READ : James 1:1-4
When troubles come in bunches, can we cope? Can we even celebrate?
It’s a great privilege and a happy experience for me to speak about the New Testament letter of James. Several features about it give special interest and practical value. You might call the book of James, “Studies in Applied Christianity.” Here is down-to-earth religion, guidelines for everyday behavior. This letter shows us how the faith of the gospel is to be expressed in common life. It calls us to lead a life “worthy of the calling with which we are called” (Eph. 4:1). It builds squarely on the great affirmations of the gospel, but its strong emphasis is on faith-filled living. How much we need that! As John Wesley once said, “The problem of problems is to get Christianity put into practice.” James can give us some powerful assistance in working at that together.
Another aspect of the letter that gives it unusual significance is its origin in the earliest Christian community. The letter was probably written in Jerusalem about a.d. 50 when most of the apostles and others who had seen the risen Christ were still alive. Quite evidently, it comes from a source very near to Jesus himself.
Who Is this James?
What intrigues me most in reflecting about the book is the author himself and the special relationship in which he stood to Jesus. We read in the New Testament of three men called James. One is James the son of Zebedee, brother of John. This “son of thunder” held a place in the inner circle of Jesus’ disciples. He cannot be the James who wrote this letter, however, for he was martyred at Jerusalem in a.d. 44. Another disciple, you recall, was named James the son of Alpheus, but he never figures prominently in the New Testament narrative. The third James was a towering figure. Paul refers to him in his Galatian letter as a “pillar of the church” (see 2:9). In the Council at Jerusalem, where the entire leadership of the early church assembled, this James was the acknowledged leader. And he, who wrote this pastoral letter, was the brother of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Now think for a moment about what that means. Here was a man who grew up in the same family home with the incarnate Lord. He observed Jesus, talked with him, ate with him, lived with him throughout the years of his youth and early manhood. James’ brother was to be confessed by Christians in all ages as the blameless One.
For James to identify himself heart and soul with the Christian movement, as he did, was to affirm that throughout all his years with Jesus he had never observed anything to belie that testimony. That didn’t mean, of course, that he believed from the start in Jesus as Messiah. In fact, James, together with his other brothers, was somewhat skeptical and patronizing toward Jesus during his public ministry.
But after the first Easter morning, everything changed. Gathered in the company of believers at Pentecost were not only his original disciples but also the earthly brothers of Jesus. James was among them. He could speak later of the Jesus whom he had known throughout his life as “the Lord of glory” (James 2:1). A more powerful witness to the truth of Jesus’ claims could hardly be imagined. Think of it—this author had known Jesus intimately throughout his whole life! That alone makes what he had to say about following Christ to be weighty and impressive.
This man of God was widely known as “James the Just.” He had a great reputation for godliness and devotion. It was said of him that his knees were heavily calloused through incessant kneeling in prayer.
James calls himself in this letter “a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.” There is more than a passing significance in that. The word servant here means a “bondservant.” James leaves it to others to call him “the Lord’s brother” or “a pillar in the church.” For him it is the highest honor to be a servant of God and of the brother whom he calls Lord.
Written originally to Jewish believers scattered throughout the Roman empire, his words still have a kind of universal application. To all he wishes “greetings” or, literally, “joy.” Now listen to his opening charge from the New International Version: “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.”
James is picturing here a situation of stern testing for the people of God. The word he uses can be translated “temptation” in the special sense of that term, but it normally means any testing experience. The image we receive from the original language is that of a journey along which a traveler meets with many obstacles and adversaries, when troubles gang up on you. That man on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho had “fallen among thieves” (see Luke 10:25-37). You’re walking down the road of life and suddenly a horde of troubles, like so many menacing enemies, seems to converge on you. You have nowhere to turn, no possibility of escape and you don’t know how you will survive.
Some of the testing we meet with involves mistreatment at the hands of others. We are slighted, abused, lied about, held up to ridicule. We are taunted for the faith we hold or the standards by which we live. People may cheat us, scorn us, take advantage of us, or try to alienate us from family and friends. When others seem bent on injuring or destroying us, we pass through testing times. Sometimes we may experience heartbreaking loss: financial reverse, destruction through fire, flood, tornado. Perhaps we lose our vision, our hearing, our ability to walk or drive. Or we suffer the most desolating loss of all, bereavement. We’ve all had our share of sicknesses and embarrassments, frustrations and disappointments. We’ve sometimes been pressured to compromise our convictions, tempted to deny our Lord.
But it sometimes happens in life that an almost overwhelming combination of these things comes upon us. I remember a week in my childhood when our family suffered a bizarre series of mishaps. The living room ceiling fell, smashing our furniture just as we were walking up the stairs. That same night, the furnace blew up. Then, a few days later, our house was robbed. Troubles sometimes come in bunches, don’t they? They gang up on us. In recent years, far more painfully, we’ve experienced the death of our oldest son, an agonizing trial in our local church, the deep suffering of persons very close to us. And then the sudden death of another son. Our family, of course, is not unique in that way. You could share your story of multiplied troubles. You could tell of moments in your life when you have faced, as James puts it, “trials of many kinds.”
But James reminds us that such testings, along with the confusion and pain they bring, can also have positive, growth-producing effects. Listen: “the testing of your faith develops perseverance.” I just had breakfast this morning with a young man who talked about a devastating business failure in his life and the way it had developed some new qualities in him. Perseverance, passively bearing our hardships, putting forth our best effort to “hang on” in the midst of them, but also pressing on our forward way in spite of them all. James is speaking of the way in which tribulations develop character. No one is naturally patient. None of us has inherent ability to endure. The only way we learn patience is by going through something difficult, hard to bear, exasperating to wait for. The only way we develop the staying power of a seasoned veteran is by having something to endure. Faith is a vigorous, active thing, somewhat like a muscle. It only attains full strength and capacity by working against resistance. There seems to be a firmness and depth of Christian commitment that is formed only under extreme pressure.
Most of us are willing to acknowledge that—in theory at least. We can see when adversity overtakes us that it may bring some beneficial side effects. We admit that we have often learned more from our defeats than from our victories. That’s certainly the case with me. But when we’ve mastered those valuable lessons, why must the troubles persist? We’re ready to say, “Now we’ve received the benefits of suffering; let’s go on to something else.” But James says, “Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” Apparently not simply pressure, but pressure over a long period of time, is sometimes required. We’re called not only to endure but to keep on enduring, so that having passed through our trials we may come to maturity, to fullness of life in Christ. Can we believe that—that hard as some of these things are to face, they are what we need to bring us to our high destiny?
Consider It Joy
James was convinced of that. He wrote to all his Christian brothers and sisters, “Consider it pure joy . . . whenever you face trials of many kinds.” Now that is an amazing charge. Anyone who has passed through times of testing and difficulty knows that these are not joyful experiences in themselves. And James isn’t telling us to “make believe” we are happy when we are not, or to imagine that our pains are pleasant. He is talking rather about the attitude that we adopt toward testings. One of the most precious gifts of God to us is the freedom, even in the midst of life’s worst experiences, to choose the outlook we will take toward them. James says, “Now because these trials are used by God to mold Christian character and build endurance, count them all joy.” Decide that you’re going to view them that way.
To some, this may seem like an impossible kind of mental gymnastics. Just because we know that a heartbreak may have long-term benefits, that doesn’t mean we can “consider it pure joy.” But a Christian knows that every difficulty, every crashing wave of affliction, brings an opportunity for God to show himself strong and faithful in delivering us. And the best part of all is this: what seems impossible for us can begin to happen through the power of Christ. James knows that those to whom he writes have received more than good advice. They have new life in Jesus Christ. And that resurrection power, that present ministry of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of Christians, makes it possible for them, even when everything seems to go wrong, to say, “I will rejoice in the Lord.”
Another beautiful thing that James says about testing a little further on is this: “blessed is the one who endures testing for when that person is tried he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love him.” The promise is of a crown of life at the end of days but the beautiful thing to me is that God sees our going through testing with patience and faith as an expression of love toward him.
You show your love for God by obedience to him, by the worship of his name, by cheerfully sharing the good news of Christ with other people. But you also can share that love by bearing the multitude of trials that sometimes come upon you with grace, trusting in the Lord. He sees that in his wonderful compassionate heart as an expression of love to him. “They also serve who only stand and wait” (John Milton, Quotations on His Blindness). They also show their love for the Lord when they bear these tribulations, these testings that gang up on us, and still trust, still hang on to God. He looks on that with a smile. God bless you as you live out your life in the midst of all the testing God brings, and may you so bear them in faith that God will see a great love in your heart.