On May 21st 2008 Tragedy struck the family of Steven Curtis Chapman. Their teenage son accidentally ran over and killed their 5 year old daughter. As I have watched the family in interviews I marvel at the great testimony they give to their trust in God even in the midst of the questions and heartache.
On October 2nd 2006 the Amish community of Nickel Mines, PA suffered the horror of having their children taken hostage by the local milkman. He killed 5 girls all under 14 years old. The nation watched with wonder as the Amish community expressed forgiveness and love to the family of the killer.
These are two examples of people who took the words of James 1 to heart. James wrote to people going through tough times and told them to rejoice in the hard times recognizing that these times are meant to be opportunities to prove and deepen faith. These times can teach us how to truly trust the Lord. James summarizes in verse 12,
Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.
The real blessing according to James; comes not from avoiding hard times, but from being faithful in the midst of those hard times. This is how we grow. In James 1:13-18 James explores another dimension of this issue. The root word for “trials” (v. 2, 12) is the same root word as the word translated “tempt” (which is why some versions translate verses 2, 12 with the word “temptations”). In verses 2 and 12 the word is in the noun form. In verse 13 it is a verb. This tells us something. James had been telling us about the purpose of difficult times from God’s perspective. In verse 13 the verb form indicates that James is addressing how we respond to the trials.
There are two basic responses in the time of trial: we can trust or we can sin. Some people hear these words and conclude that since God allows/brings trials into our lives to help exercise and develop our faith, any sin that results from that is God’s fault.
The Cause Of Trouble
13 When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; 14 but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. 15 Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.
We live in a society that likes to blame others for our problems. We blame our parents, teachers, the government, our circumstances, and we even blame God. We might never admit that we blame God but do it all the time. We blame God for our personality (“it’s just the way I am”), we blame Him for our desires (“if God didn’t want me to do these things He wouldn’t have given me these desires”) and we blame Him for our circumstances (“if God hadn’t allowed this to happen . . . I wouldn’t have fallen”). In each case God is blamed.
James declares that God is not the cause of our problems – we are! God does not try to make us stumble. He does not tempt us to do wrong. Yes, God sends/allows hard things to come into our lives. But God does so to help us grow in faith. When we choose to use these things as an opportunity for sin, God is not the one responsible! Let me illustrate what I believe the Bible is teaching us.
When a person drinks and drives and there is a fatality should we blame the automaker? It is true that the person would not have caused deadly harm if he was walking rather than driving a car. But is the transgression really the fault of the automaker? The car maker created the vehicle with the thought of people driving appropriately. The problem is the fault of the one who chose to drink and drive.
If you are arrested for making Methamphetamine is it right to blame the makers of Sudafed or to sue those who make Ammonia, batteries, brake fluid or rat poison? Though it is true that if those items weren’t available the drug may not have been manufactured, however, the use of those things is a perversion of what they were intended for.
Here’s the point. When God brings trials in our life to help us grow in faith and we respond by turning away from Him, becoming bitter, anxious, or angry, it is not God’s fault, it is our fault.
When God allows us to enjoy material blessing and those material things become the focus of our lives and the measure of our self-worth God is not to blame, we are.
When troubling questions come into our lives that are designed to get us to think deeper and trust more fully and we become skeptical and turn away from faith that is not a work of God it is the result of a sinful nature.
God wants us to grow through these times of testing He is not trying to trip us up. Author Jerry Bridges writes,
If we are prone to sinful anger, there will be circumstances that trigger our anger. If we easily become anxious, there will be ample opportunities to deal with the sin of anxiety. God does not tempt us to sin, but He does bring or allow circumstances to come into our lives that give us opportunity to put to death the particular subtle sins that are characteristic of our individual lives. It is obvious that we can deal with the activity of our subtle sins only as the circumstances we encounter expose them.
Just because we may respond to a situation sinfully does not make God the author of evil. James shows us the process. He says a person is tempted when “by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then after the desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.”
Merely having desires is not sin. Desires are good and natural. However, when those desires turn into lusts (desires out of control) they become destructive. The Mississippi River is beautiful and serves many purposes but when those waters overflow the banks of the river the destruction can be overwhelming. That is a good picture of our desires.
- The desire for sexual intimacy in marriage is good, when the desire goes beyond marriage it is sinful
- The desire to eat (for nourishment/fuel for living) is good, but when we become gluttons it has become an evil desire.
- The desire to get along with others (to live in community) is good but when that desire to get along causes us to compromise our faith, it is an evil desire.
- The desire to enjoy life is something that is wonderful but when our desire to “have fun” becomes the most important thing in our lives, it is a sinful desire.
When the desires given to us by God “overflow the banks” God establishes, destruction follows.
James says we are “dragged away” and “enticed”. The image is of baiting a trap or of a fisherman who baits a hook and draws the lure across the water. The point of the lure is to trick the fish into thinking it is something desirable and good. When the fish takes the bait, you have it hooked. Satan acts as a fisherman who dangles some attractive morsel over our soul. Satan seeks to seduce us with something that looks good but is ultimately destructive. We fall because we choose to take the bait.
James says once desires get beyond the boundaries and we make the sinful choice to act on those desires; sin will soon be birthed and devastation will come upon us.
James is saying something important. As long as you continue to blame others, your circumstances, or God, you will never grow in faith and will not gain victory or true freedom in your life. Every 12 step program understands that the first step is to take responsibility for your own decisions. James calls us to do the same.
The Only Solution – Trust the True God
God is not in Heaven looking for ways to make us stumble. He is not indifferent to our situation. The Lord is worthy of our trust and devotion for at least three reasons.
Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. 18 He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.
James tells us first that God is the giver of every good and perfect gift. Everything we enjoy comes from God. Every talent we have comes from God. The people in our lives were given to us by God. The jobs we have come from God. He is the source of all the good things we desire. God gives the good things; we are the ones that pervert those things to our own destruction and misery.
Even when we face circumstances that are difficult, we can be sure that if we remain faithful, even that trial will become a good and perfect gift. We may not see it right away. We may not ever see it in this life . . . but if we receive it as from His hand, it will be something to enrich our life, not destroy it.
Some people don’t believe this. Did you read about Nebraska Sen. Ernie Chambers? He is an atheist, and filed a lawsuit against God for creating “fearsome floods, egregious earthquakes, horrendous hurricanes, terrifying tornadoes, pestilential plagues, ferocious famines, devastating droughts, genocidal wars, birth defects and the like.” The senator also blames God for causing “calamitous catastrophes resulting in the wide-spread death, destruction and terrorization of millions upon million of the Earth’s inhabitants including innocent babies, infants, children, the aged and infirm without mercy or distinction.”
These are devastating and hard things that the Senator blames God for bringing to people. These so-called “acts of God” are the consequence of the sin of men. None of these things existed before Adam and Eve sinned. Even if some of these things are acts of judgment, they would not have happened if we had not rebelled against God.
We are still creating problems by our actions. Think about it. We strip the land of its resources. We disregard nature by building on fault lines, in flood plains and in areas where wildfires are common. In other words we ignore warnings. We blow a host of chemicals into the air (with effects we can’t begin to understand). We know that some of our pesticides have created insects that are pesticide resistant. The point is that we do many things that create some of the very problems for which we blame God.
Second, James reminds us that God never changes. He does not change for the worse, because He is holy; He does not change for the better, because He is perfect. God is unchanging in His character and purpose. There are times in the Bible where it may seem God changes. In each of these times God changes His response because of a change in the people. God’s character, will, and purpose do not change at all. For example, God will change His response to you when you truly repent of sin. He will forgive you. This is not a change in God’s character; it is a change in you that results in a different response from the unchanging God.
An old music teacher was once asked in greeting, “What’s the good news 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 A. It is A today, it was A 5,000 years ago, and it will be A 10,000 years from now. The soprano upstairs sings off-key, the tenor across the hall is out of tune.” He struck the note again and said, “That is A, my friend, and that’s the good news today!”
The good news today and for all eternity is this: God is infinitely good. He has never had and will never have more goodness than he has now. He is unchangeably good. He stands like an eternal sun in a cloudless sky radiating unbroken goodness upon us. God will always—eternally—be good to us.
God is like the tuning fork . . . we can depend on Him. His promises are sure. His directions are unwavering. His will is perfect. God is the anchor we can depend on in changing times. His truth remains trustworthy.
Third, we are told that he chose to give us birth. James reminds the people that from the very beginning God has loved us. He brought us into the world and desires we have a relationship with Him. God should be trusted because He gives good gifts, He is perfectly consistent, and He loves us. He sent Christ into the world so that we might know forgiveness and new life.
Difficult times come into our lives. In these times we have a choice: we can trust our emotions (which rise and fall like a roller coaster). We can trust our desires (which are too often seduced by the lure of the Devil). We can trust our eyes (even though much of what we see is a distortion or illusion of truth). Or we can trust God.
I always think about the movie, the Karate Kid when I think about trust. Daniel Larusso (who was getting picked on by the boys) asked Mr. Miyagi to teach him Karate. Mr. Miyagi agreed and told Daniel he must do as he says. Daniel was told to paint a fence using a particular painting stroke. He was asked to wax Mr. Miyagi’s cars rubbing in circular motions, “Wax On, Wax Off”. He was also instructed to sand his deck with a certain sanding motion.
Daniel was exasperated. He felt Miyagi was wasting his time. He didn’t feel he was learning any Karate. However as the movie progresses we see that each of these things was teaching fundamental skills he would later need in Karate.
God asks us to trust Him in the same way. We can rebel at the things we don’t understand or we can respond with faith that trusts that God has a purpose for this circumstance or command. We can choose to go our own way or to follow His way. If we trust Him, He will train us to be people of godliness and character. If we don’t trust Him, we bring trouble into our life and will drift from Him.
Some of you are currently going through very difficult times. Some are going through tough times publicly, others are living in your own private little war zone that no one knows about. Perhaps you have begun to wonder what God is doing. May I humbly offer some spiritual guidance for this time?
First, remind yourself of the character of God. Try just for a few moments to look away from the heartache and the trial. Focus on the Lord. Remind yourself that He is the giver of every good and perfect gift. Recall God’s unchanging character and His enduring love. Remind yourself that God is in control, He loves us, and He never ever makes a mistake. Then make a conscious choice (and you will need to do this again and again) to trust God’s character rather than your ability to understand.
Second, examine your heart. If you need to accept responsibility for something, do so. Stop blaming your circumstances or other people. Take responsibility for your life, your actions, and your emotions. Be honest with God and ask Him to forgive you and help you. Where necessary, confess your sin to those you are affected by your actions.
Third, with all the energy you have, choose to walk by faith. Instead of responding with bitterness, trust God’s wisdom. Instead of getting angry, choose to be rest in His character. Instead of hating, choose to forgive. Instead of panicking, choose to be patient and wait on the Lord. You have a choice, you can give in to sin, or you can trust that God really does know what he’s doing.
The Chapman family didn’t become faithful over night. They have been nurturing and developing faith for many years. You can see it in Steven’s songs. Years ago Steven wrote,
As I look back on this road I’ve traveled. I see so many times He’s carried me through. And if there’s one thing that I’ve learned in my life it’s my Redeemer is faithful and true.
My heart rejoices as I read the promise, “there is a place that I’m preparing for you.” I know someday I’ll see my Lord face to face; my redeemer is faithful and true.
And in every situation he has proved his love for me, when I lack the understanding, He gives more grace to me.
My Redeemer is faithful and true; everything he has said, he will do and every moment his mercies are new . . . my redeemer is faithful and true.”
They are great lyrics. And from what I’ve witnessed, these are more than lyrics to the Chapman family and those Amish families. They are the words of faith. We see this the same way true faith is always revealed . . . through a decision to trust God in even the most horrible situations of life. May God inspire us to do likewise.