A. The background of the Book of James
Let us first to know the author of the book.
James was Jesus’ half-brother. During Jesus’ ministry, James was not a believer in Jesus and he didn’t understand Jesus’ claims about himself. He is resistant to what Jesus said, ambivalent about Jesus, ignorant about who he really is, even more, he was hostile to him. It wasn’t until Jesus rose from the death and appeared to James, that he comprehended Jesus is the Son of God.
James’ letter has often been criticized. As James doesn’t talk much about Jesus, makes few references to Jesus, and his style of writing is abrupt as he changes his subjects very quickly. Even more, it seems like there’s no overall structure or organization to his letter. And yet, this letter has found its way into people’s affection.
James writes as a pastor, it’s like he’s delivering a series of short sermons,
addressing everyday issues like wealth, poverty, suffering and favoritism, conflicts and words, and writing in a way using lots of proverbs and illustrations. He often uses common images and pictures drawn from everyday life like horses and rudders, gardening and farming…etc. that his readers could relate to.
But above all, James’ letter is extraordinary. Because James, writing as a changed man, calling to changed people to live changed lives. He addresses his readers in Chapter 2 as ‘believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ’. And throughout the whole book, it’s like he’s saying, ‘This is what real faith in Jesus looks like’, ‘Don’t settle for a watered down, weak, comfortable and compromised Christianity’.
B. The Reality of trials
Of all the things that James could begin with, this is what he thinks his readers need to hear first
He says, ‘Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds’.
James gets directly into a difficult topic, he speaks about how we’re to handle trials.
Trials are difficult things that test your faith and they can work in one of two ways:
they can make your faith stronger, more resilient, and more active or trials can destroy faith.
When faced with suffering, people often say, ‘How could God allow that?’
‘I can’t believe a loving and powerful God would let such a thing happen’
So, James wants to inform his readers that he knows they are facing their own troubles.
When Jesus spoke to his disciples, he said, ‘A servant is not above their master. Because I suffered, you’re going to suffer’.
Ordinarily, people who followed pagan religions expected their gods to shield them from suffering – to give them a better life of health and prosperity. People do the same thing today ‘God, I’ll follow you, if you give me the good life. I’ll do good by you if you do good by me’.
But Jesus provides no such incentives, He says to his followers, ‘You’re going to have to take up your cross and follow me’.
It’s not just because we’re going through a season of uncertainty and difficulty in COVID and distancing restrictions, economic recession and political tension. It’s also because if we live long enough, we’re guaranteed to face suffering. Difficulties with our family or career, the loss of health and loved ones, may push back from us as we seek to follow Jesus faithfully.
James wants his readers to know how to handle suffering. He’s saying, ‘This is how real faith helps you to evaluate your troubles’. So, in this opening passage, James tells us four things about how to persevere through trials.
C. Perseverance through Trials
1. Consider the purpose of trials (verse 2-4)
In verse 2, ‘Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.’
When James says, ‘consider it pure joy’, it is based on the results of suffering. The result of these trials is perseverance. Considering it is joy, because your suffering will produce a steadfastness. It’s not a passive submission to circumstances, but an active and deliberate endurance. That grows your faith in the long-term and produces spiritual maturity, making you more like Jesus.
No trial is outside of God’s loving purpose, God places trials in our lives to refine us,
to help us know ourselves and help us know him better, to get to the goal that God has for us.
God is too interested in our godliness, to leave us in our ungodliness, he sees those things in our lives which need to be changed, those aspects of our character that need transformation.
He diagnoses our sin when we are unaware of it, or passively tolerant about.
God will also use trials, although painful, to bring us to maturity. When you encounter something difficult in your life, think about why that trial is there. Rather than becoming fixated on your circumstances, or being embittered, ask yourself, ‘How can this lead me to maturity, to hold onto Jesus more strongly, to love him more dearly?’
All the sending and withholding in our lives is managed by God for our ultimate flourishing.
2. Ask for the right help (verse 5-8)
Secondly, we should ask for the right help.
In verse 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’.
When a particular difficulty comes into your life, what do you do? How do you persevere through it and get that joy? Does it come from doing a course, or mastering some technique, or asking Google? James is telling us to pray to God, asking him for wisdom and help in getting through. Going to him and saying, ‘God, give me wisdom to understand this situation’.
And do you see what James says? You should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. God is delighted to provide what we need to persevere and reach that maturity. But notice as well, what James says in verse 6, ‘Make sure you don’t doubt’. The word James uses for doubt is not uncertainty, he uses the word for ‘separation’, what it refers to is that when you come to God with a pretence or a hypocrisy or as it says in verse 8, to be ‘double-minded’.
As James is saying, when you are ‘double-minded’, you’re trying to serve two masters, you concern about your own agenda rather than interested in God’s agenda, how God can make you to be more mature and look more like Jesus.
3. Remember the truth (verse 9-12)
Thirdly, we remind ourselves of the truth.
In Verse 9, ‘Believers in humble circumstances ought to take pride in their high position. But the rich should take pride in their humiliation—since they will pass away like a wild flower.’
Initially, it seems like James has changed the topic, to speaking about rich people, but he is not.
He’s using an illustration about how life is to be properly assessed from God’s perspective,
whether you’re in good circumstances or in tough circumstances.
James is addressing the deception that our physical situation embodies the complete truth about us, one of the reasons we can fall apart during trials.
Is that we think because our physical situation is threatened, our real security is threatened.
If we think our physical situation is what matters most, we’re defining ourselves by these things, rather that the truth of what we have in Jesus. Your sense of peace and security becomes tied to our situation in life.
But all the way through the Gospels, Jesus teaches his disciples about their real status in God is not based on the circumstances, ‘the first will be last and the last will be first’.
That He who humbles himself will be exalted, and the one who exalts himself will be humbled.
The message of the gospel is that even if you’re the poorest and most destitute,
you’re somebody in Christ!
So James says the same thing to Christians,
‘Take pride in your high position. See what you have in Christ’,
‘In him is the only security we can ultimately trust in’,
‘Look at your circumstances from an eternal perspective and sit loosely to worldly riches’.
4. Identify priorities (verse 13-18)
Lastly, we should identify our priorities.
In Verse 13, when tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed.’
James is trying to get us to see that temptation is a normal part of the Christian life. We should expect temptation. But we should also understand where it’s coming from. Often when suffering comes, we become filled with self-pity, self-obsessed, and bitter; and when we make mistakes, our tendency is to put the blame on someone else. We may even say, ‘God is responsible. Look at what he’s done. He’s tempting me’. But James is saying, ‘No, that’s not what’s happening’! God is utterly pure and loving,
God is not to blame for our temptation, we are.
James says in verse 14, ‘each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed’. The uncomfortable truth is this: we are tugging away at our own evil desire. Hence, we can’t blame any of the things around us. James uses the Greek word “epi-thumia”, it generally means an over-desire. It’s when you desire excessively on something ― say, you love human approval more than God, you love power more than God, or you love money more than God. If suffering comes when these things are threatened and your over-desire for these things leads you to sin. It leads you to self-absorption and bitterness.
A way to get through trials is to identify those priorities you have that are ahead of God,
those over-desires in your heart. And you say to them, ‘You cannot provide the security, the satisfaction, the joy that Jesus can’ And you ask God to help you.
Charles Spurgeon prays to God,
‘Lord, when I have the inclination to sin, take away the opportunity; and when I have the opportunity to sin, take away the inclination’.
Therefore, we persevere through trials by considering their purposes; asking God for help; remembering the truth; and identifying our priorities.
In times of trial, it’s easy for us to lose sight of the good things God has given us, all we need to remember is James’ words in verse 17, ‘Every good and perfect gift is from above’.
We need to remember most of all, the one given from above for us, we’re told in Hebrews 12, ‘let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith who for the joy set before him he endured the cross,’ Did you see that? For the joy set before him Christ endured the cross. What did Jesus not already have before Him? He had glory, He had splendour, He had perfect love and communion within the Trinity of Father, Son and the Holy Spirit.
But He didn’t have us ― We are the joy that was set before him that made him endure the cross and the joy of being with us.
Christ endured the cross for us, so that we could be forgiven, our sins paid for, He loved us so much that he endured everything: abandonment, humiliation, scorn, hate, pain, death, separation from God, for us. When life seems dark and things are getting bad, we persevere, for what God is doing in us, for how he’s shaping us for our good. But most importantly, we endure out of love the One who endured for us.
Somehow, as James says, we consider it pure joy when we face trials, as Christ endured for the joy set before him, we look forward to that day when we see him face to face, when faith becomes sight, and there is no need for perseverance anymore.
Heavenly Father, thank you that you are sovereign, and you are good. Thank you that even though we cannot always see why things happened to us in life, we can trust you for who you are. We confess we often come to you seeking the things you give us rather than seeking you alone. But we are grateful in your sovereignty you send difficulties that we learn to trust you. We pray that you shine the light of your Spirit on those area of our life where we need to change, where we are trusting in something else for our security rather than trust in you. Thank you to come very close to us through your son Jesus, that Jesus became acquainted with sufferings who is a man of sorrows, and ultimately when he went to the cross and he borne upon himself the crushing wave of our sin and judgement, so that we would no longer be condemned but vindicated.
God’s righteousness given to us. Lord, help us to trust in Jesus the one who walks with us in our sorrows and help us to persevere and to finish the race until we see him face to face, and hear those wonderful words, ‘Well done, my good and faithful servant.’
We ask all these things in His name. Amen.