Saturday, February 28, 2009

"Praying in Faith," James 1:6–8

Olympic gold medalist Darrel Pace was to give an archery exhibition in New York City’s Central Park, and the event received coverage by all the news stations. Shooting steel-tipped hunting arrows, Pace punctured bull’s-eyes without a miss.
Then he called for a volunteer. “All you have to do,” said Pace, “Is hold this apple in your hand, waist-high.” ABC correspondent Josh Howell took a bold step forward. He stood there, a small apple in his hand, a larger one in his throat. Pace took aim from 30 yards away as we all held our breath. Then THWACK-a clean hit that exploded the apple before striking the target behind. Everybody applauded Howell, who was all smiles—until his cameraman approached with a hangdog look. “I’m sorry, Josh,” he said. “I didn’t get it. Had a problem with my viewfinder. Could you do it again?”[1]
James calls for us to have faith when we pray. It seems like a simple thing. He's speaking to an audience who are sometimes running for their lives. This is the time when those who killed Jesus were chasing down the church trying to persecute and kill them too.
James says in 1:6, "when he asks, he must believe and not doubt." Remember he's talking about the need to determine to have joy when going through trials. Attitude is so important. Also James taught in verse 4 to persevere through trials, never giving up, gaining maturity so we are complete and mature, lacking nothing. If you go through a trial, and lack wisdom, ask of God, who gives graciously. Then comes verse 6, ". . . because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. (v. 7) That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; (v. 8) he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does."
So that's it. Easy, huh? Just pray in faith, and "walla!" If you've been following Jesus for a while you know that every time we pray God doesn't always go "walla." Some will tell you that you didn't have enough faith, and that's why you were told "no" by God. Some will say you didn't deposit enough into the holy vending machine (a.k.a. God), therefore you lost. I submit to you that faith is more than a guaranteed "yes" when we pray.
First, though, the believer must understand this: we must pray to God with faith.
We must pray to God with faith (v. 6) God’s people should pray to God with faith for wisdom and all else. Christians should have prayed in faith for wisdom during trials. It was taught to James' audience, and to us as well, not doubting.
Verse 6 expresses what Ralph P. Martin calls, “a painstaking and concentrated effort to obtain blessing for oneself or for others, material or spiritual, inspired by a confident belief that God in Jesus can supply all human need."[2]
I used to pray when I was younger for patience or humility. I used to have some of the most frustrating experiences; the most humiliating experiences. God was giving me exactly what I asked for. The ability to be patient comes through practicing patience in trying times. The ability to have humility and be humble comes from enduring humbling experiences, being reminded of how lowly we really are.
Now I ask God to help me be a humble person, like Jesus, but don't ever have to humble me please.
Re-read Martin's definition above. Philippians 4 tells us God will supply our needs according to His riches in Christ Jesus. But what is the difference between a want and a need?
When I was in 7th grade, I prayed that God would make a girl at school my girlfriend. I said, "God, I have a need. I need that girl." That wasn't God's will and he had a much more beautiful and a godly woman for me to meet much later in life. I thought it was a need, but it was a want. Later, in high school, I again prayed to God for a "need." I said, "God, I have a need. I must play football for the Chicago Bears one day." It happened. I was convinced that this was God's will for my life. But God showed me He had something else for me.
Later, when I was engaged, I believed God wanted me to continue in youth ministry and a position opened. I interviewed and was rejected, and was so confused. I was convinced that God wanted me in full-time vocational ministry, and had worked for several years in youth ministry, and needed to provide for my new marriage and possible family. I cried out, "God, what is happening? Is this not a need? If this is not a need, I don't know what is?" But I trusted God. I had faith that He knew something I didn't know.
Later on, I applied for youth ministry positions in Dallas in 2000, and was still convinced that God was calling me into full-time vocational ministry and to continue building on the five years of youth ministry I had. Out of seven (7) churches I applied for, only one was not youth ministry. It was pastoral ministries. I almost did not apply. They were the first ones to call, while I still lived in Chicago, and they asked, "Why don't you send us your resume anyway." That pastoral ministries position not only was a good fit, but by seeking God and accepting it, I learned that God had gifted me for pastoral ministries better than for youth ministry.
Maybe you have a similar stories. Each of those situations where we pray and don't get what I want is an opportunity to say: 1) God I tried it your way and it didn't work; I'm not going to serve you anymore. I know I can't fix things, and it doesn't seem like you can either.
2) God is good, faithful, gracious and compassionate, will not give us a rock when we ask for a loaf of bread, so obviously what I think I need is not. God must know something I don't.
This is crucial for following Jesus. The key word for Christians is "following."
The persons reading this probably can relate. Has this happened to you?
See, the prayer of faith is not claiming that I know what's best. It's not saying, "God, fill out my order and I'll pick it up." It's coming to God saying, "I know Your character is good and just. I'm coming to you saying I think I know what I need. But I have faith, not in my request, but in Your ability to supply what is best for me and what will glorify Your Name more."
I have prayed by the bed of many people suffering from cancer who eventually died. I asked for healing. More often than not, God has answered those prayers with a "no" and the person passed away. Did God answer my prayer? Of course. Just as He thought was best. I have begged and wept over people in my churches for God to heal them. Sometimes I have seen family members coming to faith in Christ because of the death of a loved one. The loved one died and went to be with the Lord, and was healed in that way. The family came to faith in Christ, and so the person was better off, and the family was too. God knew what He was doing.
This is not just with prayer, but with everything in the Christian life. We have to continue to put ourselves in position where we see things from God's point of view. Many skeptics of Christianity fail to see things from God's point of view, and so come to conclusions about God that are wrong.
God has a greater long term purpose than just the 70-80 years we walk the earth.
When we pray, we cannot doubt, which is the opposite of faith. "Doubt” means, “be at odds with oneself, to waver.” Doubt is not the same as non-belief regarding salvation; rather doubt here is disbelief in the character or capabilities of God. Doubting when we pray is to doubt the character or capabilities of God. So what is the application? Don’t pray to God with doubt.
To pray without faith is like asking someone to fix your car when you know they can’t do anything about it. Why bother? Either it’s laziness and you’re just trying to justify it, or its confusion. God knows exactly what He is doing. Pray to Him in faith.
Have faith when you pray.
Are you suffering through a trial and need wisdom? Ask God, knowing He will give it to you. What do you need God to do for you today? Ask Him in faith.
There is a repercussion to doubting. That brings us to the next point I want to make on praying in faith.
We must pray without hesitation (v. 7–8) Christians should not doubt, for that shows instability and double mindedness.
Why do I mention hesitation? Because when we doubt, we hesitate. We pray but we don't proceed because we aren't sure if God is able to answer our requests, or we aren't sure if God is aware of everything we are aware of. We're telling God, "I really don't believe You can do all that You say You can do, but here goes anyway . . ."
Verse 6 and 8 sandwich verse 7, but they speak of the same thing. Being tossed and blown and being double-minded or unstable speak of the same thing: Hesitation when praying to God.
“Blown” is a-ne-MEE-zo (still no good Greek text I've found), meaning “moved by the wind.” “Tossed” is hri-PEE-zo, meaning “to blow here and there; to toss.”[3]
Are you a wave? Are you floating without an anchor?
Are you thinking, "I know God knows best. I will have faith." Or are you thinking, "I'm not sure, God. What if I ask You for something and it doesn't happen?"
I worked day camp one year and each week we took our kids to a lake where they could swim. One of my campers wandered out too far, and I could tell he was in trouble. I waded out to him and held my arm at a distance, and reached out to him. I was standing flat footed, and as soon as I reached him he pulled himself onto me with all his weight and I nearly lost my balance, even though I was standing flat footed. If I had not been standing firmly, there is no doubt he would have drowned us both. Was there any doubt in that kid's mind that I had the ability and intention of doing what was best for him? If so, he didn't realize it. No, there was none. As soon as I touched him, he was all over me.
This is how we must view God: "God, You're in control. Sometimes You give; sometimes You take away, but blessed be the Name of the Lord all the time."
A Christian who doubts and hesitates is not a functioning Christian. God wants us to relate to Him and rely on Him.
As someone wrote in a commentary, "To waver in the presence of the Lord is to hold oneself back from Him."
My wife and I practice this with our kids. Since before our first was born, we have tried to practice good stewardship, reminding ourselves that these kids are God's, and they are loaned to us for a time to mold and shape them until they one day are released. Some days I really look forward to that time, "God, I'm ready to give them back!" Of course, I'm just kidding. I love those kids more than I could write here. One day, however, God will call those kids to serve Him somewhere in the world. If He sends one to Ethiopia, one to the west coast, or one to the far reaches of the earth. Wherever God wants to use them, that is up to Him.
When we travel, pray in faith. I traveled yesterday (2/21) through a snowstorm with Dave. We prayed for God to give us safe travels as we would end up spending an entire day traveling through a serious snow storm to attend a prototype short term missions planning meeting for the state of Wisconsin. We prayed that God would keep us safe, and in faith. If God thought that the best thing for our good and His glory was to allow us to be killed in that weather, and through our deaths many would come to faith in Him, then so be it. We trusted in Him.
This is where God wants us, and has always wanted His people. The condemnation God had for the people in Joel 2:13 (and other passages) was never for outwards acts of piety as much as for inward belief. God said in Joel, "rend your hearts, not your garments!" God led Moses, centuries earlier, to a dead end at the Red Sea, so that God could get the glory and Moses and Israel would draw closer to Him. Have that kind of faith when we pray!
What are the limits to what God can do? I've seen God take a married couple who were determined to divorce, and after their divorce reunite them so they are still married today to each other. 2nd marriage. God can do anything.
Faith is trusting more in what God has said than what I can see.
Third, let me communicate this: Doubt is the only Biblical “Name it Claim it” teaching. (v. 7)
The one who doubts receives nothing from God. Can Christians ask God for things and get a guaranteed response? Yes. If you ask without faith, and respond with hesitation, you can expect nothing.
Two very important ideas that come to play with prayer and faith are:
1) we need to have faith in God
2) but we struggle with control, and letting anyone have control over us.
We must have faith in God, and also give control over to Him. Taking control is to take things out of God's hands.
Matthew 13:53–58, (Jesus’ denounced as a local, regular man) (v. 58) “and He did not do many miracles there because of their unbelief.”
This doesn’t mean that he who asks in faith always receives exactly what he wants.
We can only control what we do in unbelief, not what God does through our belief.
It is possible that we go through the motions, but don't mean it. We pray the Lord's prayer at our church once a month. Do we mean it? "Our Father, Who art in heaven, hallowed (holy) be Thy Name." We ask Him for His kingdom to come, for His will to be done on earth. Just the same as in heaven. We ask God to provide for our daily needs, for forgiveness and to see that we have (hopefully) forgiven all who wronged us. We ask God to deliver us from all evil and not lead us into temptation. We proclaim that His is the kingdom, power, and glory forever.
A man named John Huss trusted in God to do what God would be most glorified in doing. He was promised by the government that he would not be killed for standing up for his faith in Christ. But he was killed after the government magistrate tore up the signed document. But his death sparked something: the beginnings of the reformation that Martin Luther would later pickup and spread. Because of this, the church returned to the truth of faith alone in Christ alone. I'm sure John Huss thought his work if left alive could accomplish more than in his death, and as he was tied to the stake, waiting to be burned alive, he probably had difficulty trusting God. But God used his death more than his life.
Homer wrote of Achilles, in the Iliad, that his heart was divided. This is the same wording for "double-minded" in James. Are you like that today?
Don't pray, "God, I think You can do something, so here goes. Oh well, it didn't work. Amen."
Pray like Hudson Taylor. In 1853, when young Hudson Taylor was making his first voyage to China, his vessel was delayed near New Guinea because the winds had stopped. A rapid current was carrying the ship toward some reefs and the situation was becoming dangerous. Even the sailors using a longboat could not row the vessel out of the current. “We have done everything that can be done,” said the captain to Taylor. But Taylor replied, “No, there is one thing we have not done yet.” There were three other believers on the ship, and Taylor suggested that each retire to his won cabin and pray for a breeze. They did, and while he was at prayer, Taylor received confidence from God that the desperately needed wind would be sent. He went up on deck and suggested to the first officer, an unbeliever, that he let down the mainsail because a breeze was on its way. The man refused, but then they saw the corner of the sail begin to stir. The breeze had come! They let down the sail and in a short time were on their way![4]
What faith in praying! Taylor was on his way to preach the Gospel to possibly millions in China. What is it in your life today that needs you to take the sail down? Pray to God, and put down the sail. Focus on what James says, "when he asks, he must believe and not doubt."
To start this faith journey with God, one must follow Jesus. Following Jesus Christ begins be believing what God's word says about Jesus in 1 Corinthians 15:3–4, "For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures." Acts 16:31 says, "Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved."
This is the first and most important step of faith. Believe that God is Who He says He is. After that, give Him control.

[1] Taken from, on February 19, 2009, 3:45pm. Originally from Bob Teague, Live and Off-Color: News Biz
[2] Ralph P. Martin, James, Word Biblical Commentary vol 48 (Dallas: Word Books, 1998), 19.
[3] BDAG, s.v.
[4] Warren Wiersbe, Wycliffe Handbook of Preaching & Preachers, (Chicago: Moody Press, ), p. 240

Sunday, February 15, 2009

"Faith That Works: The Treasure of Trials, pt 2," James 1:4–5

One of the most fascinating characters in early American history has always been our 7th president, a man who went by the nickname "Old Hickory." Andrew Jackson. If you were to ask his neighborhood friends growing up, he was the least likely of all of them to become president one day. Jackson’s boyhood friends just couldn’t understand how he became a famous general and then the President of the United States. They knew of other men who had greater talent but who never succeeded. One of Jackson’s friends said, “Why, Jim Brown, who lived right down the pike from Jackson, was not only smarter but he could throw Andy three times out of four in a wrestling match. But look where Andy is now.” Another friend responded, “How did there happen to be a fourth time? Didn’t they usually say three times and out?” “Sure, they were supposed to, but not Andy. He would never admit he was beat—he would never stay ‘throwed.’ Jim Brown would get tired, and on the fourth try Andrew Jackson would throw him and be the winner.”
It’s not if you get “throwed,” or how many times; but what you do about it! (From Our Daily Bread).
The first point to observe is James 1:4, "perseverance must finish its work, so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything." God’s people must persevere so they may be mature and complete. The twelve tribes of scattered believers should have continued persevering so they might be mature and complete, and so should we.
What does "mature" mean? "Complete"? The word for mature in Greek means “to meeting the highest standard; perfect.” This is the same root for the word “finish” in v. 3, meaning “finish, complete, end.” Persevering during trials is not just an end in itself; but for the purpose of becoming more mature; eventually “Holy as God is Holy.”
It's like going to work everyday. Some of us do it because we like it. We’re “special.” Most people work because at the end of so many days of working they receive money. So too, persevere through trials because you will receive the reward of spiritual growth and maturity: one step closer to being like Christ Jesus.
The same way with trials. They are a means to an end, not an end in themselves. We're supposed to be more mature in the end, so if that trial comes up again we are not as affected. If someone picks on you, makes fun of you, or gossips about you everyday, and everyday it affects you terribly, then you have passed through the trial without perseverance or maturity. Ralph P. Martin, observed correctly that the idea of maturity pertains to character, not works.
James emphasizes later in 2:14, “what good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds?”
The goal of being "Holy as I am Holy" is such a high and lofty goal. I watched a martial arts instructor show his students a new form, and it was very difficult for the students to hold that stance for 15 or 30 seconds. He calmly said the goal was to hold it for 4 hours. What! The instructor did not expect them to hold that stance for 4 hours that day, or the next day, or the next week, or even the next month! Perhaps in 5 years if they were disciplined.
That's what James is telling us. Eventually, after a life of discipline and perseverance, you should be mature, complete! Lacking nothing! By God's grace it is possible! One step at a time. Just keeping taking one step.

One of my mentors in ministry used to tell me, regarding reaching the world for Christ, "How do you eat an elephant?" (I have to admit, the first time I was confused, maybe like you are right now, but stay with me). "One bite at a time. It's too big." Take maturity one step at a time. One trial at a time.
Another question comes to mind then: Isn’t perseverance performing the proper acts or actions that please God? Isn’t God happy about that? Yes! But God wants people whose hearts are changed for Him, not just their outer acts. The prophets condemned Israelites for outward acts without an inward motive towards godliness. They said to “rend your hearts not your garments." They had a habit of repenting and showing their deep repentance by grabbing their front shirt collars and ripping them in two down the center, reflecting the broken heart. In Isaiah God said, “I hate your worthless sacrifices and festivals," or in 1 Samuel "to obey is better than sacrifice."
God always has and always will desire character over all.
Ask the question: Who are you when no one else is around? Are you meeting the highest standard or perfect? Are you better than the last time you were alone? How about with others?

Have you heard of a grindstone? DEFINITION OF A GRINDSTONE: a disc-shaped stone that revolves and is used to sharpen, grind, or polish edge tools. James Hewitt said, “Life is a grindstone. Whether it grinds you down or polishes you up depends on what you are made of.”[1] What are you made of? Think about that. D. L. Moody said, “Character is who you are in the dark.”[2]
James spoke exactly about this when he said "determine it joy when you encounter various trials." The grindstone will come, but you persevere.
This concept is very important to me as a pastor. Every pastor has a different emphasis, usually one of these five: teaching/discipleship, worship, evangelism, fellowship, or service. My focus has always been the first one, on making mature believers. Jesus called us to make disciples not decisions. A mature Christian will properly worship, witness, love the other brethren, and serve the Lord. Mature Christians will understand that God is the owner, they are the manager. James' point is to become such a mature Christian.
Character and perseverance working together combine to make the great "d" word. Discipline.
Jerry West said, “You can’t get too much done in life if you only work on the days when you feel good.”[3]
Another word is here, the word for complete, which means in the original language, “being complete and meeting all expectations.”

Principle #1: Trials are guaranteed; treasures are not.

Review what James said earlier: "consider it joy whenever you encounter various trials," not "if ever," but "whenever." Trials are guaranteed.

Now he says to let perseverance finish its work so that you "will definitely" be mature and complete? No, so that "you may/might" be.
We have a choice when we come to a trial, that we don't automatically experience a trial and come out with a treasure. It is possible you're reading this, and disappointed because during a previous hardship you think you came out without anything in the end. It may not be over, but it you may have missed the treasure too.
It's not just the people who come on Sundays and show more flamboyant expressions of their faith who are more spiritual. If you're in a trial, God is interested in you, and is looking for your character and nature.

Attitude is so important enduring a trial. We have to have the attitude of persevering through it if we are to become more mature. Joe Theismann illustrates this. For twelve years he quarterbacked the Washington Redskins, and during the 1983-1984 seasons he helped lead his team to two Superbowls. He finished his career as Washington's all time leading passer. He had an interesting insight reflecting on the two Superbowls, and the two different rings. The first Superbowl he was so passionate and excited, and the team won. The second Superbowl he left with the loser's ring instead of the winner's. He said later on, "I got stagnant. I thought the team revolved around me. I should have known it was time to go when I didn’t care whether a pass hit Art Monk in the 8 or the 1 on his uniform. When we went back to the Super Bowl, my approach had changed. I was griping about the weather, my shoes, practice times, everything.
Today I wear my two rings--the winner’s ring from Super Bowl XVII and the loser’s ring from Super Bowl XVIII. The difference in those two rings lies in applying oneself and not accepting anything but the best."[4]
Can attitude make that much difference when we experience a trial? Absolutely! Fill a glass half way with water, and ask someone if it is half full or half empty, and it will reflect their attitude.
So first, we must persevere through trials in order to be mature. I pray for our church, family, friends, community of Darlington, and other family and friends spread out all over the world that they might be more mature and that they might persevere. I especially pray for our church family to persevere and become more mature.

Second, if you lack wisdom, ask of God who gives it graciously. Earlier James had said we should be perfect and complete, lacking nothing (remember, hold that stance for 4 hours!).

If a Christian finds him or herself lacking wisdom, they should ask from God.
If any of you lacks” piggybacks off of the previous conditional phrase: “you may become mature and complete, not lacking anything.”
So James, do I have the ability to persevere through the trial not lacking anything, or will I discover after my trial that I am lacking something? Which is it?
Someone may be reading this, and despite all that has been written, you have come through a trial and can't find one good reason for it.
That's why James wrote verse 5. For the times when we cry out, "What good was my suffering?"
Ask God. He gives better and more graciously than the haughty people around James when he wrote this. Many gave to be seen by men (see Matthew 5-6), but God gives without haughtiness or arrogance, or spite. He gives graciously. Aren't you glad?
Implied is that we have to realize we don't have wisdom in order to ask of it. In spite of all our accomplishments, our house, cars, kids, symbols of status, we don't have all the wisdom that we could have.
This verse has been so instrumental to me and my faith. I claim it and pray it all the time, especially as a pastor. Sometimes I cry out to God saying, "Lord, I have no idea how You want us to handle this situation! If you don't give me the wisdom, we will sink!" That happens once every two years or so (hopefully you're laughing. If not, well . . .).
Proverbs 2:6 says, “The Lord [Yahweh] gives wisdom.” Isn't that good to have memorized? Proverbs also tells us more on how to find wisdom. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom,” (Prov 1:7)
If you've decided to be god in your life, you're off to a bad start on finding wisdom. Seek God, find wisdom. If someone is crying out for help, God is listening! Asking here means prayer, talking to God. I have yet to ask for wisdom and God not provide it. The wisest people I have met are those who have suffered through a trial.
I am amazed at finding some teachers once in a while who say that if you're suffering it's because you don't have enough faith. Then I have to take out 2 Timothy 3:12 from the Bible, which promises everyone who desires to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. Also tear out James 1, "whenever you encounter various trials." (by the way, all those I've known who are preachers and teach this--they all suffer greatly. I find that interesting).

Jonny Erickson Tada, 1967 driving accident left her paralyzed (CLARIFICATION; yes a DIVING ACCIDENT—updated 2/15/09 after finding out from I at first said she was in a diving accident, then during the audio copy of this message I had found a misinformation capsule, and changed it to "driving." However, I am sure now it was a "diving" accident.) She could have remained anonymous and paralyzed, but the treasure of her trial was to use her disability and good attitude to share the love of Christ with the world. She has done so.
Some trials in life invite perseverance, and leave us a choice. We can grow and mature if we take the initiative. For example, we can witness, attend the Contagious Christian class, and possibly find a way to share Christ with that person who we know who is lost. Or we can wonder what would have happened to them eternally if we had stepped out in faith, and how we might have matured. Part of the process of trials is the gift of wisdom.

Principle #2: Every Trial is an opportunity for a treasure

God is sovereign. James doesn't say, "God will give you wisdom," he says, "it will be given to him." It means that when you find that wisdom, you may not find it in a vision of Jesus like Paul saw on the road to Damascus, it is from God directly or indirectly.
“It will be given” is passive, even though we know it comes from God. It shows God’s sovereignty, as the Mover behind all the scenes.
We miss so much of what God wants for us because we go through trials, but don’t get the treasure.
Let me leave the reader with one last illustration that shows sometimes our trials have treasures we miss. Persevere, have a proper attitude, trust in God, look for wisdom. A boy went everyday from his cottage to the river to collect water in his bucket. He had a pinhole in the bucket so it would leak all the way home along the trail. He complained everyday because ¼ of the water in his bucket never made it home. One day in spring a long row of flowers budded, and gradually grew all along the pathway between the cottage and the river, and though the boy still complained that he had a hole in his bucket, he really liked the flowers. Their scent of honey and the swarms of butterflies and bees made the trip to the river everyday fascinating. Yet he complained even more about his imperfect bucket. Finally he was so irritated and consumed by the bucket that he threw it away and spent all he had to get a new one. His problems were solved. It cost him a lot, but he no longer felt so frustrated. Life was good. Yet, after a few days the flowers wilted by the path, and the bees and butterflies were gone. He was consumed by his own trial so much that he didn’t realize it was also a blessing to him, and to others.
Will you do me a favor, and everyone else in your life? Will you stop during your next trial and look around. Maybe there is a treasure in that trial; maybe you are suffering for a greater good; maybe God wants to use you to bring joy and happiness into someone’s life.
Maybe the very thing that is a pain in your life is a blessing in someone else's, and one day will be a blessing in yours.

We must persevere to receive the treasure of maturity (v. 4)
Principle #1: Trials are guaranteed; treasures are not
If we lack wisdom, we can ask God who gives graciously (v. 5)
Principle #2: Every Trial is an opportunity for a treasure

[1] Charles R. Swindoll, The Tale of the Tardy Oxcart, s.v. character.
[2] Swindoll, s.v. character.
[3] The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, John Maxwell, p. 65.
[4] Reader’s Digest, January 1992, also on, as of 2/28/09, 6pm.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Faith that Works: The Treasure of Trials, pt 1 (James 1:1–3)

The idea of trials happening to Christians is something not every pulpit permits these days. It is a secret in some places, and in others it is denied, being covered up as "unbelief." There is no secret, however, in Scripture, that if you serve Christ you should prepare to suffer trials

A young teenager dove into the water and was paralyzed as a result of a tragic accident. After decades of using this platform to minister to others, Joni Erickson Tada was visiting a prominent pool in Jerusalem which in Biblical times had supposed healing properties. Instead of wanting to be healed, she thanked God for her paralysis, because without it she would have have had so many opportunities to share Jesus Christ and His love with people around the world.
A year ago or so I read a letter from a person who suffered from cancer. She not only was okay, but she praised God for allowing her to experience such growth and maturity through cancer, and wished everyone could experience such maturity. My first reaction was "no thanks." But think about it in light of James. If it were not for the events in life that cause us to cry out to God, where would you be spiritually?
The first question when looking at a book of the Bible is "what is the background." Why is that important? Context. Context is what makes the difference in interpreting Scripture. In English, for example, if you use the phrase "how does she run?" You could be referring to a woman running, a girl running, an engine, a faucet or sink, or many other options. The phrases before and after affect the meaning. So who was James? Who was his audience? When did he write this epistle?

The date and the author go hand in hand. There are 4 James mentioned in the NT. James the son of Alpheus, one of the twelve disciples (Mark 3:18). James the father of Judas (not Iscariot), one of the Twelve Disciples (Luke 6:16). The problem with these first two James is that they are not the likeliest candidate because they are not given much prominence after their catalog highlight. Another possibility is James the son of Zebedee, who was brother of John, and one of the three disciples in the inner circle of Jesus—the other two being John his brother and Peter. (Mk 1:19). Problems: He was martyred in AD 44 (Acts 12:2) and this letter was most likely written after AD 45, probably AD 48 (as the pew Bibles at FBC say) when believers were no longer only in Jerusalem but scattered because of Peter and Paul’s Missionary journeys. (Note: The letter was probably written before the Jerusalem council as well, in AD 49–50 mentioned in Acts 15, because it definitely should have been alluded to if it had happened). The fourth James is a likely possibility, who is James the brother of Jesus, first mentioned in Matthew 13:55 as half brother of Jesus.
What made this fourth James stand out? He has more appearances in a prominent role in the church of Jerusalem and amongst Paul's letters. Paul had a high regard for James, Jesus’ brother, because he visited only him and Peter in Jerusalem (Gal 1:19, Acts 9:26–30), after his conversion c. AD 33. James was an authoritative figure (Acts 12:17, 15:13 as leader of Jerusalem council in c. AD 49 on the role of works in salvation; 21:18, “James and the elders"). James grew up with Jesus, but did not believe his older brother was the Messiah, as John records (John 7:5, “For not even his brothers were believing in Him”). After Christ’s resurrection, the risen Jesus appeared to Peter and the disciples, then James, and then the apostles (1 Cor 15:7). So James saw Jesus risen from the dead—which most likely was what convince him that his half brother was the Messiah. We know James believed in his brother as Messiah, because Acts 1:14 records that Jesus’ brothers and mother were with the disciples after Jesus’ ascension into heaven, praying with them. What would it have been like to grow up with Jesus as an older brother? What a model of perfection to live up to! "James, Jesus would have had that done without all the complaining." "James, Jesus always cleans up his mess. Can't you be more like your brother?" How did James feel when He was crucified? If anyone knew Jesus, it would be James. If anyone could witness to the fact that Jesus lived a perfect, sinless life, it was James. If anyone experienced the full spectrum of how people respond to Jesus Christ it was James, who rejected Jesus and later was a sold out follower of Jesus. He became a strong pillar and leader of the church.
So, the James spoken of in Acts and by Paul as leader of the Jerusalem church, and who wrote this epistle was most likely the half brother of Jesus Christ. That is who we will be referring to as the author. Side note: Jude, another of Jesus’ brothers, wrote a book with his first name on it as well (before Revelation).
What was James' theology and his message? First, James leaned more towards the legalist Jewish believers than Paul did. He emphasized believers should do good works, though not for salvation. Later, James would be involved in the great debate that arose in Acts 15 where some believed “faith plus works” and others “faith without works” (the right one). You can see some of his emphasis towards faith producing good works in this letter. The Jews who believed Jesus to be their Messiah were divided. Some believed:
1. Have faith in Jesus for salvation, but still observe the entire Mosaic Law (circumcision, ten commandments, Sabbath rules, not eating unclean meat, etc). But the Law was not intended as a part of salvation, but as a covering until salvation. Doing the Law and saying you believe in Jesus is like people today saying, “Yes, I believe,” then trusting in baptism, communion, or other good works to also save. Only faith in only Jesus can save.
2. Some believed “Have faith in Jesus Christ for salvation alone, and that’s the end of it” No need to do any works at all for God (like some American Christians today). Keep the pews warm and God will be happy. WRONG! Give God everything once (me, wife, kids, TV, Internet, job, money, car, house, free time), then take it all back. Not according to the Bible. Not according to James. Faith that works is faith, then works. You can see a stronger emphasis in James on works as a proof of salvation than in Paul's writings. Many of the ideas that required compromise in Acts 15 were surfacing here in James, and reading James versus reading Paul one can see why they might lead some to think there were two factions of Christianity. However, there were not. James and Paul compliment one another.

3. Some believed, as James and Paul wrote, to be saved and have eternal life; then through the Spirit do good works. THAT’S THE MESSAGE OF JAMES = faith should be perfect, with wisdom, and endure suffering.

James didn't believe you can be saved and live like the devil because of eternal security. James believed you can be saved and live like the Lord.
Now that we've mastered that overall principle of James (ha ha) let's get into chapter one.

First, James' admonition is in v. 2: We need to look at trials as Golden opportunities to prove our faith. In other words, the treasure that comes through a trial. God’s people should determine that when testing comes it is joyful. Let's not get ridiculous, though. My wife heard of a man who broke his elbow and was asked, “You alright?” His response was, “Yeah. Praise God,” through the clenched teeth of pain. “Thank you God.” What a nut! Not what’s intended here. God doesn't expect you to pretend you have no nerve endings. James admonished the Jewish believers who were spread all over the known world to count trials as joy, and the same message applies to you and I.

What is a trial? Definition of a trial: It is when we reach rock bottom and think God has forgotten us in some way or another, or are going through a hard time. We are calling out to God, saying, “Where is God!?” “Why do bad things happen to good people?” Isn't it interesting that God allows trials in His peoples' lives? James didn't say "if ever," but "whenever." Hmmm.
God allows trials in His peoples’ lives. What is the Biblical definition of a trial? In Greek here, is means "an attempt to learn the nature or character of something."[1] 1 Peter chapter 1 and chapter 3 use this word similarly. Hebrews 3:8 and 9, God warns not to test Him as the Israelites did for 40 years and were made to wander in the desert all 40 years. Trials test faith by giving us opportunities to show what is inside of us. If you bump a cup, whatever is inside of it spills out. So too with us when we experience trials.

If you are involved in farming, and have purchased a new animal or piece of machinery, have you tested it to see how it holds up? How about a new pair of pants or blouse? How about a new car? God also looks at us and wants to show us what our nature or character is. God doesn't cause every trial, but he allows them (at least) in order to see where we are and so we can grow. James says, “Count it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance.”
Count it joy, means in Greek, “consider, reckon” or (MY FAVORITE) DETERMINE IT JOY. What is the application: Too many times we get wrapped up in trials and problems as if one day on earth we will no longer have any! Verse 2, “If ever you face trials?” “Whenever you face trials.” James urges us to determine today to endure the next trial and maintain godliness. It's easy to do when we're in a state of plenty, but do it during a trial. What is your trial right now? What is your attitude about that trial? Your perspective makes all the difference in the world!

My daughter loves to draw. I asked her one day to draw a picture of me. She drew my head and my face was covered by all these lines. I asked her "what is that on Daddy's face?" "That's your gotee," she said. I guess I'm pretty hairy from her perspective. Another father took his daughter to see Westminster Abbey and the large columns and ceilings. After looking for a while, the father asked the daughter, "What do you think?" She replied, "Dad, you're a lot smaller than I thought you were." James urges us to do the opposite of what we usually do, and face a trial with a different perspective: joy—because we will prove that we have a solid faith! A joyful Christian knows that the worst trial will eventually end. When you lose your job, your wife threatens divorce, your husband threatens you, when a child become pregnant outside of marriage or rebels, when a child runs away from home, or from you, or from the Lord, when it’s been months or years since a steady, dependable income, when the car that you’re ashamed of doesn’t even run. Ouch!

What is your perspective on trials? There's a lot of bad theology out there that says "God's people will never suffer or experience hardship. If you do experience hardship, it's because you don't believe." WRONG! WRONG! WRONG! Nothing in Scripture promises 100% "hunkey dorey situations" for Christians. In fact, 2 Timothy 3 promises that all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. There is a treasure of Christian maturity that can ONLY come through a trial. I'm glad for my trials in the past, though many I would never repeat. Much wisdom has come through those dark days, and finding the light at the end of those tunnels. I'm much closer to the One who has always led me through them.

Some of the darkest times in my life and my marriage were between jobs (nobody's born a pastor. I've had many other types of jobs) or when suffering a serious trial, and we didn't know when it would end, and barely made it through with our faith.

The next principle James teaches about trials is this: Every Trial should make Us Stronger (v. 3). This is because trials test the faith and develop perseverance (v. 3). Trials develop perseverance. “perseverance” means “the capacity to hold out or bear up in the face of difficulty.”[2]
These developments happen IF, we face trials with joy.
When you develop perseverance, God will see your character and move you onto better circumstances.

But you can’t handle the future circumstances until you handle the present ones with perseverance.

In weightlifting, martial arts, music, academics/school, forensics, memorizing Scripture, or any other discipline we can think of—we must push ourselves to grow, and the same with our Christian life!
We should look forward to trials like a football game, a wrestling match, a golf tournament, a music competition, or any test! It is a chance to stand up and say,
“God, I am yours and watch me display the fruit You have been cultivating in my life!”
There are many Christians who fill the pews of churches on Sunday but will do nothing more all because a trial happened. They think, "God, I know that if I try to get involved for You I'm going to face a trial and its going to hurt, and I don't want to hurt, so I'm not going to do anything more for You, Lord." If that's the deal you've made with God, you've also made a deal not to grow. You have a gas tank full of gas and the car is in park, ready to go anywhere, but parked.

I read of two setters who were being trained to hunt birds. They were interrupted by a neighbor's bulldog who entered their yard and started a fight with them. Those two setters tore that bulldog apart, and it yiped away, bloodied and bruised. A strange thing happened. The next day the wounded bulldog returned. He fought the two setters, but again they beat him and he returned wounded. The next day the bulldog returned, and again the same things happened. After a week of this happening, the stubborn bulldog returned again, and the setters decided they didn't want to fight anymore and when the bulldog chased them, they ran away. After another week the setters continued running away every time the bulldog entered the yard, because they were tired of fighting. The story ends with the owner explaining that now the bulldog comes into his yard as if he owns the place, and the setters are terrified of him.

It's not always about "can I win this fight?" God is on our side. It may seem like we're losing the battle, but we must be like the bulldog and continue, continue, continue to obey God. Continue, continue, continue to pray. Continue, continue, continue to read His word. In the end, we will persevere. "Sorrow may last for a night, but joy comes in the morning."

Christian discipline comes into this as well. There are times when it seems like I can't get into my devotions and prayer. Sometimes I read the Scripture for the day and think, "Okay. Whatever. I don't get it." But I must continue so I can persevere and get better.

William Barclay wrote this, regarding Coleridge, a poet at the end of the 1700's and beginning of the 1800's. Barclay wrote, "Coleridge is the supreme tragedy of indiscipline. Never did so great a mind produce so little. He left Cambridge University to join the army; but he left the army because, in spite of all his erudition, he could not rub down a horse; he returned to [college] and left without a degree. He began a paper called The Watchman which lived for ten numbers and then died. It has been said of him: 'He lost himself in visions of work to be done, that always remained to be done. Coleridge had every poetic gift but one--the gift of sustained and concentrated effort.' In his head and in his mind he had all kinds of books, as he said himself, 'completed save for transcription.' 'I am on the eve,' he says, 'of sending to the press two octavo volumes.' But the books were never composed outside Coleridge's mind, because he would not face the discipline of sitting down to write them out. No one ever reached any eminence, and no one having reached it ever maintained it, without discipline."[3]
It's worth re-reading that last sentence.

President Calvin Coolidge said, "Nothing is more common than unsuccessful individuals with talent."

So where are you? Have you decided to give up anyway? Has the idea of future trials discouraged you? Are you saying, "It's not worth it just for perseverance?" Read 1 Cor 3:10–15, about how we will have either precious stones or worthless stubble (read it). Will your life survive the fire and test of trials? What will God find when He “attempts to learn the nature or character of you?”

[1] BDAG, s.v.

[2] BDAG, s.v.

[3] Taken from Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, Donald S. Whitney, (Colorado Springs: Navpress, 1991), p. 20. Brackets mine.