James: Perfection Through Perseverance
6/23/2018 6:19:24 AM
June 17, 2018
Rev. David Williams
I have here a sponge. It looks pretty good, doesn’t it? But it’s actually been sitting in this filthy water for an hour. It looks good on the outside, but on the inside there’s lot of filth. How do you get the filth out of a dirty sponge? You have to squeeze it! And the harder you squeeze it, the more of the filth comes out.
Our hearts are like sponges. They are sinful. They are filled with rebellion against God. Our thoughts, feelings, desires, wills, preferences and imaginations are all fallen in sin. We have bad attitudes in addition to our bad actions. We not only do things we shouldn’t do, but we fail to do those things we should do. We are born sinful, but our hearts also pick up a lot of filth from the world around us. Our hearts are like dirty sponges, absorbing the filth of a sinful wold.
How does God clean the filth of our hearts? Sometimes, he has to give them a squeeze! God the Holy Spirit often gives our hearts a good squeeze, really wrings them out. Why? To get the filth out of them! The theological word for this is “sanctification.” It means to set something apart for God, to clean it up and make it holy. Spiritual growth as a Christian is about being sanctified, having our character transformed, our heart cleaned out, so that we become more and more like Jesus.
But how do you think the sponge feels when we wring it out? Sponges don’t feel anything, so I guess that doesn’t really matter, but how do you feel when God gives your heart a squeeze? It’s often quite uncomfortable! But it is necessary. This is what James addresses at the beginning of his letter.
We are starting a series today on the book of James. We are going to work through the whole book over the course of the summer. James is a short letter in the New Testament, but for all that brevity, it packs a punch. James doesn’t discuss a lot of theological theory, but instead gives a lot of practical instruction. As we work through the book over the summer, I encourage you to try to read the whole book in one sitting over the next week. Then, each week, read (at least) a chapter. By the end of the summer, you will have read through James 3 times and hopefully be quite familiar with the content. As we come to each section on Sundays you will have become familiar enough with the text that you will be able to go deeper as you engage in the sermon. You will start to see how the pieces we cover each Sunday fit into the whole of the book.
Let’s take a look at the opening verses of James. Please turn with me to James chapter 1:1-18.
What It Says
The first thing to take note of is who is writing this letter. He only identified himself as “James, a slave of God and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Although there is a bit of scholarly debate, we can be confident that this James is James, the brother of Jesus. That’s not the disciple James of Peter, James and John. Rather, it is the half-brother of Jesus born to Mary and Joseph after Jesus. This James did not initially believe in Jesus. After all, who of us would believe our big brother was divine? Or the Messiah? The Gospels tell us that Jesus’ family didn’t believe in him right away, and at one point tried to come take him home thinking he was crazy.
But, Paul tells us in 1 Cor 15 that Jesus appeared to James after the resurrection. From them on, it appears James not only believed, but became the main leader of the church in Jerusalem! It was this James who, in Acts, was overseer of the Jerusalem church when conflict came up and clarification was needed. What a dramatic shift in attitudes towards Jesus!
But James doesn’t draw on his brotherly relationship to Jesus in this letter. Rather, he identifies himself as a servant or, literally, a slave of God and of Jesus Christ. One thing we’ve talked about before is that in the Roman world, when a slave was able to amass enough money to buy his or her freedom, he would take the money to a particular temple and give the money to the priests there. The priests would then go to the slave’s owner and buy the slave from the owner on behalf of their pagan god. The slave, although free in earthly terms, was now technically the property of that pagan god. I think we need to remember that whenever we come across the word “servant” in English in the NT, or literally “slave.” Paul, Peter, James and Jude all identify themselves as “slaves
of Jesus Christ”! I believe, buried in that term, is a recognition that they have been freed from slavery to sin and bought by the precious blood of Jesus and that they are now the property of God, in addition to serving him.
Notice, as well, that James, Jesus’ little brother, refers to Jesus as “Christ” which is the Greek word for Messiah, which means saviour. So again, buried in this opening line, is the truth that Jesus is the Saviour of the World, the Saviour sent by God to redeem people from sin. That’s an important thing for us to recognize and it’s amazing that Jesus’ brother recognizes this too. This explains, at least in part, the transformation in James from being an opponent of Jesus during his earthly ministry, to being one of his most important followers after the resurrection.
To whom is James writing? He is writing to “The twelve tribes scattered among the nations.” Literally, the twelve tribes of the diaspora, the term used to describe Jews living outside Judea. Why does James use this term? I believe the letter of James was written very early, likely in the 40’s AD, so only 10-15 years after the resurrection. At that point, most Christians were also Jews. In addition, James is likely writing to Jewish Christians who had, at one point, been in Jerusalem where James was their pastor. Now, having had to flee Jerusalem because of persecution (like after the stoning of Stephen), or perhaps having just had to return home after coming to Christ on a visit to Jerusalem (think of those who came to Christ on the day of Pentecost!), James is reaching out to them in pastoral concern that they keep living out their faith.
What does James have to say to these Jewish Christians who have left Jerusalem? Consider is pure joy whenever you face trials of any kind! Wow! That’s a counter-intuitive statement! We’re going to spend the rest of our time together unpacking what that means!
A few things to highlight or clarify before we get into that though. First, the words test, trial and temptation all come from the same word in Greek. Testing always involves movement towards a goal. The one tested should come out stronger and purer for the testing. One can think of a baby bird “testing its wings.” It comes out stronger and able to fly because of the test. [William Barclay, Letters of James and Peter, p. 42] However, the word tempt is also translated from this word. In the case of temptation, the goal is not improvement, but failure, falling into sin. So, throughout our text, there are a number of uses of this word and it is through the context that we can determine if it is testing for growth or tempting toward evil. Even as I say that, though, we will see that the two are not quite as distinct as we may think.
A second thing to highlight or clarify is found in the word “faith.” Faith, belief and trust all translate the same word in Greek. One of the difficulties in English is that believe can be a verb but faith cannot. So as translators are working from the Greek, they have to use believe, belief, trust and faith in English to render the same Greek works. Another issue is that our idea of belief tends to be purely intellectual. However, faith or belief in Greek contains the idea of commitment. It’s not just that you believe something to be true intellectually, like Jesus was raised from the dead, but that you commit yourself to that truth. That belief is something in which you put your whole trust and it shapes every aspect of your life for the rest of your life.
Thus, when James says “the testing of your faith produces perseverance” he is saying that trials have the goal of improving our commitment to Jesus in order to develop perseverance.” He is naming the goal of the testing. Perseverance also has a goal- that we may mature as Christians and be complete. This is important and we are going to come back to this momentarily!
James then says that if anyone lacks wisdom, he should pray for it and God will grant it. We need to dig into this word “wisdom” for a moment, too, if we are to understand what James is saying about trials and perseverance.
Remember, James was Jewish and so was his audience. In the OT, there are a number of books called “Wisdom Literature,” including books like Proverbs and Job. In the OT, wisdom is not just about intellectual knowledge, just like faith or belief is not just about intellectual assent. Wisdom is about righteous living. Wisdom is about knowing how to walk with God. Proverbs 9:10 says that fear or respect for God is the beginning of wisdom. Wisdom is about walking with God faithfully and consistently.
If wisdom is about walking consistently with God, then it makes sense that when we pray for wisdom, we should do our best to pray in faith, that commitment to God. If, in our prayers, we are inconsistent in our commitment to Jesus, then why would we expect God to give us wisdom, which is about consistently being committed to God and walking with him? Our faith is being tested to make our commitment stronger, to produce
perseverance. Perseverance requires wisdom; knowing how to walk with God consistently. If we want to walk with God consistently, we have to ask in consistency of mind and attitude. If, in contrast, we are of two minds on the matter of walking with God, if we are wavering back and forth about committing to God in faith, then we shouldn’t expect him to answer our prayer for wisdom on how to walk with him faithfully. The first ingredient for wisdom, healthy fear or respect for God, is not there!
What It Means
So what does this all mean? We are going to look at it in three parts. First, we will consider what James says about the purpose of trials or testing. Second, we will consider some different forms of testing. Finally, we will consider God’ character and his perfect gifts.
There is a flow in James’ discussion that isn’t obvious as first, but when we consider some of the terms we’ve been talking about is starts to come out. Faith is about commitment. Perseverance is about consistent commitment. Faith is about walking with God. Wisdom is about walking with God consistently through life. What seems to link all of these things together is testing! Testing of our commitment to God (our faith) leads to perseverance, the consistent commitment to God. Wisdom is the secret or the key to knowing how to consistently walk with God in this life.
So we need to understand both on an intellectual level and on a personal, experiential level, that testing has a purpose! Think of the sponge. It has to be squeezed or wrung out in order to remove the dirty water inside. Testing serves to purify us, it serves to cleanse our hearts. Another image used is that of a refining fire. Refining fire heats up metals to the point of melting so that the impurities float up to the surface in order to be spooned off. Testing is refining fire. Times of trial or testing is about teaching us how to have a sustained commitment to God, how to persevere in faith.
When James says we should consider it “pure joy” that we face trials, this is what he has in mind- the ultimate goal of a deepened commitment to God! Pure doesn’t refer to exclusivity, but to intensity. We should have intense joy that God’s purposes for us are being carried to completion. That doesn’t mean we can’t also experience or express grief, pain, sorrow or anguish during times of testing. Not at all! Testing can be very hard and we shouldn’t pretend it isn’t. Rather, mixed with these bitter emotions, should be an intense joy that mitigates the bitterness because we have in mind the ultimate goal of testing- our own maturity and completion as followers of Christ.
If maturity in Christ is the goal, what does that look like? What is maturity as a Christian? Christian maturity is about loving God and loving others. So testing leads to perseverance; perseverance leads to maturity, which is loving God and loving others. Down in verse 12, James says “Blessed are those who persevere.” Why? What does blessed mean? Blessed means happy. Happiness is the quality or characteristic of a life well lived. Being blessed means living well, living it to the fullest. Full life comes from persevering and it results in the crown of life that God promises to those who love him! (Remember maturity? Loving God!)
The key to the good life and to eternal life is loving God consistently. Wisdom, granted from God, is the key to perseverance. That is, wisdom is the key to loving God consistently, the key to our faith commitment being consistent. That is Christian maturity! Loving God consistently and allowing that love of God to spill over to others. This is what leads to being blessed in this life (living well in the way God defines it) and in the next life- living in eternal fellowship with God.
Binding together all of this talk about trials, perseverance, commitment, wisdom and maturity being loving God, we can sum it up in the form of a question. During times of trial and temptation alike, the question is, “Do I love God when…?” Will I love God when I am poor or in humble circumstances? These circumstances are a trial to strengthen my faith! Humble circumstances challenge us to love God even when things are tough. James reminds those in humble circumstances to focus on their exalted status with God! In the eternal realm, our current humble stances can’t compare to what we have in store. In the Beatitudes (Matthew 5) Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, the persecuted, those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, etc.” These are often people in humble circumstances. These are the opposite of the people the world called “blessed.” But in God’s terms they are living the good life!
Will I love God when I am wealthy? Wealth is a great test, probably even greater than humble circumstances or poverty. Why? Because wealth leads to self-sufficiency. When we are wealthy, we think we can
do it all on our own. We don’t think we need God. Wealth leads us to the test of whether or not we will forget God when things are good? Will I love God or forget God when I am wealthy?
Another test of wealth is comfort. Remember, testing always has a goal- improvement of the one tested. But improvement, maturity, requires change. And one thing that comes with wealth is comfort. Comfort is the opposite of change. I read a blog yesterday by a Christian who had been a counsellor for over 40 years. He said the biggest obstacle to real growth and transformation in his clients was comfort. We do enough to get by. Instead of engaging in the difficult but rewarding work of deep transformation, we do enough to alleviate the discomfort we are feeling. Comfort is the great barrier to growth and maturity! Will we love God when he challenges our comfort in order for us to be transformed?
In Galatians, Paul tells us to crucify our sinful nature in order to walk with the Spirit. We are to mercilessly kill our sinful nature, including our sinful desires. We are to nail it to a cross and leave it there to die. James here points out that our temptations to evil come from our own evil desires inside us, that is, from our sinful nature. They don’t come from God! They come from us! And they lead to sin and death. I think James would agree with Paul that we need to kill our sinful desires, our sinful natures. But how often do we kill it? Usually, we just try to cage it. Then we nurse it, caress it and allow it to not only go on living, but to grow. We say we won’t actually indulge these sinful desires, we won’t carry through on them. But we let them live, and they grow, and then they break out of the cage and lead us to sin! During times of temptation, do we love God when our desires don’t align with his desires for us?
Good and perfect gifts come from God. Desire these things above all else! If temptation and sin come from our evil desires, set our desires on the good and perfect gifts that comes from God. God’s gifts include such good things as the gift of limits (which we talked about in Emotionally Health Spirituality), the gift of God’s law to tell us right from wrong, and the gift of trials to purify our faith and teach us perseverance. All of these lead to maturity and, ultimately, to the greatest gift of all- eternal life through Jesus Christ!
So what do we do about this? In the West we love comfort! Even the poor in Canada have it better than the middle class in most of the rest of the world! We love comfort.
But are we willing to give up our comfort? Are we willing to mature as Christians? Are we willing to learn perseverance if it means challenging our comfort? What if it means testing? What if it means discomfort? Do we love God enough to endure discomfort in order to be matured?
By way of application, I want to consider questions we should ask during times of trial. Typically, during trials and testing, we ask, “Why me?” “Did I sin? Am I under spiritual attack?” We want to know what has gone wrong. James gives us the short answer to “Why me?” “Because God loves me and wants me to mature! He wants my love for him to be more robust!”
Since the death and resurrection of Jesus, we never have to ask if God still loves us. We know God loves us! James tells us that God’s love for us means he wants us to mature. He wants us to love him enduringly until we receive the crown of life! That is why we experience times of trial and testing.
During times of trial, instead of asking, “Why me?” we should ask, “How do I persevere?” This reflects a desire to mature! A desire to learn wisdom, which is about how we walk with God consistently. Asking how we persevere shows that we are willing to learn to cling to God no matter what our circumstances are.
If my circumstance are good, I need to ask, “How do I persevere in my faith when it’s easy to neglect God, to forget him and try to be self-sufficient? How do I persevere with God and not be drawn away by comfort and wealth?”
If my circumstances are humble, if I’m poor or struggling, I need to ask, “How do I persevere in tough times? How do I learn not turn from God when the going gets tough?” If I am tempted, I have to ask, “How do I persevere in loving God and being faithful when my desires are for ungodly things, when I want something contrary to his will?”
No matter what trials you face, temptations, trials of poverty, sorrow or even wealthy, remember that God loves you just the way you are, but too much to let you stay that way! And if he’s not willing to let you stay that way means maturing and growth. That will require change. And change is hard. Change is uncomfortable. It means sometimes God has to squeeze our hearts, he has to wring them out to get the dirty water out of the centre!
That is not pleasant! But the purpose is good. The goal is wonderful.
During times of testing and temptation, look to Jesus. Jesus endured trials and temptations without failing. He also died to forgive us for when we do fail. He will intercede for you to receive the Holy Spirit who brings wisdom so you don’t fail the tests. And he will intercede for you with the father to bring forgiveness for when you do fail the test or fall into temptation. Therefore, my beloved brothers and sisters, consider it pure joy when you face trials of many kinds. It produces perseverance, maturity and perfection. Amen.
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