CELEBRATE YOUR TRIALS

 

Week of November 8, 2009

 

Bible Verses:James 1:2-18.

 

Lesson Focus:This lesson can help you handle adversity in your life. You will know that God is working in your life even during difficult trials, and you will be challenged to respond to adversity by exercising faith in God and seeking wisdom from Him.

 

We Have Reason to Rejoice: James 1:2-4.

 

[2]Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, [3]for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. [4]And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.[ESV]

 

For James the clue to the meaning of life is the goal of maturity: you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. The pathway to this maturity must go through trials of various kinds. Life brings trials of every shape and kind into our pathway as we seek to grow and mature in our faith.But what is the clue or vital truth with which we are to face our trials? The first thing that James tells us is that we are to count it all joy when these various trials come our way. The verb, count refers to the importance which we give to something. It means to have a settled conviction about the importance of these trials. There is no trial, no great calamity or small pressure, no overwhelming sorrow or small rub of life outside that plan of God, whereby it is a stepping-stone to glory. And it is for this reason that our settled conviction must be to appraise it as all joy, not because it is joyful in itself, but because of the fruit of Christian maturity that it will yield. Next James tells us that we know the testing of our faith will produce steadfastness. We know from experience that the successful endurance of trials causes us to grow in being able to endure future trials. The steadfastness of which James speaks concerns the consistent living for Christ. He calls for us to be less fluctuating in our loyalty, less erratic in our conduct. We need to see the trials of life as Godís testings. They may come from outside, through circumstances or people, or they may be the inner promptings of our sinful natures. But they are Godís designed way forward. It is only by meeting and passing its tests that faith grows into strong constancy. James then teaches us in verse 4 that the full effect of this steadfastness is Christian maturity. This steadfastness which James repeats is a word which means staying power, constancy and endurance. It is not a passive submission but rather an active steadfastness in meeting the various circumstances of life. There has to be a persistency of enduring trials. Steadfastness must have its full effect. We are thus called to a persistent endurance. But this hard road has a glorious destination: that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. Perfect is a word for both the ultimate and the near future. On the one hand it is the daunting word which the Lord Jesus used when He said that we are to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect [Matt. 5:48]; and, while this is ever our present target, we know that it can be our experience only when we see Jesus, and shall be like Him [1 John 3:2]. But, without losing sight of the ultimate aim, here is our present target: maturity of personality Ė and to this, just as to the heavenly fulfillment, the path is the same, namely, testings, endurance and perseverance.

 

Divine Wisdom is Available: James 1:5-11.

 

[5]If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. [6]But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. [7]For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; [8]he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways. [9]Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, [10]and the rich in his humiliation, because like a flower of the grass he will pass away. [11]For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. So also will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits.[ESV]

 

[5-8]The heart of verses 5-8 can be expressed in answer to three questions. What does the Bible mean by wisdom? What does James say here about God? And what does he teach about prayer? Wisdom is the practical application of correct knowledge to a particular situation. It is the ability to apply knowledge to the problems of life. Concerning the Bible, it is the ability to apply the correct understanding of Biblical truth to particular life situations in such a way that the application honors the true meaning and intent of Scripture. In these verses, wisdom is related to Jamesí teaching in verses 2-4. The wise person will be able to see life as James pictured it in verses 2-4 so that they can make personal decisions and shape lifeís pathway, in order to progress towards maturity which God has promised. Such wisdom is a gift from God which is why James instructs us to ask God if anyone is lacking in this type wisdom. James can make statements like this due to his doctrine of God. First, James teaches us that it is Godís nature to give: who gives generously. No one attribute expresses all that is true about God, but each expresses something about Him that is true all the time. If we speak of God as gracious there are very many other things to say before the divine nature is fully described. Yet there is never a time when we could come to Him and find that He was no longer gracious. His attributes are as infinite as He Himself is, but there is no war among them: they are as perfectly one as He Himself is. God gives with a selfless, total concern for us and with an exclusive preoccupation as if He had nothing else to do but to give and give again. And God gives without reproach. James here calls to mind everything which we know to stand in the way of a free asking and everything which we might imagine the Lord would hold against us. But the truth that James emphasizes is that, despite all those things that might stand in the way, God does not hold them against us when we approach Him in prayer. He freely receives us without reproach. In all this the generous, loving, forbearing nature of God is revealed to us, opening before us an exciting prospect of the possibilities of prayer. Verse 5 holds before us the unquestioned sincerity of God who desires our progress to maturity and who, therefore, as far as He is concerned, will not withhold from us the wisdom we need. But verses 6-8 raise the question of our sincerity. Do we want to go forward with God? Are we whole-heartedly committed to His way of seeing things and His ambitions for our future? Or are we keeping a door open for the world? Are we trying to have a foot in each camp? Godís mind is clear; but are we double-minded? Faith is our absolute confidence that He will give what we ask; doubting is our own inner uncertainty about whether we really want Him to give or not. Doubting or being double-minded destroys the power of prayer. This type person will not receive anything from the Lord [8]. The issue here is not intellectual doubt but moral and spiritual commitment, the devotion of our whole loyalty to the Lord. The doubting, double-minded person cannot sustain a spiritual commitment to the Lord.

 

[9-11]Verses 9-11 are about contrasting circumstances of life: poverty [9] and wealth [10-11]. The verses address both poor and rich with an exhortation to boast [9]. The meaning of the word here, when used in this good sense of boasting, is more along the lines of to exult or glory. Thus it takes us back to Jamesí initial command to count it all joy in verse 2. James uses this illustration in verses 9-11 to reaffirm what he has been teaching: life is full of varying experiences and here is a typical contrast; the rich man and the poor man. Each, within his circumstances, must rejoice, even glory, for this is the true response of the Christian. But each, too, must see his situation not through the eyes of this worldís wisdom, but in the light of a wisdom sought from God. How, then, does the wisdom of God teach us to view our circumstances? Jamesí illustration in verses 9-10 looks back to his foundation teaching in verses 2-4. The great goal of all life is Christian maturity.Towards this we are to bend all our efforts. Lifeís pleasant paths are made all the sweeter as we keep in mind that they lead to this great spiritual end; lifeís grim moments are to be endured patiently, remembering that patience and persistence turn sorrows into stepping-stones. James offers a comparison [10, like a flower]; then he proceeds to an explanation [11, for the sun], and finally he draws a conclusion [11, so also will]. The comparison is with fragility and evanescence; the explanation is dependence on favorable circumstances and helplessness in the face of adverse conditions; and the application is to the person (so also will the rich man) and whole way of life (pursuits) of the person devoted to wealth. Thus, to the eye of man, riches may seem secure and seem to offer security, but they are essentially perishable because they are at the mercy of circumstances. And those who worship wealth perish with their god. The transiency of riches is a malignant infection spreading to the rich person too. The magnetism of riches is powerful and insistent, and we constantly need the wisdom of God to see through the faÁade. We do not have to be wealthy to desire money, and the desire is as threatening as the actuality [1 Tim. 6:9]; we do not have to possess much in order to be snared by the delights of possession. But the Bible never teaches that wealth is wrong. Everything depends on how it has been acquired, how it is used and what place it holds in the heart of its possessor. Do Godís gifts ever come without Godís testings, whereby we learn (or fail to learn) to enjoy His gifts? Here we need Godís wisdom to see things as they really are, to arrive at true definitions, to cease to live by what appears to be true and to live, instead, by what actually is the truth of the matter. Only then will we be able to steer a straight path to the goal of maturity.

 

God is Good All the Time: James 1:12-18.

 

[12]Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him. [13]Let no one say when he is tempted, "I am being tempted by God," for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. [14]But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. [15]Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. [16]Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. [17]Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. [18]Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.[ESV]

 

[12-16]Verse 12 summarizes verses 2-4. James reminds us that we move forward, through and by means of trial and test, to maturity. The blessings God will give are summed up in the gift of the crown of life. Those who are prepared to use this life as an arena of endurance for Jesusí sake will find that an abundant life awaits them from the hand of God. But what attracts the reward is not their endurance, but the love for God which prompted it. The crown of life is His gift to those who love him. Our progress to the crown is expedited not by our powers of endurance but by the depth and reality and pervasiveness of our love for Him. We live by what we love; the shape of our lives is determined by the joys of our hearts. James now moves from outward trials to inner temptations. Every trial is also a temptation. Every circumstance we meet requires a decision: will we persevere and go on with God, or will we listen to the voice which suggests the easy way of disobedience and disloyalty? But where does that voice come from? James teaches us where the blame for temptation does not lie [13] and where it does [14-15]. The command that, in the thick of temptation, no one must say I am being tempted by God is all too necessary. It is a short step from saying that God uses our circumstances to saying that He ordains them Ė a step that the Bible encourages us to take, for this is its view of the power of God, and of the nature of our life and experiences in this world. But there is an additional and impermissible step. When we give in to temptation and sin, we cannot say that God caused us to sin. James gives two reasons why we cannot say this. First, God cannot be tempted with evil. The divine nature is of such unmixed holiness that it is impossible for Him to be enticed to plot to harm us. Secondly, he himself tempts no one. He is of such unmixed goodness in His attitudes and actions that there is no room in motive, will or deed for that which would bring disaster, great or small, on any of His people. To be sure, He places tests in our pathway. But when He tests, it is so that we may pass the test and inherit the blessing. When the reverse happens, the blame lies elsewhere than in the God of all grace. The blame lies, in fact, in ourselves [14-15]. The tempting voice is the voice of our own sinful nature. Desire arises within us (his own desire); it gives birth to sin; and sin produces death. We are lured and enticed by his own desire. Lured means to drag off and points to a dominating and directive power within our desires. Enticed expresses the magnetism of desire, the hypnotic attraction of bait for a hungry beast. There is within us a deep well of dominating and alluring desires; there is within us the fatal weakness which guarantees that we will fall short of Godís glorious intentions for us. This falling short James describes by the word sin, the child of desire. Twice James has presented us with a sequence: testing, endurance, perseverance and maturity [2-4]; testing, endurance, perseverance and life [12]. Here, in verses 14-15, he introduces us to a sinister replica: temptation, desire, sin and death. In verse 4 there is one sort of maturity: perfect and complete; in verse 15 another, full-grown sin. In verse 12 there is a crowning experience of life; in verse 15 a conclusion in death. Through endurance and perseverance we come to the wholeness that is ours in Christ; through desire and sin we forfeit that wholeness and instead embrace death. At this point comes the warning call of verse 16: Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. Note how the addition of beloved strikes the note of urgency. The rich love which links believer with believer prompts concern for spiritual welfare, and issues in a call to be clear-headed and open-eyed as to the realities of the situation. Present within is the great and inescapable foe of progress with God, the subtle and insinuating power of our sinful and fallen nature.

 

[17-18]In these verses James explores the bounty of God [17a]; next, His changeless nature [17b]; and thirdly, one particular and utterly basic way in which the bounty of the changeless God has operated towards us [18]. The duplication of gift leaves us in no doubt what verse 17a is about. The repeated idea is for the sake of emphasizing that God is a superb Giver. In giving, God is inexhaustible (every Ö every): He gives everything that could possibly be needed. And in giving, His gift is exactly appropriate to what is required: His gifts are perfect. Our need, then, is the objective; His gift is that which exactly meets it. We need loving hearts if we are to walk on into life. We can, of ourselves, only offer defiling hearts; but every need is fully underwritten by the endless and exactly appropriate gifts of God. Furthermore, in this giving, He is changeless. There is no way in which we might come to Him in our need and find that He is unwilling, unable or unavailable. He never changes His position; He never alters either the fact or the intensity of His outshining goodness. We now come to the heart of the matter in verse 18. In particular there is one thing God has freely chosen to do for us: He has brought us to birth by His word with the intention that we should be specially His, and notably holy [18]. With this new birth there comes new life, new energies, new prospects and, above all, a new relationship with God, by whose will the birth has come about. At the heart of verse 18 lie the words he brought us forth. This makes it plain that James is speaking about a supernatural birth, with a divine Parent, the Father. Around this center, James groups three other truths: the ground of this new and supernatural birth is the Fatherís will. Birth is something that happens to a child as a result of decisions and actions made by others, the parents. The decision was God's; so also, as we shall see, was the action which implemented the decision. Our conscious experience of conversion, of committing our lives to Christ, or receiving Him into our hearts Ė all this was consequent upon His decision and action, and derivative from it. Having made His decision, the Father, secondly, implements it. James tells us that the means the Father used to bring about the new birth was the word of truth, which is his way of describing the life-giving agent used by the Father to impart new life and bring about the new birth. This word of truth is the gospel of your salvation [Eph. 1:13]. The Father uses the powerful word of the gospel in two ways: first, He speaks it, inwardly, to our dead souls, imparting life, bringing us to new birth; secondly, He presents the same word of truth to us as a preached gospel, to which the new life within us makes a personal and believing response. This is one of the most glorious truths in the whole Bible. It teaches us that salvation is truly all of God: for until new life is imparted we are dead in the trespasses and sins [Eph. 2:1], and as totally unable as anything that is dead to respond to God in repentance and faith. If anything is to be done, He must do it; if any blessing or change is to come to us, it must come from outside; if any agency is to be at work, it must be other than ours, for we are dead, and our only activity is to increase in corruption. Here is the greatness of the divine mercy, the sufficiency of the divine strength and the depth of the divine condescension. He has come right down to us in our death; He has raised us up into life; and it is all due to a rich mercy prompted by a great love [Eph. 2:1, 4-5]. It is no more possible for us to be agents or contributors to our new birth than it was for us to be so in our natural birth. All the work, from initial choice to completed deed, is His Ė and so is all the glory. But there is something else as well: inherent in this great truth of the new birth is the security of our salvation. Were salvation to depend on my choice, it would be as uncertain as my will which fluctuates, blows hot and cold, and reflects my divided, fallen nature. But it is His choice. And until His will changes, His word alters or His truth is proved false, my salvation cannot be threatened or forfeited. We move on, now, to the third truth which James links with the fact of the new birth. Just as natural birth looks forward to life, so the new birth has a forward look to the fulfillment of a purpose our Father has in mind: that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures. James is here drawing on an Old Testament regulation which required the presentation to the Lord of the first of the crop. Three ideas found their focus in this offering: (1) out of all that belonged to the Lord, this was specially His; the rest remained to be used in the ordinary purposes of life; (2) the first-fruits had to be the best, and were set apart as holy to the Lord; (3) the offering of the first-fruits was an annual reminder that the Lord keeps His promises to His people, bringing them from slavery, giving them a homeland, providing for them in it.

 

Questions for Discussion:

 

1.†††††††† Trace the pathway to maturity that James lays out in 1:2-4. What vital truth does he give us that will enable us to reach maturity? Suffering is apparently the way in which God produces perseverance and maturity in us. Why do you think trials are so effective at this and nothing else is so effective? [See 2 Corinthians 1:8-9; 12:7-10].

 

2.†††††††† How do verses 1:5-8 answer the following three questions: What does the Bible mean by wisdom? What does James say here about God? And what does he teach about prayer?

 

3.†††††††† How does the wisdom of God teach us to view our circumstances in verses 1:9-11?

 

4.†††††††† What is the process of temptation that James describes in 1:13-18? How does this process differ from that laid out by James in verses 1:2-4? Note the end result of each process: maturity in 1:2-4 and death in 1:13-18. What does James tell us in 1:17-18 that helps us follow the pathway to maturity and life instead of the pathway to death?

 

References:

The Letter of James, Douglas Moo, Eerdmans.

The Message of James, J.A. Motyer, Inter-Varsity Press.