Introduction – commitment involves a willingness to take on the hurts of others, because everyone struggles at some point.
Last week on Fathers’ Day I prayed for all the men in the church. One of the things I specifically asked God to do was to give men the courage to make commitments and take responsibility. I think this is how a boy becomes a man — a willingness to take responsibility and to make commitments, especially a commitment to another person, like in marriage and in fatherhood. The reason I think the commitment is so important is that when your life becomes connected to another person’s life you are bound to bear in their suffering. When your child is hurting, you are hurting, it doesn’t matter if they are 6 or 26. If you are in a small group with someone and that person loses his job, or ends up in the hospital, you feel it.
This week we begin a new series in the book of James. As the apostle begins his letter to believers outside of Jerusalem, the first thing he does is try to help them cope with trials. Because everyone struggles sometime.
We are going to look at what James says to those who are suffering, but first some background on this letter and its author
1 James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ,
To the twelve tribes scattered among the nations:
There are generally three main candidates for who wrote the letter of James. It could be James the brother of John, James son of Alpheus, one of the disciples, or James the brother of Jesus. Most people think it is the latter, James the brother of Jesus because we don’t know anything about James Alpheus, and James the brother of John died very early in the history of the church. When we meet James in the gospels he does not believe his brother is the Messiah, which is not surprising to anyone who has even had a sibling. We know from 1 Corinthians that Jesus appeared to James after his resurrection and most think this is what changed James from a skeptic to a leader in the early church.
James says he is writing to the twelve tribes of the Diaspora which is James’ way of referring to the new followers of Jesus who had fled Jerusalem after the death of Stephen. Jesus is the messiah and these people are his followers so they are now the new people of God. It would be fitting for him to use such a Jewish term because when James wrote, most of the Jesus-followers were also Jews.
James is located in the last part of the New Testament which might make you think it was written later in early church history like 1 John or Revelation. But it was actually the first – or one of the first – books written after the resurrection. This is why its style is so different from other epistles. James takes the form of a letter, but it is not really a letter the way Romans is a letter. It is not written to a specific person or church. It is not written to address a specific problem and it does not flow as one continuous argument. Rather is reads more like a collection of saying that James wants to share with the church. It flows from one idea to the other, more like Proverbs than like 1 Thessalonians.
Nevertheless it was written to instruct and encourage and the first thing it addresses is living as a community in the midst of trials.
Consider it pure joy when you face trials because God uses it to build perseverance
2 Consider it pure joy, (only joy, undivided joy) my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. 4 Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.
We might know what we mean by trials but what does James mean?
When we think of a trial, a difficult time, we usually mean the death of a loved one, battling cancer, economic downturn, or dealing with addiction. These are the things that rock our individual worlds. But what trials were James’ first century audience facing?
When you read the whole letter there seems to be a recurring theme about the tension between the rich and the poor or more precisely the rich and powerful and the poor an vulnerable. The rich were the powerbrokers of the culture and they were not only greedy, they were also contemptuous of God. They showed no fear or concern for God even to the point of blaspheming. James’s church was out of step with the larger culture and they felt vulnerable and disregarded. The apostle was concerned that the young Christians would respond to this with anger.
19 My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, 20 because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.
4 What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? 2 You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God.
James is telling the scattered church to respond to this trial with joy, not anger because this trial will produce perseverance and then maturity. Tough times bring maturity.
Application: When you consider that James was talking to a whole community dealing with a trial, and when you consider that the trial was about being out of step and feeling helpless in the culture it is not too hard to connect it to what many felt this weak when the Supreme Court handed down their decision regarding same sex marriage.
In James you have a group of people going through a trial and part of that trial is that the cultural power brokers did not care about God and even blasphemed him. In this way this passage is applicable to the disoriented, frustrated feeling that many had sorting through the Supreme Court case that legalized same sex marriage. For those of us in New Jersey, our day to day lives have not changed. We all know people who are gay – some have very close friends or family who are gay. Same sex marriage has been legal in NJ for a while. What people felt yesterday was that they are out of step with American culture. For many people it was the first time they felt that the values of the majority of Americans are not the same as my values. That produces disorientation and in some cases fear. Am I going to be criticized for the views I have? Will someone bring suit against me or refuse business with me because I disagree with the Supreme Court decision? James says that we should still consider it pure joy because this trial, if we can see this as a trial for American evangelicalism, can produce maturity.
It can be a good thing to recognize that being American and being Christian are not the same things for a few reasons. First if American culture is wrong about sexuality, then maybe it is wrong about many other things. Maybe I should not be letting American culture define success, or beauty or happiness. Also being out of step with the larger culture causes us to thing seriously about what it means to be a believer. How are we to discuss marriage now that the definition has been changed. How can we talk to those we disagree with? How do we model marriage? These are good questions, and they are question that lead to maturity.
When we realize that God will walk us through this trial and that he will use it to bring us to maturity we can see why he calls us to rejoice. But can we apply this principle of perseverance to other trials in our lives? I believe can. I do not think we should worry about rejoicing in the face of a cancer designation or the death of a friend. Jesus did not rejoice when his friend died. He wept. But we can still be confident that God will be with us and will use the trial in our lives. I base that not so much on the nature of the trials in the first century as on the character of God.
We can consider trials “pure joy” because of the “pure,” undivided nature of God. James encourages us by reminding us that when we are going through trials we can seek God and he will unhesitatingly give us wisdom in that situation.
When facing trials we should ask for wisdom to cooperate with the process
5 If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously (one minded – purely) to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. 6 But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. 7 That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. 8 Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do.
James reveals that the reason we can be joyous even in tough situations is the generous nature of God. We all know what it is like to helps someone begrudgingly. He help because we have to. But God is not like that. He helps us “generously” which is a word that means “with single mindedness.” He is ready and willing to give us wisdom and does not find fault with us for asking. He wants us to ask.
So we can have pure – or whole hearted – joy even in trials because of our whole hearted pure God. He will not abandon us but he will walk with us. I am reminded of what Jesus said about God the Father in Luke 11:
11 “Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? 12 Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? 13 If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
James is confident of the character of God and his willingness to help us in trial. But he is not as confident about us. God is single-minded in his devotion to us but too often we are double-minded in our devotion to him. James warns us that if we ask in this double minded way we won’t be given any wisdom. James says that we must “believe and not doubt.” This is not referring to intellectual doubt, the kind of big questions we have about, say, the truth of the scripture or the nature of God. These are questions we all wrestle with because we live in a secular culture that does not encourage belief in God. Also when we grow in Christ our minds are transformed which means dealing with doubt and questions. James is not talking about that kind of doubt. He is talking about doubt of the will.
I think the best example of this is what an addict faces when coming off drugs. Often the addict can get clean and can find accountability partners. But their greatest challenge is the decision to never do drugs again. Often we don’t want to be clean. It is easy to see the divided heart of the addict but harder to see the divided heart in ourselves.
Think of another example: a man in a small group who asks for prayer because he is going on a business trip. Suppose he is going on a trip to Las Vegas and he admits to his friends that this will be one temptation after another. Those men might line up to check in with their friend throughout the trip and such accountability has a way of de-fanging a place like Las Vegas. The real challenge for the man is not “can I find friends who will help me stay truth to my faith” but “do I want to stay true to my faith?” James understands that the real battle in there, in the center of our heart.
There is something that will drive you to want to make real change, to focus on what God is doing in you above all else: a crisis. When you face trials you tend to focus on God because you feel so vulnerable and so needy. This is one reason why James reminds us that a trial can be a good thing.
Conclusion: God wants to use the tough times in our lives to mature and focus our love for him
Pray that God will give you wisdom in the midst of your trials and trust that he will do so.
Pray that God will give you an undivided heart, a picture of what he might do in you if you are totally devoted to him.