.
Anyone who meets a testing challenge head-on and manages to stick it out is mighty fortunate. For such persons loyally in love with God, the reward is life and more life.