Pastor Chris Tweitmann
Today, we begin a new sermon series on the book, the letter of James.
James was the biological half-brother of Jesus of Nazareth.
However, James was a late adopter of his brother’s Messianic claims.
The gospels accounts of both Mark and John attest to the fact that James, like the rest of the family, initially thought their sibling Jesus was out of his mind.
They didn’t believe in Him.
James and his family advised Jesus to look for a different career.
But then, apparently, something changed.
The clearest expression of this change comes to us in the first chapter of the Book of Acts as we read this description of those who gathered in the Upper Room after Christ’s ascension to heaven and just before the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. Listen carefully: “all were united in their devotion to prayer, along with some women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.”
Somewhere along the way – likely after what Jesus did on the Cross and through the Resurrection, James, the skeptical brother became James, the devoted disciple.
Eventually we learn, again through the Book of Acts and well as Paul’s letter to the Galatians, that James rises to position of leadership within the Body of Christ. When Peter moves on to plant churches, James takes over oversight of the mother church in Jerusalem – consisted mainly of Messianic Jews.
This first Christian community ever formed – the one we looked closely at over these last few weeks thanks to that brief snapshot in Acts, chapter 2 – falls under hard times during James’ leadership. They dealt with a great famine and increased poverty. They faced increased persecution from Jewish leaders. No doubt James gained a lot of wisdom during this trying season of time – wisdom that he seeks to impart to us through this letter.
Despite this, the book of James has not always been a fan favorite within the Christian community. Our own Martin Luther condescendingly referred to the
Book of James as an “letter of straw” and sought unsuccessfully to have the
entire book removed from the Bible.
Much of this bad press about James comes from a misreading, a misperception of this letter being about what is called works-based righteousness – that we need to work to prove or earn our salvation
But as we read James fully and carefully, we are going to see this isn’t a book about works that lead unto salvation. This is book about faith in Christ that works. This isn’t a letter that denies it is all about the grace of God. This is a letter that challenges us to not to value grace as cheap but instead to actually live out of the grace of God and to tangibly extend that grace to others.
With this introduction, let’s begin to explore this highly practical letter that challenges us not just to be hearers but also doers of the Word of God.
Here’s James, chapter 1, verses 1-4.
Right out of the gate, James gives us a bit of a jolt. Absent are the normal pleasantries we find in a letter from Paul or Peter offering words of greeting and perhaps a prayer of blessing. Nope. Instead, James lays down his first wise words – words which initially strike us as being anything but wise.
“Consider it pure joy whenever you face trials of many kinds…”
There are many in the Church who have been taught or have themselves crafted a false Gospel. Hearing of the freedom and the victory that is ours in Christ, some Christians then assume or promote the notion that the Christian life is one of continual blessing – endless triumph and success marked by uninterrupted praise and thanksgiving.
But from the very first words of his letter, James wants to set us straight about such a belief, while also offering us a fresh perspective concerning the nature of Christian life.
Notice his words here, “…whenever you face trials of many kinds.” James doesn’t write “if” we experience trials, he purposefully writes, “whenever” we experience trials.
Again, for many Christians today, especially in the Western world, the concept of suffering as a part of our faith in Christ is mostly foreign and often surprising revelation.
Yet this should not be the case, because James is not the lone voice on this subject. All of the biblical writers, even Jesus Himself, also openly talk about, not only the possibility but the inevitability of, facing hardships as part of our faith journey.
To be clear, James is not telling us to go looking for trouble – to play the martyr or to instigate conflict as some badge of honor in following Jesus. No, James is acknowledging trouble has a way of finding us whether we are ready or not or frankly, whether we like it or not. Whether it is a minor inconvenience, a major frustration, a season of undue stress, or a gut-punching life change or loss, troubles and trials come to everybody.
Everyone faces all kinds of trials, and Christians are not exempt or immune from this reality. Bad things happen to all of us because we continue to live in a sinful, broken world – a world that is not the way it’s supposed to be, a creation that is looking for its redemption but that has not yet been fully and completely made new. We, ourselves, as followers of Jesus are works in progress – forgiven, yes and ultimately saved from death, but still liable to make mistakes, to experience failure, and even willfully disobey the Lord along the way.
And so, James takes it as a given that difficulty and suffering will be the universal experience of all people – including Christians. However, in the midst of acknowledging the inevitability of the hardships we will face, James isn’t giving us advice, he’s actually extending a command. Listen again.
“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind.”
“Consider” is a thinking verb.
James is not telling us how to feel about the trouble we will encounter.
James is not telling us to fake it in order to make it – to put on a happy face and pretend that everything is fine whenever trials come our way.
James is not telling us to tap into the power of positive thinking and to be more optimistic as things in our life don’t go as we expected.
What James IS telling us is the perspective we need to adopt when we struggle and suffer. And that perspective we are to take is one of pure joy.
What?!? Are you kidding, James? You can’t be serious!
Actually, he is. And once again, James is not alone in paradoxically associating joy with life’s hardships. Paul, Peter, and yes, Jesus make the same connection.
But how can this be? Where could there possibly be any joy in our trials?
How can we rejoice when life threatens, hurts and disappoints?
Something that can help clarify this puzzling association is to distinguish the biblical usage of the word “joy” from the how we use this term today. Biblically, “rejoicing” isn’t about being or acting “happy.”
The call to rejoice, while it may include positive feelings, is less about perfectly managing our emotions and more about making an intentional choice about how we view our lives. In other words, “considering it pure joy” means choosing to exercise our faith in God rather than to become limited or confined by how we are feeling about our situation.
James is encouraging us to take hold of a confidence that is rooted not in our circumstances but in the goodness of God – the Lord’s sovereign control over all things – human history and the transformation of our humanity.
While our circumstances may be negative and along with them, our feelings about our situation, “considering it pure joy” is choose to focus on the assurance that God is not absent but very much in the midst of our troubles. If the Incarnation, God coming down to us in Christ, if Pentecost, the Lord giving us, putting His Spirit inside of us, if both of these historical realities tells us anything it is that God is never removed from our struggles and our suffering.
Even more than this, “considering it pure joy” is to trust in the promise of God’s broader work in providing for us – of being able to bring good out of whatever trials we are facing. We can have this faith because of the revelation of the Cross and the Resurrection of Jesus – where was intended to deny and destroy God actually became the means by which all humanity can be redeemed and restored.
Still, we might wonder, why? Why do we have to go through such trials – the difficulties and the disappointments, the afflictions and the pains of this life?
if God is with us in our troubles, if God can and will bring good of our whatever we suffer, why does God allow us to face any hardships at all?
As James continues, he offers us an answer:
“…because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.”
When we hear the word ‘test,’ we think of school and exams.
We think in terms of passing and failing.
But that is not what James is referring to here.
Another common misconception amongst Christians especially,
is that God sends trials our way for the purpose of testing our faith.
However, this is not what James is declaring
– whatever suffering or hardship we face is orchestrated by God
in order to verify or somehow prove our belief in Him.
We must not confuse purpose and effect.
While, biblically, we are assured that God can and will bring good out of whatever difficulties we endure, this is not to assert that God caused the trouble we are encountering.
Much of the trouble we encounter in this world is because of human sinfulness and foolishness – both our own and that of others. The rest of the tribulations we contend with are the result of the Devil and other spiritual forces opposed to God and therefore evil – what the Bible calls “principalities and powers.”
Okay then, if God isn’t testing our faith in Him through trials,
why does God allow our faith to be tested by hardships and suffering?
This brings us back to the word “testing” in this verse. The meaning of this word is not about taking and either passing or failing an exam. The word James uses, translated as “testing,” is actually a metaphor – a figure of speech that reaches into the world of metallurgy.
When a metallurgist excavates a metal, he or she finds it in an ore state.
In that raw state of being ore, the metal in question is not pure. The metal has imperfections that rob it of its strength and rob it of its beauty.
In order to purify and thus strengthen and amplify the brilliance of the metal, the metallurgist has to add a catalytic agent along with very powerful heat in order to liquefy the ore and in so doing, boil those imperfections out of the metal so it can reach a higher state of strength and a higher state of beauty.
Applying this to what James is asserting here, the trials that God allows to take place in our lives are again, not so we can prove ourselves to Him.
No, the point is when things in and around us heat up, as we encounter the pressure borne of the struggles of this broken world, these are the defining moments where the Lord proves Himself to be trustworthy.
It is through the trials of our lives that God reveals how He can indeed work through whatever trouble we are facing for a better purpose – not causing that suffering but working through our suffering to refine us – to strengthen our reliance upon Him and to deepen our appreciation of the beauty and fullness of this life that can only be found in Him.
James narrows down what I just said into a single word – a particular character trait that God works to bring out in all of us for our growth and maturity in Christ.
In our English Bibles, the word is ‘perseverance,’ but a closer translation to what James is appealing to would be “steadfastness.”
To persevere, to be steadfast means in the face of difficulty, not to abandon our direction, and not to forsake our purpose. More specifically, not to abandon the Lord’s direction and purpose for our lives.
And what is the Lord’s fixed direction for our lives?
To grow in His grace – to mature into our best selves – to become like Jesus – who exemplifies the truest and fullest expression of our humanity.
Direction results in purpose. And what is the Lord’s purpose for our lives?
Not to live just for ourselves but to live for His agenda for all creation – the redemption, restoration, and reconciliation of all things. In following Him, Jesus calls us to love others like He loves us, to forgive others as He forgives us, to serve others as He serves us. Living like this isn’t a part-time deal – something we participate in when we dress up on Sunday but every other day of the week – do whatever we purpose to do with ourselves. This is God’s purpose for our lives. Living like this is how we exist and grow in our relationship with Christ.
Hence James goes on, “Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”
Beloved, perseverance, steadfastness, is not something we can work up or achieve on our own.
I don’t know about you but I am fickle and forgetful as the day is long. I’m like Paul and so are you, whether you want to admit it or not. What I should do, I don’t do and what I shouldn’t be doing, I end up doing. Understand the steadfast mind, heart, and will, is only ever the product of the operation of the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is a work of the Holy Spirit in me when I get out of my own way and yield to the work of the Spirit through me.
And what James is pointing out to us is the fact that this work of the Spirit – of strengthening our dependence upon Lord or deepening our appreciation for God’s presence and provision – is most powerfully exercised when we struggle – when we reach the end of ourselves and there is no one else to whom we can turn but God.
Something implied by James here that is often missed is that the trials we face are NOT just what we are forced to endure BUT ALSO the temptation in terms of how we respond to what we are facing.
In other words, the way we react to difficulty will always reveal what’s important to us.
The way we respond to life’s trials will always expose what or who we truly value.
Personal confession time. I do not always consider it joy to suffer.
I would rather be comfortable than holy.
I would rather dictate my own schedule – one that works for me rather than following the leading of the Spirit and being worked on so as to be refined.
I would rather be affirmed by people – to have them like me – rather than to face criticism and correction in order to please, to glorify the Lord.
But here’s the thing.
When I am ruled by my comforts, I get discouraged and become fiercely resistant when I am asked, when I am forced, to change and adapt.
When I am obsessed with having power and being in control, I end up getting testy and extremely defensiveness about my rights and my autonomy.
When I am ruled by the approval and affirmation of others, I find myself trapped in a constant state of exhaustion that sometimes leads to depression as I keep desperately trying to maintain my positive status – catering to what others want me to be for them.
And when my life is doing going the way I planned, if the limit of my view when it comes to my relationship with the Lord is waiting for God to fix my circumstances, I will not grow in my faith because God doesn’t always give us what we want, God gives us what we need.
There’s a difference. But when I fail to see that difference, my faith will remain conditional (“What have You done for me lately?”) and I’ll end up worshipping and investing in my circumstances rather than letting my Creator deepening my reliance and trust upon Him.
Are we still struggling with what James says here?
Then, let us ask ourselves, what is the Lord’s #1 goal for you and me?
For us? For our lives?
Is it health? Wealth? Success? Prosperity? Comfort? Safety?
The Bible declares the Lord’s #1 goal for our lives is holiness.
It is wholeness. It is our maturity and growth in Christ.
In other words, God’s aim for us is not to be successful;
it is for us to be faithful, fruitful. These are two very different goals.
If we focus on being successful, on the job we do or do not get, the raise, the promotion, the approval, the acceptance, the acquisition, fame, fortune, then our trials will leave us mortally wounded – instead of questioning what God is doing, we will dare to judge God’s character (denying His goodness and His love.
Bad attitudes towards God will slowly turn into bad habits in terms of our relationship with God as we back away from the presence and call of God.
We’ll stop praying — talking with God — because we’ll convince ourselves praying doesn’t seem to be doing anything.
We’ll stop reading the Word of God because it doesn’t speak to us anymore – it isn’t telling us what we want to hear.
We’ll stop connecting with other believers because they can’t possibly understand what we’re going through – their lives are perfect – they don’t know the trouble I’ve seen.
As we isolate ourselves from God – perhaps the worst thing we can do whenever we face hardship, our fears about whatever we are going through will inevitably give way to frustration, even desperation as we lash out towards others, our hurts will not heal, they will fester and become the sores of our bitterness and the cause of our constant combativeness and defensiveness.
But if we focus on God’s direction and purpose for our lives
– on wholeness – our growth and maturity into our best selves,
our trials will not erode our faith, they will open us up – reinforcing and even deepening our relationship with Christ.
Beloved, the faith by which we come into our relationship with Jesus is the faith we need to keep walking by in following Christ – turning to and relying on Jesus every step of the way, come what may.
This is how our faith grows and matures. In such seasons, as we press into and abide in the Word and the Spirit of God, our awareness and appreciation of the Lord’s presence and provision will be deepened.
Experiencing God’s faithfulness will reinforce and strengthen our faith in God – increasing the value we place our relationship with Him through Christ.
Sometimes when we struggle and suffer, we perceive ourselves as useless.
But when we consider it joy in our hardships and look to Jesus, we will be surprised to find that even in seasons of seeming drought, our lives can be fruitful. Looking less at our circumstances and more through them, we will discover, despite our want, that the Lord still has given us what we need – blessings of this life that we cherish – gifts of grace that we can share and extend to others.
Who will we become through whatever we are facing?
We are all works in progress. Our refinement into who we are becoming will go on until Jesus comes back or we go home to glory. And that means we will encounter things that we never would’ve chosen for our lives. But we need to embrace life’s trials not just for what they are but for what God can accomplish through them.
Our trials are never out of God’s control. We worship a sovereign God who can and is accomplishing His purposes through all things – including our hardships and sufferings. Growth and maturity come from change – both wanted change and unwanted change – from invitation and from challenge.Only God can take us where we never intended to go in order to produce in us what we could not achieve on our own. That’s grace. And it is amazing but it is not always comfortable. The grace of God often comes to us through the most uncomfortable moments and seasons of our lives – but such grace always gives more than it takes. And such grace, the grace of God always leads us home. Amen.