James 1:1-18 as preached by Timothy O'Day.
The path to peace is living in God's wisdom.
When you experience trials,
I. Choose joy.
II. Pray for wisdom to endure.
III. Hope in God's eternal promises.
IIII. Remember that God is good.
The Christian life, discipleship, is aimed at this one end: be like Jesus. The more you know yourself, the more you realize that this requires radical change. And the more you see God for who he is, the more you realize that this is a gracious change that he brings over you. I like to think of discipleship as a kind of process of being made consistent—of being people of integrity or undivided in our loves.
It is understanding discipleship as the process of becoming consistent that sheds new light on why trials and suffering are sources of great struggle for us. When we suffer, we know that we should say that God is good but we do not see how he is good. And this leaves us with an uncomfortable inconsistency. This might be your inner monologue for time to time…
“God loves me, but my desire for a happy marriage is unfulfilled…”
“God loves me, but people are slandering me and not respecting me like they should…”
“God loves me, but I am stuck in this job and I hate it…”
“God loves me, but I am so ill…”
I could go on. There are various ways that trials can make us feel inconsistent in our faith. The Book of James is about helping Christians find consistency and maturing in our understanding of God as we live.
James is addressed to the twelve tribes in the Dispersion, which means it is written to the people of God who are scattered all over the world. Most likely it was written as a circular letter—meaning that it was sent to several churches. But James knew the circumstances of these Christians. He knew their difficulties. In fact, if you try to find a pattern for the topics that James talks about you will find that it seems to be driven more by the needs of his readers than by a logical flow of topics. In short, James deals with real problems by exhorting the church to live consistently with the wisdom of God. This is the path to consistency: living in God’s wisdom.
In light of that, James jumps into the fray by speaking to us about how we are to handle trials. What do we see in these verses?
1. When You Experience Trials, Choose Joy
Trials aren't pointless. Counting a trial all joy means complete joy and not nothing but joy. That is, be full of joy, but don’t be glib. You can and should confess that the trial is hard. Be sincere in your joy but don’t be fake about the pain. We should have appropriate sorrow, but we should also see trials as an opportunity for rejoicing.
And this is not just in minor trials. We are to see opportunities for rejoicing in various trials. In the letter we will see that poverty and persecution were some of these various trials. But by saying various we open up the gate to many such sufferings. The point is this: if you are going through a trial, it falls into the category of “various,” so this exhortation is for you: count it all joy when you meet this trial.
How can you count it all joy? Verses 3-4 answer that for us. In short, trials mature us into what we are supposed to be. Trails test faith in the sense of purifying it. The language is connected to that of refining gold and silver. In that process, the goal wasn’t to destroy the gold or silver. The goal is to take out what does not belong to it.
What does this testing do to us? It produces things. First, it produces steadfastness (perseverance). Like a weight lifter, trials produce strength in us to the end of keeping us faithful to Christ.
And steadfastness has an effect on us: maturity. But what is maturity? It is Christlikeness. It is perfection. This is not something that we will attain in this life, but it is something that we desire to move closer to as we live in Christ.
What Is Your Goal?
We interpret trials as just loss because they set us back from some goal. If we miss the promotion, then we miss out on our goal to attain to a certain position or a certain level of income. There is no joy in that. If we get sick, then we consider what we are no longer able to do. If we face death, then the loss of all of our earthly plans blocks everything else from view. But do you see what James 1:2-4 makes plain to us? Your trials are doing something that you desperately need in order to make you like Christ. Your trial is not loss. It is gain. But seeing your trials this way all depends on what your goals are. Is your goal to be like Christ? If not, then trials are just a loss to you. But if you make knowing Christ and being known by him your goal, then you can count it all joy when you meet trials of various kinds because God is purifying you into what you are supposed to be.
Trials are spiritual operating tables. If I told you that tomorrow a man with a knife was going to knock you and cut you open, then you would be rightly terrified. But if you went to the doctor and found out that you had an aggressive tumor and that tomorrow you would go in for surgery to remove it, then you would view the prospect of a man cutting you open differently. You would even rejoice that such a procedure could take place. The knife is doing something that you need.
All things being equal, I do not want to face trials. But all things are not equal. I have a heart twisted in the cords of sin and I cannot untangle it. Only God can untangle it and he has promised that he would do so.
If you are facing a trial now, face it with joy knowing that God is doing something that you need. Are you completely defined by sorrow in it because the trial is keeping you from your goal? Then you need to repent of that lesser goal and embrace the good gift that God has for you. I know that this can be hard. But it is the only way forward. Everything else is only loss. There is no greater thing that can happen to you than to grow in Christlikeness. Spiritual growth is the only growth that eternally matters. Do you live like that? Orient your life, your pursuits, and your reactions around this truth.
But how can you orient your life around Christ in such hardships?
2. When You Experience Trials, Pray for Wisdom to Endure.
James transitions to a simple answer to this question of how we are to endure trials: ask God for wisdom that will allow you to endure the hardships you face. That is the command of verse 5. If you lack wisdom, then ask God and God will give generously to all who ask him. He will not reproach you for asking. He will give.
A Stingy God?
It is typical for us to view God as withholding. It was viewing God this way that led to the first sin in the Garden. The serpent told Eve that God had not told her the truth about the fruit. God said that she would die if she ate it, but the serpent told her that God just didn't want her to be equal to him and if she ate the fruit then she would be. In other words, God was keeping her from what was truly good and best.
This is the lie that you and I are tempted to believe on a daily basis: God does not want what is best for us, so in order to get what we need we should stay away from him. And if we do ask him for something, then he will probably be stingy and keep it back from us.
Only God Has What We Need
But why does James talk about wisdom here? Because the only way we can endure trials, and thus mature in Christlikeness, is by having God’s wisdom. This is the idea laid out in in Proverbs 2:6-8, “For the LORD gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding; he stores up sound wisdom for the upright; he is a shield to those who walk in integrity, guarding the paths of justice and watching over the way of his saints.”
Do you want to endure trials? Then you need wisdom. Do you want wisdom? Then I have good news: God delights to generously give wisdom to all who ask. You do not need to fear asking him. He isn’t stingy, so he won’t roll his eyes and you and turn you away. He isn’t cold, so you don’t need to warm him up with good works. He will give if you simply ask.
There is, however, a “but” that seemingly interrupts this good news. And this is where the skeptic says, “of course there is a ‘but.’ This was too good to be true!” But even the “but” seems innocuous when you read what the condition is. All that God requires is that you are sincere in asking. That’s what verses 6-8 are telling us. Look there with me.
Verse 6 tells us that when we come to God asking for wisdom, we must ask believing and not doubting. In this context, doubt is the opposite of believing. It is to have a dispute within yourself—going back and forth between trusting God and not trusting God, wanting God's ways and not wanting God's ways. As he describes it, it is to be like a wave of the sea—meaning that you aren’t steady but constantly go back and forth. When you doubt like this, then you do not pray with consistency or sincerity of purpose.
God gives freely gives wisdom in trials with a single purpose: to help you endure. God requires that you ask with one purpose: to endure and so mature. We should ask for wisdom, then, with the intent to endure trials—not escape them. If the trial is actually producing in you something that you need in order to be perfect and complete, then his love for you is too great to escape the trial. That’s why James says in verse 7 that if a person is asking God for something that works against his purposes, then he should not expect to receive what he asks! That unstable man goes back and forth in what he is asking of God.
Ask for Wisdom to Endure, Not Escape
Sam Allberry shared a story that captures this concept. He had a friends who had a child born with spina bifida, which required him to have surgery after he was born. But the surgeries didn't stop there. He had several more over the months following his birth. This was hard, but what made it harder was that before surgery the baby couldn't eat for 24 hours. Before one surgery the father was holding his baby and the baby was just screaming because he wanted to be fed. The father was holding his wailing child and said to him, "I promise you that there is a really good reason for this." And as he said this, it struck him: this is exactly what God is saying to us in our trials.
As you go through your trials, which are filled with real pain, God assures us that there is a good reason for what is happening. Perhaps you cannot see what it is. Perhaps your house is full of screaming just as that man's house was full of screaming. But that doesn't change the fact that there is a good reason for it.
But this requires trust to call out for God for wisdom. The wisdom may not be wisdom to understand why it is happening, but he will give you wisdom for how you are to make it through.
When you are experiencing trials, trust God by not asking to escape but for wisdom to endure.
3. When You Experience Trials, Hope in God’s Eternal Promise.
But perhaps you are now thinking, "If God is just giving me character, then maybe I can do without it. After all, the wicked look pretty happy! To this concern James turns next in verses 9-12.
Poverty and Riches Deceive
There are several verses in the book of James that indicate that one of the various trials faced by these believers was poverty. Verse 9 is one of those verses that indicates this. James exhorts the lowly brother, who is contrasted with the rich in verse 9 showing that lowly refers to poverty, that he should boast in his exaltation. What is meant by exaltation? The crown of life that he has by faith in Jesus Christ. He is to boast, then, in nothing else but Jesus for he has no gain outside of him. While he might look impoverished on this earth, he is rich through union with the Messiah. In contrast, we see in verse 10 that the rich man is to boast in his humiliation. He is to do this because he will pass away like a flower of the grass. What is meant by this? Everything that makes a rich man look great right now—nice car, clothes, house, gadgets, food, etc will one day be in the sewer or in the dump. Like a flower, his opulence and beauty is here today and gone tomorrow. If he boasts in his pursuits then, as the end of verse 11 tells us, he will perish in them. This is why heh should boast in his humiliation. Here is what that means: he should boast by identifying with the poor itinerant preacher who was condemned by the elite, stripped naked, whipped as a grotesque criminal, and crucified as a forgettable piece of human garbage. He should boast not in owning the finery that impresses the world but in being owned by the Savior that the world rejected.
Seek Christ, Not Money
But note what verse 12 tells us: In the end, it is not riches or poverty that saves you. It is remaining steadfastly Christ’s man under trial. This is the thrust of verse 12. What is real blessing? You poor, don’t get it wrong. It isn’t earthly goods. It is the crown of life! What is real blessing? You rich, do not get it wrong. It isn’t comfort and finery in the present life but the crown of life. And, as you see in verse 12, the crown of life is promised to those who love God. When we are financially poor, the temptation is to think that money will satisfy. And when we are rich, we are tempted to think that we have the greatest treasure there is. The love of money, then, threatens both the rich and the poor. Instead of seeking worldly finery, seek Christ. The danger for those in positions of humility is that you would look to the finery of the world and think that is what you need. But there is an even greater danger for those who have much because their abundance leads them to think that they have no need. Money can numb you to your need for God while poverty can humble so that you hunger for God’s ultimate provision.
Judge By God's Promise, Not Your Present Circumstances
Do not, then, let your earthly circumstances be your ultimate guide to blessing. Base what you believe about blessing on God's promise of eternal life.
4. When You Experience Trials, Trust that God is Good.
Every trial brings temptation, so does that mean that God is tempting us and trying to get us to slip up? By no means. That’s the topic that James turns to next. He knows that we need to have our thinking helped in regard to this issue because it is a serious charge against God.
The Difference Between Trials and Temptations
Verses 13-18 help us understand the relationship of trials and temptation but turning our gaze toward who we are and who God is. In verses 13-16, we are warned not to blame our temptation on God. Why? Because, as it says in verse 13, “God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one.” While God puts us through trials, we must remember why he does so. As we saw in verses 2-4, he puts us through trials in order to refine us. A trial is an outward test to strengthen faith. Temptation, in contrast, is an inward desire for evil. God has no desire for evil and has no desire that we should pursue evil, so we cannot say he tempts us to evil.
But how is it that we are tempted then? Verse 14 goes on to explain: temptation comes not from external circumstances but from the twisted desires of our hearts. It is desires detached from God, twisted by the fall, that bring about temptation. Verse 15 then lays out the whole process:
Desire: Our innate desire for sin is what leads us to want to move away from God for satisfaction. In a trial, then, we are tempted to escape from suffering by sinning against God!
Temptation: this can lead to conceiving sin. Conceiving sin is to welcome the desire and planning out how you will act on this desire. If you welcome the desire instead of resisting it, sin is conceived. But note this: temptation itself is not sin. When the desire “conceives,” that gives birth to sin. But when you are tempted, you have not yet sinned. The twisted desire is the mark of sin on your heart—the sin that he is rooting out and will completely remove when you are in glory—but this mark of sin is not sin itself. It is indwelling sin, yes, but it is not active sin.
Sin: acting out the temptation
Sin fully grown: maturing in your sin. Nurturing it instead of confessing it. Strengthening it instead of rooting it out.
Death: this is not just physical death. This is the eternal death that awaits all who embrace sin instead of fighting it.
Verse 16 then sums all of this up: “do not be deceived, my beloved brothers.” James is saying, “Do not be deceived into cursing God and running from God in the midst of your trials. Trials might provide the opportunity for temptation, but they are not the cause of your temptation.
So Fight Sin!
Fight and use the goodness of God as your greatest tool in the fight! The lie of your heart is that if you do not sin, then you will miss out. But the promise of obedience and trust in God is that if you sin then you will miss out! Fight temptation like an all out brawl! Give no quarter.
Why Should We Trust That God is Doing Good in Our Trials? Our Assurance in Creation and the Cross
God, then, is not the author of sin or even the author of temptation. That comes from within. What is God the author of? He is the one who gives good gifts to his people. This is what James turns to in verses 17 and 18. Verse 16 calls us not to be deceived into thinking That God is evil and out to destroy us. Rather, we are to see him as he really is. In verse 17 we see two key things about God:
All good gifts come from him
He does not change
If there is anything for which you are grateful or if there is anything that you call “good,” it finds its origin and source in God. He is the giver of all good gifts. This is even seen in his name, “the Father of lights,” which is a reference to the Sun, moon, and stars. These great celestial bodies were created by God and shed light on all of creation. The sun that grows the food you love to eat, the moon and stars that shed gorgeous light on the night landscapes were all created by God. Every moment of joy you have comes from him.
But God is not only the giver of all good things but he is unchangingly good himself. The sun sets. We have to use charts of the heavens because as the earth rotates everything shifts. But there is no variation or shadow due to change in God. He is constant and unchanging. He is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. He does not grow weary in doing good nor does he have a limit to his love.
And God, in his unchanging nature, is more good than we can fathom. Look with me at verse 18 to see why. While our own desires lead us away into temptation and sin, his own will—his own desire—brought us forth by the word of truth. Here’s what that means: he redeemed us and brought us into new life simply because he wanted to do so. Our twisted desire leads us to death, but his pure and good desire is that we would have life. And we have this life by the word of truth—the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The short answer of our assurance that God is working for our good in our trials is this: look to the goodness of creation and new creation. Not only has God made a world that we enjoy even though it is now corrupted with sin, but he has made us the first fruits of his new creation now. And he has done so by giving us his Son even though we did not deserve it. The reason the world is corrupted by sin is because we are sinners. But while we were sinners and God’s enemies, he sent his Son to do for us. Brothers and sisters, if God would be so good to us while we were his enemies, how can we not trust him that he will do all that is necessary to make us like his Son now? His goodness in the gospel is what assures us that he is good in our trials.
Keep Your Eyes on Jesus
Look to the cross to understand the unwavering and unchanging goodness of God. Ponder the cross in your heartache to see the goodness of God. Stare at the cross in your hospital bed to see the goodness of God. Cling to the cross at the grave side to understand the goodness of God. Sing of the cross when you are bed ridden in order to remember the goodness of God. As we come to the table, take up the body and blood of Jesus Christ on the cross and declare his death until he comes again.