Consider It Pure Joy!

James 1:1-12  

Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.

If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does.   

The brother in humble circumstances ought to take pride in his high position. But the one who is rich should take pride in his low position, because he will pass away like a wild flower. For the sun rises with scorching heat and withers the plant; its blossom falls and its beauty is destroyed. In the same way, the rich man will fade away even while he goes about his business. Blessed is the man 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 1:1-12

In the days before factory-made tools, before a tool became a fine instrument of useful service, it was a piece of metal – unmolded, unshaped, useless.  Only as the blacksmith took that piece of metal and began to work with it and mold it and temper it and finish it would it find a place within the tool box of the craftsman.  But before it became that tool there was a process it went through – and in our lives there is a similar process in which God puts us through times of molding and shaping in order to make us useful tools in his service.

James understood that.  It was a perspective his brothers and sisters in Christ needed to hear.  They were being persecuted for their faith, they were experiencing trials because of choices they had made for God, and all they seemed to be getting in return for their faithfulness were hardships and suffering.  They needed to make sense of it all – and that’s why James writes, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds.”

James addresses his letter simply “to the twelve tribes scattered among the nations.”  That’s “scattered” not “sheltered.”  In Acts 7, we see Stephen standing in chains before the Sanhedrin and telling them – “You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him—you who have received the law that was put into effect through angels but have not obeyed it.”  Acts 7:51-53. 

They scream in rage and drag him outside and stone him.  That event triggered a widespread persecution of the new church and the Christians flee the city and are scattered throughout Judea and Samaria and throughout the Mediterranean world

It was a terrible tragedy – the gospel was silenced, their spirit was broken and the church was destroyed…. Isn’t that what we would expect if we didn’t know the rest of the story?  That’s what the Sanhedrin expected – “Well, we finished them off once and for all!” – A couple chapters earlier, when the Sanhedrin had brought in the apostles, trying to squash this upstart movement, Gamaliel steps in and speaks some of the most powerful and prophetic words ever spoken:  “Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.”   Acts 5:38-39.

But what could have remained a localized religious anomaly contained within the city walls of Jerusalem was sent out like a wildfire in dry grass.  The very suffering that everyone expected to finish off the fledgling church served only to make it stronger. 

Acts 8:4 – “Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went.”  And the gospel was spread from Ethiopia to Rome.  Who would have thought?  From our perspective it was the worst thing that could have happened.  And yet, from God’s perspective it was essential to accomplishing what he wanted the church to become.

God uses suffering in the lives of individuals, and in the life of his church to bring about a much greater strength, and a much deeper faith than they would ever experience without it. 

How can James say, “Consider it pure joy”?  Because he has seen what God is capable of doing through suffering, and he has seen what the result is on the other side of it. 

Nobody sits in the middle of suffering and thinks, “I sure am glad I’m going through this, I’m having such fun!”  But we can be in the middle of suffering and realize, “I’m sure glad God is in control of what I’m going through.  And I may not be able to see beyond the next moment, but I know God can see what the end of all this looks like, and I trust him to work everything out for my good.” 

When James talks about the effect, he doesn’t view suffering as an event, but a process – those trials produce perseverance, and perseverance produces maturity, and look at vs. 12 – “Blessed is the man 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.”

God doesn’t look at the short term – he looks at the big picture.  He knows what you need in your life to become the man or woman that he wants you to become.  And there are some things that he wants to do in your life that he can’t do without using suffering to accomplish them.

·         How can he develop trust without putting you in a position where you have to depend on him?

·         How can he develop perseverance without making you endure difficult circumstances?

·         How can he develop patience without making you wait?

·         How can he loosen your grip on material possessions without making you do without?

·         How can he develop compassion without showing you how ugly hatred can be?

·         How can he make you sensitive to the needs of others without letting you experience true helplessness.

And none of those experiences are pleasant, but God uses them in a powerful way to make you mature and more useful in his service.  And so, James echoes Paul who wrote, “That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Cor. 12:10)

And the Hebrews writer, “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.” (Heb. 12:11)

And Peter, “In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.  These have come so that your faith--of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire--may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.” (1 Peter 1:6-7)

The great men and women of faith have recognized that in the midst of suffering and trials, God is hard at work molding us into the kind of people whom he can use for great works.

And when we come to vs. 5, it’s not as if James suddenly switches to a different topic and starts talking about something unrelated.  When James writes, “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him,” the wisdom he speaks of is that ability to see God at work in the events of our lives.  That’s really what wisdom is all about.  When you read the Wisdom books of the OT – Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Job – those books do exactly that:  Here are the events in everyday life – how do I recognize God’s activity, and how do I live in such a way that allows and falls in step with God’s activity?

So, in vss. 5-8, James tells us that when you’re in the middle of suffering and persecution, and it isn’t fair and it doesn’t make sense, ask God to make sense of it for you – ask the right questions – and God will give you the answers you seek.   Wisdom is being able to see things through God’s eyes.

And sometimes our problem is that we ask the wrong questions – “Why me?  How could you?” instead of “What are you doing? What should I learn? Help me to understand.” 

When you’re asking the wrong questions and refusing to seek God, James calls you “a double-minded man, unstable in all he does.”  It sounds kind of harsh, but our experience tells us it’s true. 

I watched a man who professed to be a Christian enter a time of trial in his life – his wife developed cancer.  When his life was easy and the sea was calm he looked so stable and secure, his faith sounded confident.  But the storm whipped up, and suddenly all he could say was, “Why is God doing this to me?  I could never believe in a God who would let this happen.”  And there he was like a cork bouncing on the waves, violently thrown about by every new event.  And when his wife died, his faith died and he became bitter and blamed God and left the church.

I watched another woman, who had always come to church, and been involved in the women’s ministry.  Her husband had an affair and abandoned her and their child, and then battled her for custody.  It was ugly and gut-wrenching.  But during that time she leaned more heavily on her church family and her faith seemed to grow deeper through it all.  And she always spoke of how God was giving her strength.  She carried some pretty deep scars from that ordeal, but she made it her ministry to be there for other women who were going through difficult times, and God used her in a powerful way.

When James talks about the poor man and the rich man, and scorching heat and withering plants, he is saying, suffering is an equalizer – the rich man isn’t exempt because of his wealth, the poor man can’t hide behind his anonymity.  Trials come upon every one of us, and it’s the choices we make and the direction we seek in the midst of them that determines what the ultimate outcome will be.

And so, in vs. 12, when James says “Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial” he is holding up a promise that beckons us to draw close to God and anchor deep to him in the storm.

I want to suggest three things you need to remember when you find yourself in the blacksmith shop of suffering: 

·         God is in control – even when you feel out of control – you can trust that God knows and understands what you are going through and has a plan for everything.

·         Never let go of God’s hand, never quit seeking his guidance – only when we lose sight do we lose hope.

·         You are not in it alone – God put us in his family the church to surround each other with love and strength and comfort.  We are the hands and feet of God to serve and support one another.  Paul wrote: Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows. (2 Cor 1:3-5)

Where are you in the blacksmith’s shop?  On the scrap heap, battered and useless because you’ve given up; on the anvil being molded and shaped, trusting that God is at work in your life; or a useful tool in the hands of the master, tempered and ready for service?

Illustration - Paderewski – “Don’t quit”