The author of James, whom we believe to be the half-brother of Jesus and leader of the Jerusalem council (that we read about in Acts 15), wanted the church to grow up into the beautiful picture and pattern that God had set before it. He wanted the church to live out with enthusiasm the lifestyle of which it was capable, and he wanted those who called themselves followers of Christ to have the Word of God written upon their hearts.
So the Holy Spirit inspired James to write an “Instruction Manual” for the daily living out of the Christian faith. His premise was that we must not only speak the Christian faith for everyone to hear; we must live out the Christian faith for everyone to see and feel. For James, this faith depended not only on outward expressions (words and actions) but also on how far those words traveled on their inward journey to the heart.
So let’s dig in and see what truths we can unearth for our journey as we look most especially in this entry at chapter 1, verses 2 to 4 and 12, where James acknowledges the presence of tests, troubles and trials in the journey of faith. Those verses are rendered in this way in Eugene Peterson’s translation of the Bible: The Message.
“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. 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.”
Consider it a gift when tests and challenges come at us from all sides? A gift? Yes.
After James introduces himself as a servant of the Lord Jesus Christ, he immediately tackles–head on–the reality of “troubles” in the Christian journey. Notice that James doesn’t say “if” troubles will come; he says “when.” He presupposes that every human being, including the Christian, will experience trials, troubles and temptations in life.
As we look at this reality, we also find — in verse twelve – an assurance that we can survive trials and that, through them, we can become even stronger and more sensitive to the troubles of others. As believers, we understand that we cannot avoid times of darkness–they will come. But we also understand that darkness is always followed by light, the cross gives way to the crown, death is defeated by resurrection.
The Christian life is not easy–and because of that–it is never boring. Every athlete knows the reality of no pain–no gain. Without pain, our performance level never reaches beyond the mundane. We experience victory only as the product of discipline.
A few decades ago, Methodist preacher Ralph Sockman, said, “In life there are three types of troubles: The troubles we can avoid, the troubles we cannot avoid and the troubles we must not avoid.” When looking at our troubles, remember it’s all a matter of perspective.
Zig Ziglar tells the story of a general who found himself completely surrounded by enemy troops. Instead of panicking or surrendering, he simply turned to his soldiers and said, “Men, for the first time in the history of this military campaign, we are in position to attack the enemy in all directions.” Perspective.
Again, the Christian faith doesn’t deny the reality of troubles. But, according to James, our faith gives us the power and perspective to focus not on the trouble but on how best to use our troubles for growth. James calls us to face troubles without yielding to wallowing in self-pity.
At the age of 67, Thomas Edison watched helplessly as his treasured laboratory burned down. Staring at the blaze, he said to his son, “Go get your mother and do it quickly. She will never see a spectacular fire like this again.” As a family, they watched his life’s work go up in flames.
Edison handled this disaster in this way: He went to bed, got a good night’s sleep, and called his staff together early the next morning. Glancing around at their despairing faces, he announced: “We will begin again. It will be better.”
The next day he was walking with his son near the site of the fire. He picked up an old photograph of himself that the fire had charred on all four sides. He said to his son, “The fire destroyed the outside–but not the inside.”
This is exactly what James is getting at in verse four when he writes, “Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete–not lacking anything.” Thomas Edison lacked a building for a while–but he did not lack the right perspective to deal with this adversity. He yielded his life to those things that mattered the most.
Victor Frankl, who was a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp, wrote a magnificent book about his experience entitled, Man’s Search for Meaning. In that book he shares this, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing; the last of all human freedoms, the freedom to choose. Each one of us can choose how we will face the troubles of life. We have the power to choose our attitude in any given set of circumstances.” He concludes, “If anyone has a why to live–they can endure any how!”
Some years ago, I attended a conference at which one of the speakers was a man who had been imprisoned in China for preaching faith in Christ. He told the story of his time in a work camp where he had been placed in charged of cleaning the cesspool of human waste. To clean it, he had to walk in it. And he said—with a smile—that he came to love that cesspool and came to think of it as a garden because His Lord walked with him there. And he could sing Christian songs and shout out passages of scripture and no one was going to come close enough to stop him. His comfort came from His Lord, the Bible that he’d internalized, and Christian music. His most oft-sung hymn? “In the Garden.”
“I come to the garden alone while the dew is still on the roses. And the voice I hear, falling on my ear, the Son of God discloses, and He walks with me and He talks with me, and He tells me I am His own and the joy we share as we tarry there, none other has ever known.”
James reminds us that true faith in God not only abides in trouble, but is actually strengthened by it. So one point to make this morning is that in this life we must face the fact of trouble. Even a cursory review of the Bible reveals that many of God’s servants–from Noah to Moses, to Amos, to Jeremiah, to Daniel, to Paul on and on—ALL experienced moments of trouble and trials in their journey to do and to live out the will of God in their lives. Our faith gives us the power and the perspective not to focus on the trouble, but to focus on how best to overcome the reality of trouble.
Troubles are part of our growing up and maturing.
In View from the Zoo, author Gary Richmond tells about the birth of a giraffe: “The first things to emerge are the baby giraffe’s front hooves and head. A few minutes later the plucky newborn calf is hurled forth, falls ten feet, and lands on its back. Within seconds, he rolls to an upright position with his legs tucked under his body. From this position he considers the world for the first time and shakes off the last vestiges of the birthing fluid from his eyes and ears.
“The mother giraffe lowers her head long enough to take a quick look. Then she positions herself directly over her calf. She waits for about a minute, and then she does–what would seem to be–the most unreasonable thing. She swings a long, pendulous leg outward and kicks her baby, so that it is sent sprawling head over heels.
“The struggle to rise is momentous. Finally, the calf stands on its wobbly legs. Then the mother giraffe does another most remarkable thing. She kicks it off its feet again. Why? She wants it to remember how it got up. In the wild, baby giraffes must be able to get up as quickly as possible in order to stay with the herd where there is safety. Lions, hyenas, leopards, and wild hunting dogs all enjoy young giraffes, and they’d get them, too, if their mothers didn’t teach their calves to get up quickly and get on with it…”
Now, humans are not to train their children in quite the same way – we’re not to kick our children or throw them as, I was saddened to read one week, a couple did with their toddler. But we can relate to the need to not do everything for our children; we need to let our children face their own challenges. Before our daughter acquired the ability to walk she had to crawl, and then she began the process of getting up and falling down until she learned to keep her balance. We encouraged her through all the falling downs and getting ups. We still do that today though she’s now married and has children of her own.
The Christian life is not all sunshine and lollipops. It is not hope without a struggle. On the other hand, it is not a struggle without hope. The Christian journey is hope in the midst of the struggles; it is a story of strength resulting from our healthy response to struggles.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., once said, “Muscles never develop and grow unless they push against a great force that will force the muscles to grow and become stronger.”
Tim Hansel was a young man who was severely injured in a climbing accident. He shared some wise insights in a publication titled, “You Gotta Keep Dancing:”
“Next to the genuine fatigue of pain, possibly the most energy-depriving thing I know is self-pity when you are facing a troublesome moment in life. I know, from first-hand experience, that this is one of the greatest wastes of my time and emotions, but yet I confess my vulnerability to it.
“My greatest need at these moments of my life when I am facing trouble is for people who will listen to me compassionately but then firmly and gently encourage me out of such dreadful behavior. It is important that people don’t join me in my self-pity party but love me into remembering what I can do and must do. Most of us have enough excuses to last a lifetime. The sooner we let go of them and get on with living, the better off we are.”
I agree with Tim that feeling sorry for ourselves–when we’re in the midst of challenging and troublesome moments of life–never accomplishes anything worthwhile. Pity parties are wastes of time. Let God lift you when your down.
In Genoa, Italy, after World War II, an artist was commissioned to build an eight-ton statue of Jesus Christ. Unlike other statues of Christ throughout the world, this one was not put on a high hill overlooking the city. Instead, it was lowered into the depths of the bay where the battles had taken place. Lowered into the depths, the depths where many sunken ships laid silent and where the lives of men who had given their lives in battle rested in quiet memory. They called the statue “The Christ of the Deep.”
It is a beautiful picture of the ministry of Christ reaching into the depths of the human heart to raise the spirit to new and higher levels of strengthened stability when we face those troublesome moments of life. Trouble often forces us to look to God for strength, new insights, new directions and His blessed assurance.
When we are faced with troubles and trials that exhaust our human strength and abilities, it is then we reflect the honesty of the psalmist and we cry out to God for strength and stamina to endure the problems we are facing.
Now none of this is to say that – when faced with trouble, trial or challenge — we don’t sometimes need to vent with and seek the counsel of our friends. This is also not to say that we should be spending time beating ourselves up if we’ve fallen down and are having some trouble getting up. No, it’s about not wallowing in self-pity. It’s about the work to get up when you’ve fallen down. It’s about facing your fears and coming to victory.
Finally, James reminds us that troubles force us to look to God for His assurance and direction. In the midst of adversity we learn to rely on God.
The story is told of a major corporation that was experiencing great difficulties with its large computer system. They had a number of repairmen attempt to fix the malfunction but they had no success.
Finally, they called in a seasoned veteran who had helped build the system at the factory. He looked at the computer for a few minutes and then took a hammer and softly tapped it in three different places. He then handed over his bill for the service call: $10,000.
The company protested the bill because the man had only given the computer system three taps with a hammer. The man responded, “The taps cost a total of a dollar but it will cost you $9,999 for my knowing where to tap.”
When we are faced with troubles and trials that exhaust our human strengths and abilities, we cry out with the psalmist to God for strength and stamina to endure. Only God knows where to “tap in” to our lives to bring us correction and renewal when the circuits of our lives are overloaded and burned out.
When Satan tempts us, it is to bring out our worst. When the Almighty tests us, it is to bring out our best and to make us more godly. James writes in verse 12 (as translated by Eugene Peterson in The Message): “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.” The New International translation of that verse renders it this way: “Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love Him.”
James himself moved from being a doubting, disbelieving younger half-brother of Jesus to a prominent church leader because of his willingness to tackle the problems the church at Jerusalem experienced while trying to “grow up” into the people of faith God wanted them to be. And by tackling the church’s problems, James himself also grew up in the Lord.
A story is told of two brothers who were watching a circus parade but from different perspectives. One looked at the parade through a hole in the fence. First he saw the ringmaster pass, then a clown. Then he saw a ferocious tiger and jumped to the conclusion that the ringmaster and the clown were sure to be eaten by the tiger. The problem was that looking through a little hole in the fence, he couldn’t see the “big picture.” He couldn’t see that the tiger was in a cage. He couldn’t see that the ringmaster and the clown were protected from danger.
The other brother could see it all–because he stood on the roof of a large building looking down on the whole parade. He saw the “big picture” and knew everything was in order.
James knew that without this “big picture” perspective toward life, our tendency would be to count our problems, rather than to count it all joy. As Christians we are called not to try to avoid our problems, but to face them, to learn from them, and to turn the rest over to Christ. The old spiritual sums it up: “Nobody knows the troubles I’ve seen; Nobody knows but Jesus.”
If Jesus knows, that is what matters most of all. He knows where to tap our hearts and minds. He knows how to test us and train us up so that we can “grow up” in Him and live victorious in Christ. Let us spend our lives counting the joys, not the troubles and let us allow troubles to do a good work in us so that we may be built up in strong character, spiritual maturity and a well-developed faith. Amen?
Let us pray: Lord, we know that there is nowhere we can go where You are not and yet often we go about our days without ever giving a thought to Your presence, essentially turning a deaf ear to You, paying no attention to you, overlooking you, discounting you, neglecting you, ignoring you. We do so at our own peril. You are an ever-present help in the midst of troubles. You love us with a love that never lets us go. May we love you and demonstrate our love for you by using the times of discipline to move to greater depths of faith in you. These things we pray in the name of our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen
I pray that you may embrace the week ahead, being diligent in your labor, kind to your neighbor, generous to the discouraged, patient with your families, loyal to your Savior. May you study the scriptures, be faithful in prayer and in all things trust the Lord.
NOTE: What I have shared here was written from notes that I have accumulated over the years. I believe portions of this message came from the writings of Eric Ritz. I apologize in advance for any omissions of attribution I may have made.