Testing times - James 1:1-18
A light aircraft was flying over Africa returning from an important diplomatic mission. It had just four passengers on board: The Secretary General of the United Nations, an Oxford University professor, the Archbishop of Canterbury and a car mechanic who was hitching across Africa but had got himself stranded at a small airstrip where the plane had stopped to refuel, and they managed to squeeze him on board at the last minute. Suddenly the pilot announced to the passengers: "I'm afraid we're going to crash; there are only four parachutes, and I'm taking one of them." And with that he jumped out of the plane. Quick as a flash, the Secretary General of the United Nations got to his feet and said: "I am the most important person on the this aircraft. My death could destabilise the world situation." So he took a parachute and jumped out of the plane. Whereupon the Oxford University professor was quick to get to his feet and say: "I am the cleverest person on this plane and the world is waiting for my next book. I'm taking a parachute." And he jumped. There was a pause while the Archbishop of Canterbury looked at the car mechanic and cleared his throat. But just as he was about to speak, the car mechanic said with a broad grin: "No worries mate. The cleverest man on this plane has just jumped out with my rucksack on his back."
Are you a thinker or a practical person? Well James, whose letter we are studying together over the next few months, is intensely practical. He's the sort of the guy the car mechanic in the story would have got on well with. James is at pains to tell his readers how to live the Christian life. We'll find, as we go through, commands like: "Don't be deceived", "take note of this", "don't merely listen to the word, do what it says." James is blunt. He'd have got on well in Yorkshire. But throughout history, James has come in for some flak. The reformer Martin Luther called the letter "an epistle of straw" and crossed it out of his Bible. He thought it wasn't a patch on the high theology of Paul's letters. Others have said that James is a scatterbrain, leaping from one topic to the next. But as we will see, James is no scatterbrain. His letter is a closely argued letter. And neither is this sort of teaching to be relegated out of the Bible. No, the Christian needs both thoughtful theology to help us see why God has done something, and practical living, to help us see how to live for him. God in his wisdom has given us both.
Now James was writing, you'll notice in verse 1, to what he calls "the Twelve tribes scattered among the nations". James uses OT imagery to speak of Christians. These people are scattered across the known world, forced out of their home city of Jerusalem because of persecution. You can read all about it in Acts 11. And James was their pastor back in Jerusalem, the leader of the Jerusalem church, the half brother of Jesus himself. And the theme of his letter can be found in chapter 1 verse 21: "Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you which can save you." James is urging his readers to live out their faith, to be Christians in action, not just in name. You see the temptation for these Christians scattered across the Mediterranean was to slip quietly into the background. Some of them were already doing it, as we see at the end of the letter. But James says, "No, if you are a real Christian, you have to be distinct. You must live out your faith. For Christian faith works. Don't just say, do." The age old danger was worldliness and compromise. For these Christians, the peril they were facing was that their Christianity would become simply a hobby, and not a way of life as it was meant to be. And that, says James, cannot be. If you claim to be a Christian, you have got to live it out. Otherwise you show yourself as a fraud. And that is a very powerful message for us today. The danger for us in the soft, materialistic, western world is that Christianity is a hobby. Some people play golf on Sunday, others go shopping, we go to church. James says, it's not enough to be a Christian in name. Being a Christian is about what happens on Monday morning, as well as what happens on Sunday morning. So James shows us what true Christianity is all about. And I warn you, some of what he says will not be comfortable. But Jesus never said the Christian life would be easy. It's about taking up your cross and making sacrifices. And if we are not willing to live different, sacrificial lives of whole hearted commitment to Christ, then James says we're deceived. So brace yourself. There will be much to challenge us, but also much to encourage us.
And this morning, James leaps straight in to talk about trials and temptations. In fact, in the original, James uses the same word for both external trials and internal temptations. Both are forms of trials. These first Christians were facing many trials as we do. And that is the first topic James deals with. Just how do we deal with the various trials and temptations that come our way? If we can deal with those in a godly way, then we'll be well on track in standing firm and being distinctive as a Christian. So we'll look first at how to deal with external trials in verses 2-12, and then how to deal with internal trials in verses 13-18.
1) How to deal with External Trials (Vv 2-12)
So first of all, James shows us how to deal with external trials. And these external trials are things which afflict us from outside of ourselves. In verse 2 James says "whenever you face trials of various kinds." These are things we all face and they will happen. Sickness, bereavement, financial loss, unemployment, loneliness, breakdown in relationships, the list is endless. How is the Christian to respond to these various trials that come our way? Well James mentions three things that we need in these opening verses.
a) Godly Joy (vv 2-4)- First of all, he says, we need godly joy. Verse 2: "Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kindsNow what a way to start a letter! What on earth does he mean? Well it is important to be clear what James means by joy. He does not mean that we should be happy all the time. He doesn't want us to wear what some people call the SWEG, the Sickly Wet Evangelical Grin. He doesn't mean us to be those annoying people who come up to us after some misfortune. We might say: "I've just broken my leg." "Oh praise the Lord anyway," they say. "I've just crashed the car!" "Oh, praise the Lord." That sort of attitude has no grip on reality, nor does it understand the Bible. No, God never belittles our pain. He knows pain is painful. Remember, God himself took on human flesh as a man. Jesus wept at his best friend's tomb. He knew the pain of betrayal and rejection. God knows what it's like to face trials of many kinds, because he's been there and done it. So what does James mean? Well joy in the Bible is more of an attitude than a facial expression. Joy is a deep seated delight in God which allows us to rejoice in him even in the most difficult circumstances. The apostle Paul can say that he is "sorrowful yet rejoicing." It's no contradiction.
So how can we Christians be joyful whenever we face various trials? Well James goes on to tell us in verses 3 and 4: "Because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything." The reason James tells us to rejoice is because through these trials God is refining our faith, enabling us to have strength to persevere, so that we will be mature. You see, the Christian can have absolute confidence that when we go through trials of whatever kinds, God will never leave us and will use the trials to strengthen our faith, so that when the next trial comes, we will be more mature and godly to be able to persevere in dealing with it. That's the reason we are to rejoice. Not because of the trials themselves, but rather because God is at work in them for our benefit, our maturity as Christians. I guess most of us would be happy with just a little bit of maturity. Maybe a little less angry, a little more generous, a touch more loving. God is not satisfied at that. He wants to make us complete, mature in our faith. And it is through difficulties that he will refine our faith, just as a goldsmith must purify gold of its impurities through the fire. Consider it pure joy, says James, whenever you face trials of various kinds. Why? Because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance, and that leads to maturity. The most godly Christians I know are those whose faith has been tested through the fire of trials. Is that your view of difficult times? Growth opportunities. They may not be pleasant at the time, but we can have a godly joy that our Father will use them for his perfecting ends. "I walked a mile with pleasure, she chatted all the way, but left me none the wiser for all she had to say. I walked a mile with sorrow and never a word said she, but oh the things I learnt when sorrow walked with me."
b) Godly Wisdom (vv 5-8)- Godly joy is not the only thing we need to cope with external trials. We also need godly wisdom. It takes God's wisdom to see God's hand in the matter, to see how trials can be used for God's purposes. It takes wisdom to be able to rejoice in them. And if we lack wisdom, then we must ask for it, says James. Verse 5: "If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God who gives generously to all without finding fault; and it will be given to him." There is a clear promise here, isn't there? If we lack wisdom, God will give it to us. He's a generous God. He doesn't stop and interrogate, us asking "what are you going to use for if I give it to you?" No, this gracious, loving God gives generously to all, without finding fault. He is a good giver. So if you lack wisdom, then ask him for it. Pray that God would give you the wisdom you need to get through and understand your trials.
But not only should we be willing to ask, but we should be willing to receive. Verse 6: "But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double minded man, unstable in all he does." Now James is not talking here of the occasional doubt when we pray. I don't think any Christian prays with 100% belief. We are sinful and we do doubt. So James can't be talking about mental doubt here. Rather it is practical doubt that shows itself in the way we got about our lives. We say we trust God and want his wisdom, but in practice we go our own way. The word translated "doubt" means to be in two minds, to be uncommitted to either. That's double mindedness, to use James' word. The double-minded person is literally the double-souled person. John Bunyan called one of his characters in Pilgrim's Progress Mr Facing-both-ways. He's the sort of person who has one foot in the world and one foot with God. He's trying to live a double life.
I used to live in Cambridge, and one of the things they do in Cambridge is a bizarre pastime called punting. Basically it is rowing, but without oars. Instead of oars to propel yourself you use a long pole, like in Venice. And every summer, there are hours of fun to be had sitting by the river watching foreign tourists trying to get into the punt with one foot on the bank and one foot in the punt. And invariably it end in the tourist getting wet. One foot stays on the bank, and the other gentle drifts away with the punt. Well's that the double minded person. One part of their heart in the world, the another with God. It's a sort of half trust, which really leads to a very unsatisfying and unfilled Christian life. It's the attitude which says: "Yes, I want God to help, but I'm not willing to give him complete control. I want a hand on the reins too." Such is the double minded person. And in the end such a person is at the mercy of the winds of life, blown and tossed around like the waves on the sea. You cannot live like that. You end up tearing yourself apart. So don't be double minded. Give yourself whole heartedly to God and he will give you the wisdom you need to trust him in trials. Don't live with a divided heart. We won't receive wisdom with that kind of heart.
c) Godly perspective (vv 9-12)- But there is a third thing that James mentions if we are to get through these external trials, and that is a godly perspective in verses 9-12. And the perspective that James urges us to have is God's perspective on our life. He mentions two particular situations in verses 9-11, poverty and wealth. Both are forms of trials. Poverty is something which can test our faith, as is wealth. So what perspective ought we to have? Verse 9: "The brother in humble circumstances ought to take pride in his high position." This brother may be weak in the eyes of the world, and yet he is a very precious child in God's eyes. He has been given a high position. He is adopted into God's kingdom and made an heir with Christ. You cannot get higher than that. Surely that's what we need to remember when going through tough times. That's the perspective we need if we feel weak or useless in the eyes of the world. We may well be less well off than others materially; we may perhaps we less endowed intellectually than others; we may have fewer gifts than some others. But it is what God thinks of us that is most important. His verdict is what counts.
Or how about for the rich person. Verse 10: "The one who is rich should take pride in his low position, because he will pass away like a wild flower." If you've got it all in this world, then remember it's all fading. It won't last. And at the end of the day, you are just a sinner saved by grace. God isn't impressed by pomp or wealth. Instead, remember where your wealth is heading. Like plants in scorching heat, it will fade away. So whatever trials we face, we need to remember who we are in God's eyes. Nothing in this world will last. What counts is where we stand with God.
Over the Easter period I read a biography of a lady called the Countess of Huntingdon. She lived in the eighteenth century, and she was extremely wealthy. She regularly mixed with the very highest of English society, including the King and Queen. But about half way through her life she became a Christian, and from that point on she used her fabulous wealth for the work of the gospel. By the end of her life she had been responsible for starting 138 churches across England and some overseas. And yet at the end of her life, she specifically requested that no-one, except two servants, be present at her burial. She wanted no ceremony, no pomp, no fuss. She knew who she was in God's eyes, and her confidence lay not in her huge wealth, but in her God. And she used everything she had for the extension of his Kingdom. And not only that, but during the numerous bereavements she endured, including 7 of her 8 children and her own husband, she never lost sight that God was making her more like Christ. There was a women who knew what it was to suffer trials. And yet what is clear is that she had all three of these qualities James talks about: godly joy, godly wisdom and a godly perspective. So if you have little, learn to rejoice in your privileged position with God. If you have much, learn to remember where your real security lies. For when the storms come, then you will be able to stand firm and keep going to the end. And then, says James in verse 12, we will receive the crown of life. That's the future God gives to those who persevere and trust in him. So how can we face the trials that come our way? With godly joy, godly wisdom, and a godly perspective.
2) How to deal with Internal Trials (Vv 13-18)
But having dealt with external trials, James then turns to internal trials in verses 13-18, and we'll look at this section in much less detail. James uses the same word for 'trials' in verse 2 as he does for 'temptations' in verse 13, but the context makes it clear that he is shifting from things which we must deal with from outside ourselves, to things we must deal with inside ourselves, from external problems to internal. And again, James is not being a scatterbrain. Rather there is a link. Because when you are going through difficult times, there are almost always internal temptations which assault your soul. So what does James say about these sort of difficulties, these internal trials. Well two things:
a) Recognise the source (vv 13-15)- First, says James, recognise the source. Now often the natural tendency when we are confronted by some temptation is to say that God is tempting me. But James clearly says that is wrong. Whilst God may use difficulties to refine our faith and bring us to maturity, yet he never tempts us to sin. Verse 13: "When tempted, no-one should say, 'God is tempting me.' For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone." If God is perfect, then there is no way he can have anything to do with evil. He is not in the business of tempting us to sin. Rather, the real problem of evil is in our hearts. That is the grim reality that the Bible puts before us. Verse 14: "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." There is an horrific chain reaction here. We are tempted, and there is a desire to sin; the sin is committed and so it leads to death. The long term consequence of a life of sin, is death. It's worth remembering that when we are tempted. Sin often looks so attractive. The word James uses for 'enticed' is a word the Greeks used for fishing. The bait looks so attractive to the fish, but as soon as it makes the mistake of biting, it is hooked. It's enticed, dragged away and dies. So it is with us. Sin looks so pretty. It's exciting, it's easy, it's tasty. Yet the only long term taste it leaves is the taste of death. It's not the temptation which is the sin, rather it's the giving in. And the heart is predisposed to give in. And unless sin is stopped in its earliest tracks, it will lead to death. James will tell us later in his letter that we should be ruthless with sin. That hateful thought, that lustful glance, that bitter envy. Get rid of it now, before it entices you and drags you away. "Sow a thought, reap a word; sow a word, reap an action; sow an action, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny." Recognise the source. That's the first thing we need to do to deal with internal trials. And it's our hearts that are the source of this internal trial. Don't blame God.
b) Remember the Rescuer (vv 16-18)- But before we all go away depressed thinking that this terrible chain cannot be broken, James reminds us that there is hope. And this is his second way to deal with internal trials. Remember the rescuer. Don't be deceived, says James in verse 16. Don't be deceived by your own hearts, and don't be deceived into thinking it is God who tempts you. It is not. Rather God is the good God who only ever does things for our benefit and to help us on to heaven. Rather verse 17: "Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows." This God is the creator God who has always been the good God, and always will be. He does not change. His character is the same for ever more. Sometimes it is easy to forget this, in difficult times. To forget that God is a perfectly good God. But like a loving Father, he would never do anything to harm his children. He is completely dependable and trustworthy.
An old music teacher was once asked by someone: "What good news do you have for us today?" The old man, without saying a word, walked across the room, picked up a tuning fork, and struck it. As the note sounded, he said: "That is an 'A'. It is A today, it was A 5,000 years ago and will be A 10,000 years from now." He struck the note again and said: "That is A, my friend, and that's the good news of today." And the good news of today's passage is that God is just as unchanging as a musical note. He is constant and sure. And that means that if God is good then he is good for all time.
And James goes on to say that one of his best gifts is the gift of new birth, to be born again. Verse 18: "He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created." You see there is hope, because God is able to stop the way of death and sin. That down spiral can be halted. God can give us new life. And one day that new life will be seen throughout the whole of creation. One day all the trials we face, be they external or internal will be dealt with and finished. And you and I, those of us who trust in Christ, are the first fruits of that wonderful recreation that God has promised. So remember the rescuer, and keep looking to him to help you and give you strength to face those internal trials which battle against our soul.
So that's James' first lesson. Practical as ever, no ivory tower theologian, James has shown us the pathway through external trials through godly joy, godly wisdom and a godly perspective; and through internal trials as we recognise the source and remember the rescuer. May God give us the strength not simply to hear the word but to put it into practice.
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