January 17, 2021
Back in 2005 the United States House of Representatives passed what is known as the Cheeseburger Bill. And I wish that I could tell you that the bill had to do with providing free cheeseburgers to all Americans. But no, the Cheeseburger Bill is more accurately or legally known the American Personal Responsibility in Food Consumption Act, and this bill sought to protect companies and food retailers, specifically fast food restaurants such as McDonald’s, from an increasing number of lawsuits from overweight customers, who took legal action in claiming that such fast food companies were to blame and responsible their weight and deteriorating health status. And this bill effectively said no to all this, that no, individuals can’t sue companies for the negative consequences that come about from eating their unhealthy food, such as cheeseburgers, that individuals willingly and freely chose to eat.
Now, I know this story might be kind of humorous, one of those “only in America” kind of stories, but yet, I think it’s also a rather illuminating and sobering reflection of our human nature. Because as silly as it might be, the tactics and events that led to the Cheeseburger Bill are from a playbook that you and I know all too well. This tendency that you and I have blame someone else or others for our faults rather than taking personal responsibility. Truth is, we’ve been doing this for a long time now – going all the way back to Genesis 3, for when God asked Adam about why he ate from the tree, his first words were, “The woman you gave me, Eve, she made me do it.” And friends, men have been putting their foot in their mouth ever since … You see, from the beginning of time, you and I have this tendency and impulse, where in our sin, in our struggle, in our giving into temptation, to not take personal responsibility for our stuff, but rather blame or fault someone else.
And that is in many ways what James is calling out and bringing to our attention in our passage this morning, where he’s reminding us that in the trials of life that we face, the challenging moments, the difficult situations, the trying seasons, that should we ourselves succumb to temptation, we have no place for blame shifting, and especially, as James says outright, we have no right to blame God for our sin or wrongdoing.
Now before we get too far ahead, let’s set the stage a little bit here. Last week we started a new sermon series on the New Testament Book of James, it’s short and sweet, practical and punchy, as it says a lot in few words. And one of its primary themes, one of its main goals, is in helping you and I as followers of Jesus apply what we believe to the everyday stuff of life. And James began his book by discussing the trials of life – the hardships and challenges and struggles of everyday life – after all, life is hard in a lot of ways. And in a bit of a surprise, James began by encouraging us all to consider our trials with pure joy, that we would see our hardships and challenges and struggles of life with a sense of joy, because as James goes on to articulate, God wants to use the trials in our lives to make us into more mature and stronger and more complete followers of Jesus. That is, God wants to do something through you in midst of the trials we go through.
But yet, the trials in our lives can play out in a couple different ways depending on how we respond to them. They can either work in a positive way, where they test and strengthen our faith for good, or, and here’s the connection to our passage today, they can work in a negative way, where we fall into temptation and sin because of them. In fact, the Greek word that is used through James 1 for both trials and temptations is one and the same. It’s the same word, it’s the same idea, with the fundamental difference being how we respond to the trial itself. Does the trial strengthen our faith in Christ for the good or does it tempt us into sin? Ultimately, the choice is ours.
For example, say you or a friend or family member lose their job. Is that a trial that can be used for their good or is it a temptation that leads to sin? Well, it’s all in how we respond.
Maybe the loss of their job leads to some real and honest self-reflection. Honest self-reflection about why they lost their job in the first place, or maybe a sense of hope and openness to how God might be using this trial in their life for good, or for new possibilities, a new season. Where in it, they ask God for wisdom, as we discussed last week, asking God, “God, what are you trying to teach me about you or about myself through this trial?” Approached in that way, it can be a trial for their good.
Or maybe the loss of their job leads that person to bitterness and anger and a slew of false accusations. Maybe it leads to inappropriate or offensive comments to their fellow employees on the days before their final day or slandering and gossiping about them in town or on social media in the weeks after their depart. Approached in that way, it’s a trial that leads to temptation.
Trial or temptation? It’s all in how we respond. And should we give into temptation, James says, 13 No one, when tempted, should say, “I am being tempted by God”. Or to use the job loss example one more time, none of us should try and excuse our sin and wrongdoing in response to a job loss on God himself, saying, “It’s all God’s fault. If I didn’t lose my job, I wouldn’t have responded in such ways.” James is saying, no, no, no. That’s not how it works. You can’t just pass the buck on this one. Yes, it’s true, sometimes God brings before us trials and challenges that test our faith, but yet he does not tempt us into sin.
Rather he says, “14 But one is tempted by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by it”
Trials can be tests for our good or temptations that lead us to sin. The difference is up to us.
Now, here’s another example - you may have noticed verses 9-11, where verse 9 says, “9 Let the believer who is lowly boast in being raised up, and the rich in being brought low.” When it says a believer who is lowly, it likely means poor. And this section on poverty and riches kind of sticks out like a sore thumb in midst of verses 1-18 on trials and temptations. It’s kind of like, what do poverty and riches have to do with these other sections?
Well, the connection seems to be that being in a state of poverty or being rich can be a trial or temptation in and of themselves.
For those who are poor, or when we are financially struggling, it can test our faith for good or bad, it can either grow us in our dependence on God or bitterness towards him. And so James says,“9 Let the believer who is lowly boast in being raised up,” meaning, let the believer who is struggling financially to rejoice in his high standing before God as a follower of Christ.
And for those who are rich, who are financially thriving and prosperous, it can test our faith for good or bad, either we steward our resources well as a gift from the Lord or we can grow in our pride and self-sufficiency because of it. And so James says, let the rich boast in being brought low. And he says that, because the rich will disappear like a flower in the field. That is, our earthly wealth is temporary. Wealth ultimately withers, it falls, it perishes, it disappears. We won’t have it forever.
The writer of Proverbs says it well when it says, Give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, “Who is the Lord?” or I may become poor and steal and so dishonor the name of my God.
The point of the poverty and wealth section seems to be simply this - poverty and wealth can bring their own trials and temptations too. It’s all in how we respond. And together it reinforces this theme that trials can either be tests for our good and for our growth or they can lead to temptations that lead us into sin.
Later in our passage James says, 17 Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights. And this point is crucial to remember in midst of the trials we face. That our God is loving, he is generous, he is holy, he is good, and he puts trials before us for our ultimate good. And if we trust and truly believe that God truly is good, that he puts trials before us for our good and for our growth, if we can hold tightly onto that truth, then trials can bring us towards greater and greater faith and maturity in Christ.
Now, with that said, I should clarify something. There’s been a rock in my shoe all week as I’ve reflected on last week’s passage and this week’s passage, a rock in my shoe, something that’s made me a little uneasy and uncomfortable all week. Maybe the same is true for you. And here’s what I mean.
Last week, we discussed what James means when he talks about trials. that they’re the hardships and challenges and struggles and heartaches of life, big or small, which could include even things like a life threatening illness and even the death of a loved one. But yet, if you connect the dots from that definition to our passage today, does that mean that God puts us through the greatest tragedies of life in order to test our faith, as if God is saying, “Alright, let’s see how much faith you’ve got” or that there are temptations lurking behind the shadows in some of our most trying moments? You can see what I mean when I say this can all feel a little bit uncomfortable and make us feel a bit uneasy.
Truth is, why certain trials and tragedies come before and what their purpose is, we may never fully know, but at the very least, it’s worth acknowledging that we always need to show incredible care when it comes to what we say when someone is experiencing incredible loss or pain. For example, if, after your spouse dies, if one of my first questions to you is, “What do you think God wants to teach you through this? or if I were to say to you “consider this pure joy” well, that would be poor pastoral care on my part. On this one, and no surprise here, we can learn a lot from Jesus, who when he met Mary and Martha, after their brother Lazarus died, didn’t say, “God has a purpose in this” or “I want you to find the joy in all this”. No, first and foremost, he comforted them, then he wept with them. That too should be our first impulse and response when walking alongside others in their grief and loss.
So, all that said, though the general principles around trials and temptations remain, we need to tread very carefully and respond very cautiously when drawing conclusions regarding the greatest trials and tragedies in life. Often the best things we can do is sit, listen and weep. In fact, musician Alison Krauss I think absolutely nails it when she says, sometimes we say it best when we say nothing at all.
Alright, a couple more things I want to highlight before we wrap this up. I don’t know about you, but in many ways, I feel the weightiness of this passage, or in other words, I when I read James’s words here, I feel like I don’t measure up. For example, James says,
12 Blessed is anyone who endures temptation. Such a one has stood the test and will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.
Blessed is anyone who endures temptation? Well, gosh, I feel like I give into temptation more than I’d like to admit.
A crown of life for those who have stood the test? Well, gosh, I feel like I’m getting a test grade of C or C+ on more days than not.
And when James says, “No one, when tempted, should say, “I am being tempted by God,” only to then say, “But one is tempted by one’s own desire.”
James might as well be saying, “Friends, if you’ve really want to know who is to blame here, it’s you. The only person you can blame is to blame yourself.”
And as sobering as that realization and confession might be, Jesus wants to come alongside you, not with words of guilt, but words of grace.
Truth is, when it comes to fighting temptation, guilt is a terrible, terrible motivator, where it creates this vicious cycle, where you give into temptation, which makes you feel guilty, and then since you feel guilty you find yourself looking for something that’ll make you feel better, so what’s easiest thing to do? Well, go back to the temptation that gave you those fleeting feelings of happiness in the first place, which leads to more guilt, and the cycle goes on and on. If you’ve ever promised yourself you’d sit on the couch and only watch one show and then watched six or only eat one cookie and end up eating a dozen, well, you know what I’m talking about.
In the end, guilt is a terrible motivator, but yet, grace is a powerful one.
When we fail, when we give into temptation, Jesus stands there with a word of grace.
The last verse in our passage, there’s this curious phrase,
18 In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth
And that, though our sin gives birth to death, God gives us birth by the word of truth.
He gives us a new beginning, he gives us renewal through the word of truth, that is, the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ.
So friends, when we give into temptation, we don’t have to point the finger at someone, or blame God for failures, we can with a real and strange sense of hope and peace, simply blame ourselves, because Jesus is standing right there, not with guilt, but grace.
For as it says, 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.
For as it says, Jesus, as he went to the cross, wore a crown of thorns, so that we, though oh so undeserving could receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.
So friends, make no mistake, when temptation comes your way, fight against it with everything you’ve got. But should you fail, know that Jesus is standing right there, not with guilt, but with grace.