Today we begin a new study in the Book of James. Many scholars believe this was the first New Testament book to be written. James almost certainly was a half-brother of our Lord, a child of Joseph and Mary. (Matt. 13:55; Mark 6:3)
As Jesus was growing up, the Bible tells us that his siblings did not believe in Him. At the time of Jesus’ Resurrection we are told He appeared to James (1 Cor. 15:7). It may have been around this time that James became a follower of Christ. Within a few years, James had emerged as the leader of the church in Jerusalem. He did not boast about the fact that he was related to Jesus but instead called himself a “servant” or a slave of Jesus Christ. The book of Jude was written by another brother of Jesus.
James addressed his letter to “the twelve tribes who had been scattered”. These were Jews who become followers of Christ and had left Jerusalem. Many of these people left due to the persecution of Christians we read about in Acts 8. Others left for a variety of other reasons. All of these people served as ambassadors of the gospel of Christ. James wrote to encourage these missionaries to remain true to the faith.
James is a book I think you will love for its practical teaching. However, you will also find it to be a discomforting letter because of its directness. James calls the people of God to live and walk by faith. One commentator writes,
Today there are few places in the world where claiming Jesus as Lord is openly forbidden. This may be because the world has become a better place. But it is more likely that the world has simply discovered that today’s believers don’t quite mean it as seriously and completely when they say “Jesus is Lord” as the early believers did. Perhaps the biggest difference is that early Christians backed up what they said with their very lives, while today “Jesus is Lord” is merely a cliché, a slogan, or a bumper sticker. The unspoken question of the entire letter of James is: To what degree will you be a servant of God and the Lord Jesus Christ?1
In the first eight verses I think James gives us three directives.
Consider – There is a Choice to be Made
The first instruction we are given is that we are to
Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds,
The Paraphrase of the Bible called The Message translates this, “Consider it a sheer gift, friends, when tests and challenges come at you from all sides.” The New Living Translation has “Dear brothers and sisters,when troubles come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy.”
This verse gets my attention because, joy is not the usual response I have to difficult times! If he had told us to be aggravated, frustrated, ticked off, or bitter . . . I could probably have skipped on by these verses. But Joy?
We have to start by understanding what James is not saying. James is not saying we should be happy about every situation. Happiness is an emotion; joy is a state of mind and soul. The Bible tells us to grieve with those who grieve. Jesus talked about his heart being troubled and he wept with the sisters of Lazarus. There are losses and situations that rightly bring sorrow to our hearts. James is not saying we should never be sad.
James is not saying the hard times come FROM God. God may on occasion send hard times but He does so to wake us up or to turn us from that which is harmful. I think of it like a parent and a child. On occasion a parent must temporarily cause pain and discomfort to train their child. But most hurt comes from others.
The book of Job shows us that God sometimes allows Satan to afflict his people. Satan has one goal: to attack our faith. He is quite content for us to be happy as long as we are not serving the Lord. He wants to undermine our trust in God. Satan’s goal is to destroy, God’s purpose is to help us grow. Again, think of the parent who sometimes stays out of a situation in order to help the child learn and mature.
The key word in this sentence is the word “consider”. It is in the Imperative tense which means it is a command. James is telling us that this is something we must DO. It is a deliberate act. It is a decision we make rather than something we feel. In other words we are to choose “joy”. It is like when we stand at a cemetery and choose to focus on the richness of eternal life rather than focusing on the separation and loss.
This sounds good in principle but some circumstances are pretty desperate. Max Lucado paints a great picture,
God views your life the way you view a movie after you’ve read the book. When something bad happens, you feel the air sucked out of the theater. Everyone else gasps at the crisis on the screen. Not you. Why? You’ve read the book. You know how the good guy gets out of the tight spot. God views your life with the same confidence. He’s not only read your story…he wrote it. His perspective is different, and his purpose is clear.
Know – What We Need to Remember
The second command is that need to “know” something. James tells us why we can choose to rejoice when the trials come. The word he uses is an active participle which means we this is something we should “be continually knowing”.
the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. (3-4)
Again, the message translates this,
You know that under pressure, your faith-life is forced into the open and shows its true colors. So don’t try to get out of anything prematurely. Let it do its work so you become mature and well-developed, not deficient in any way.
James says we must remember that faith is developed by having to exercise that faith. Think about a child learning to ride a bicycle. It is a difficult process. Usually there are tumbles as they try to find their balance, learn how to pedal and learn how to apply the brakes. If a parent never let go of the bicycle, the child may never fall, but they will also never find their balance, they would never enjoy riding with their friends, and they will never know that wonderful sense of freedom. A person can view learning to ride a bicycle as “too dangerous” or they can recognize that scraped knees are the price of joy and freedom.
It’s the same way with faith. For our faith to grow, we need to face situations that have the potential to bruise us and skin our knees. We need to face times when we are forced to learn how to trust God.
In education, the only way you can begin to determine whether the student has learned the necessary information is to give them an exam. We often call this a “test”. The test puts pressure on the student (even to the point where some will actually study). Without this pressure many students would go through school without learning anything. A student can view the test as a torturous exercise inflicted by masochistic individuals or they can view it as an opportunity to measure what they have learned.
Please understand that the tests that come our way may be severe tests related to our health, finances, or employment. But the tests may also be more subtle,
- How will you manage the time demands on your life? Will you put God first or put Him off to the side?
- Will you be patient and wait for God or will you push ahead?
- Will you use that extra income to pamper yourself or help someone else?
- Will you speak up and defend the faith or will you make excuses for remaining silent?
- Will you show compassion or will you pretend that you don’t see the need?
- Will you tell the truth or will you “spin” it for your purposes?
- Will you forgive the person who hurt you or will you nurse your anger?
These are all trials designed to provoke the application of faith to our lives. These things show us where we are in our Christian faith and hopefully spur us on in our growth.God brings/allows crisis points into our lives so that we can exercise and grow strong inour faith. J. Oswald Sanders wrote,
When God wants to drill a man
And thrill a man
And skill a man,
When God wants to mold a man
To play the noblest part;
When He yearns with all His heart
To create so great and bold a man
That all the world shall be amazed,
Watch His methods, watch His ways!
How He ruthlessly perfects
Whom He royally elects!
How He hammers him and hurts him,
And with mighty blows converts him
Into trial shapes of clay which
Only God understands;
While his tortured heart is crying
And he lifts beseeching hands!
How He bends but never breaks
When his good He undertakes;
How He uses whom He chooses
And with every purpose fuses him;
By every act induces him
To try His splendor out—
God knows what He’s about!
James says the goal of our testing is plain. First, God seeks to develop perseverance. The word is also translated steadfastness. It denotes, “a quality of character which does not allow one to surrender to circumstances or succumb under trial” In other words, God is trying to make us strong so that we can remain faithful through the struggles of life.
Perhaps you have met people who have this quality. These people have almost always gone through (or are going through) great times of trial. They are not bitter. They are not living lives of resignation. They do not feel like martyrs. They trust God one day at a time and have a joy and peace about them that defies description. They have a strength that we all covet. James says this strength comes as a result of learning to live faithfully in the time of trial.
James says the goal of perseverance is that we become mature and well rounded. An immature person is characterized by inconsistency, impulsiveness and self-absorption. They see the world as revolving around them. The immature person often makes foolish and short-sighted choices. They are led by emotion rather than wisdom.
The mature person, on the other hand, sees the big picture. One lexicon says the word means “undivided”. The mature person isn’t running in a million directions at once. They may be very busy . . . but all these things are moving toward one goal. They are focused. They see beyond themselves and they have perspective on the events and frustrations of life. They recognize that we must deny ourselves some “good” things in order to gain “better” things. They are balanced.
Maturity isn’t about your age, it’s about your perspective. It isn’t about what you know but about what you do with what you know. The mature believer is consistent in their walk, focused on honoring Christ, and as a result they bear much spiritual fruit. The trials are our training ground, we should rejoice in them.
Ask – Where to Turn for Help
It all sounds easy but the truth is that sometimes things happen which we just don’t understand. Sometimes life hurts. Sometimes we feel like the truck of hardship has backed up and dumped its entire load on us. James gives us one more practical instruction.
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. 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. 7 That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; 8 he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does.
James tells us that we should ask for help! It sounds simple enough but notice a few things. First, we are to ask God. I know some of you hear this and say, “Duh!” However, don’t miss this. When times are tough we have a tendency to turn to our friends, our co-workers, and our family members. Most of the time they simply tell us what we want to hear. We read books and take the advice of pop psychologists on television and are surprised when these things seem to only superficially address our problem. We almost never turn FIRST to the Lord. We often wait until we are desperate.
James’ counsel is profound . . . if you lack wisdom, turn to the source of wisdom.
Second, we are to ask for wisdom. James doesn’t tell us to ask to be removed from trials, he says we should ask for wisdom as to how best to respond to those trials. Warren Wiersbe shares a personal experience.
An associate of mine, a gifted secretary, was going through great trials. She had had a stroke, her husband had gone blind, and then he had to be taken to the hospital where (we were sure) he would die. I saw her in church one Sunday and assured her that I was praying for her.
“What are you asking God to do?” she asked, and her question startled me.
“I’m asking God to help you and strengthen you,” I replied.
“I appreciate that,” she said, “but pray about one more thing. Pray that I’ll have the wisdom not to waste all of this!”
This woman understood what James was trying to say. She looked for the growth opportunity in the trial rather than focusing on the pain.
Third, we must believe and not doubt. James tells us that we can be sure that God will give wisdom to those who ask. He gives generously and freely.
Some people mis-read this passage. They say if we want answers to our prayers we need to picture what we want and convince ourselves that God will give it to us. That’s not what James is saying. The word “doubt” means “a divided mind”. James is saying that we must be confident that God can be trusted. We must not doubt God’s character or His willingness to help us.
James says we should turn to God, confident of His willingness to help and then ask Him for the wisdom that He is all too happy to give to us.
The book of James is pretty easy to understand. That is what makes it a hard book. We understand, but understanding makes us uncomfortable.
James challenges us to walk by faith. The underlying assumption in the text is that God is committed to our growth as children of God. He sends and allows struggles and difficulties in our lives because He is not content for us to be stagnant in faith. His goal is to make us like Christ (Romans 8:29). To that end He is going to keep working and chipping away at our character like a master sculptor until our faith becomes real, our trust becomes unwavering and our relationship with Him becomes deep.
We can fight the process. We can whine and complain about the blows of the Sculptor. But this is only going to make us miserable, siphon our enjoyment of life and it’s going to suck the life out of those around us. Such an attitude will retard our growth and may also mean we will have to take the class again!
The other alternative (the one proposed by James) is to recognize that our trials, struggles and irritations are not obstacles but opportunities; opportunities to grow and develop in our relationship with God. When we see the trials as the hammer and chisel of the God who is committed to our growth, we can then learn to find joy even in the trials and hopefully we will be able to say with Job, “But he knows the way that I take; when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold.” (Job 23:10).