Title: “Hope in Hardship”
Passage: James 1:1-4
James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ,
To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion: Greetings.
Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, 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 in nothing.
“The man was so godly, he had knees like that of a camel’s.” Have you ever heard such a high compliment?
A church historian from the fourth century named Eusebius quoted Christian chronicler of the early church named Hegesippus who described James in this way: “he used to enter alone into the temple and be found kneeling and praying for forgiveness for the people, so that his knees grew hard like a camel’s because of his constant worship of God.” (Eusebius ECCLESIASTICAL HISTORY 2. 23. 6.) What a high compliment. Oh, that we would all have knees like this.
This morning we begin a new series in the New Testament book of James. It is this James, who was known for being a man of prayer, that is commonly held to be the author of this epistle.
James was the brother of Jesus. Though he did not believe in Jesus as Lord until after his resurrection, and though he was not an apostle (1 Cor. 15.7), the Apostle Paul writes that James was a pillar in the church along with the Apostle Peter. It appears that James took over the church in Jerusalem when Peter was released from prison and left Jerusalem (Acts 12:17).
James is a powerful book or letter, with a very unique style of writing and exhortation that can make it hard for a reader or a preacher to group his teaching into categories. Rather than following the method of linear reasoning that many of the other NT epistles seem to follow, James has a lot of one-liners that some describe as a punch in the gut.
Though his letter can be very direct at times and contains some 54 imperatives or commands, it is also clear that he is very pastoral writer. He regularly addresses his audience as brothers or brethren and cares very much for their spiritual and physical well-being. Rather than highlight his status in church leadership of Jerusalem or the fact that he was Jesus’ brother, he calls himself a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.
This is the author of the book, but who is he writing to? What is the situation or the context that James is writing in? Knowing this will help us understand his message and help this familiar passage to pop out a little more.
For this letter means one thing if the readers were sitting in comfy pews and a very different thing if they were living in a foreign land, fearing for their lives. As we all know, location, location, location is key to understanding this letter.
Well, V. 1 opens by telling us that James is writing this letter not to one church in particular, but to the twelve tribes in the Dispersion.
This term diaspora helps us understand that the hearers of this letter were “under the gun” so to speak. The twelve tribes most likely was a metaphor to the Jews who had become Christians and were part of the church in Jerusalem and were part of the New Israel spoken of Gal. 6:16.
These brethren were under persecution and many had fled from Jerusalem after Stephen had been stoned and Saul and the other Jewish leaders had begun to persecute Christians in Acts 8:4. (Krabbendam, 180).
As we worked in church planting in Peru, we experienced the mass entry of almost one million people fleeing from the country of Venezuela into Peru due to a very hostile and unstable dictatorship back home.
The challenges many of our Venezuelan brothers and sisters faced were awful. Being alone in a place where no one knew them and where they had no contacts and feared for their own well-being meant they would take almost any job, and were treated very poorly. People with medical degrees were working on the streets trying to sell anything they could to make a living.
The situation in this letter seems similar in some ways. The afflictions that the brethren were facing must have been very harsh. Life was hard. People probably had to abandon their homes, their land, their families to flee to safer locations. No doubt many of their friends or family had been jailed and persecuted. We can only imagine how exciting a letter from home, from their own pastor would have been.
And yet, personally, as I read this letter I must admit that I probably wouldn’t have started out as James did. I mean I wonder how well it was received. James knows that the brethren are going through probably the hardest time in their lives and these opening verses seem like one of those ill-timed Bible quotes. Like when someone well-meaning leans over to you in the hospital while you are in severe pain, and says, you know “all things work together for good”!
At a first read, it seems like James is being pretty insensitive.
But that is only a superficial reading of what James is saying here. You see, not only was James inspired by the Holy Spirit to write as he did, but he was also a man familiar with suffering.
Jesus, his brother, was crucified and early church historians tell us that James ended up being sentenced to death and ended up receiving an even more horrifying death that I will not go into detail about here. (Kistemaker, 10). Needless to say, he was certainly a man familiar with suffering.
James not only understood suffering, but understood that our response to it should be joy.
In v. 2, he writes, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.”
Count it all joy? Why is this necessary to write this to the Christians in the dispersion?
No doubt it was because the brethren were being tested. It wouldn’t surprise any of us and it isn’t hard to imagine that these brethren were alone, undergoing immense stress, grief and pain. As the trials continued, it would be easy to picture these men and women growing weak in their convictions, and wondering where God was and why he wasn’t intervening in their lives.
Joy certainly would not be the first or the natural response to being tested. We know this because we have experienced trials in our own lives. We face challenges in our families, neighborhoods, workplace and church. Health risks and financial uncertainty can cause great distress in our lives.
There are the big issues in life that cause great distress, that can threaten your well-being and stability but there are the smaller day-to-day issues that also begin to add up. Like when you try to fix something on your car yourself so you can be a man, and not pay the extra $20 to have the mechanic to do it for you, and then you break something else that wasn’t the main problem and scratch your arm right here, and now you have two broken things and blood pouring down your arm…I mean that sort of hypothetical example can get really frustrating.
It is easy to laugh about this, but if you had been there, you would have understood that it was not the most joyful of situations.
The worldly response to having a bad day where everything goes wrong is that we just had an unlucky day, or that we had bad karma. Just sleep it off and maybe the next day will be better. This is the sort of perspective that sees the world and the things that occur in it as random acts. Trials and challenges in life would be seen this way as well.
BUT as Christians, how do we view trials? Do we sort of default to this sort of behavior as well? Do we merely replace Karma and bad luck with Satan? In other words, do we ever slip into thinking that all trials are just Satan’s attempt to make us stumble and fall again?
Dr. Krabbendam, one of my professors at Covenant College, wrote this in response to this manner of thinking:
“The idea that a high-pressure situation, “such as loss of a relative or a job, or even of life or limb, that “this is Satan’s doing,” and, further, that “God naturally had nothing to do with it, in fact, was against it,” is totally unacceptable. In fact, it is shameful in the light of the all-encompassing providence of God. (Krabbendam, 194).
“… Scripture never relegates God to a secondary position of having to put the pieces together in the aftermath of Satan’s primary destructive activity. This is intolerable. God would be no more than the “great fixer upper,” who only can come to the rescue after the fact.” (Krabbendam, 195).
Did you catch that? God is not in a secondary position, in that he merely comes to the rescue and cleans up after Satan’s destructive activity.
Though Scripture is absolutely clear as we read in v. 13 below, that no one should ever say, “I am being tempted by God,” because he himself tempts no one. At the same time, God “works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Eph 1.11).
What about in Job’s life? Remember how Satan seems to be in control in that story and comes in to God’s presence and before you know it, all of Job’s children were killed and he lost everything?
But actually the “…story of Job proves just the opposite. Satan, indeed, shows up….But God initiates the discussion…..He “eggs” Satan on. He “uses” Satan for his own ends! He orchestrates the total scenario in both phases of Job’s tragedy, loss of children and possessions, as well as loss of health, and possibly from Job’s perspective even “certain” loss of life, in order to bring glory to himself.” And that is exactly what God accomplishes. (Krabbendam, 197).
Another key passage that helps us see this most clearly is by way of studying the cross. The cross was part of God’s sovereign plan AND ALSO at “the same time just as fully the product of the evil hands of responsible man (Acts 2:23; 4:27-28).” Here is how Acts 2:23 puts it: “this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, YOU crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.”
If we take this passage of Scripture, we can see how in one verse and in one act, God’s plan is sovereign and yet also at the same time the lawless men are still 100% responsible.
And this is what James is getting at. The trials we face, are not just Satan harping on us and God not doing anything about it until it gets too bad.
See, God has not abandoned us. If he had, and that were the case, then a response of frustration, bitterness, anger and feeling of abandonment in the midst of hardships might be more understandable.
If Satan is in charge, then there is no reason to be joyful in such a horrible circumstance. This would reduce the hardships in this life as mere torture.
And James isn’t calling us to be masochists who delight in pain and suffering.
We also know that God isn’t simply being indifferent toward our needs, or allowing hardships just because that is how the world is now. God’s plan and decree is intentional and it is good. He is calling us to something deeper and greater.
But how could that be? What could be so important?
Paul, in Romans 8:29 tells us “For those whom he foreknew he (God) also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.”
James counts trials as joy and so should we because there is a lot going on behind the scenes if we have a correct theology about God’s sovereignty.
God’s plan is to make us and our faith in him whole and complete. He predestined us for a purpose. That purpose was not just to save us from hell, but it was to change us. To make us new creations. His purpose all along, from before the creation of the world was to mold us and transform us into the image of his Son, Jesus.
God’s plan wasn’t to save us from hell and sin just to then drop us off where he found us. No! Jesus is the author and perfecter of our faith. (Heb 12.2). He who began a good work will bring it to completion (Phil 1:6). You see, God doesn’t do jobs half-done. He will continue to work in us to complete our transformation from sin.
That is where trials, suffering and hardships come in. These trials are there to make us more like Jesus. To make our faith a genuine faith. A faith that trusts the Father in all circumstances, even in the face of death.
Krabbendam explains it well when he says,
“The believer must learn to see God in each trial. In fact, because all of life is either one huge trial or a huge string of trials, this is really to say that he must always see God in everything.” …When the stones rained down on [Stephen] him, he still saw Jesus only! The “secondary causes” vanished in a real sense of the word, even if they were still around and very pressing. That is why he could pray for them, “Father, don’t hold this sin against them.” The message is clear. To see God’s presence in any and all trials prevents anger, resentment, bitterness, or for that matter any type of thought, resolution, emotion, word or activity that does not conform to the purity portrayed in, and demanded by, Scripture. (Krabbendam, 198).
God predestined us to be conformed to the image of his Son. We must see all of life, through this lens. We must see him everywhere.
My good friend Charlie Dey restored an old Mustang. I remember how he seemed to always be working on that car during the summer or college breaks. I remember seeing the engine completely out of the car and everything being renewed and restored. He restored that car to the point that I remember thinking it looked brand new. Such dedication and care was put into every detail. When we finally were able to ride in that beautiful car, it was as if we went back in time to the year it had been made.
If we know the potential a car like that can have when tuned up and perfected and can go through all the trouble to see something like that go from rusty car like “Mater” to a beautiful shiny mustang, we can understand why God cannot simply leave us in our sinful estate.
God wants us to be restored. He doesn’t just buy us and let us sit in our sins. He has fully inspected us. He knows what is under the hood of our lives. He knows where the sin has gotten in and all that needs to be made new.
He wants us to be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. He will do whatever it takes. He will search every corner of our heart until we are all his. There is nothing that is off limits to God. He who began a good work will complete it.
And this is why we can rejoice in the trials. Because God is not going to invest in us for nothing. Jesus did not die on the cross simply so we can get a leg up on our salvation or get half-way holy. He will complete his work.
And when we feel the overhaul of our life taking place, we can rejoice, because that means we are his chosen people. We are his children. God has chosen us.
What father would give his son a snake when he asks for a fish? If we who are evil, know how to give good gifts, how much more will the heavenly Father give us all good things?!
We need get a better grasp on this reality. As my father Gerry Gutierrez says, “God doesn’t play with the lives of his children.” When we read of the life of Job, we must see his story through this perspective. God was not playing with Job’s life! When we face hardships and face sudden illness, death, failure, or brokenness, we must cling to the truth that God does not treat as insignificant toys to be played with.
Our God is a good father. He loves us too much to play with our lives.
My wife and I have three children, and when we go to the doctor, we try to explain to them what things are going to make them nervous and what things are going to hurt. Knowing that a needle is coming, takes away some of the sting, but not all of the sting. There is really nothing we can do about that either.
Understanding why a needle is necessary helps our children to get their head around the pain. But even more helpful than that is to tell them how long the pain will last – that it will just be a few seconds.
- James tells us why the pain is necessary.
- The Apostle Paul and Peter tells us that the pain will be worth it and that it is only momentary.
And though this knowledge helps us get our heads around the sting and give us better perspective on the sting, the hardships still bring us pain.
And though knowledge can help us get so far, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort promises to help us in our affliction. (2 Cor. 1:3)
We can take heart, because “we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, [who is able to]sympathize with our weaknesses…. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Heb 4:14-16)
So, brethren, as we face these trials that will most certainly come into our lives, let us see God’s hand in them. Let us remember grasp onto his promise that he will not leave us or forsake us. He has sent his Comforter, the Holy Spirit, to comfort and strengthen us that the Joy of the Lord may be our strength. To help us to have hope in the midst of hardships, so that we may remember that the same God who did not spare his one and only Son so that we might be perfect and complete, will also graciously give us all things, including hope in the midst of hardships.
This sermon draws on material from:
Adamson, James B. The Epistles of James. NICNT. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1976.
Kistemaker, Simon J. James, Epistles of John, Peter, and Jude. NTC. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007.
Krabbendam, Henry. The Epistle of James: Tender Love in Tough Pursuit of Total Holiness. Germany: Martin Bucer Seminar, 2006.
Moo, Douglas J. The Letter of James. PNTC. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000.