Sunday, July 5, 2015

James part one - trials that lead to growth (1:1-18)


We are reading from a letter written by James (around the year 50CE), the younger brother of Jesus, and a leader in the early church, to Christians who had been dispersed due to persecution. This letter was intended to be circulated to strengthen people who wanted to be able to follow Jesus with credibility through tough times; hence starting with the topic of trials. Basically, this is a letter about practical everyday faith.

“Trials” come in various forms and quite frequently. Trials tend to test our faith and our coping mechanisms. Such trials, we would not have chosen for ourselves! We didn’t want it, we don’t like it, but here it is! A “trial” has been defined as, a trying experience or person. So, from illness (and various other trials) to that critical person, trials come with the power to undo us. But James teaches here that trials also come with the power to teach us and grow us. After all, if everything was easy how would we grow!?! Think of a tea-bag. Unless that tea-bag is placed in hot water, what good would it ever be!?!

Ø You might quickly reflect on a trial that you have endured and what you might have gained out of it;
Ø You might also now reflect on a current trial, one which you’re not quite sure where it is heading.

I know we have people here who have had recent and difficult trials – and we would never want to underestimate their pain. In fact, first and foremost, whenever someone we know is enduring suffering, we should simply be there as supporters. We don’t need to ask or say anything, for we pray that there will, in time, be the space for God to bring about the healing. God draws close to all those who are suffering, bringing forward a special measure of peace – calming disturbed waters.

Trials and endurance (v.1-4)

The teaching before us asks us to change our perspective on trials – to look beyond the trials to a particular long-term outcome i.e. “that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing” (v.4b). And because of this grand outcome, we should endure whatever trials come upon us with “joy” (v.2), because we know where such trials are taking us. Easy to say! Yes … but what alternatives do we have? It’s either look beyond, or be squashed under the weight.

This is, of course, not just a human quest; but rather God is with us as we seek to endure trials. This new perspective on our trials has been described with the phrase, ‘choosing what you did not choose’ (Jacques Phillippe), i.e. ‘I choose to accept this situation, even though I did not choose it deliberately, as a situation in which God can work for my good and His glory’.

Ø It is another worthwhile exercise for us to consider how it would look if we were “mature and complete, lacking in nothing” [… if we could be described in that way]. If we are able to answer this in a God-inspired way, and have a true picture of our potential ‘maturity and completeness’, then, according to James, enduring various trials will help us get there!

What do we mean by the word “endure”? To “endure” is to go beyond the first and second efforts – we don’t give in or become passive, nor get bogged down in ‘why’ or ‘when’ questions. There are gains to be made on the way through and further gains out the end. To become “mature and complete” is something to be open to … not striving for so much, but allowing God enough access to bring this about! So, we don’t so much fight against tough times, but rather flow with them; some may even say … ‘embrace’ them.

Again I don’t want to underplay certain tragedies that come upon us. Any violence or abuse committed against us is always wrong and remains wrong. Perpetrators are not excused from their culpability and responsibility (even if they can be forgiven at some stage). God regrets that such things happen to his people – this comes from evil. Yet, God, over time, can still bring about healing, new possibilities and growth.

Unfortunately people often blame God when bad things happen to them; and this can produce a life-long antipathy towards God and the church. However, God cannot do evil … for God is Love … and evil is incompatible with love … only human beings can do evil. God on the other hand, weeps with the oppressed and violated, and seeks to restore them to health.

Enduring trials can, for some, be quite a lengthy process. Those in this situation will always benefit from our prayer support. I would invite any such people, struggling with some area of pressure, to ask for prayer support (if you haven’t already). Don’t expect people to just know – you may need to communicate your need. There will be others who can testify to the sense of peace and blessing that they have received, through knowing that others are praying for them. And we shouldn’t deny that we are under trial, or try to hide our trials, because we really do need the support of others to come through to the other end. We should be developing a mutually supportive environment in which people can easily share about their difficulties in daily living (without any judgement occurring).

Life is full of trials – that’s just the way it is. Work issues, disloyalty, family disruption, broken relationships and financial problems are further forms of trial. There are also times of trial that come against whole communities (including churches) e.g. complex demands or concerted hostility. Such trials are never a judgement against us – rather they just happen as part of life. But all is never lost, for there is something to be gained. Trials of various kinds can be seen as learning experiences and opportunities to draw closer to God. For example:
·        a short period of unemployment might help us clarify what we should be doing with our working lives;
·        a virus might force us to take the rest we have needed for quite a while;
·        a betrayal may help us define what are the most important aspects of friendship, and then apply these;
·        a shortfall in cash might train us to trust God more.

Another definition of a “trial” says, testing the qualities of something. Any new invention needs to go through a (possibly rigorous) period of trial or testing before it reaches its optimum performance – the same goes with life following Jesus. So, there actually may be some new quality of character formed or helpful insight gained through a time of trial. One such quality could be ‘empathy’ – a new level of understanding and compassion for others under trial, due to similar trials that we ourselves have recently endured.

Trials do tend to bring suffering at times. Three very important things when we start to think about suffering:
(i)                Jesus does not observe human suffering from a distance, but is somehow in human suffering … with us and for us – from the cross Jesus draws all suffering people to himself … Jesus is the ultimate source of grace and help in any time of need;
(ii)              Nothing can separate from the love of God – this Paul tells us in Romans (8:35-39) … not hardship, not distress, not persecution, not famine, not nakedness, not peril, not sword, not even death;
(iii)            Just as Jesus understands and enters our suffering because he has already suffered himself, we are able to use our suffering to understand and enter the suffering of others.

Double vision (v.5-11)

Let us turn to a problem that James raises about our capacity to see and understand this positive view of trials. In verse 8 we read about the person who is described as “double-minded”. Because they don’t really see nor understand, they can’t expect to “receive anything from the Lord” (that will take them forward). The “double-minded” person has severe trouble with “trials”. This is because they lack wisdom and make poor decisions; for wisdom is needed to bring meaning to where trials may lead.

What is a “double-minded” person?? They look to God sometimes, but not always; this is often because they have more ‘gods’ in their life than just their Creator. They sometimes pray, but then often act as if they hadn’t prayed. In happy or prosperous times, God seems a good enough option when it suits them. However, under pressure they may tend to look in other directions, and more and more ignore God. Such people have actually kept their options open.

We see this so often – people “driven and tossed by the wind” … going nowhere good. And, looking on, it’s so hard to know what to do about it! People in this space seem to get more and more fixed against God and us. We can only but continue to love them, pray for them, help them practically when we can, maintain friendship with them – at the same time continuing to humbly live out an alternative life orientation.

Why doesn’t a “double-minded” person “receive anything from the Lord”?? It’s not that they don’t want it as much, nor that God doesn’t love them enough [as much as anybody else] or that God doesn’t want to bless them – but rather that they remove themselves and don’t give God access. This is so sad! It might be material things that get priority (over God); this is why being “rich” is so problematical (refer verse 11b). God can only be found from a place of humility, a place of admitted brokenness, from the lowliest of places … where it is God who lifts us up (v.9).

So “trials” come, in part, even though it can also go the other way, to get our minds focussed, to keep us grounded (in God) – to remove that ‘double-vision’, and to dispense with ‘stuff’ that gets in the way. Such ‘stuff’ might be sin, or it could be baggage like bitterness, or it could be surplus material concerns. It could also be pride, or a desire to remain in control. It could also be a mess of frantic activity in which we seek to hide. The person who is able to form a more singular focus (and gain wisdom) will grow their roots deeply into God. When any strong winds come along, even a hurricane, he or she will be able to maintain their footing.

Temptation (v.12-16)

James goes on in verse 12 to speak about one particular type of trial – “temptation”. Temptation never, of course, originates from God, but rather from human desire; from those vulnerable places where Christ has not had total victory as yet. This is where there is an internal human inclination toward doing the wrong thing. The greatest temptation of all is to place our own wants above and beyond other people’s needs – to seek to control others according to our own agendas. And one of the direst results of giving in to temptation, and we think especially of the family situation here, is not being for others the sort of person they need us to be for them, but rather something a whole lot less.

However, God is always available to help us overcome temptation, as long as we are also prepared to restrain ourselves; and when we fall, show regret and a sincere desire to change. Jesus certainly set us an example of how a singular vision (rather than a double mind) can beat temptation (refer Matthew 4:1-11). God helps us to overcome temptation, in part, by giving us ‘alternative life pictures’, or by offering us, as James puts it (in verse 12b), “the crown of life”. This is the ultimate life, an expression of our full potential, following the way of Jesus, enjoying our relationship with God, fulfilling worthwhile occupations, being effective, and demonstrating all the attributes of God’s character.  One such ‘alternative life picture’ is found in 2nd Timothy chapter 2 (v.11-12a) – “If we have died with him [Jesus], we shall also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him”.

First fruits (v.17-18)

Verse 17 points out that all goodness has its origin in God. Any goodness that we can impart has its origin in God’s character. It flows from God to us. We were actually born with this potential to impart goodness – each us made in God’s image – male and female (Genesis 1:27). Trials can disrupt this flow of goodness, or, on the other hand, seen with the right perspective, trials can actually manifest goodness. One example of this goodness is generosity. We often learn generosity through tough times. As we become generous people we actually become a demonstration of a giving God; or if you like, we turn the lights on … for God to be seen as His generous self.

This passage from James then, has taken us on a journey, from trials that can be endured, to vision that can be rectified, through temptation that can be overcome, to a level of growth whereby we partner with God in His mission. So, there it is, we can be joyful in trial … when it all can turn out this way!! God gives us today what we will need for tomorrow. As we look back through what we have endured, we can only thank God that He has made sense of it all … via who we have become.

Enduring trials with new perspective, gaining new wisdom, and resisting temptation, will all lead to becoming what James describes as, “a kind of first fruits of his creatures” ... basically, 'leaders in the community' (v.18b). Just as the first fruits of a harvest were given and dedicated to the work of God, this means lives that are set aside for God’s good purposes. This means we have a ministry to the world; or … at least … to anyone that God places across our path! The experience we have gained, and our level of growth … lights the path for others. We can reflect the hope that trials can be endured, and evil can be restrained. Our very lives can testify that God is loving, merciful and faithful, and that, because of this, life can take on new meaning. Amen!

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