My life has been dominated by an ear infection this week… So I found it rather hard to be reflecting on the command James starts his letter with… “Count it all Joy, bothers and sisters, when you face all kinds of trials”. I found it rather ear-otating and yes even ear-onic to be looking at Joy in the face of suffering. I mean in the scope of things an ear infection isn’t that much of a big deal, it just hurts and makes you feel miserable but I needed the encouragement to look beyond that. I know many of you are facing much greater trials than that and in all difficult situations it’s easy to get tunnel vision to focus on the issue the trial and forget the big picture forget that God is good and that God is at work… James dives straight in to that at the beginning of his letter and invites us not to focus simply on the situations but rather to find joy as we face all kinds of trials in the person, presence and purposes of God.
James calls us to look at life through the lens of faith… as Dan McCartney says ‘ A large part of the life of faith is ones attitude towards things in life and ones response to events. We often can do little to control our environment and the things that happen to us, but we can control the way we think about them and how we react to them. Knowing how to interpret events and actions is a large part of wisdom and the faithful attitude of the Christian is one of Joy.”
James is straight up about life, that we face trials and difficulties. He addresses his readers as the twelve tribes scattered throughout the nations, as we saw last week he is writing to a predominantly Jewish audience and that scattering was a result of historic suffering and being conquered by different nations. They knew what it were like to be sojourners in strange cities, longing for home, subject to prejudice. He is speaking to a group of fellow believers who would have been scattered because of persecution. Down through the ages Jewish wisdom literature had wrestled with the issue of suffering, why do bad things happen to good people, the psalms are full of people lamenting and wrestling with these things. It’s what Philip Yancy calls the question that will not go away. It won’t go away because its real and it comes and it touches our lives again and again. in this life said Jesus there will be trouble but do not fear for I have overcome the world.’ There is trouble and trial but also great joy.
The first thing I need to say is that there is a difference between enjoying trials and finding joy in trials. James is not telling his readers that they should be like some modern day adrenaline junkie who seeks to go and find something dangerous and challenging to do. I mean it is good to push ourselves and set goals and challenges in our very safe and bland modern society… I wish more of it was tackling real pressing social issues and needs rather than back flips and unscaled mountain faces. Nor is this saying that we are to be masochistic, to enjoy pain. Neither is it being Pollyanna and diminishing the suffering or pain and difficulty of life. Hanging on the cross whistling and singing “always look on the Brightside of life” is Monty Python not Jesus Christ. We are talking about real trials and in them James invites us to find real joy by looking beyond our circumstance to God.
He takes us through a raft of reasons for Joy.
The first is that when we face trials our faith is able to be tested. This does not mean it is stress tested to see if it can be broken... The metaphor associated with testing is the idea of purification or smelting metals to get rid of the dross…Refining it. One cancer suffer talked of the biggest change in her life was a change of priorities, suddenly relationships because of paramount importance to her, she said “it was strange how it took something so serious to make her realise that’. James says that as we face trials and continue to put our hope and our trust in God our faith grows. A lot of the time our false hopes get stripped away and we are left with what is really real. In the laments in the psalms this is often put in terms of coming to realise that the important thing is not the trappings of life or the benefits of being God’s people but the abiding presence and goodness of God.
James says that as we face trials our faith is able to develop and produces perseverance. Now in English we tend to see this as a passive thing, that we have the ability to simply hold on and endure something. But the word here is an active one. It speaks of making head way moving forward. In fact the image that James uses to describe the two minded person in verse six helps us to understand that word. James talks of the person without faith as being like a wave on the sea blown about by the wind, not having a direction. But perseverance is keeping on to the goal staying on the journey focusing on the destination despite the wind direction and its changes. It was Martin Luther King Jr day in the US last Monday and many of his quotes appeared on social media… one that stuck me was where King calls for people to keep moving forward in the struggle for freedom despite the opposition.. if they can’t ride,” he said “well run, if they can’t run, well walk, if they can’t walk well crawl but keep moving forwards. That’s perseverance.
Perseverance leads to character development. God’s purpose for us is that we might grow and become mature, and complete and lacking nothing. We can find joy in the midst of the trials of life because God is shaping us and making us more like Christ. The Hebrew word for Peace is the word shalom and it has the idea not of a lack of difficulty and a life of leisure, like lying on a towel on an the idyllic summer beach or lounging in a deck chair beside the pool but of wholeness and being complete.
Again a Martin Luther King Jr quote from this week cuts right to the heart of what James is saying “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of convenience and comfort but where he stands in times of challenge and controversy.”
I found an amazing prayer this week from a Russian Oxthodox nun called Maria Skobtsova whose life sums up what James is aying. She helped hide Jews in France during the war and was arrested and was a prisoner in the Nazi concentration camp, Ravensbruck in the midst of her suffering her prayer was “ I am thy message Lord. Throw me like a blazing torch into the night, so that all may see and understand what it means to be thy disciple.” On Easter Saturday 1945 Maria took the place of a Jewish women who was destined for the gas chamber and was killed.
Then James tells us that we can know Joy in the generosity and benevolence of God. That if we lack wisdom we should ask God who will give us wisdom. He gives it generously and without finding fault. This is more than an invitation to simply find understanding about why we are facing trials. It is an invitation to know and encounter and walk through those things with God. In the Old Testament there is a tradition of personifying wisdom, in proverbs 8 wisdom is seen as a woman. In Ephesians 1:17 Paul prays for the church at Ephesus and says he will ask the father to send the spirit of wisdom another name for the Holy Spirit and here James uses the idea of the wisdom of God as a way of talking about the presence of God’s spirit in our lives. We can know and have wisdom in our lives because we ask God for his presence. Again James as a letter is very reminiscent of the Sermon on the Mount this passage has the same feel as Jesus invitation to ask seek and to knock, that God is a generous father who know how to give good gifts to his children and will give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him. In the midst of our trials we can know joy because of the presence and wisdom of God.
You may remember from last week that one of the nick names for James is ‘old camel knees’ because of the calluses on his knees because of the amount of time he spent on them in prayer. It is not a coincidence that James should tell us that we can find joy in the midst of trials in turning to God in Prayer. Some of us may find what James has to say about prayer and doubt daunting. WE all wrestle with honest questions and difficulties, but it is not what James is talking about here, many of the great prayers of faith in the psalms and old testament contain people wrestling with understanding and with doubts about God’s goodness. But they do not stop people turning and trusting in God, when James talks about being double minded it has the idea of looking both ways. I wonder if in the face of trials it’s not kind of like how we view pain killers or anti-biotics. The double minded person turns to God for a quick fix, if it doesn’t come they are on to the next, rather than out of a genuine faith and trust despite the questions.
James then turns to address the issue of poverty and says that joy does not come because of wealth, but rather comes from our status not in society but before God. Those who are poor, says James, should find glory and hope and joy in the fact that they are loved by God, that they are rich in faith. Jesus had started the beatitudes blessed are the poor for theirs is the kingdom of God. Our joy is not based on our circumstances or what we do or do not have but on the grace of God, on knowing his forgiveness and grace, knowing that as we trust Jesus as our Lord and saviour he has made us sons and daughter of the most high God. James invites his readers to look beyond the circumstances of the now to an eternal perspective, that in the kingdom of God there will be a great reversal. James also tells those who are rich that they too need to find their joy not in what they have or their status in the world but in the eternal, that they just like the poor need to realise that the important thing in life is relationship with God through Jesus Christ. That wealth and position and power are merely transitory. We holidayed down in the central Hawkes bay over New Year and it seemed that each day that we were there without rain the wonderful rolling hills around us became browner and browner it was an illustration of what James says here about life and wealth, it simply passes away like the grass. We can focus on what we don’t have and allow money worries to build up and drag us down, or we can build our identity on what we have and worry and be concerned by the foibles of markets and losing it all or vainly trying to get more…but in the end joy comes from a faith that finds identity in knowing the goodness of God, knowing the mercy of God in Jesus Christ.James usually finishes each section of his teaching with a pithy proverb a wise saying that sums up what he has been saying and here he finishes with a beatitude a blessing a saying about who is truly happy… here he says that the one who is blessed is the one who perseveres under trial, who stands the test, because the reward for that is the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him. Now we might think that is talking about earning Gods favour and reward. But that endurance of faith is more responding with love to God who first loved us and gave his life for us. It is not winning eternal life or earning it, but finding life as a result of that perseverance of faith.
Carbon can be found in different natural states one is coal and another is diamond, the difference between the two is…(as I paused here for dramatic affect it was typical when I use science illustrations as two people in the church said ‘crystalline structure instead of my rather more mundane and non-scientific answer) pressure. I know I’m simplifying that, but in the end James is looking at trials and saying that in the midst of life’s real trials, real pressure, there is joy because a real God is at work in us to produce diamonds not coal. Diamonds reflect and sparkle they come alive in the presence of the light, the light of God.