Listen: Simon Manchester presents Christian Growth. Photo credit: Eddi Aguirre
In this episode, Simon teaches on how we can find comfort in life’s trials. Follow this series at Lessons From The Book of James — A ‘Christian Growth’ Series
What we’re gonna do, friends, is we’re gonna take nine Sunday mornings to learn the New Testament Book of James together.
I’ve been trying to think how to begin this series with you so that you appreciate this book, although it’s loved by many Christians already. Perhaps the most helpful thing to say, as we begin this little series in the Letter of James in the New Testament, is that it was written by Jesus’s brother, that is his half-brother. Remember that Jesus was born of Mary. But Joseph and Mary, the New Testament tells us, had at least six other children. And James was probably the oldest.
He was not a believer in his brother, his half-brother, and he must have watched him grow up perfectly in the family, watched a perfect life lived out in front of him. Maybe he was jealous, maybe he was angry. He was certainly blind and unbelieving. But when Jesus rose from the dead, we’re told in 1 Corinthians 15, that he went to meet with his half-brother James. And the next thing we discover in the New Testament is that James is not only part of the church, but has become a great leader in the church. That’s why I think he can put the word James at the top of the letter. That’s how it begins.
James 1:1. It’s not the disciple James, brother of John, son of Zebedee, because that James had already died. But here is the half-brother of Jesus, now a church leader, totally changed, absolutely transformed. He’s a brand-new person. He’s not just moderately persuaded, you know, as if Christianity has become his new hobby. He’s not superficially religious. Remember that phrase of Samuel Marsden, “He knew a man who is varnished with religion, just a little thin coat of religion”? No, James is 180-degrees converted, revolutionized.
And I think that’s why the letter is such a searching letter because James writes as a changed man, calling on real new people to live a new, changed life. And he therefore describes in the letter what Christianity looks like when everything changes. It’s as if he’s writing to say, “This is what Christianity really looks like. Don’t settle for a placebo or a fake/false Christianity”.
There are also amazing references, all through the book of James, to the Sermon on the Mount. I’ve printed a little list on the back of your service sheet. You’ll see there, 21 examples of topics which are in James and the Sermon on the Mount. Sermon on the Mount, of course, is also a description of what it’s like to be transformed. James is a letter about what it’s like to be transformed. I wonder whether James and Matthew were friends or whether James has attempted to preach on the Sermon on the Mount to expand it and apply it.
He writes verse 1, “To the 12 tribes scattered throughout the nation”. This is a very clever reference to the people of God. Remember the people of God in the Old Testament were once gathered at Mount Sinai, 12 tribes? And then, eventually, because of unbelief, they were scattered out of the Promise Land. And then, Jesus gathered 12 apostles and then he scattered all his people to the far ends of the earth. Gathered. Scattered. Gathered. Scattered. And James writes to the scattered people of God.
A letter about faith
What’s the letter all about? Well, it’s very hard to find one topic that will cover the letter. It’s not about works. Some people think that James is the kind of the works writer of the New Testament. It’s got a lot to do with faith. Faith comes up again and again in this letter. And I think that he’s describing what faith looks like, not necessarily when you work harder, but when you understand more clearly where you stand with Christ. So, here is James, who’s met his half-brother risen from the dead, writing to other believers around the world, including us, to tell us what faith looks like.
And one of the first things that faith looks like, verses 2-5, is that it enables you to evaluate your troubles. As my first of three points this morning, to evaluate your troubles, verses 2-5. Verse 2, “Consider it, literally, all joy, my brothers when you face trials of many kinds”. It is the privilege of the Christian, once you’ve been brought to see that Jesus rules all over time and all over space, that you can evaluate your troubles in the light of the truth. It’s a very practical thing that James says to us, because we face trials of many kinds, and we need to evaluate them. We need to see that they may not be a nuisance. They may actually be cause for joy.
“James wants us to know that no trial is outside God’s loving purpose…all trials are going to work some kind of perseverance in us.”
We know that, of course, trials can do us good. We often get that impression by looking backwards and seeing the way we went through a tough time and it did good to us. I was reading this week a brief biography of a very busy pastor. He says that he was struck down with double pneumonia and he was hospitalised for two weeks at the most busy time of his ministry. But as he lay there in the hospital bed for two weeks, he “rethought” himself – and he abandoned the idea that he was the Messiah. And he decided that he would cancel all early morning meetings and all breakfasts that he’d been rushing around doing. And that he would give himself in the morning to meeting with the Lord, and reading the scriptures, and praying, and singing. And he said it changed everything about his ministry. And he looks back on his two weeks in hospital with a sense of joy and gratitude. We know these experiences. We sometimes look back and we understand.
James, however, is not just talking about trials where a good reason is soon obvious. He wants us to know that no trial is outside God’s loving purpose. It’s impossible. It cannot be. And all trials are going to work some kind of perseverance in us. Even a dull sermon! Somebody once said, “You may be listening to a sermon that does nothing for you, but God is teaching you patience through that sermon, perseverance, endurance”. And that’s why he says in verse 2, “There are trials of many kinds,” but verse 3, “they promote perseverance”. And verse 4, “They bring maturity”. Literally, this word means “completion”, or “finish”, or even “perfection” – coming to the goal that God has for you.
Trials and hardship are part of Christian life
Now, I think it’s fair to say that what we naturally do, what we humanly do is we think to ourselves, “It’ll be joyful if I escape a trial”. And we think that for our friends, don’t we? It’s quite natural. It’s quite obvious. It’s quite normal. We hear that somebody is going through a tough time, “I want them out of that tough time”. And I might even pray that they’ll come quickly out of that tough time. And that’s completely sensible.
But we also know that we’re not in heaven. And so, we need to be realistic. Christian life is not a breezy escape. We know that perseverance is not going to come if life is all smooth, and easy, and soft. And maturity is not going to come. Children who face no checks or challenges in their upbringing are not gonna grow well. They’re probably not even gonna be happy. I watched a little boy this week berating his parents in a shop to buy him a DVD. And eventually, they gave in and bought the DVD, and the little boy was worse-behaved. I think he thought the whole world was his oyster at that point.
And James is very wise here. He could well say to us, “By all means, pray that you escape trials”. That’s reasonable. “And rejoice when loved ones do escape trials”. But because we live in the real world and trials are going to come, now is the time to evaluate them. You might not get the answer to the question, “Why has this happened?” But you might be able to ask yourself, “How am I now going to respond? How might God be using this?” And when we think about the fact that God is good and great, it is possible to evaluate what’s happening to us.
We may say to ourselves, “Well, at least, I know I’m being saved from deeper or at least greater shallowness. I’m being deepened in perseverance. God is working for my maturity. I can’t see exactly what He’s doing but I understand the principles”. And in our best moments, we know that there are some deep and ugly things in us that need some deep and loving work from God. God is too interested in our godliness to leave us in our ungodliness.
And if we could see what He is working towards, if we could see the finished product of the believer, if we could see how carefully and tenderly He does His work and how He holds back what is unnecessary, and if we could see the eternal perspective, we might agree with the puritan who wrote, “One hour of joy in heaven will make amends for an age of trouble on the earth”. One hour of joy in heaven…
Ask God for wisdom
So I think we can see the logic of this. That we don’t want to be spoiled brats, trials will help us to grow, exercise will make us fit, effort will build muscle, all that sort of thing. What do you do, however, when you just, for the life of you, cannot see the point of a trial, the ones that are too much too take? Do we really want to take James 1:2 and go around and read it to people who are in death camps, or in palliative care, or who are starving, and just glibly say, “Count it all joy”? Well, of course, James has more to stay than just chapter 1, verse 2. And we don’t wanna over-read chapter 1, verse 2.
So the second thing this morning is we not only need to evaluate our trials, but we also need to evaluate our prayers. Verses 5-8, he says, “If anyone lacks wisdom”, context – to work out what’s going on – “they should ask God who gives generously without finding fault. And it will be given”. So there are times when we can’t see any wisdom or joy in certain trials that we’re going through. And that’s where James says, Chapter 1:5, “We need to ask God for wisdom”.
“James’s advice is to ask for wisdom from God. And He gives generously…God is pleased to help us so that we can cope, or even thrive, or even rejoice.”
Alec Motyer in his commentary puts it like this, “Suppose the day comes as it does and will, when circumstances seem to mock your creed, when the cruelty of life denies God’s fatherliness, and His silence calls in question His almightiness, and the sheer haphazard meaningless jumble of events challenges the possibility of a creator’s ordering hand, and life’s trials test your faith for its genuineness, what do you do then?”
Well, James’s advice in Chapter 1, verse 5 is to ask for wisdom from God. And He gives generously without finding fault. I don’t exactly know how this works. I don’t wanna pretend that there is a way of describing this in just one sentence. But I think it comes down to something like this, that you’re basically saying to God, your Heavenly Father, “I can’t see the point of this, and I don’t know that I’ve got the resources to cope with this” – or maybe you’re thinking of somebody else – but, “I am asking that in some way, You’ll bring some truth from Your word, in the power of Your Spirit, to bear on this situation so that I, or the person who is going through this, will be able to stand back and say, ‘I trust God. I can’t see all that is happening, but I trust Him.’”
And this Chapter 1, verse 5 is a lovely verse because it tells us that God is pleased to help us so that we can cope or even thrive or even rejoice. I think of Job, at the end of the book of Job, who wasn’t told why he was going through what he was going through, but he got to the end by basically kneeling down before God and saying to Him, “You’re great. You’re wise. You’re big. You’re clever. I don’t know why I’ve gone through everything, but I trust You. I am in awe of You. I think You are wonderful. And the things that I have gone through,” says Job, “are too wonderful for me.”
And if we come to God:
- who is generous
- who doesn’t criticize
- doesn’t get resentful
- doesn’t lecture us
- doesn’t say to us, “Why are you here again?”
- doesn’t say, “What did you learn last time?”
- doesn’t say, “What did you do with what I gave you last time?”
- doesn’t say, “Why are you back here?”,
…we’ll find that God is not only generous and able, but delighted to give help in time of need. That’s what God is like.
Humility and devotion
I read a story of some neighbours who took a food basket to a sick lady next door. And she wouldn’t answer the door. So, they went away with the basket. They saw her a few weeks later and they said, “We thought you’re unwell and we brought some things over for you.” And she said, “I heard the door but I thought you were the rent man so I didn’t open the door.”
And so many people, I think, think of God like that. We’re all tempted to think of God like that, aren’t we? That He’s actually after something. He’s coming to get something. He’s coming to take away something, not to provide something. But then we read in verse 6, and this kind of turns depressing, James suddenly says, “But if you do ask, make sure you don’t doubt. Or you’ll get nothing,” verse 7. And this is a heavy verse, isn’t it, because it seems all too hard. As if James is saying, “Look, your life is really tough, you must go to God. But you better go to Him with a perfect prayer, and perfect faith, and perfect trust or you’ll get nothing.” “Don’t come to God with your problems and your uncertainties. Just come with your problems and really, really strong faith.” And at that point, you want to say, “But it’s just not like that.”
And that’s not what James is saying either. James is not saying that. The word for doubt is not the word for uncertainty. God understands uncertainty. The doubt word that James is using here is the word for separation. It’s to come to God with a kind of a pretence or a hypocrisy. Or, as he says in verse 8, it’s to be double-minded. It’s to come to God and say, “I want Your help in trouble but remember that I am not Your servant. You are my servant. and when You’ve helped me, it’s so that I can go back to being in charge.” That double-mindedness, says James, that’s not going to be heard.
James wouldn’t be so heartless as to add burdens to burdens. He wouldn’t say to his readers, “You know, when life is difficult, call to God, just make sure you are perfect in faith”. What he is wise enough to say to us is, ask God with a genuine devotion. Because if you play games with God, in difficult times, it’s going to be doubly terrible for you, because He won’t play the game and then you’ll have the problems and no real answers.
God Gives us assurance and perspective
“So when trials come,” says James, and they do come… And I suspect if we collected this morning the sort of trials that people have gone through or are going through this morning… I mean, I just think of the complexity that some people are going through and the perplexity. What to do? If we were to collect a list this morning of everything people are facing, if we actually had the ability to express the complexity and the wide range of things that people are going through, it’d just take us all day, all weekend.
But James says, “When you are tempted to go anywhere and everywhere but God, go to God”. Don’t neglect this very precious first call, chapter 1, verse 5. That God is generous, delighted to help. And He’ll give you wisdom, which may help you to trust Him, it may help you to assess or evaluate what is happening. I think this is one of the great contributions of Christianity. One of the great contributions of Christianity is that God does not helicopter us out of our trials and just keep us childish and immature, but He walks with us on the ground and He equips us on the ground, and He gives us a long perspective. Jesus is risen for eternity. And He gives us deep assurance. He is generous. We know He is a generous God because He’s already given His most precious possession away, which is His Son. And He also gives us resources, promises, a word from God which can completely change our mind and change our attitude and change our helplessness in the power of the Spirit, so that we can go forward, even with joy.
“Jesus is risen for eternity. And He gives us deep assurance. He is generous.”
When Matthew Henry, who is the greatest Bible commentator, really, for the last 350 years… He was born about 350 years ago this month. His commentaries are still read and loved by many people. His first wife died after 18 months. He had three children, three little girls who died, one after the other. And when he was burying the third of his little children, he wrote in his diary, “The Lord is righteous. He gives and He takes. I desire to submit to Him. But Lord, show me where you contend with me.” The next Sunday, he preached on the text, “The Lord is gracious.” So, God somehow met him in his great grief and helped him to preach with perspective.
So, James says we must evaluate our troubles. We need troubles, of course, for growth, but we also need wisdom for troubles. And we need to ask God for the wisdom. And then when we ask Him, we need to make sure that we’ve evaluated our prayers so that they are genuine and sincere.
Remember the incredible riches you have in Christ
The third thing is that we must evaluate even our values, verses 9-11. “The brother in humble circumstances ought to take pride in his high position.” There’s a paradox. Verse 10, “The one who’s rich should take pride in his low position.” There’s another paradox. And I think this is an illustration that James is using, of how things are meant to be properly assessed from God’s perspective.
So here’s a Christian, Chapter 1, verse 9, in very humble circumstances. They are to balance up the fact that they’ve got few dollars, with the fact that they have been given every one of God’s riches in Christ. And somehow, at the very time that you’re looking at your few dollars, you have to say to yourself, “I am immeasurably enriched by Christ. God is my Father, He can look after me, He will look after me. I have a Shepherd. I have a Saviour. I’m immeasurably blessed.”
James is not asking the Christian, who is in extreme circumstances, to be heroic. He is simply asking normal Christian, who is tempted to despair or compare what they have with other people, to remember that he or she has received incredible riches, every spiritual blessing in Christ.
And the wealthy Christian, verse 10, is meant to see through their dollars. So they look through their dollars. And they look through their possessions, and their furniture, and their houses, and their cars. The rich Christian looks through it and says, “All of this is going to disappear. It’s not worth idolizing. It’s something which God has given me and He can take it away any time. And I am not going to depend on this, and I am not going to boast in this, and I am not going to worship this, and, if possible, I am gonna give this and lend this because it’s just not going to last”.
So the poor Christian goes forward in spite of little, remembering how much he or she has received. You need to keep reminding yourself how much you’ve received because we won’t, in our sinfulness, remember that. Would we? We’ll just remember how little we’ve received and how much somebody else has. And we therefore need to remind ourselves what the Bible actually says, that we’ve received massive riches.
And the rich Christian needs to go forward through all the temptations that their wealth and their plenty brings, because they are looking at what is really, really valuable. A London newspaper ran a competition asking for a definition of money. And the winning definition was this, “Money can be used as a passport to everywhere except heaven, and a provider of everything except happiness.” Good secular definition, good reminder for us as well.
And that’s why God’s grace helps us, because the people who have less are able to stay joyful with little, and the people who have more are able to rejoice in what they really have and maybe give away what they really don’t need.
Three closing questions
So, James gives this opening call to the readers, the believers, the Christians around the world to evaluate your troubles (they have a purpose), to evaluate your prayers (they need to be sincere), and to evaluate your values (what will last?)
I finish by asking you three questions.
- Can you trust and even thank God that the trials that you are experiencing are not random, but purposeful?
- Second, have you actually asked a generous God for the right attitude to what is happening, not just so that you will be free of trouble, but you’ll be faithful in the middle of it?
- And thirdly, are you seeing all your circumstances from an eternal perspective, thankful for the riches that you have received in Christ and sitting loose to all that is false and temporary?
Let’s pray. Our Father, we thank you in a fleeting world that you have brought to our attention the things of eternity. We thank you that you’ve told us that you are a sovereign, wise, loving, and powerful God. We pray that in the midst of trials and difficulties, you’d help us to assess and evaluate what is happening. We pray that you would save us from a quick and prayerless response. We pray that you would cause us to lift up our voice in dependence and in sincerity to you, that you would hear us as we ask for the resources we need, and that you would be pleased to help us to be those who respond with faith, and hope, and love.
We thank you, especially for your generosity to us in the person of the Lord Jesus, for giving us your very greatest gift and causing us to be immeasurably rich in him. We pray that you would fill us with gratitude and praise. We ask it in Jesus’s name. Amen.
- Follow this series at Lessons From The Book of James — A ‘Christian Growth’ Series