James: The Christian and Trails

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on August 11, 2002

James 1:2-18


James 1:2-18
The Christian and Trials

“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. When
tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by
evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each one is tempted when, by his own evil
desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it
gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death. Don’t
be deceived, my dear brothers. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming
down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting
shadows. He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a
kind of firstfruits of all He created.”

Amen. And thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired
and inerrant word. May He write His eternal truth upon our hearts. Let’s
pray.

“Our Lord we ask that from Your word, you would teach us
how we ought to respond to the trials of this life. We ask this in Jesus’ name,
Amen.”

With Christians around the world dying for their
faith, being exiled for their faith, enduring slavery for their faith and all
manner of persecutions, many of us are ready to admit that we don’t know much
about deep trials. But, some of us think of our lives as filled with hardship
and trials. I read a letter to the editor yesterday, and it recorded a word of
thanks to the newspaper from a gentleman who was clearly a fan of cars, for
running an article on classic cars. But, even in his letter. you could tell
that he could think back on a trail that endured some forty years ago. Let me
summarize the letter for you:

“I appreciated your article on classic cars. It
brought back memories. Many years ago as a young man I had a “61” and a “64”
Corvette. But, marriage and graduate school caused me to give them up. I still
have the wife, the degree and the memories. But, nothing will ever replace
those cars.”

Now, I suspect he’s sleeping outside this morning.
But, clearly this man feels that he has gone through a deep trial, to part with
those cars. Even forty years later he’s thinking about those cars. Such are
some of the trials that we endure. On the other hand, there are plenty of
people in this room who have been called to go through deep waters. Some of you
have reared a child to see the day that grown child lying before you gone home.
You’ve suffered the infidelity of a spouse. You’ve lost employment at a
critical juncture in your life and the life of your family. You know what it is
to have a friend betray you. You’ve heard a chilling medical diagnosis from
your friend and doctor. You’ve experienced a wrecked family relationship, one
for which there was very little hope of remedy. You’ve been involved in the
long term care of a family member with a debilitating and ultimately terminal
illness. And the list could go on and on.

In fact, there is no such thing as a Christian immune
from trials. It is a good thing, certainly, to put our trials in perspective,
to realize that there are some who have been called to go through things far
more difficult than we have been called to go through. But, there is never a
necessity to belittle our trial. In fact, it may not be beneficial at all to
belittle our trials. God does not belittle those trials. He treasures up the
tears of His people, He tells us in the book of Revelation. And the way we cope
with trials is not to belittle them, to make light of them, to pretend like they
don’t matter much, because they do matter much. But, the way we cope with our
trials is to put them in biblical perspective and to obey what God’s word says
we ought to do in the circumstance of trials. And that’s precisely what James
is about in this passage.

James is concerned that we learn three or four very
important things about trials. As he speaks to us in God’s Word today. I’m
going to outline the passage for you. In verses 2 — 4, James will set forth his
principles about dealing with trials. Then in verses 5 — 8, he will talk with
us about wisdom in the midst of trials. In verses 9 — 11, he’ll give us an
illustration of why we need wisdom in the midst of trials. And then in verses
12 — 18, on the one hand, he will give us a glorious promise about the goal of
trials in God’s plan. And he’ll also give us a warning about responding to
trials in the wrong way. Those are the four things that I’d like to look at
with you this morning.

I. The trials of Christian’s
lives, all of them, serve God’s prupose of maturation.

First, look at verses 2 — 4. Here, James says something really
astonishing. Don’t reject what he says out of hand. He says that trials are
useful. In verses 2 — 4, James is speaking of the usefulness of trials. He is
saying that trials in Christians lives, all of them, serve God’s purpose of
maturation. In other words, trials serve to grow us up in grace. James’ words
are astounding. When he says to you, “Consider it all joy my friends, when you
encounter various kinds of trials. When he says that to you, that might sound
astounding. It may sound unrealistic. It may sound like syrupy gospel songs
that say that once you know Jesus, you are happy all the day long, and you’re
looking around and you’re wondering, “Is everybody around me happy all the day
long? Nobody around me. I’m the only one who’s struggling with this
discouragement. I’m the only one struggling with this situation in my life
that’s never going to go away.” James’ words may sound like that, but don’t
write him off. When he says consider it all joy, I want you to understand that
his words are brutally realistic and they’re as helpful as the day is long.

James is not presenting in these verses a secret that
he alone knows. James is not starting a self help seminar where he travels the
country selling his book for $9.95 and the tape packages are thrown in for an
extra donation of $21.95 to give you the secret of dealing with trials, a secret
that he alone knows. In fact, if you look at the first word of verse 3, he’s
telling you here that he’s going to teach you something that you already know.
“Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing
that the testing of your faith produces endurance.” In other words, you already
know what I’m about to tell you. If you’re a believer, you know that what I’m
going to tell you is true and important. He’s calling us not to believe some
new secret that he’s discovered. He is calling us here to believe and act on
something that we all ready know. And James probably has in mind here,
especially the persecution that these Christian’s were going to face,
persecutions of various kinds. But he explicitly makes his words generally
applicable here, when he says, consider it all joy when you experience or
undergo what? Various trials. He’s including all manner of trials and
tribulations in his general counsel here.

And notice what James says we should do. If you
follow verse 2 — 4, you will see James give a four part counsel to a person
who’s enduring trials. Go to verse 4 and work backwards, because in verse 4, he
tells you the purpose of trials. And that’s where we start and then we work
back to what we do in the presence of trials. In verse 4, notice what he says:
he tells you what the revealed purposes of God are in trials. What are they?
To make you perfect, so that you will be perfect and complete, lacking in
nothing. God is conspiring in trials to make you perfect, so that when you
stand before Him on the last day, you are as sinless as His Son, Jesus. It’s
mind boggling isn’t it? God’s grand conspiracy for you is to make you perfect
like Jesus. James says, that’s where you start in thinking about trials.
Everything that is going on in your life is part of God’s grand conspiracy to
make you like Jesus, to present you before Him perfect. Then you work back to
verse 3.

Having told you the revealed purposes of God in
verse 4, James tells you the revealed means of God accomplishing His purpose,
the instrument that He uses to produce your perfection. What is it? Testing,
the testing of your faith. It produces perseverance or endurance in that
faith. So the goal is perfection. The instrument is testing.

What is the proving ground, the setting, the terrain
of that testing? He tells you in verse 2. What is it? Trial. The goal is
perfection; the means is testing, proving faith to make it endure. What is the
terrain, what’s the testing ground, what’s the setting for testing the faith?
Affliction, trial, struggle, pain, suffering, that is the terrain the proving
ground for God’s test. And what is the response that we are then to have to
that testing? Joy. You can’t get to the response until you understand the
end. You can’t get to the end except through the means. You can’t get to the
means except on the proving ground. And you can’t have the joy unless you
understand the other three.

James has set before you a formula that he wants to
be worked into our hearts so that it becomes second nature. Frankly, it’s
easier to deploy these truths in the difficult test of life, than it is in the
mundane test, because we think that we can handle the mundane test, or we are
not as reflective about the mundane test. But James says this is how we are to
respond to trials.

Now, notice that what he says is exactly opposite of
our instinctive response. Our instinctive response to trial, first of all, is
to question the secret purposes of God. We immediately ask, “Why? Why is this
happening to me? Why are You allowing this to happen?” Notice what we do; we
go to the secret purposes of God and start asking all kinds of questions about
it. There are stacks of books on the shelves of Christian book stores doing
precisely that, asking questions that you and I will never be able to answer
about the secret purposes of God. The most famous of them is about 20 years
old, but it’s still popular, When Bad Things Happen To Good People. Now
it gives a horrendously bad answer, I want to say right quick, but it’s asking
the wrong question to begin with.

James say’s that when you’re in the midst of trials
you don’t ask a question about the secret purposes of God. You ask a question
about the revealed purposes of God. What He’s already told you in His word that
He’s doing in your life. You don’t have to figure that one out. God’s told you
in black and white. But, what do we do? We want to know “Why? What’s going
on?” We don’t understand the cosmic ends of the universe. We don’t understand
the details of God’s counsel. Of course you don’t, you’re not God. The secret
things belong to the Lord, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to
our children and to our children’s, children. James says don’t try and work out
the secret plan of God; go to His revealed purposes.

The second thing we do in trial is that we
immediately are tempted to doubt the goodness and wisdom of God. “Lord, how
could you do this to a nice person like me?” Or, “I just don’t understand
what’s going on, this doesn’t make any sense. It doesn’t seem like a wise plan
based on what is happening to me.” We instinctively doubt the goodness and
wisdom of God. James says, “No, you go back and you remember that the way that
God brings about His goal in you, is by testing.”

Thirdly, we then respond generally by throwing up our
arms and quitting, spiritually speaking. Whereas, James says, remember that the
affliction is the occasion of God’s testing. It’s not a time to throw up your
arms and quit spiritually. It’s a time to believe and then what do we do?

Fourthly, we get bitter. James says, “No, you
rejoice!” Do you see how totally opposite James words of counsel are to our
typical response to trial? James wants us to consider trial a matter of
rejoicing, and you can only do that by following the words of verses 2 — 4, and
you need wisdom, which is what he talks about in verses 5 — 7. You see, trials
serve to test the genuineness of faith to produce endurance in our faith and to
bring about the maturity that God desires in us. And so trials serve the
purpose of Grace. Grace grows best in winter, Rutherford, once said. Why did
he say that? Because, it’s in the afflictions of life that God grows us most in
grace.

II. What the Christian needs in
order to rejoice in trial is wisdom.
Now, James in verses 5 — 8 goes on to speak about wisdom. And
let me just stop right here and say, as you read through James 1:2-18, you may
ask yourself a question, when you get to verse 5 — 8 and 9 — 11, and that
question may go something like this: “I don’t have the slightest idea how
trials, wisdom, wealth and poverty provide a consecutive train of thought. I
know that he must be talking about trials in general, because he speaks about
them explicitly in verses 2 — 4 and explicitly in verses 12 — 18. But, what’s
the deal with wisdom and wealth and poverty in the middle? They seem to be
sandwiched in, it seems like he’s going on a rabbit trail. How do they fit
together?”

Let me try and help you here. In verses 5 — 8, James
is talking about the trial of guidance, or maybe we could even say, he’s talking
about guidance in trials. And, he’s telling us that what the Christian needs in
order to rejoice in trial is wisdom.

Now, how does that relate to what he’s just been
talking about? Well, it relates like this: by showing us the need for wisdom in
response to trials. Now, wisdom is a very rich biblical concept. Our friend,
Derek Thomas, has written an entire book on biblical wisdom, and I commend it to
you. But here is all I want you to understand about wisdom in this particular
verse. In verse 5, when James says that we need wisdom and that if we lack
wisdom we can ask God for it, he means simply this: that wisdom here means
looking at life as James told you to in verses 2 — 4. That’s the first part of
wisdom that James is talking about. You need to look at life in the categories,
from the framework, through the grid that he has described in verses 2 — 4.
That’s the first mark of godly, divine, heavenly wisdom.

The second aspect, of wisdom that James is speaking
about here, is making decisions to move forward on the pathway of spiritual
maturity that are in accord with God’s word. So, when you are in the middle of
a trial, you’re looking at the trial and you’re looking at life as he’s told you
in verses 2 — 4 to look at it, and you are moving forward in your spiritual
growth in accordance with what the Bible teaches. Those parts of wisdom are
what James is talking about in verses 5 — 7. And he says, “If you lack that
wisdom, I promise you that God will give it to you. All you have to do is
ask.” This is an unconditional decoration by James. If you lack that wisdom
and you want to be able to look at your problems like James 1:2-4 says, but
you’re just not looking at them that way. And you want to make wise spiritual
decisions based upon God’s word, but you just don’t seem to be able to find the
energy to do so, or you just don’t seem to be able to relinquish your own
desires to interpret everything, and explain everything. Then, James says,
“Here’s what you need to do – pray. Ask the Father to give you that kind of
wisdom. Not the kind of wisdom that lets you figure out all the secret things
of God, but, the kind of wisdom that enables you to believe what God said in His
word. He will give it to you.”

III. The Christian’s view of
wealth and poverty is a window to his wisdom.
Now, immediately in verses 6 — 8, James speaks of two human
factors that can short cut your peace in the midst of trials, and I want to
point you to them. He speaks of doubt and he speaks of double mindedness.
Look at what he says. “He must ask in faith without doubting. For the one who
doubts is like the surf of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind. For a man
ought not to expect that he will receive anything the Lord being a double minded
man, unstable in all his ways.”

Doubt and double mindedness are signs of
worldliness. Doubt here is doubt of God’s word. Doubt of what James has
already taught. Double mindedness is a person who’s trying to live in two
worlds at the same time; this present world which will pass away, and the age to
come, which God has already established in the hearts of His people and the
communion of the saints. And the person who is double minded both wants the
goals and desires of this world and the goals and desires of the kingdom of Our
Lord Jesus Christ, at the same time.

Jesus said you cannot serve God and mammon. You
can’t do it. And so James is saying, if you have twin desires operating here,
you will be frustrated in dealing with trials. When you come up with the losses
of this life, if you are counting this life as ultimate, you’re not going to get
peace. It’s only if you are single minded and you have given yourself over to
the age to come, if you have given yourself over to the kingdom our Lord Jesus
Christ, that you’re able to put the trials of this world in perspective. But,
as long as you’re double minded, as long as you doubt God’s word you will not
get peace. And it is that peace and wisdom that we need. It’s that wisdom that
shows the vigor of our trust in God in the midst of trial. It’s that wisdom
that shows itself in our prayers that we pray, in response to trial.

What the Christian needs, in order to rejoice in
trial, is wisdom. And that’s why James speaks of it in verses 5 — 8. Then he
gives an illustration of this in practice, wen he talks about wealth and poverty
in verses 9 — 11. Look with me there. You see, he’s talking about the trial of
poverty and wealth. Now, everybody is lining up on this side saying, “Lord give
me the trial of wealth, please.” But, James wants you to see both of those
worldly imposters, poverty and wealth, for what they are.

You see the poor man could very easily fixate on
dissatisfaction with his situation, and, he could think that life was going to
get better if he only had what he didn’t have. And he doesn’t realize that he’s
been made rich in Jesus Christ and that there’s nothing greater that God could
give that what He’s already given. And so James tells us here, the relatively
poor Christian man could very easily fixate on dissatisfaction with his
situation. But wisdom does what? It leads him, instead of being dissatisfied,
to glory in his situation, realizing that he may be poor in the sight of this
world, but he is rich in Jesus Christ.

On the other hand, the rich man could look at his
situation and could become so satisfied with the gifts that he has, that he
forgets the giver. He could fall so in love with the gifts that he has, that he
foregoes the gift of the giver. He could think that these things, these toys,
these precious monies and material things, these are the most important things,
and though in reality very frivol, he could fall in love with them, instead of
those things that are eternal. The rich Christian could easily delight in his
riches, rather than realizing that God has surrounded him with things that will
ultimately pass away.

And so prosperity is a trial. In fact, Spurgeon says
there is no trial like prosperity. And a comparison of Christianity in the
prosperous countries with Christianity in countries where Christians are not
prosperous, bears that out. The quality of our Christianity is severely tested
by prosperity. And if we are truly wise, we will see that both wealth and lack
are trials designed to grow us.

And so James illustrates this principle of single
mindedness even from wealth and poverty. And he could have done it in a lot of
ways. He could have contrasted loneliness and companionship. He could have
contrasted a person who experiences the unexpected bereavement of a spouse with
a person who has a long, happy married life. He could have contrasted
unemployment as opposed to fulfilling work, or disappointed hopes with fulfilled
hopes. He could have gone on and on. The contrasts are all out there. But
this is a reminder that our response to lack and to plenty, wherever it may be
in life, reveals to us our true attitudes and whether we have real wisdom. If
we’re truly wise, we will see both plenty and want as trials designed to grow
us.

IV. There is certain blessing in
store for the enduring Christian.
And then, one last thing, in verses 12 — 18. James makes a
categorical pronouncement about the goal of God’s work in us. He says, “Blessed
is the man who preservers under trial; for once he has been approved, he will
receive the crown of life, which the Lord has promised to those who love Him.”
When James says that, he is saying something to us as believers that God has
said to believers ever since Genesis chapters 2 and 3. God has taught believers
since creation to live their lives in light of a foreseeable good. To live
their lives knowing that God is going to do them good in the last day, that He’s
going to reward them with his glorious promise. We’re not to live life like the
pagans, who think life is good and then you die. Or fill your life up with
toys, because then you die, or whatever, because there’s nothing that comes
after it. We’re to live our lives in light of the conscience good that God has
promised us, in His word.

And then he says, in verses 13 —18, that we are to
resist the temptation to fix blame on God or to think that in our trials God is
tempting us to evil. In this passage James is not denying that God has anything
to do with trials in this life. He is, however, categorically denying that God
intends by trials, to press you into sin. He says, “No, God’s intentions are
always,” verse 12, “to perfect you for the day of glory and reward.” That is
always God’s purpose in trials.

Now, where does the sin and evil come from? Ah, that
comes from you. It comes from your heart. It comes from wrong desires. And he
says, “Don’t be deceived.” Look at verses 16 — 18. Don’t be deceived as you
are trying to figure out your trials. Don’t do like Eve did. You remember,
Satan said to Eve, and to Adam, God isn’t telling you the truth. God really
doesn’t have your best interests in mind. He’s wanting to hold something back
from you. God is being parsimonious in His dealings with you. He’s really not
giving you the best that He could give. And James is saying, don’t fall for
that one.

When you encounter trials don’t think that it’s a
stingy God, who doesn’t have your best interests in mind, who is behind that
trial. God’s purposes are always good. James says, “Every good gift in this
life comes from above, it comes from God.” Every single good that we experience
comes from Him, and that controls how we look at our trials and our sufferings.
When God calls us to be perfected through suffering in trials, my friends, He is
only calling us to go the way of His only begotten Son. Hebrews 5:8 says, “He
learned obedience through that which He suffered.” And so, if we are to
navigate trials lightly, we must doggedly cling to two truths: the goodness of
God and the purpose of God in our trials, because, affliction is the medicine of
grace in the hands of God. Let us pray.

“Our Lord and our God we need grace and affliction,
grant it to us we pray, even as You grant us to trust Your goodness and plan, in
Jesus’ name. Amen.”

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