Finding Joy in the Midst of Trials
Topic: Expository Scripture: James 1:1–1:18
Intro to James Series
This week and next week I will be preaching from James Chapter 1. James introduces all of the major topics of his letter in the first chapter including the two main themes of perseverance in trials and righteous living. It is these two major themes, as we find them in the first chapter, that we will be exploring this week and next.
James 1: Joy in the Midst of Trials
About one year ago when I first came to Abu Dhabi, I had just graduated from bible college and married my wife Yujin. My wife was already working here, so I followed in the hope that I could get some sort of work and help out at a church. After arriving, several months went by and I was still unable to find a job. It was becoming clear to me that most employers in this country are not interested in a Christian theology major. To make matters worse, I had to leave the country every month because I didn't have a visa. I also was not allowed to keep living in my wife's accommodation. I was in the middle of a country that made very little sense to me with no idea what would happen next. My wife was feeling very stressed by our situation and I was feeling totally useless. Of course, God had a purpose in mind for us and has since provided me with work, a visa, and accommodation. But at that time, things were very difficult and uncertain.
James says that we should consider it pure joy when we face trials. But what joy is there in being surrounded by trouble? In my experience, life's trials are at best uncomfortable and at worse terribly painful. Just think about it: when your car broke down and you were stuck waiting for someone to pick you up, was there any joy in that situation? When you don't have a job and you are running out of resources not to mention feeling useless, did you notice any joy? When someone asks you a question about your trust in Jesus and you don't know how to answer, do you feel good? When you are having a crisis of faith, do you feel happy about it? When you are being tempted to sin in some way, are you rejoicing? And yet here James tells us that when, (notice, when not if) when you are surrounded by trials, count it all joy! In our passage today, James highlights five reasons that we can be joyful in the midst of trials.
The first reason for joy lies within the word trial itself. In verses 2-3 James makes the point that trials are tests of our faith. The word for trial, 'peiro' in Greek, can be rendered as either trial or temptation, and is throughout this passage translated as one of these words. The word has a two part ambiguity in it that lends itself to a better understanding of the testing of our faith. First of all, we all face trials, things like financial struggles, sickness, disasters, accidents. We also face temptations to sin. For example through sexual ads on tv, internet and just about everywhere else, through prospects of getting rich or saving money by cheating, through temptations to lie to avoid a difficult situation or make ourselves look better. This list of possible temptations is endless, but the point is that both the trials we face as well as the temptations both test our faith. Now the logical question to ask at this point is where is God in these things? The answer to this lies in what it means for faith to be tested. Any test of faith has two purposes. The first is to determine if the faith being tested is genuine, the second is to refine genuine faith to greater purity. Gold is refined when it is melted down to remove impurities. In the same way, God allows us to experience trials and temptations to prove and refine our faith, but does he actually send them our way? This leads us to the second half of the ambiguity of trials.
That is, every trial and temptation has the potential, based on our response, to produce in us two opposing results. In other words, when our faith is tested, we have the opportunity to overcome the test and reap the benefits of stronger, refined faith, but also the danger of falling into despair or sin. It is the outcome of the test that determines, in the end, if we can praise God for the refinement of our faith or if we must repent of our own sin.
In verses 13-17, James makes this important point. He says, [Read v.13-17]. We face temptations because of our own desires, and when we fail to stand firm against them, we fall to sin. God does not tempt us or cause us to face trials, but gives us the good and perfect gift of opportunities to grow through them. He is unchanging and gives us good gifts for our benefit, but we are double-minded and prone to sin. In other words, when we grow through a test of faith, we can thank God for the opportunity to refine our faith. But when we fall, we must repent for our own sinfulness. The question remains though, where is the joy in this? The joy is in knowing that God is not out to get us, but rather allows us to face these tests to open the way for our faith to be refined and strengthened.
The next reason for joy is the result produced within us when we respond rightly to the testing of our faith and its final outcome. James 1:3 says that “the testing of your faith develops perseverance.” To persevere means to persist in anything undertaken; maintaining a purpose in spite of difficulty, obstacles, or discouragement; to continue steadfastly. In regards to faith, it means trust in God that persists despite trials and temptations. Of course, this strength of trust in God is not instantly yours the moment you are saved, but is developed through the trials which will test your faith.
When our faith is tested it's kind of like on the job training. When you finish your education and go to the job for the first time, you have the opportunity to finally put your knowledge into practice. When I finished satellite communications school in the Army and shipped off to my first permanent station, I had to put what I had learned to the test. The thing is, over the next few years as I constructed, deconstructed, operated, and maintained mobile satcom terminals, my knowledge grew and so did my skill. My ability to perform increased as it was tested. As often as our faith is tested, when we respond by relying on God, we are able to persevere. And as often as we persevere, we are able to trust in God more steadfastly.
As a Christian man I have experienced many trials which have deepened and strengthened my faith. Some of these involved sins in my life that I needed to overcome. My experience with any particular sin is that overcoming it means fighting a lot of minor battles against the temptation which can eventually lead me to a great victory. Whenever I win the battle, I am strengthened and more likely to resist the next temptation. But, whenever I lose that battle, I am weakened and more likely to sin again the next time.
The joy in learning to rely on God and persevere in the midst of trial is bound up in the fact that as we stand firm we become more able to stand firm. More able to love God over the things that tempt us, more able to trust God in difficult circumstances, more able to be confident that God can carry us through any situation we may face. Verse 12 reads: [Read v.12] Blessed, fortunate, happy is the man. God is working in us to refine our faith in Him through the trials we face, and once all of the testing is finished, we receive the crown of life, everlasting life which God will give us. Now that is worth persevering for!
The third way to find joy while facing trials lies in the culmination of our perseverance. That is reaching maturity in faith. Verse 4 says, [Read v. 4] In the Christian context, what does it mean to be mature and complete? And what joy is to be found on the way? The first questioned can be answered in this way. A disciple strives to be like his master. Jesus is our standard of maturity and being his disciples, we strive to be more like him. Jesus faced trials and temptations that proved his maturity and completeness as he persevered through them. As we persevere through trials and our trust in God becomes ever more steadfast, we will begin to develop Christ-like maturity and completeness. This mature completeness is displayed through our reliance on God in the midst of trials and our obedience to Him in the midst of temptation.
The joy of is to be found in the fact that if we respond maturely to these tests by turning to God for help, He helps us become more complete. In other words, He will help us become complete in our maturity by providing what we need to persevere when we ask Him for it. James illustrates this in verses 5-8 in an exhortation to ask God for the wisdom which one lacks in the midst of a trial. [read v.5-8] There is a comparison here between one who is close to maturity and one who is not. The one who is more mature receives wisdom from God because he asks out of a believing heart. But the one who is not mature asks while doubting and being double-minded.
The request for wisdom in this passage is in the context of facing trials and developing mature completeness. Therefore, the one asking for wisdom is doing so in the midst of a situation where he needs wisdom. In order to receive this wisdom he must ask out of a true trust that God knows what is best and belief that God is able to provide it to him in his situation. If, however, he asked for wisdom in a wishy-washy way, not really believing that God can provide it, this unfaithful prayer is useless.
We have to be a bit careful when interpreting these verses because we do not want to arrive at some conclusion about needing a sufficient amount of faith for God to answer our prayers. I had this sort of idea when I was very young. I prayed that my parents would buy me the 'Optimus Prime' Transformer toy for a long time, all the while thinking that God would certainly give it to me if I had enough faith and banished every doubt about getting it from my mind. I never got that toy, and that is fine because neither this passage nor any other passage in the Bible promises that I'll get toys. The Bible has a lot of verses that, at first glance, seem to be clear, obvious promises, but in their natural context are something else entirely. If we want to take the Word of God seriously, we must be very careful when interpreting scripture to pay close attention to the context of any given passage. If we don't read scripture in its natural context, we are almost guaranteed to understand wrong and to apply wrong. The faithful prayer that James is talking about here is in the context of God helping us with what we lack from complete maturity while facing trials. Things like wisdom, strength to persevere, peace, joy, love, etc.
Let's think about this in the context of overcoming temptations to sin. If you are struggling with sin in your life and you ask God to help you stand firm against temptation, truly believing He can help you, and out of a truly repentant heart, God will give you the help you need. But if, when you ask, you are plotting how you might do the sin in the back of your mind or moving yourself into a situation where you know you are likely to fall. This is called double-mindedness and asking for help out of this mindset will get you nowhere. In fact you will have to repent of your double-mindedness before you can attack the other sin you are struggling with.
The point is as we become more Christ-like in maturity and completeness, we learn to trust God more sincerely and we desire to obey him more completely. Then when we face trials and temptations we can be joyful knowing that when we run swiftly towards God and ask for His help He will help us. In the midst of trials we can have confidence that God is able to provide us with the wisdom, peace, strength, love, self-control, patience, and all else we need to persevere and grow in mature completeness.
The fourth joy James points out is bound up in the truth that trials have the potential to free us from prideful self-reliance. Let's look together at verses 9-11. [Read v.9-11] In these verses, we have another comparison, this time between the brother in lowly circumstances and one who is rich. Interestingly, James exhorts the poor brother to take pride in his high position and the rich to take pride in his humility. The idea here is that the brother in humble circumstances has been humbled by the struggles of his life such that he understands how close at hand are death and disaster. He is in a better position than the rich person to understand that real life and security are are not things which he can take hold of, but are only to be found in God. It is easier for the poor person to recognize his continuing need for God, therefore he can take pride in his high position.
Being rich in itself is not bad, but a rich person is not in as good a position to understand the shortness of life or the suddenness in which disaster can strike and is more easily tempted to think he does not need God. When I read this passage it reminds me of the downfall of a major US bank a few years ago. It seemed as if one moment they were the 4th largest bank in America and the next moment they were bankrupt. I remember the newscast in which the the top men of that bank were seen running away from their office building as if trying to escape a fire, jumping into waiting cars, trying to get away. No one is in greater shock when, as James says, “the sun rises with scorching heat,” and life's security comes to a sudden end than a rich person going about his business. Now, when we use the word rich here, we are not just talking about people who are financially wealthy. Wealth is very relative. Rather we are talking about people who have developed pride in their possessions and abilities that gets in the way of them understanding that they are neither truly secure nor really in control, but are truly and really in need of God.
I'm saying this partly out of my own experience. There was a time in my life when I was full of pride and thought I was secure in my savings, insurance, skills, etc. Through a series of events, I come to a point where my skills could not secure my employment, all my worldly assets fit in a single suitcase, and I couldn't even provide myself with daily food. It was a shocking experience for me because I had good education and experience in the telecommunications field, yet I had come to ruin. It was very difficult at the time, but I learned very clearly that my skills and savings provided no real security and was squarely confronted with me need for God. I eventually responded to this trial by throwing away my useless pride and trusting instead in God to order my life and provide for me. Which He has done faithfully and wondrously. God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble. Therefore the joy in being freed from pride by our trials and temptations is that we are better able to recognize our total dependence on God's grace.
The final way that James encourages us to find joy in our trials is in the knowledge that they have the God ordained purpose of bearing fruit for Him. Lets read v. 17 and 18. [v. 17-18] So often when we face trials and temptations, our focus tends to be stuck within our own sphere of circumstances. It makes sense right? If I have broken my leg, my focus will likely be on the pain in my leg! However if we take a step back and look at it all from God's perspective we can see that all the trials we face are part of a larger picture. What I mean is, every time our faith is tested we have the opportunity to grow and the danger of falling. Over the course of our lives, as we learn to persevere through ever greater tests, as we develop Christ-like maturity and completeness, we come closer to the ideal of being who God is shaping us to be. This truth can help us gain perspective both on what's really important in life as well as where all our trials are leading us. I would like to read you a story that has no doubt already made the rounds through your e-mail a few times by now, but I feel is a helpful illustration of the purpose of trials.
The story of the butterfly
A man found the chrysalis of a butterfly, and fascinated, he began to watch it day after day. One day a small opening appeared. He sat and watched the butterfly for several hours as it struggled to squeeze its body through the tiny hole. Then it stopped, as if it couldn't go further.
So the man decided to help the butterfly. He took a pair of scissors and snipped off the remaining bits of chrysalis. The butterfly emerged easily but it had a swollen body and shriveled wings. The man continued to watch it, expecting that any minute the wings would enlarge and expand enough to support the body, but it never happened! It's wings were useless and that butterfly spent the rest of its life crawling around. It was never able to fly.
What the man in his kindness and haste did not understand was that the restricting chrysalis and the struggle required by the butterfly to get through the opening was a way of forcing the fluid from the body into the wings so that it would be ready for flight once that was achieved.
You see, God began a process when He chose to give us birth through the word of truth; In other words when we were saved by His Spirit applying the gospel to our hearts. This process, as James says in verse 18, is leading us to the goal becoming a kind of first-fruits of God's creation. The trials and struggles we face are and will continue to be difficult, but they are necessary for us to grow to maturity as God's people. You see, we are not needlessly facing trials and temptations, but God is using them to refine our faith and bring us closer to the goal of bearing fruit for Him. This fruit is first, to display His glory among people in the world through the witness of our lives and our good works, and second, to make us ready for eternal life with Him. This is the purpose of our struggle to persevere and a potential source of great joy for us in the midst of it.
I don't know exactly what you are going through right now. Whether your faith is being tested through your circumstances, or through some sin that you are struggling with. What I do know is that it doesn't feel good. When we face trials, we can count on them to be difficult and uncomfortable. You might even now be struggling to think how any joy at all could be found in your struggle. What I really don't want you to think is that I'm telling you to try and drum up good feelings or put on a happy face while you struggle. It's ok to express what you are feeling, just look at what David wrote in Psalm 6.
O LORD, do not rebuke me in your anger or discipline me in your wrath.
Be merciful to me, LORD, for I am faint; O LORD, heal me, for my bones are in agony.
My soul is in anguish. How long, O LORD, how long?
Turn, O LORD, and deliver me; save me because of your unfailing love.
No one remembers you when he is dead. Who praises you from the grave?
I am worn out from groaning; all night long I flood my bed with weeping and drench my couch with tears.
My eyes grow weak with sorrow; they fail because of all my foes.
Away from me, all you who do evil, for the LORD has heard my weeping.
The LORD has heard my cry for mercy; the LORD accepts my prayer.
All my enemies will be ashamed and dismayed; they will turn back in sudden disgrace.
What I do want you to see today, and what James is trying to encourage us to see, is that there is genuine joy to be found within our trials as we face them and in the outcomes of our trials when we respond rightly to them. Within every trial and temptation is the knowledge that God can use it to bear fruit in and through your life. You have the opportunity to respond rightly by relying on God to help you develop perseverance so that you won't fall next time. To grow to maturity knowing that God will provide you with everything you need to be complete and able to persevere. To gain a humble perspective so that you won't be hindered by pride from seeing your continuing need for God. To know that God is using your trials to display His glory and prepare you for eternity with Him. Whenever you respond rightly to trials and temptations, you can come out of them, reaping these benefits and, in the end, genuinely considering it pure joy.
More in James
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