The word trial has several meanings in English. First, it can refer to a legal proceeding designed to determine guilt or innocence. Second, it can refer to a test, or proving, of something to see if it is true. Third, it can refer to a difficult situation that causes suffering and pain.
In spiritual usage, the word trial is used to refer to a process whereby God improves His people. Thus we read where James says to “Count it all joy my brothers when you fall into diverse trials; knowing this, that the testing of your faith produces patience. But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing.”
That is, God tries the heart, testing a person’s faith. It is usually understood that such a process involves pain. The Christian endures pain, confusion, darkness and uncertainty; trusting God, and thereby has his or her faith tested. In the process, the person’s faith is purified and strengthened.
Since a trial is adversity that is allowed by God in order to bring improvement to one of His children, the concept shares similar qualities with persecution, chastening and breaking. In essence, “trials”, or tests of faith, are generic concepts that involve any adversity resulting in a deeper trust in God and a dependence on God. If the trial brings moral improvement then it is called chastening. If following Jesus results in undeserved hostility from humans or Satan, then the trial is called persecution.
The same word translated as trial in the New Testament is also translated as temptation. That is why James, after telling us that testing produces patience says, “Blessed is the man who endures temptation, for after he is tried he will receive the crown of life, which the Lord has promised to those that love Him.” He then says, “let no man say when he is tempted that he is tempted by God, for God cannot be tempted with evil, neither does He tempt any man. But every man is tempted when he is drawn away by his own lust, and enticed.” The idea here is that people who love God still have a dual nature, and a temptation is the rising up of the lower nature. When people resist this desire and “endures temptation,” then they prove their love for God. Through this process, they gain a sense of God’s approval. Through such experience, we see that we have been given power over sin and that we are no longer under sin’s control. We then see that we are pleasing to God, and we enjoy the confidence and peace of our union with Him. Thus, we should count it all joy when we are tested.