If we could go all the way back to the first generation of Christians, what would we see and hear that set them apart and revealed Christ to the people around them? What could we learn about what they understood the Christian faith should look and sound like?
The best place to look to answer that question is the New Testament book of James. And today we begin a 12-week dig into how James portrays the difference Jesus wants to make in our everyday interactions.
James was the first New Testament book written, so it is closest to the resurrection of Jesus and the beginning of the church. This James was one of Jesus’ brothers—yes, Jesus had brothers and sisters who came along after he was born.
Open your Bible or Bible app to James chapter one, and we will jump right in. As is typical for first century letters, James begins by identifying himself and who he is writing to. James 1:1 we read…
“James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ,
To the twelve tribes scattered among the nations:
More important to James than being Jesus’ brother, is that he has become a servant of God and of Jesus, who he has become convinced is more than his brother: he is the Lord Jesus Christ.
James didn’t always believe that. But when the risen Jesus appeared personally to him (as described in 1 Corinthians 15:7), James went all in. from that moment on and for the rest of his life he was a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Now notice who he’s writing to: “the twelve tribes scattered among the nations.” The twelve tribes is shorthand for all of Israel, every Jew. Here, James means every believer in Jesus, who at the time were just about all Jewish.
Notice anything missing? Gentiles! Follow this: we know that the issue of Gentiles being accepted as genuine believers in Jesus was settled in a churchwide council in Jerusalem, with James participating, in the year A.D. 49. So the fact that James doesn’t include Gentiles in this intro tells us his book was written prior to the council. That makes James the earliest New Testament book to be written, prior to the year 49.
So again, if you want to discover what the earliest Christians believed our faith ought to look like in everyday life, James is the best place to look. This is as close as we can get to Jesus’ resurrection and the birth of the church, this book.
To help you feel how early this book was written, consider that this past week we observed the 18th anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks. The span from those attacks to this year is about the same time span from Jesus’ resurrection to James writing this book. This is freshly picked Christianity, straight off the vine. This is the real deal. This is what the very first Christians believed our faith should look and sound like in everyday life.
So before we jump in to James’ first big theme—and it is a big one—let’s ask the Lord to open his Word to us. Let’s pray.
Our Father in heaven, may your name be honored as holy. May your kingdom come, and your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And lead us, not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. Break through any defenses this morning. Deliver any from being overwhelmed with difficulties such that we miss the gold in here. Renew our minds, we pray. Help us to think more like Jesus, walk more like Jesus, and talk more like him. Do a deep work in us, we pray. We ask confident that you love to give good gifts to those who ask you. Amen!
Your Bible or Bible app open to James chapter one, after just the briefest of introduction, James jumps with both feet into the deep end of the pool, addressing…
Hardship: The forge that produces Christlikeness.
The last thing we think of when tough times hit is that there’s anything good about it. James immediately challenges that, writing in verse 2…
“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds…”
“Whenever,” James says, not if. Trials are normal. All kinds of hardships are the typical human experience, and Christians aren’t excluded.
Our trials can be physical, relational, financial, spiritual, and more. I spoke with a senior citizen this week who, through tears, explained that she’s no longer able to live on her own. For her that’s a bitter pill to swallow. She loves the Lord, and she’s feeling very sad about what’s lost at this point in her life.
There are singles who feel desperately lonely and long for that special someone to love. We don’t minimize that. That’s a kind of trial or difficulty.
I spoke with someone else recently who is doing all he can to help his brother as his brother is dealing with an aggressive form of cancer. That’s another kind of trial.
Someone else I know was called into the office recently and informed he was no longer needed. That’s yet another kind of trial.
Those are all examples of trouble, difficulty. So why on earth does James urge us to “consider it pure joy?” What does he mean? Other translations refer to “all joy” or “great joy.” That’s the last way we think about hardship, so what is he talking about?
The key is the action he calls us to, “consider.” James isn’t telling us how to feel, so much as how to think about hardship—namely, that…
There’s a Christlike way to think about hardship—and it brings joy.
Hebrews 12 tells us of Jesus…
“For the joy set before him he endured the cross…Consider him…so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.”
What kept Jesus going through his greatest trial was considering, thinking about, anticipating the joy that would come down the road. That’s a distinctly Christian way to think about hardship. Consider the joy that will come as a result of persevering, of not throwing in the towel or quitting early.
Lyn Brooks is an Iron Man Triathlete. The Hawaiian Open Iron Man Triathlon involves an ocean swim race of more than two miles, then more than a hundred miles of bicycle racing, immediately followed by a full marathon, which is just over 26 miles.
One year during the final leg of the race, exhausted, Lyn left the race and took advantage of a first aid tent by the side of the road. Her muscles hurt. She was emotionally depleted. All she wanted to do…was stop.
She entered the tent and there was a fellow competitor, sitting down and relaxing, drinking a cold beer. Seeing Lyn come in he looked up and volunteered, “All you have to do is drop out of the race like me.”
That snapped her back to why she had trained so hard, for so long, and why she had come all the way to Hawaii. She immediately turned around and got back in the race.
Considering that decisive moment while being filmed for a documentary, Lyn explained, “It was the hardest, and most glorious, day of my life.”
Jesus, for the joy set before him, endured the cross.
Lyn, for the joy set before her, endured the final leg of that excruciating race.
It’s all about what we consider, dwell on, focus on, fix our thoughts on—not the pain of the moment, but the joy that’s on the way.
That’s what James is talking about.
Consider Christ, so that you don’t quit.
Consider how God causes all things to work together for the good of those who love him, Romans 8:28.
Consider all the ordinary people named in Hebrews chapter 11 who, by faith persevered through trials, and went on to the joy of God’s reward.
That’s the distinctly Christlike way to think about hardship. We don’t minimize the difficulty in any way. But we also don’t see the moment as the end of it all. That leads to joy.
James goes on to explain why the Christian has reason for joy in hardship, that…
There’s a Christlike result that comes from hardship—spiritual maturity.
“…you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”
Here’s the formula:
First comes a challenge, a trial.
Then with it comes the opportunity to endure.
Then, if we choose to endure, we grow. We mature. We become who we were meant to be.
Consider the strength of steel—strong enough to hold this structure together. Its strength comes from being forged in fire. The heat is what makes it so strong. So is our faith, James says, after it has been tested. The fire of trials makes for maturity.
When James speaks of becoming “mature and complete, not lacking anything,” the word translated mature here, translated perfect in some Bibles, is about becoming fully developed. He’s describing Christlikeness—because that, more than anything else, is God’s good plan for us. Hardship, James says, is the path to get there. It was for Jesus, it has been for Christians since the beginning, and it is today.
Peter explains it in a similar way. Writing to Christians who were suffering for their faith, Peter says…
“The God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast.”
1 Peter 5:10
Think about the Wellness Center right down the hall here. People come and pay for the privilege of straining against weights, huffing and puffing on treadmills, stretching tight muscles, lifting and pulling and bending such that they sweat and get out of bed the next day sore.
I took a class where the trainer likes to say, “Pain is your friend.” I disagreed, and I’m out of shape. James disagrees with me.
Consider the before and after pictures of actors like Chris Pratt. For his role in the movie Guardians of the Galaxy, Pratt dropped a beer belly and 56 pounds, and bulked up into a different kind of six-pack.
Trials and difficulties are the personal trainer, James says, that can make us spiritually fit.
What’s he not saying? He isn’t saying suffering is good. He’s saying what God can accomplish through suffering is good. Hardship gives an opportunity to gain what matters most—a faith that becomes mature and strong and is able to handle what comes.
So consider, think about trials in light of what God can achieve through them, the joy that will come down the road. Consider that. Think differently about hardship, that God can, over time, produce something good in you as you persevere.
But what about in the meantime? If the good end-goal is that God can bring good out of hardship, what help does he offer in the midst of the trial? James pivots to precisely this in verse 5, to…
Wisdom: The gift that enables perseverance.
Thinking of believers who were struggling, James holds out one of the most treasured promises we’ve ever been given, James 1:5:
“If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.”
Here’s why: trials give us an opportunity to grow, but that doesn’t mean we always know what to do, how to persevere. When a job is lost or a marriage falls apart or a rough diagnosis comes, it’s common to feel disoriented or paralyzed. So call on God, James urges. When you need wisdom most, ask God to give it. That’s not letting anyone down. To the contrary, God is far more willing to answer our prayers than we typically are to call on him. Remember what Jesus taught in Matthew 7:11:
“If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!”
This is a lesser to greater argument. If the lesser is true, of course the greater is true. If any decent parent cares enough to give Christmas presents and birthday presents and “just because” presents to our own kids because we love them, imperfect though we are, how much more so will God give good gifts to us as we ask him? So ask!
In verses 5-8, James expands on how God gives:
God gives wisdom generously.
God isn’t a miser. He’s not cheap or stingy. When you need wisdom, step up to God’s buffet and ask away!
Jimmy Carter tells how when he first ran for governor of Georgia, he was shocked to lose to a publicly avowed segregationist. On the way back home, Carter’s sister Ruth listened as Jimmy vented about the voters’ poor judgment and racism, and his anger at God.
Then Ruth quoted James 1, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.”
Jimmy wasn’t having it. He retorted, “Ruth, my political life is over! It’s not my goal just to grow peanuts, sell fertilizer, gin cotton, and build up a bank account. God has rejected me through the people’s vote.”
Ruth came back with, “Jimmy, you have to believe that out of this defeat can come a greater life.”
He responded that there was no way he could build on such an embarrassing defeat.
The conversation kept going as they drove, with Ruth trying to convince her brother that when we ask God for wisdom to persevere through trials, God gives us what we need to take the next step. And the next. Slowly, James’ counsel sank in. And for Jimmy Carter, the rest is history. At 94 years old now, he is widely considered to be our most respected former President alive today.
Jimmy Carter, Living Faith (Random House, 1996)
God gives generously.
God gives wisdom to all.
Wisdom for how to press on isn’t restricted only to super saints. It’s for everyone. The Christian life isn’t like one of those airline clubs where only the elite get to walk across a special rug and board first, the Platinum Club members, while everyone else scrambles for the crummy seats. That’s not God. He gives wisdom to all who ask. So ask! Third…
God gives wisdom without blaming.
If you come to God in the midst of a mess that you made, that’s a result of poor choices you made, God is still glad to help you—without finding fault. He doesn’t shake his head and say, “Well, I would have helped if you had come to me sooner.”
He is the God who came to three-times-denying Peter and restored him.
He is the God who came to persecutor Saul and called him.
He is the God who saw to it that “abandoned the ministry” John Mark came back and became a highly valuable ministry partner to Paul.
Thank God, he gives wisdom without blaming—to all without finding fault.
This is the gospel, friends: What we could not earn and don’t deserve, God generously chooses to give us: forgiveness of sin, his companionship, strength for the journey, and reward when this life ends. God is generous toward us. So come and ask for what you need in time of hardship.
And then fourth comes a bit of a shock:
God gives wisdom to those who intend to follow it.
“But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do.”
James uses the word doubt here in a very specific way. He’s not saying if you ever question God or wrestle with parts of the Bible, you’re out. He’s not saying you have to try to convince yourself, “I do believe, I do believe.”
He’s talking about someone who has split loyalties—as in verse 8, one who is “double-minded.” The Greek word literally is “two-souled,” meaning your basic allegiance isn’t settled. Two-faced. There’s one foot in with Christ, and the other staying out in case a better option comes along. That’s not following Jesus, and it’s not what he laid out in his call to follow wholeheartedly.
There’s an African proverb that says, “The man who tries to walk down two roads splits his pants.” That’s what James is saying. Decide that you’re all in with Jesus.
Hurricane Dorian demonstrated the destructive power of waves when they’re “blown and tossed by the wind.” Anchor yourself to Christ, to God’s Word, and his wisdom.
You can’t be going to God one day with your challenge, and then abandoning God the next, and when that doesn’t work, you go back and try God again. It can’t be looking to God one minute, but then looking somewhere else the next. You have to decide: “I want to face this with Jesus, not on my own.”
And he will go through it with you. Because that’s who he is, Emmanuel, God with us. So if some kind of trial already has you down on one knee, why not put the other knee down? Take that hardship, betrayal, stress, whatever it is, to the One who is gladly willing to give you wisdom for how to navigate it, persevere, and come through to the joy.