Tested faith - James 1:2-8
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
When a new fighter jet, like say, the Eurofighter has been designed and the prototype eventually built at the cost of billions of pounds what happens next? Well, it is put through its ‘trials’. Every item of equipment is checked and double checked. The plane is pushed to extreme limits, the stress of the material is tested and re-tested, every possible fault is sought out, and every improvement made. Then, and only then is the project said to be complete and the product finally declared to be finished. Now why do all that? Well for a variety of reasons. First, people’s lives are at stake. Not only do you have the life of the pilot but people on the ground. If the plane is not up to scratch then it could simply fall from the sky onto who know where and that would be disastrous. Secondly, a lot of money is involved; these planes are precious and very expensive. But thirdly, they are designed to do a job, namely be the best fighter aircraft around and win battles. They are not simply produced for show like the red arrows that zoomed overhead here last Sunday morning drowning out our prayers; they are intended to get a job done. And so they have their ‘trials’.
And in effect James is saying, that is exactly what God does with his people- Christians and for similar reasons. Christians are precious; God has invested himself in saving them at the cost of the blood of his dear Son the Lord Jesus Christ. And like an aircraft they don’t just appear fully formed over night, they are in the process of being divinely crafted and that takes time. This means that they too need to be tested, put through trials so that the end product is the genuine article, and so do their job, namely to be fully formed trophies of grace which will stand in eternity bringing endless glory to God. In other words, we are God’s building project and part and parcel of that is these special trials he puts us through. So what are these trials and how are we to view them?
Well, first of all the apostle James commands that we see difficulties as delights, v2, ‘Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds…’ What James actually writes is this: ‘Count it all joy, my brothers, when you fall into multicoloured trials.’ The word ‘trials’ can be translated ‘temptations’ or ‘testings’. It is the same word we use in the Lord’s prayer when we pray, ‘Do not lead us into temptation’ – ‘trials’- carrying the idea that although we know that there will be times when God will test his people, may we not be tested to the point where we fail. It is interesting that James speaks of these trials as being ‘multicoloured.’ Think for a moment of those Christmas lights which you have hanging across the window. In one sense they are all the same in that they are lights, but they are different in that they are variety of colours. And James is saying that it is something like that when it comes to the testings which God brings our way. They are same in that they are all ‘trials’- tests of faith, but the way these trials hit us will all be different-multicoloured. So yes, there could be trials in terms of persecution with Christian families being split up and parents shipped into prison as is still happening in many part of the world today like North Korea for example. But trials can come in other forms too. There may be the trial of poverty- loosing a job, having to manage on very little, that will soon reveal just who or what we have been putting our faith in. Is it our circumstances or God? But you can also have the trial of plenty. So what happens when your lifestyle suddenly improves? What do you start devoting your time to then because you have more disposable income in your pocket? Is the result that meeting with God’s people takes a back seat to the weekend cottage or caravan resulting in the neglect of your own soul as well as that of your children God has entrusted to you? Maybe there is the ‘trial’ of the hobby to which you are tempted to give more money for personal enjoyment over and against the Gospel in order for it to be proclaimed. And it is pretty obvious that both kinds of trials are being undergone by the Christians James is writing to- as we read the letter we see poor Christians and rich Christians, persecuted Christians and pampered Christians. But they are all trials of one kind or another which pose a threat to our faith if not handled properly but a means of strengthening our faith if they are. And that is what James wants to help us do.
What might strike us as surprising is the way James says how we are to look upon falling into trials- ‘Consider it pure joy’! What does he mean? Surely, he can’t mean that when a member of the family is taken seriously ill we are to be delighted about the illness- praise God for the car accident? That would be perverse and doesn’t fit with what James is actually writing. He says, ‘consider’ or ‘reckon’ or if you like ‘adopt the outlook’ of all joy. It’s as if James is saying, ‘You are now a Christian, you now have God in your life, the God who is Lord over everything and has a purpose for you. So that means you don’t look at life the way you used to. It’s not a matter of things happening by chance or fate or luck which you have to brace yourself for, but God’s design which you can lovingly embrace. You are no longer the centre of everything- he is. Things are not meant to revolve around you, but around him who is holy and good. In this sense you can adopt an attitude not of disaster when hard knocks come your way, but joy, having a deep seated knowledge that what is happening, even though it hurts like blazes, is for a good purpose.’ Let’s go back to our original illustration of the fighter plane for a moment. Just imagine that the plane had consciousness and could speak. As it was pushed up to Mac 2 and then 3, it might say, ‘This is hard, this is hurting me and I feel like my bolts are going to bust’, but then it might go on to say, ‘Yes but this is what it means to be a fighter plane, I have to go through this to become what I am designed to be and that end result in view gives me joy. Without the trials I wouldn’t be able to fly with such freedom which is pure joy!’
So we are forced to ask: what is the end result that God has in mind for you and me? James tells us, ‘So that you might be mature and complete not lacking in anything.’ The word James uses which is translated ‘mature’ is ‘telos’- or as we might say ‘the end product’. Now tell me, which human being can you think of who could be described as totally ‘mature’, ‘perfect’, ‘complete’, lacking nothing? You know who it is. James did, he grew up with him- the Lord Jesus. And as we look at his life we do not see a single day go by without some sort of trial. You had the trials in the wilderness of course face to face with the devil, but you also had the trials of an unsympathetic family, the trials of slow learning followers, the trails of hostile church leaders and the ultimate trial of being taken and nailed to a piece of wood and left to rot on the local rubbish tip. And if Jesus had to keep going on inspite of all that the world, the flesh and the devil could throw at him, why should we his followers think that it will be any different for us? And God’s purpose in making us, and saving us is that we should all be perfect replicas of the perfect man, the one who did live to magnify God in any and every way he could. And you know, one day there will be billions and billions of ‘little Christs’, if I may put it like that, littering the galaxy, reflecting the glory of the Christ who sits on the throne at the heart of the universe- resurrected Christian believers. That is the end product God has in mind for us- a Christ- like character. But in order for that product to be achieved, there are these trials. And as we see them as means towards this end, then we can think of them with joy. Do you see?
But they will only be a means of making us more Christ-like if we respond properly. How should that be? Look at verse 3, ‘Because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete.’ James is telling us that the end product of being a grown up Christian will only come about if we keep on going, which is what the word perseverance means- endurance, stickability. We have to allow endurance to finish its work. In other words, Christians are to be made of Velcro- we just stick at things. We don’t give up at the first hurdle or the second or the third, but keep on keeping on.
Now do you see what all of this reveals about God? It tells us that God is a craftsman and not a magician. So often we want God to be the magician. We want him to wave his magic wand and sort out our problems with a ‘Hey Presto.’ But here we don’t see God working like that. He is the craftsman who takes a log from the forest and anyone looking at it doesn’t think it is that much. But then the master craftsman begins to work, he starts sawing the wood, then planning it. Out comes the chisel, and chip, chip, chip; some of the rough bits are removed. And this goes on until at the end, you have the most astonishing statue. But it does not happen over night! Or to change the imagery, God does not put us in the microwave, but the furnace. The microwave is for junk food, the furnace for precious metals. The trouble is, we live in a day where we have junk food Christianity and junk food Christians- and just as junk food has little nutritional value, junk food Christians have little spiritual value. One trial comes our way and endurance goes out of the window. And as we have seen such trials need not be hardship, but other attractions which become distractions. If you think this is an exaggeration, just think of what used to be considered the bread and butter of the Christian life- public worship on a Sunday. Here are some challenging words from the Christian writer Leon Morris, ‘True worship is at a cost. This is something that still needs to be heard today when people take churchgoing lightly, when they will go to church only if it is easy, if the church is near, if the choir is good, if the preacher is approved, if the congregation is socially acceptable, if the weather isn’t bad, if friends haven’t dropped in for a visit and if any of 101 other things haven’t stopped them. If worship means a real effort (you could say endurance) then people today are often disinclined to make it.’ Now, that was written nearly 30 years ago. What would he say today? No, you see all of these things mentioned the kind of trials James is talking about.
But perhaps you still think that all this talk of trials by James is overdoing it a bit and you wonder if it is necessary. Well, Bishop Frank Retief of South Africa suggests that we a little thought experiment might help. He said: ‘Imagine that you had been brought up in the perfect family. You never heard your Mum and Dad exchange a cross word with each other. They were patient and kind all the time. You too were perfect from the day you were born. You never had nappy rash; you never had mumps, you never had colic or measles or any other the other things babies tend to have. Of course when you went to school everything worked out just right for you. You never failed an exam; you were always top of the class, excelled in sports, exemplary in behaviour. You never had to go to the dentist to have a brace fixed because your teeth were fit for a Colgate ad. Then you managed to get to university and there you sailed through with all the top grades, you were voted student of the year. You never got drunk, never were late for a lecture, you always went to church, and you were just fantastic. Then you met this stunner of a girl. And guess what? She came from a perfect family. She never had nappy rash or mumps, she got all the right grades, had the right hair and perfect teeth. Then you got married and have the most brilliantly paid job, wonderful house and car- no student debts to pay for you. Then you have children and- yes you’ve guessed it they were perfect, never having nappy rash, never having mumps, not a sleepless night. They grow up as Christians; never put a foot wrong and they sail through school, university, get married and on and on it goes. Then at the ripe old age of 107 never having had a day’s illness in your life or a squabble with a neighbour or a bad hair day, you pass over from this world to the next. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? But then ask this question: ‘Who would ever know that you were a Christian?’ Oh you could say you were. But who would really ever know it? The only way people will really see the difference our faith makes, what we are really trusting in is when the world turns against us, when troubles come our way and calamity overtakes us. Only then can we prove to the world (and maybe to ourselves) that we have something better than they have. But only then.’ And surely that is right isn’t it? As someone said, a Christian’s faith is like a tea bag; it is only by putting it in hot water that you can see its true colour’.
But it may be that when we fall into a trial through hardship or ease, we find we are not sure how to negotiate our way through it. In other words, we recognise that there is something which is lacking, namely, wisdom. What are we to do then? James tells us, in 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.’ Or as it could be translated, ‘he should ask the giving God who gives to all unreservedly without reproach and it will be given.’ That is we are to seek wisdom and not be in want. So he is still dealing with the same topic, what we are to do when we face multicoloured trials. The answer: act wisely. But what if I don’t know how to act wisely? Then ask God to give you wisdom. Now notice that God does not promise to send down a package plan to follow. He doesn’t tell us how things are going to work out in two weeks time. But he does promise to give us wisdom to cope with that day. And that is how God might lead-one day at a time. Now I have to admit that I like to be able to look solve a problem several moves in advance. I don’t like surprises, I like to think things through along the lines, ‘If this happens, then I will do that, if that happens then I will do this.’ But God doesn’t let me get away with that. Something will come at me from left field and throw me and I cry, ‘What do I do?’ Well, I tell you what I have to do, I have to get down on my knees and ask God for wisdom- as well as a whole host of other things like love and patience. And that is good for me. It is good for me in several respects. First it makes me realise how limited my resources are but how unlimited are God’s resources. It makes my Christianity real and personal- I talk to God and act on what the Bible tells me is so, in order for me in personal experience discover that it is so, that God is a generous God who is in control. And when James writes, ‘he gives without finding fault or without reproaching’ he is saying that when we come to God in prayer asking for wisdom, he doesn’t slap his forehead and say, ‘Oh no not you again. I gave you some wisdom last week and here you are turning up on my doorstep doing a proverbial Oliver Twist asking for more. Why can’t you sort it out yourself? Just stop bothering me’ No, he is not like that at all. He is Generous with a capital G and loves it when we come to him. It’s as if he is saying to us, ‘You want more- great here it is, and when that runs out come back again, and again and again- I love it when you come to me as a child to his Father for that is why I made you to have a relationship with and for your to experience that I am a gracious God’ And we would never experience that if we never had need. So the trial comes: ‘Should I take this job which is better paid but which will take me away from church?’ Ask for wisdom. ‘My boss if giving me a hard time and treating me unfairly, do I remain silent or take action not knowing what the consequences might be?’ Ask for wisdom. Wisdom deals not with matters of right or wrong- those are given to us in the Bible- but what is best and helpful.
However, there is a condition attached, v6, ‘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.’ What is James getting at? Well, it could be that he is saying, don’t doubt God. If God says he will give you wisdom then come to him believing that, don’t come in prayer in a state of two minds- one minute saying, ‘God will give me what I need’ and the next minute muttering to yourself, ‘No, he won’t so here goes nothing.’ That is one way of interpreting these verses. But there is another way. It could be that the man doubts himself, that is he secretly wonders whether he really wants God’s help. J. B. Phillips translates the verse like this: ‘But he must ask in sincere faith without secret doubts as to whether he really wants God’s help or not….’ You see, he obviously believes that God can give him what he wants, because in verse 7 he still thinks that despite his doubting and wavering he will receive something, but James says, ‘No he won’t.’ So it would appear that he does not doubt whether God can give him what he asks for, but whether he himself really wants what he is asking for. I think it was in his early Christian days, that Augustine who became Bishop of Hippo in North Africa in the 5th century, who was a bit of a ‘jack the lad’, prayed, ‘Lord give me chastity……..but not just yet.’ You see, he prayed for sexual fidelity (because he felt he should as a Christian), but he was having such a good time of it (so he thought) that he really didn’t want what he was asking for. Do you do that? ‘Lord, should I do this? (But really you don’t want to do it, but something else and you have already made up your mind and your prayer is a sham).There is the story of a churchwarden who arrived at the vicarage to keep his appointment with the Vicar. The door was answered by the teenage son. ‘I am afraid he won’t be able to see you’ he said, ‘He has just been offered the post of the Bishop of the Bahamas!’ ‘But he has only just been appointed to this parish’ said the nonplussed warden. ‘Yes’ replied the son, ‘ but he has been offered a car, six weeks annual holiday and double his salary, so he has gone to his study to pray about it.’ ‘Is your mother praying with him?’ the warden asked, ‘Oh no’ came the reply, ‘she is upstairs packing the suitcases.’ God is looking for sincerity- we have to be honest with ourselves before we can be honest with God. Could I gently ask: are you doing that when you pray?
So what does a tested faith look like, the one which sticks it out? Let me tell you about Glyn and her husband Don. Glyn has Lou Gehrig’s disease which results in muscle strength and mobility gradually deteriorating leaving only mind and faith. ‘We have prayed for healing’ said Glyn very slowly, ‘God has not given it but he has blessed us. God has given us peace in the pain. Even when we are out of control, he is still there.’ Then she said this, ‘We can use any tragedy as a stumbling block or a stepping stone….I hope this will not cause my family to be bitter. I hope I can be an example that God is wanting us to trust in the good times and the bad. For if we don’t trust when times are bad, we don’t trust at all….’ Don held her hand and wipes away her tears, and wiped his own too. Who are these folk? They are just ordinary Christians who are just doing what James says we should do- ‘Consider it all joy when you fall into multicoloured trials.’
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