Where is God When My Life Gets Hard?

Series: The Gospel for the Rest of Us

Sermon by Gabe Fluhrer on Jun 12, 2016

James 1:2-8

Download Audio

If you’re visiting with us, a warm welcome to you. We’re glad you’re here. Last week, we began a series in the book of James in the New Testament and we’ll continue that tonight. We’ll be studying James chapter 1 verses 2 through 8, and that’s found on pages 1011, and 1012, in your pew Bibles; 1011-1012. James 1:2-8. Let’s give our careful and reverent attention to the reading and hearing of God’s holy, inspired, and therefore inerrant Word:

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

 

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given to him. 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. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.”

The grass withers, the flowers fall, but the Word of the living God shall stand forever. Let’s pray together!

Father, we need illumination to understand this Word. We come here tonight with all kinds of trials on our minds. We need to hear from Jesus and it’s not in the power of any man to do that. It’s only in the power of the Holy Spirit working with the Word He inspired, the holy prophets and apostles of old. So speak through Your Word tonight, we pray, and we ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Fill in the blank – “Life will get easier when…” It starts when we’re young, doesn’t it? “Life will get easier when I finally have a boyfriend or girlfriend.” “Life will get easier when I don’t have that boyfriend or girlfriend.” “Life will get easier when I finally get into the college I’ve dreamed about going to.” “Life will get easier when I’m finally a senior and looking for my first job.” “Life will get easier when I get from that second job to my next job.” “Life will finally get easier when I get married.” “Life will finally get easier when I get divorced.” “Life will finally get easier when I retire.” “Life will finally get easier when I don’t have so much time on my hands.” You see, all of us have our “whens,” don’t we? And those “whens” that we have are where we tend to put our faith. That “when” is what we strive for, what we live for, what we look for. But the problem with “whens” is they never come, do they? Instead, what comes instead of the “when” are trials, difficulties, hardships – one after another. As a friend of mine put it once, “Life never lets up, does it?” It always keeps coming. And this evening, James gives us guidance for when life gets hard.

Just again the context of where we are. Last week, James told us who he is. He’s a slave of Jesus. And he told us who we are. We’re exiles, strangers in this world. And therefore, this letter is written to people who are strangers in this world who are therefore also slaves of grace in the Lord Jesus Christ. And the book of James, out of a hundred and eight verses, has fifty-nine commands. James is not shy to tell us what to do. But the overarching context of all those commands comes in the context of the Gospel, of what Jesus has done for us already. And so James is giving us guidance to skillfully live for the glory of God. That’s what this book is about. And tonight, what I want us to see from these verses is that James teaches us that God is at work to grow our faith when life gets hard. God is at work to grow our faith when life gets hard. And we’ll look at this text under two headings. In the first place, the reality and purpose of trials. The reality and purpose of trials. And in the second place, our response to trials.

  1. The Reality and the Purpose of Trials.

First of all, then, the reality of trials and the purpose. Look there at verse 2. “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds.” James says we’re going to meet these things called trials and the verbs he uses there for “meet” is only used a couple of other times in the New Testament, most prominently in the story of the Good Samaritan. When the guy’s walking along the way, the Samaritan is walking along, Luke 10 verse 30, and he “falls into robbers.” Same word there that James uses. These are trials, these are difficulties that come out of nowhere. You get called into the boss’ office, and you think you might be getting a promotion and you get fired. A letter shows up from the IRS, you wonder what it’s all about, you open it up and you’re getting audited. An official looking piece of mail comes – you’re getting sued. The doctor calls you back in and says, “There’s something that doesn’t look right on this X-ray.” James says these are the kind of things that we’re all going to meet. And notice how he puts it – there are “various kinds” of trials. Big and small, all over the place, all across the spectrum. They come in all shapes and sizes and what causes us so much anxiety about these kind of things, if we’re honest with ourselves, what causes us so much anxiety is the fact that we don’t know where they’re coming from, we don’t know when they’re coming, and we don’t know what’s going to happen at the end of them. And that is life in a fallen world, is it not?

And so what James does here is, right off the bat, gives us two options. Here’s option one! You know these things are coming and so the first response is – be anxious or go into self-protective mode. And you’ll do that, you’ll do “option one” if comfort is the most important thing to you in this world. And the man speaking to you right now struggles with that mightily. I love comfort. The only thing I want is more of comfort. If that’s where our hope is, if we want life to be comfortable and sail along smoothly, then trials will crush us, anxiety will overtake us, and you will live a life of misery.

Option two is to learn with James here how God calls us to respond to trials and the resources He gives us to do that. And James does this. He gives us a reason, a purpose for trials. He gives us a purpose and a goal. Notice what he says, verse 3, “For you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness, and let steadfastness have its full effect that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing.” That word for “steadfastness,” it’s a wonderfully rich word, here’s how one commentator defines it. Listen to this. “Patiently enduring whatever comes without allowing distress to influence one’s convictions.” Patiently enduring whatever comes without allowing that to influence to sway us one way or the other. You’ll be that “oak of righteousness” the Old Testament talks about when trials come. That’s what James says. And what he’s doing is, God is telling us through James, when these trials come, the purpose of these trials is to grow our faith. That’s what steadfastness is. It’s going to produce a mature faith.

And the question then is, “What is faith?” And the New Testament gives us that wonderful definition in Hebrews 11 verse 1. One translation has it this way – “Faith is being sure of what you hope for and certain of what you do not see.” And so catch what James is saying here. The only way to be sure and certain of what you don’t see, of what you hope for, the only way to be sure and certain about those things is to be tested in your faith here in the world that you can see. Do you see what he’s doing? We’ll be tested in this life. There will be trials in this life, in the world where we walk by sight so many times. He says that’s the way that you become sure and certain of a world that you cannot see. Faith, not works, contrary to what I think most of us think about this book, faith, not works, is the central concern for James in this letter. We’ll get back to that in a second. So these are the two options – be crushed by trials or let your faith grow by trials. That’s how James lays it out for us.

God’s Goal in Our Trials

But God also has a goal. Look what he says. Verse 4, “Let steadfastness have its full effect that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing.” Is James telling us that if we do what he says we’ll be without sin? Is that the kind of faith God is looking for, a perfect faith with no sin, with no failings? That cannot be what he means because he’ll tell us in chapter 3 verse 2 we all stumble in many ways, all of us, we all stumble in many ways. He is not talking about sinless perfection. Instead, he’s talking about God with this purpose has a goal in mind. He’s bringing us somewhere. These trials are not just random occurrences to see if we’ll really stand up. That’s not what God is in the business of doing. He is a kind and gracious God. We’ll hear more about that in a second. But He’s got a goal that we would reach a maturity of our faith. And let me put it this way – that we would become fully human through trials. Do you ever feel like a fake? Do you ever feel like people are going to find out who you really are when nobody’s looking? James says one of the ways that we fight that is that God tests our faith and grows us through the hard times to be more like Jesus.

We’ll come back to that at the end, but think about this for right now. Every time that something difficult happens in our lives it is pointing us to Jesus. He is making us more like Him and therefore more fully human. And if you think about it for a moment that makes sense in how you do your own life. When something bad happens, you don’t go to the person who’s never had a bad time, do you? You find the person who you know has got some scars, who walks with a limp, because that person you know has been there and done that and, as we’ll see here in just a minute, that’s Jesus perfectly. Trials point us to Him. So there’s the reality and the purpose of trials.

  1. Our Response to Trials

What about our response? James gives us three responses. Three responses. First, verse 2, “Count it all joy, my brothers.” Now right there, if you’re reading along, you ought to stop dead in your tracks. “Count it all joy”? This has got to be the most counterintuitive verse maybe in all of the New Testament. Nobody wakes up, at least nobody I know wakes up in the morning and says, “God, please send me the hardest day of my life today. That’s what I’m looking forward to.” That’s not what James is talking about either. He’s not saying we go out and look for trials, rather he’s saying joy in trials. You will be able to do this! This is a command. “Count it all joy!” Joy in trials comes from knowing what God is up to and knowing who He is. So joy depends on perspective. Joy in difficult circumstances, joy when life falls apart, does not come from us, cannot come from us. You and I do not have the resources of self-willingness to get joy and just kind of work it up. Joy does not come from us, but it does begin with realizing that trials have a purpose, that trials that come to us under the sovereign hand of a God who loves us, that nothing gets through those nail-pierced hands except what He allows. It’s all from Him! Joy depends on perspective.

Joy Comes From Asking

But then notice how James does this. There’s a step in the argument here. He goes, “Count it all joy,” he says, “Count it all joy,” and in verse 4, “Let steadfastness have its full effect that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” Verse 5, “If any of you lacks wisdom,” See the connection? Steadfast, lacking nothing, now if you do lack, here’s what to do. So the second response in trial – the first one is joy, dependent on perspective. Second is prayer. How do we get this joy? Do we try really hard? Do we just grit our teeth, and grin and bear it and say, “Boy I’m joyful,” when bad things happen? That’s not what James is saying! He says, “Ask!” Joy in trials does not come naturally. That’s not just something that happens. It comes from asking. God says, “Ask!”

And notice how James gives us an encouragement to ask. Look at the second part of verse 5. “Let him ask God who gives generously to all without reproach and it will be given to him.” Don’t think of James as a hard taskmaster, legalist. Notice this vision of God he gives us. God is generous. Have you ever been around somebody who’s generous? Always giving, never asking in return. James says if you want to understand what God is like, He’s like that. He gives, notice, “to all.” All people, whoever call upon Him in the name of Christ, anybody, where you are right now, tonight, generosity, generous God, God looking to bless you!

And to make that clear, James says He gives to all “without reproach.” Let me put it in these terms. When I was in college I had to make that call that every college student makes, I made it a little too frequently my senior year, “Hey dad, I need some more money.” And my dad, being a good father, said, “Well what happened to the money I sent you last week, son?” And you know, red-faced I explained where it went. Here’s the deal. My dad was right to reproach me. God never does that. He never says when you ask for Him, “What’d you do with the grace I gave you last time?” That’s what it means “without reproach.” He doesn’t sit there when you pray to Him with His arms folded and say, “Now I’ll bless you if you tell Me what happened to what I’ve done for you in the past.” No reproach. Access, generosity. “Come right where you are.” That is James’ invitation to you. That is the kind of God we come to, to pray and ask for guidance, for wisdom, for strength to endure when life gets hard. What a promise! What an amazing promise in the middle of life’s difficulties. So James tells us you don’t get endurance by trying harder but by asking.

And therefore because we know who God is and what He’s up to, we know that our joy depends on what we think about God. Nothing will test your faith and show you what you truly believe like difficulty. If you want to know what you really believe, we can stand and say creeds, those are good things, we can stand and sing these great hymns, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” If you want to know what you really believe, if I want to know what I really believe about the Bible and about God, let something difficult happen. And James says, here’s the solution, “Pray. Joy will come.”

Ask in Faith

And the last thing he says is, “faith.” Notice again the connection. “Let him ask for wisdom,” then verse 6, “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. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord. He is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.” So faith, the central concern of James’ letter. He’s usually known as “that guy who talks about works.” Faith is central. What it is, how we get it, how it increases. And here he says, he gives us one of the most concise views of what faith is.

Doubting Thomas

Let me start by saying what he is not saying. He is not saying that doubt disqualifies you. Remember Thomas! Isn’t that amazing? The resurrected Son of God meets one of His people where he’s at with his doubts. James is not saying if you’re a doubter you’re disqualified. He’s not saying that being uncertain about some things disqualifies you. Think about Abraham. This is the man in Romans 4 verse 20 where Paul can write about Abraham and say that he did not waver in his faith. And yet you go back to Genesis and you read he did things like lie about the identity of his wife. He was a cheat at times. He was a bad guy at times in his life. So what is Paul saying? What is James saying? He’s saying this is a person, the trajectory is always arching towards God. There will be stumbling, there will be doubting, there will be uncertainty. Those don’t disqualify you. James is also not saying that honest doubts are wrong. You may be here tonight really struggling with some issue that it just doesn’t add up in your mind about what God is like, what He’s up to in your life. James is not saying, “Oops, nothing for you!” That’s not what he’s saying!

Who’s he talking about here? Really what he has in mind is the person who’s uncommitted and double-minded. The person who’s like a wave of the sea. Have you ever stood on the beach and watched the waves? They come in, they’re tossed whichever way the wind or the tide carries them. This is the person who says, “You know, I’m not sure about all that God stuff, but I’ll throw a Hail Mary and hopefully He’ll answer my prayers.” James says that superstitious kind of faith will not work because it’s a faith that is not placed in the right object. It is a faith that is not in God, but it’s a Hail Mary pass. James says that is not going to work. Don’t be double-minded! More about that in a second.

So here’s the deal. If you’re a doubter, remember this. Jesus is patient with doubters. He is patient and longsuffering with doubters, with people who are uncertain. He’s not saying to us, “If you’ve got questions, stay outside of the fold. If you’ve got uncertainties, don’t come to God. You can’t expect anything from Him.” Let me say this, as a minister. There are things I don’t know, that I don’t have explanations for, that I’ve stood at bedside tables in hospitals, that I’ve stood over graves of people who died way too young, and I don’t know why God does what He does. I don’t have it all figured out! And if anybody tells you they have all the answers, I can promise you one thing that’s true about that person – they don’t. I do know this, and James tells us to know this – with all our uncertainties, with all our doubts, with all the things that make us wonder, “Is this Christianity thing really true?” James says that’s how we come to God. We come in that posture saying, “I don’t have it all figured out, but I trust You. I believe what You say over how I feel.” That’s faith! It believes what God says over what we feel. That’s what James is after here.

So what do we do with all of this? Here’s the question, the title of the sermon, “Where Is God When Life Is Hard?” If you know who is sending the trials and why He’s sending them, it makes all the difference in your difficulties, doesn’t it? If you know who He is and why He’s sending them. But notice what James does not say because he’s a very good pastor. He doesn’t say, “Now that you know, stop being sad, shape up and get after it!” That’s not what he says! He owns the reality of trials, but he says, “Do something radically different!” And this is where it comes back to Jesus. Joy and Jesus are inseparable when life is hard. Joy and Jesus are inseparable when life is hard. Was there anybody who’s lived who’s had trials like Jesus? The only person that we can look at in the Bible and say, “It’s close,” and it’s not even there, “It’s close,” is Job. Jesus is the only one who’s undergone the trial, the test, the ultimate test of faith of having His Father who loved Him perfectly forever turn away from Him and be silent on the cross. Jesus is the only one who’s ever endured that trial so that you and I never would have to. You can search all the other world religions, all the philosophies, all the worldviews people have devised. You will never meet somebody like Jesus, and let me put it this way, you, when you go through something difficult, we can never look at Jesus and say, “You don’t understand.” He does. He’s been there. We have a God who walks in our shoes.

A God Who Walks in our Shoes

Isn’t that amazing? We have a God who walks in our shoes who’s gone before us, who knows exactly what it’s like to face trials, who knows exactly what it’s like to face difficulties, who had no other agenda every day except doing the will of the Father. And He got hit out of the blue. He had difficulties arise that, in His human nature, He didn’t know about. And He walked them faithfully in our place. He always knows what you’re going through. He’s always been there. There’s no other God like Him. No other idol can look at us and say, “I’ve been there. Me too.” Jesus is the only God who can say, “Me too.” That is amazing. That is a powerful resource to transform how we deal with life’s difficulties and trials.

But this also gives us a window on faith and doubt. If trials reveal what your faith, what you really believe, nothing makes believing in God more difficult than trials. And if you haven’t been there yet, we will all get there one day. James promises us that various trials are coming. And maybe that’s you. Did you just barely make it here tonight? Have you thought to yourself maybe more than once today, maybe more than once in the past few weeks or months, “Is this really worth it? Is it really worth it coming to worship to believe these things, to hear these things? I’m not sure I believe all that.” James has good news for you. He tells us right here that true faith is never born on the sunny days of your life, of my life. It’s never born then. True faith, tested faith, real faith only comes when life gets hard. James is so realistic with us. There is nothing sugar-coated here about faith. He’s not saying, “You believe in Jesus? Your best life now!” James has nothing to do with that. He says it’s going to be hard and Jesus will be with you.

A Generous God

And maybe you’re finding it hard to believe in God right now. Maybe He seems distant and unreal. Maybe a trial has made you look twice at this book and at God and say, “I’m not sure I believe any of this.” But then James gives you a picture of a generous God. A generous God. Do you want to know how generous God is? Paul tells us. Think about this for just a second. “He who did not spare His own Son, but freely gave Him up for us all.” The cross shows us the generosity of God. Do you wonder if He’ll give when you ask? Just look at the cross. If He gives that much, here’s Paul’s reasoning, this is exactly how Paul wants us to reason in the real world of trials that come out of the blue, if God has given Jesus, nothing better, He will always, always, always give anything and everything other than that. He’s given His best. He won’t withhold anything else. That’s how generous this God is. He crushes His Son at the cross so trials will never crush us. In your place, in my place.

Maybe you’re on the fence tonight. Let me ask you this. “What is attractive to you more than Jesus right now?” Our hearts are always attracted to something. You do what you do because you love what you love. What is more attractive than a God like this. What are you on the fence about? It’s like the lyrics of the old Eagles’ song, “Desperado” – “Why don’t you come to your senses? Come down from your fences, open the gate. It may be raining, but there’s a rainbow above you. You’d better let somebody love you, before it’s too late.” That is Jesus’ word to fence-sitters tonight. The one thing He does, He never leaves us this option. The one option He never leaves us is to be neutral about Him. He never says, “It’s okay to withhold a decision about Me.” He says, “You must decide. Either I am the Son of God who loved you and gave Himself for you or I’m not.” And those choices have consequences. He says, “Come down from the fence and experience love like you’ve never imagined and generosity like you can’t think is possible.”

I read a story from Billy Graham a while back but I think it’s a perfect illustration of what James is talking about here. Billy Graham recounts a friend of his during the Depression who lost everything – job, fortune, wife. And he was walking along the streets of New York and he saw some workmen working on one of the city’s great cathedrals. And he was shaping this stone, very, very carefully. And the man, Graham’s friend, walked up and said, “What are you doing?” He said, “Well, I’m shaping this down here so it will fit up there,” and he pointed to the steeple. Graham said, “My friend’s eyes filled with tears as he realized what was happening in his life by God’s sovereign grace.” That’s what God’s up to! He’s shaping us down here by trials, by difficulties, by hardships, so that we’ll fit up there, with Jesus, the one who walked through all trials and all difficulties in our place. Therefore, trials are a sign that you’re His, that you’re walking the same path the Son walked, and that one day when it’s all said and done, you’ll fit, up there.

Let’s pray together!

Father, thank You so much for Your Word. Help us to understand what we’ve heard. Help us to put it into practice this week and may we be those who live out what we’ve heard. We want to be hearers and doers of the Word, as James will tell us to be. Lord, for all those facing trials that we can’t even imagine tonight, would they see that You’re all and enough, would they find a friendly face and a warm hug and a good smile here this evening in the body of Christ for them. Most of all, would they find the Head of the Church, Jesus, loving and walking with them through this trial. We pray in His name, amen.

©2016 First Presbyterian Church.

This transcribed message has been lightly edited and formatted for the Web site. No attempt has been made, however, to alter the basic extemporaneous delivery style, or to produce a grammatically accurate, publication-ready manuscript conforming to an established style template.

Should there be questions regarding grammar or theological content, the reader should presume any website error to be with the webmaster/transcriber/editor rather than with the original speaker. For full copyright, reproduction and permission information, please visit the First Presbyterian Church Copyright, Reproduction & Permission statement.