As I write this study, the city of London is flooded with people as the teams assemble for the 2012 Olympic Games. Much talk has been about security, and in light of the terrible carnage of recent days, it is obvious to most of us that keeping both the competitors and the audiences safe is of primary importance. I doubt sincerely, however, that security is on the minds of those who are about to compete. To enter the games and to qualify requires a vast and relentless commitment. Hundreds of thousands of hours of preparation are the norm for this level of competition. The smell of sweat, the cries of agony and the smells of Ben Gay are the common cocktail of preparation.
Take, for instance, a gymnast. From the time a young girl is identified as particularly gifted by a trainer until the time of her grand competition is normally a minimum of five years. In those intervening years, the child is subjected to extreme diet conditions, extensive workouts and painful stretches. They are poked, prodded, tested and pushed by people who are tremendously driven to bring them to success. In the first part of the training, it is NORMAL for them to dislike deeply both the trainer, and the parents that put them in the training. As a result, the training includes – not just a strengthening of the body and stretching of the skills – but training of the mind. The competitor has to be made to understand that those who are causing her pain are doing it for her own coming victory. There truly can be no gain without pain.
Athletes get it. They know to build up the body, we tear into its abilities and create short term pain – but the result is the sculpting of the body’s muscles, the greater efficiency of the body’s systems, and the great ability of the body’s accomplishments. What is true in the physical realm, often highlights a spiritual truth. Trouble, like a weight-loaded exercise, can fall into our lives in a very painful and unwelcome way. When it does, it may cause us to pull back and doubt God’s goodness – just as the young athlete doubts the trainer’s intent. Deeply rooted inside us is the desire to gain pleasure and shun pain. Our society, even in the modern Christian world, has come to see pleasure and ease as blessing, and pain as the Devil’s hindrance… but that is not the Biblical view. The Bible doesn’t explain away all pain as an attack of the evil one.
Key Principle: God is often behind the weight of my troubles, teaching me endurance and offering me an opportunity to grow, excel and accomplish things I didn’t know I could.
He is training me for a better future by challenging me in the present – and it is not done in vengeance. It is His way of preparing us in love. Look at the way James instructs us about TROUBLE.
I want to look at the short reading twice in this study – first in Peterson’s paraphrase called The Message, then in the NASB I normally teach from. The first reading is for general flavor, the second is to try and taste each ingredient as we take the revealed truths apart.
The Message (James 1:1-12):
1:1 I, James, am a slave of God and the Master Jesus, writing to the twelve tribes scattered to Kingdom Come: Hello! 2-4 Consider it a sheer gift, friends, when tests and challenges come at you from all sides. You know that under pressure, your faith-life is forced into the open and shows its true colors. So don’t try to get out of anything prematurely. Let it do its work so you become mature and well-developed, not deficient in any way. 5-8 If you don’t know what you’re doing, pray to the Father. He loves to help. You’ll get his help, and won’t be condescended to when you ask for it. Ask boldly, believingly, without a second thought. People who “worry their prayers” are like wind-whipped waves. Don’t think you’re going to get anything from the Master that way, adrift at sea, keeping all your options open. 9-11 When down-and-outers get a break, cheer! And when the arrogant rich are brought down to size, cheer! Prosperity is as short-lived as a wildflower, so don’t ever count on it. You know that as soon as the sun rises, pouring down its scorching heat, the flower withers. Its petals wilt and, before you know it, that beautiful face is a barren stem. Well, that’s a picture of the “prosperous life.” At the very moment everyone is looking on in admiration, it fades away to nothing. 12 Anyone who meets a testing challenge head-on and manages to stick it out is mighty fortunate. For such persons loyally in love with God, the reward is life and more life.
What a fascinating way to paraphrase this little portion! It is earthy, simple and straight. I love the challenge at the heart of the message of the text – “Don’t shrink from trouble!” While the flavor is still being spiritually savored, let’s take a closer look at each verse, in hopes to really take apart the ingredients. Why? Because troubles come. They are a constant companion. Some of us go through seasons of trouble in our lives, and others, like “Pig-Pen” (the old Peanuts character) seem to be surrounded by clouds of dusty struggles. Let’s turn back to verse 1, this time in the New American Standard Version which is noted for its accuracy in noun and verb translation, because that accuracy will be critical to our understanding.
A Word about the Writer and Original Readers
1:1 James, a bond-servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ – To the twelve tribes who are dispersed abroad: Greetings.
To open the letter of James, we peer into someone else’s mail. Understanding a bit about the writer and the people whose letter we just cut open may help us grasp why the letter was so CRUCIAL to these early believers, and may even offer us a clue or two as to why the letter’s principles are critical to us as well. The letter opens with a short and pointed greeting that identifies both the author and the recipient.
First, who is this James?
The name James in Hebrew is Ya’acov or Jacob – and it was terribly common in the period of the New Testament. Jesus had two disciples that carried the name – the brother of John and one called “James the Less”. I always felt bad about the second one… I mean, do you really want to be known by having less than someone else? (For those boasting at Weight Watchers – perhaps the answer is YES!). In addition, Jesus had a half-brother named James – and I think this is the one who wrote the letter, though the Epistle doesn’t really say it is him. Why?
- First, the brother of John died a martyr in Acts 12, and that was so soon after the beginnings of the church, that it seems unlikely there was already a circular letter to send out to the Jewish world in the diaspora – or dispersion. He was a disciple, and therefore important, but his life span puts him in the suspect category for me.
- Some scholars muddy the waters even further by suggesting it wasn’t someone actually named James, but someone using the well-established practice of a pseudonym – a “pen name”. I find that argument really weak – since the writer left WHICH James ambiguous at best. The lack of any real follow up on the authority beyond the first line of the Epistle makes that really far-fetched in my view.
We have another alternative found in James, the half-brother of Jesus.
- If you read about the early church, you will find that Jesus’ brother was the most prominent leader in Jerusalem by the time of the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15. Clearly, as the Bishop of the church at Jerusalem (the speaking elder) his Jewish flavor would permeate the early writing from a time before the rise of the Gentile movement. The epistle of James is full of Jewish flavor written in “clear and elegant Koine Greek.”
- He saw the resurrected Jesus in a special appearance, and became prominent among the disciples.
- James other brother was also an Epistle writer – the one named Jude (likely a shortened form of Yehudah or Judah). Look at the beginning of the two letters and there is a distinct similarity. The Epistle of James identifies the writer as “a slave of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ,”. Jude, introduced the letter of Jude by calling himself “a slave of Jesus Christ, but a brother of James.” (Jas 1:1; Jude 1).
- Furthermore, if you look closely at the letter that was circulated on Paul’s second missionary journey in Acts (following the council of Acts 15) the salutation of James’ letter (the author of the circulated letter) includes the term “Greetings!” in the same way as did the letter concerning circumcision that was sent to the congregations.
It looks to me like the evidence upholds an old tradition that James was the legal “half-brother” of Jesus, probably from the union of Joseph before his first wife died (if the fragmentary Protoevangelium is to be believed). He was a respected teaching elder at Jerusalem. And the default voice of the Apostle’s meeting in Jerusalem at the Council of Acts 15. His words were eloquent, and seriously understood. He needed to offer little more than his name to the document to make it authoritative in the minds of the first hearers.
Who were the recipients of the original letter?
They were first century dispersed Jews that were increasingly coming to Jesus as Messiah and Lord. They were not in the land of Israel when Jesus walked there, and heard about His coming from the testimony of others. They were under pressure that would only increase as the century waned, and James was trying to encourage them. It was early in the movement, and they were still meeting in “synagogues” (James 2:2 the word “assembly” is synagogue in the Greek text).
Why does that matter? Some in church history have had difficulty with the letter because the flavor of this text sounds very JEWISH. It presumes that what you BELIEVE is what you ACT UPON. It is written to people who cannot separate the THEORY from the PRACTICE. The honorable sixteenth century scholar Dr. Martin Luther didn’t like it – because his rich understanding of “salvation by grace through faith” sometimes approached a theoretical belief. You have all met them – people who SPEAK CHRISTIANEZE but live STREET LIFE. James didn’t accept the premise that your faith was real if you didn’t live it, any more than your spouse would accept that your live ws real if they caught you in bed with another. I am being graphic to help you understand the extremity of the problem. Many people think they can SAY they belong to Jesus – and that erases their daily life.
The gospel is about surrender, not simply about word games and theological posturing.
Deep in the heart of the Jewish tradition is the notion that you really believe what you DO, not what you SAY. That is very thoroughly reflected in this Epistle. The first issue James tackled, under the guiding hand of the Spirit was the constant companion of troubles that flooded the life of a Jewish follower of Jesus. His first subject was – “THE TROUBLE WITH TROUBLES”.
Trouble 1: When troubles come, my heart sours – because I don’t see the point (1:2-3).
James 1:2 Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, 3 knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance.
A painfully literal reading of this text from its original language may help push our understanding beyond what we read in the English. James says something like this:
“Lead the way in moving your mind toward delight my dear family, particularly at the time when an array of proving tests are dropped into your life. When you rejoice in these things, you show that you have grown in certainty and prove you have gained a truly Biblical world view. It demonstrates that you have come to understand what God is doing to you is FOR YOU. The heavy weight of trouble is God’s way of building up your ability to remain under great stress.”
James called on believers to SEE THE POINT of their troubles. People can endure incredible pain and suffering – if they see the point. Discomfort for a purpose is somehow less crushing. The believer must unmask underlying attitudes about life that are both unhealthy and ungodly:
- Myth: If I am walking with God, my life will be easier. If that is true, then the Bible is filled with inaccurate accounts. From David to Moses, from John the Baptizer to Paul – the book is filled with accounts of people that had tough times WHEN THEY FOLLOWED GOD. I am not arguing that God will not be there for you – you know better than that. I am deliberately and forcefully opposing the highly circulated view that Jesus is about making my life easier. If you came to Him because you want LESS, you came for the wrong reason. Satan never knew your name until you became obedient to Christ. You were no threat until your heart possessed the Gospel and your lips were committed to share its truth. God does not want to hurt you, but the byproduct of walking with Him is the need for armor you didn’t even know existed before. Akin to this myth are a host of others like:
God is interested in making my life easier.
Easier is better.
If God is in the plan, it will work easier.
Let me stretch this a bit further. Many of us have the “mommy myth” about God. We think that it is only logical that since our mom loved us and her love was profoundly shown in her keeping us from pain and discomfort – that care is shown only in tenderness, providing comfort, and guarding against or clearing away pain. The Biblical truth is this: God is your Heavenly Father, not your Heavenly Mother.
Most dads have a different way about them. When a little guy falls down, most don’t take their boo-boo to be kissed to their dad. Why? He is a parent. Isn’t he? Yes, but he is not mom. He is not all about comfort. He has a different view of life than mom. He may feel that to prepare for big problems, a boy must overcome little problems. He may truly want to see the boy suck it up and take the pain. It isn’t that dad doesn’t care – it is that his care isn’t shown in automatically trying to remove pain and trouble.
Does God comfort? Sure He does. I am not a little boy, and my pain is not from some little scrape. At the same time, we must face a truth: God is highly interested in preparing you for greater use by Him in the future – and that may be best served by letting the pain and weight of trouble do a work inside us. Escape from all pain is not His chief goal – preparation and transformation are.
James wrote – first, deal with your attitude about trouble. If you don’t, nothing else will help.
Trouble 2: When trouble comes, I seek escape – not strengthening (1:4).
James 1:4 And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.
Once I believe that God is preparing me for something, I have the ability to look at strains and troubles like the training athlete. If I avoid the workout, I rob myself of the eventual gold medal. If I cheat on repetitions with the weights, it will show up later in the performance of my sport. I don’t want to press the image, because my life and your life is NO GAME – it is much more serious. At the same time, the idea of FLEEING the workout is natural.
I don’t like what hurts, no matter why it hurts. I know when I NEED a NEEDLE – but I don’t go looking for reasons to NEED one. I avoid people who give them! Escape from pain is a natural reflex. Only people numbed by serious delusion need pain to motivate them. At the same time, pain can be a GOAD to do something. The constant load can build me up!
Some years ago I found that I was getting sluggish (read: FAT). I wanted to trim a few pounds and get some endurance. The way I did that was strap on weights to my arms and legs and keep doing what I was already doing in my daily routine. The extra pressure built up muscles and increased endurance in my body. It works in the spirit as well. Running from the weight, fleeing the pressure will only rob your future usefulness to God.
James argues that I must deal with my patience about trouble if I want to be ready to be used by God for greater things.
Trouble 3: When trouble comes, I run from God – because I don’t understand why He let it happen (1:5).
James 1:5 But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him.
It is one thing to RUN from PAIN, it is another thing to RUN FROM GOD. I am not sure why this is the case, but I have observed that in our fallen state – when we are hurt deeply, we often turn away from God rather than seek His face. We may cry “WHY?” but often our tears seem to block our ears from listening – if God chooses to tell us.
James says something worth remembering: When you are getting pummeled by life and you don’t understand why – God is the right Person to ask about it.
We live in a time when people don’t understand the boundaries of privacy very well. I have noticed that among the younger set in particular, things that were once considered inappropriate to share in mixed company are no longer considered that way. We are a connected and sharing culture. I can look on twitter and see what breakfast cereal my friend in California ate this morning – though I can’t tell you WHY I would want to know, or WHY he would want to tell me. When troubles unjustly rain down on us, we must admit that more of us are likely to Facebook than PRAY. We are much more likely to pick up a cell phone rather than drop to our knees. There is something desperately wrong in the life of a believer that allows troubles to pummel them without seeking God about what He may be saying.
Not all trouble comes from God directly.
- Sometimes bad things happen because I live in a fallen world, and it is groaning to be redeemed. Tornadoes and Hurricanes aren’t all directed specifically at YOU – they are part of a larger process.
- Sometimes bad things happen because I live on a planet filled with rebellious men and women. They want to do what they want to do. If they want to drink too much and then drive – their choices may affect the course of my life. It is part of living in a fallen community.
- Sometimes bad things happen because I have been careless in preparations. If you don’t fill your gas tank, don’t get mad at God when the car stops on the highway late at night.
The fact is there are MANY reasons why troubles are introduced into our lives besides that of training for the future. At the same time, I have a lifeline to God that allows me to ASK THE QUESTION to Him about why they are dropping on me. The one thing I must NOT do, is assume God is somehow uninterested in me, or even MAD at me. God’s normal way of calling me to repentance is not THUNDERBOLTS that scare me – it is in KINDNESS.
Paul wrote to the Roman believers about God’s work in the specific context of passing judgment on other people and said:
Romans 2:1 You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.
In other words, watch what you say about others. The standard we judge other by, will be the standard we get judged by. Then he continued…
Romans 2:2 Now we know that God’s judgment against those who do such things is based on truth. 3 So when you, a mere man, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment?
He argues that God doesn’t change HIS standards, but those standards are always rooted in the absolute TRUTH. Since that is the case, if we judge someone else and our standard is right – the sword of truth will cut both ways. We cannot expect in others what we do not live ourselves. Now for the reason we are looking at this passage…
Romans 2:4 Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, tolerance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness leads you toward repentance? 5 But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed.
Troubles apparently aren’t God’s preferred method of communicating to the believer.
The problem is that many of us don’t get it. God blesses, so we feel ok about doing wrong. God blesses more to get us to blush with embarrassment over how we are mistreating Him, and we feel more deeply justified. In the end, the judgment against us is compounded because our heart was hard and head was thick. Here’s the point: Don’t look at all trouble like a WOODSHED moment, where God is giving you a licking for being bad – that just isn’t the case. ASK GOD if you want to know, and then become very sensitive and quiet – and He will open the door of answers.
James argues that I must set aside my doubt about trouble and ask God if I want God’s work to be effective in me.
Trouble 4: When trouble comes, my prayer wobbles – because I am not certain I can trust God (1:6-7).
James 1:6 But he must ask in faith without any doubting, for the one who doubts is like the surf of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind. 7 For that man ought not to expect that he will receive anything from the Lord, 8 being a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.
James doesn’t only address the fact that we need to ASK GOD, but he adds a few words about HOW WE ASK. God isn’t in the business of dealing openly with people who “hedge their bets” on Him with other possible answers. When you think about it – that behavior is specifically demeaning to the Lord of the Universe. We aren’t to “TRY GOD” while we keep our other options open. Doubts about prayer are doubts about God. When we aren’t sure our “prayers are getting through” we are essentially addressing God’s ability to HEAR US – and that is a reflection of what we believe about HIM.
Have you ever tried to stand up in a small boat in rough seas? You stumble and cling to the sides just to move about! That is James’ point: When we don’t really count on God to come through, we dishonor God. We act like He isn’t where we should put our trust. We treat Him as untrustworthy. Can you imagine? The God that created everything from DNA strands to rainbow light refraction should wait for me to believe that HE is enough?
James argues that I must directly address my prayer life if I want troubles to sculpt my life into something pleasing to the Lord.
Trouble 5: When trouble comes, an unwanted reminder surfaces – my control is an illusion (1:9-11).
James 1:9 But the brother of humble circumstances is to glory in his high position; 10 and the rich man is to glory in his humiliation, because like flowering grass he will pass away. 11 For the sun rises with a scorching wind and withers the grass; and its flower falls off and the beauty of its appearance is destroyed; so too the rich man in the midst of his pursuits will fade away.
The text does not argue for me to feel good about other’s misfortune, nor cheer another’s pain. It can sound like that – but on close examination that whole behavior is ungodly. What James is driving at here is the reality that we live a life of illusion. The young think they can stay up all night, mistreat their bodies and push their limitations – because they are in control. Soon gravity and wrinkles do their work. The first half of life we are willing to press out every ounce of energy to get ahead in a job that provides a good salary and retirement benefits. The second half of our lives we are ready to spend any amount of money to have back half the body we destroyed in the first half.
Here’s my point: I am not in control. My life is not in my hands. My wealth, and the wealth of my nation is not all up to our abilities and our cunning. We live in a world that is operated by greater power than ourselves. I didn’t choose the day of my birth, and if all goes well, I will not choose the day of my death. I have no control over what sex, color or nationality I was born. I do not know to what extent my genes play into illness or wellness. What I know is that I am not in control – and that control is an illusion in this life. With each passing year, that lesson comes home to me in a more powerful way.
James argues I must see clearly in the midst of my troubles if I want them to perform their work in me.
Trouble 6: When trouble comes, I feel it is a penalty or curse – I fail to see the opportunity to please God with my life (1:12).
James 1:12 Blessed is a man who perseveres under trial; for once he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him.
James says that some people can be trounced upon by troubles and still be blessed. The key is perseverance until proof emerges that God is pleased – even if that comes in the life after this life. We must remember that God never misses a tear cried in the pain of injustice. He never overlooks a heart robbed of innocence and cruelly abused. He is an all seeing and ever-present God – and He will one day make sense of it all.
Do not be deceived into thinking that life will make sense now, should make sense now, or NEEDS to make sense now.
We see the tapestry from the bottom side, where the threads are mangled and hang in a thoughtless pattern. God views from above, where the beauty of the threads have woven into a tapestry to tell His story. Stop looking for an explanation of everything this side of Heaven. Man doesn’t know. Experts don’t know. Doctors don’t know. Sometimes the answers will be delayed all the way until Heaven – but they ARE known there.
James argues I must look past this life to see the real benefit of troubles.
God is often behind the weight of my troubles, teaching me endurance and offering me an opportunity to grow, excel and accomplish things I didn’t know I could. Even when I don’t understand what He is doing, I can deliberately place my confidence and trust in Who He is!