The Epistle of James - Godly Values
Part 2 - Joy in trials
23rd March 2018
Having introduced his letter in just one verse, James, not one to mince his words, dives in with the most challenging teaching in the entire letter:
We don't want to hear this, or believe it. But do we want to accept worldly values or Christian values?
If you're not a Christian, you have no reason to believe that trials can be a joy, no reason to think, "Oh Good! I'm hurting again". But for a Christian there is a reason to rejoice. The reason is:
I know many lovely Christians who are suffering real trials. Some of my friends are in real physical pain. It's hard to consider real physical pain pure joy, but there is a truth here.
We need to be very careful how we talk about these things. If you're suffering a deep emotional, physical, relational or financial trial, hearing some smart-Alec preacher telling you to rejoice in the middle of it is not always a blessing. It can sound much too glib. And many of us have gone to a beloved brother of sister in Christ, and said "I want to pour out my heart to you because I'm in so much agony right now", and found that the brother or sister wasn't quite as trustworthy as we'd hoped, and he or she looked us in the eye and said "rejoice in the Lord always, brother" or "all things work together for good, brother" and we came away feeling more hurt than before. Some Christians can be very insensitive.
I'm concerned not to be too glib, because I know that real pain of any sort is real. Real trials are real. James is not saying that there are no trials, really, and it's all marvellous. Trials are real, but there is a reason to rejoice.
Here's what John Calvin says:
"But that we may know more fully what he means, we must doubtless take temptations or trials as including all adverse things; and they are so called, because they are the tests of our obedience to God. He bids the faithful, while exercised with these, to rejoice; and that not only when they fall into one temptation, but into many, not only of one kind, but of various kinds. And doubtless, since they serve to mortify our flesh, as the vices of the flesh continually shoot up in us, so they must necessarily be often repeated. Besides, as we labour under diseases, so it is no wonder that different remedies are applied to remove them."
"The Lord then afflicts us in various ways, because ambition, avarice, envy, gluttony, intemperance, excessive love of the world, and the innumerable lusts in which we abound, cannot be cured by the same medicine."
"When he bids us to count it all joy, it is the same as though he had said, that temptations ought to be so deemed as gain, as to be regarded as occasions of joy. He means, in short, that there is nothing in afflictions which ought to disturb our joy. And thus, he not only commands us to bear adversities calmly, and with an even mind, but shows us that this is a reason why the faithful should rejoice when pressed down by them."
"It is, indeed, certain, that all the senses of our nature are so formed, that every trial produces in us grief and sorrow; and no one of us can so far divest himself of his nature as not to grieve and be sorrowful whenever he feels any evil. But this does not prevent the children of God to rise, by the guidance of the Spirit, above the sorrow of the flesh. Hence it is, that in the midst of trouble they cease not to rejoice."
As we'd expect from Calvin, that's brilliant, but it's also a bit complicated. Here's my version:
God wants what's best for you. And what's best for you is that you be mature and complete, not lacking anything. God wants you to be as ready for heaven as possible. He wants you to be the most perfect Christian you can be, not the most comfortable. And therefore, to perfect us, He will do in our lives whatever gives us the opportunity to grow. And quite often, that means trials.
I don't want to belittle the trials we're going through. I know that some trials are incredibly painful, and we should never be flippant about our brothers' and sisters' suffering. But logically:
Not that our trials are fun, or easy, not that we don't wish they weren't there, but if we respond well to trials, we grow in God. We become more complete, more mature.
This is not easy teaching at all but this is the word of God.
Martin Luther didn't like James's letter because it doesn't talk about justification by faith. Because justification by faith was central to Luther's beliefs, and central to the Reformation, he relegated this letter to something that's of less value than the rest of the New Testament. Luther was mistaken.
Luther was right that James's letter doesn't talk about justification by faith, but it does talk about faith. For us to believe that the agonies we're going though could possibly be good for us, takes faith. Doesn't it?
When we're really hurting, emotionally, physically, spiritually or in any other way, it's so easy to believe that God has abandoned us. It takes faith to accept that God is with us, and He's doing a work of purification, holiness, growth and maturity in us.
But He is.