January 10, 2021
Years ago, a group of researchers from UCLA did this nearly decade long study where they wanted to study the home life of the average middle class American family, where they wanted to learn more about what life looked at home, learn more about which rooms and spaces families spend the most time in, things like that.
And in their research, they a noticed a curious trend, an inconsistency that came up over and over again, and that is, the average family spends far less time in their backyards than they think or say they do.
That is, the average family claims to spends lots of time outdoors in their backyards, and even more, many families put in all this work and time and money to improve and beautify their outdoor spaces, but yet in reality, most families don’t actually spend much time out there.
Now, why this is is probably for a few reasons, one being that in this digital age, the gravitational pull of our homes happens to be wherever our screens are (most likely our living rooms), and in addition, most of us want to believe or reinforce this image of ourselves as being more outdoorsy and adventurous than we actually are.
All that said, the reasons behind this disconnect within our home lives isn’t really the point. Rather, the point is the inconsistency itself. You see, what these researchers found through their study, was a theme, an inconsistency, a disconnect, that appears in our lives all too often, and that is, the disconnect between our beliefs and our actions, the distance between what we say we want, who we say we are, what we profess to believe verses how we actually live, what in reality we actually do.
And in many ways, that’s what the New Testament book of James is all about. It addresses this disconnect that is all too common for us as Christians and as followers of Jesus, this disconnect between our faith and our actions, the disconnect between what we believe and how we actually live.
And so this morning we’re beginning a new sermon series on the book of James, one that will carry us for the next 12 weeks or so, from now to Easter. And the book of James is, in many ways, like few other book of the bible. It contains very little theology, very few big or confusing bible words, and even more, there’s very little mention of Jesus or the gospel. Rather, it’s primary focus is in helping you and I as followers of Jesus apply what we believe to the everyday stuff of life. James’s intent is in helping us in aligning our faith with our actions, with what we believe with what we do, or as James will later say, “Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers.”
And so James is an intensely practical book with specific application and relevance to our everyday lives. In fact, in just 108 verses, there are 59 commands. It’s a book that cover a wide variety of issues in a short period of time, issues such as trials, poverty and riches, favoritism, social justice, our words and speech, boasting, planning, prayer and more. It’s a book that combines the wisdom of the Old Testament Proverbs with the teachings of Jesus, written in the form of a pastoral letter.
It’s short and sweet, practical and to the point, filled with great one liners and vivid illustrations and metaphors, and those very qualities are often times why many people like it so much.
Yet with that said, I do need to warn you, those very positive qualities cut both ways, in the sense that James will also often challenge us with hard truths, telling us things we may not want to hear, in fact he often gets personal and in our business more than we might prefer.
It reminds me of a great line playright Tennessee Williams, who was once asked once why he stopped seeing his psychiatrist, and Williams was quoted saying, “Well, he was meddling too much in my private life.” Sometime over then next few weeks, you are going to think to yourself, “James, you’re meddling too much in my private life.” Now, you may or may not feel that this week, but it’s a feeling that will almost certainly come.
Yet in the end, I’m confident James’s meddling will be good for all of us, both in encouraging and strengthening our own lives and our individual relationships with the Lord, and yet even more, in reevaluating the integrity of our witness and our credibility to the wider community around us. After all, one of the greatest critiques and charges against us as Christians is that we’re all, to some extent, a bunch of hypocrites and that we don’t practice what we preach. Well, James is here to help, to at times gently, yet often times forcefully compel and persuade us to practice what we preach, to live out what we know, to actively apply what we say we believe. Because truth is, in the end, it really doesn’t matter if we do or don’t spend the time our backyards that we claim we do, Lord knows I don’t, but yet, it matters a ton when it comes to our faith. It matters to our own spiritual health and wellbeing, it matters in our relationships, it matters in our witness to the world around us, and it matters to God himself.
In the end, my favorite summary of how I’ve heard the book of James described is this - “A beautifully crafted punch in the gut.”
Which, I guess is nice, because if you’re going to get a nice punch in the gut, it might as well be beautifully crafted, right?
All this to say, I think that concludes my longest sermon introduction ever, let’s dive into the letter itself –
James wastes no time whatsoever and begins his letter with a bang, with a bit of a head scratcher, and depending on how you’re feeling today, maybe something you initially may not want to hear. He says this …
2 Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds …
How’s that for a start, right? 2 Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds … James is saying, you know the trials in your life, I want you to see them, I want you to consider them as joys.
Now, it’s important we clarify a couple things here. When James uses the word trials here, this word has a wide range of meaning, where it’s almost synonymous to words like testing and temptation, which we’ll be introduced more next week. But for today, trials here mean what you probably think they would mean – they’re the hardships and challenges and struggles and heartaches of life. And so, a trial could be the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, financial hardship, a painful break up, a discouraging diagnosis, a season of incredible pressure or demand at work or at home, the list goes on and on. Trials are the hardships and struggles of our lives, some more painful than others, some lasting longer than others, but trials nonetheless. And James says, as for those trials, consider them pure joy.
And when James says to consider our trials with pure joy, he doesn’t mean this in a stoic, macho, masochistic kind of way, where it’s not as if we look at our trials and say through gritted teeth, “Wow, I’m really loving the pain and suffering I’m going through right now.” No, not at all.
Because notice what James says immediately following here. He gives us the reason. He says,
2 Consider it pure joy … whenever you face trials of many kinds, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. 4 Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.
Notice the thought process, the argument here. James is saying, when you experience trials, consider them as joys, because trials will strengthen you, they’ll develop perseverance within you, and as that happens you’ll grow into more and more maturity, more and more Christ-like.
That is, consider trials as joys, because as is so often the case, God wants to use the trials in our lives to make us into more mature and complete followers of Jesus. That is, with the trials that we go through, God wants to use those to do something through you. What God puts you through, he so often wants to work through you, and through them we can rejoice and be thankful for them in the lessons we learn from them and the ways in which we are strengthened by them.
One of the books I was reading in preparation for today’s message is by a pastor and author by the name of Dan Doriani. And he writes about a trial that he experienced and the joy that he found within it. He writes about his role as a husband and a father, and how with a full time job he had this routine of coming home and playing with his kids, and from his perspective he found parenting to be rather easy, all sweetness and bliss and worry free, his kids so wonderful receptive and attentive to him and his instruction. But then his wife, who was at home with the kids during the days, suffered a herniated disk, where she had to spend a week in the hospital and then two more on bed rest. And for Dan, as he had to take on more and more responsibilities, found parenting not be so easy anymore. He says he for a few weeks there had to play father and mother and cook and caretaker and nurse and with him having to leave work early, leaving tasks unfinished, what do you know, the children started whining at him. He says he “wore out,” began delivering instructions and commands to his kids more loudly. And he says, his wife, from her bed, gave him this look of, “So, where’s the wise father now?”
Now Dan’s wife was certainly enduring a trial of her own with a herniated disk, but yet Dan was experiencing a trial of his own too. He says, “I saw my false pride, my lack of self control, my sin, my need to repent, my need of mercy and grace … in time, I realized that this trial helped me develop perseverance as a father .. this trial revealed my weakness and immaturity .. He says, I never rejoiced that my wife fell ill, but I was thankful for the lessons her illness taught me.”
Notice that distinction at the end there, for Dan it wasn’t that there was joy to be found in his wife’s illness, but rather joy for the lessons that her illness taught him, how it changed and matured and grew him.
James says, 2 Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds …
And so in light of James’s charge here, I want to encourage you all take some time this week and think about how James’s words here might apply to you in both situations past and present.
By past, I mean, try and think back to a trial in your life in the past, a difficult season, a trying time, and reflect back on how God used that trial in your life for good, ways in which God used a trial in your past in order to grow and mature you. And the thinking behind reflecting on the past is that if you can look back and see the joys within your past trials, then it’s all the more likely that you’ll be able to consider your current trials with joy as well, because you’ll be able to say to yourself, “God, I’ve seen you bring good out of hard and difficult times before and God, I know you can do it again.”
And then, in addition, think about a current trial in your life. Maybe it has to do with your health or finances, failure or heartbreak, work or home life, personal or relational, whatever it might be, think about a current trial and what might it look like to consider that trial with joy?
Truth is, the perspective or attitude that we bring to our trials, the way in which we view our trials often makes all the difference.
For example, let’s consider the trial that we’ve all been going through for the past 10 months or so, yes, I’m talking about the COVID-19 pandemic. Friends, would you say you have or are considering it with pure joy? (Remember, I told you James will at times tell us things we do not want to hear … )
No doubt about it, the coronavirus pandemic has been an incredible testing of our faith. In fact, it has tested us in seemingly too many ways to count.
And I think the question James would ask us is, are you able to consider it with joy, are you prayerfully and thoughtfully ask God, “God, how do you want to change me or grow me through this?” or do you see it as something that we simply have to survive and get through with bitterness and contempt. Truth is, the way in which we view this current trial will either may it more or less likely for us to be changed for the good by it. You all, my hope is that whenever it is that things are truly back to normal, whenever it is that this sanctuary is filled with people again, with choirs singing, the Fellowship Hall fellowshipping, whenever that day comes, my hope is that from now to then that you and I would be stronger, more mature, having grown in perseverance, more loving, more courageous, more generous, more compassionate followers of Jesus.
No doubt about it, the coronavirus in so many ways has been and is an incredible tragedy, but maybe just maybe, in the ways it’s growing both us individually and together as a church it can be seen with joy.
Alright, one more thing I want you to see in this passage, from these initial words from James, one more point of application, that relates to how respond to the trials of our day, and that is, not only should we consider them as pure joy, but in addition, in our trials, to ask God for wisdom.
James says, 5 If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.
And asking God for wisdom can mean a couple different things in light of the trials that we experience, on one hand, we may ask God for wisdom when it comes to how exactly to respond to the trials in our lives. For example, when we’re anticipating and preparing for a difficult and possibly contentious conversation with a co-worker, we can ask God to give us wisdom, wisdom as to what to say, how to say it and when to share it. Or if we’re trying to figure out how to best care for an aging and sick loved one, we can ask God to give us wisdom, as to what steps to take, who to listen to for direction, how much is yours as a spouse or son or daughter to hold in the care process, and more. That’s one sense in which we can ask for wisdom.
But yet we can also ask for wisdom in a much more general sense, as we alluded to before, this sense of, “God, I’m not sure why this is happening or why I’m going through this, but Lord, help me to see, give me the wisdom and insight to see how you might use this for good … Or God, how might you use this trial in my life to make me more like you?
Those are a couple ways in which we might ask God for wisdom in midst of our trials. And as it says, God will give generously to all without finding fault. It is in God’s character to love and desire to give his people wisdom in midst of their trials.
And yet, notice what follows, there’s a strange and curious warning about how we ask for wisdom. It says,
6 But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind.
It seems like a strange follow up to this command about asking God for wisdom and a God who generously gives it. But as Eugene Peterson paraphrases in the Message, the idea is that we don’t go to God as if he’s one source of wisdom among many, as if we’re just keeping our options open, should some better source of wisdom come about. No, we’re to ask God for wisdom with the firm and confident belief that he truly is the greatest source of wisdom above all, and to trust that He has it and trust that he’ll give it. Another way to say it is that we would go to God asking for wisdom for it like we’re desperate for it and dependent on it. And as it relates to trials, this seems to be an additional way in which we can consider our trials as joys, that is, it highlights and reminds us of our utter dependence on God himself, that God will provide for us, guide us, sustain and direct us in midst of the trials we face.
I’ll finish with this. For many years, scholars past and present have debated and discussed as to whether James belong in the bible. After all, as I mentioned in the beginning, there’s very little mention Jesus in the book of James, and hardly any mention of the gospel, about grace and mercy, salvation and eternal life. And to some extent, that’s true. If you do a word search, there’s not much there. But yet in another sense, if you’re looking for Jesus, I promise he’s there, it’s just that you may have to read between the lines.
You see, James can say in a genuine and sincere, 2 Consider it pure joy … whenever you face trials of many kinds because he’s been there himself having faced intense persecution within the early church. But yet, there’s another way of course, you see, James, was in fact, Jesus’s brother, James grew up with him, lived life with him, and watched his brother endure the greatest trial of all time when he went to the cross.
And here’s how the author of Hebrews reflects on this moment in Jesus’s life. Notice the words he uses …
The author says, … let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, 2 fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
Did you hear that? For the joy set before him he endured the cross, for the joy set before him he endured that painful death, deadly trial. We can face the trials of today because Jesus faced the greatest trial there ever was. And he did so, not begrudgingly, but with joy. And so may we too run with perseverance the race marked out for us.
In James, we find a “beautifully written punch in the gut.” And yeah, that means the words may sting from time to time. But yet, Lord willing, we’ll feel not just the sting, but the sweetness of the gospel, the good news of grace, as we see Jesus in between the lines.