New Series – Practical Christian Living: Handling Hardships

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Text: James 1:1-8.

Introduction: One of my favorite books of the New Testament is James. It was written by one of Jesus’ half-brothers, with whom He shared the same mother. It is filled with practical suggestions about how to live well as Christ-followers. For me, seldom does a week go by when I don’t look to it for some wisdom regarding my or someone else’s life situation. That’s why I’ve entitled this series “Practical Christian Living.” The letter was written to Jewish Christians who were dispersed abroad as the result of persecution to believers in Jerusalem beginning with the martyrdom of Stephen (Acts 8:1 — On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria). Though their trials were undeserved, the result was considerable hardship nonetheless. It seems that a good question to ask when God’s people suffer unjustly is, “Why does God allow it?” Certainly, He doesn’t have it in for His children and He could stop it if He so desired. After all, He is God Almighty. Jeremiah 32:17 reminds us that He has made the heavens and the earth by His outstretched arm. Nothing is too hard for Him. So why doesn’t He? Does God enjoy watching HIs people suffer, or could it possibly be that He has designed trials to serve some higher purpose in our lives? Let me attempt to answer this question by asking you to imagine for a moment that you have a newborn son whom you love very much. One day God gives you a script of what his life will be like and tells you to read it. When you’ve have finished, He gives you an eraser and His permission to edit it. You can take out whatever you want. You discovered that your son will have a learning disability. Math, which comes easily for you, will always be a struggle for him. In grade school, he will make a great circle of friends, then in high school be rejected by many of them for his faith in Christ. After graduation your son will actually get into the college of his choice. While there, however, he will be involved in an auto accident and spend two weeks in the hospital in a coma followed by a prolonged bout with depression. A few years later, he will meet and eventually marry a special young lady. Then he’ll start his career working for a good company. They will have three children together. After eight years, he’ll lose his job during an economic downturn. The pressure of being without work will get to both him and his wife and sadly they’ll go through a time of separation. After much counseling, they will reconcile, but it will have taken a toll on one of his children who rebels. Then, in his fifties, your son will be diagnosed with cancer and undergo chemo and radiation. He’ll survive, but in his seventies, his wife of forty-five years will die. Just two years later he will follow her into eternity after suffering a heart attack while at home alone. If as a parent you could see all this, and if you were given the opportunity to edit your son’s life, what would you erase? Wouldn’t you be tempted to take out all the stuff that would cause him pain? Perhaps you’ve heard the term “helicopter parents.” It refers to mom and dads who constantly hover over their children and swoop in at any moment to protect them from any mistreatment or disappointment in life. Now I get it that parents would be tempted to do such a thing, but the question we have to ask ourselves is, “If we could employ a magic eraser, if we could delete every failure, setback, suffering, and pain for someone we love—are we certain it would be a good idea? Would a life without trials cause our children to grow up to be a better, stronger, more generous people? Or is it possible that in some way human beings actually need adversity, setbacks, maybe even a little trauma to reach the fullest level of our development and growth as followers of Christ? This is the issue that the first eight verses of James’ letter address. And while he doesn’t give us a complete answer as to why we encounter trials, he does want us to remember that the suffering of believers is always under the providential control of a God who wants only the best for His people.  So, join me as we discover the attitude we as God’s people should HAVE in our trials; how we find HOPE in our trials and where we find HELP in our trials.

The attitude believers should HAVE in their trials (James 1:2 — Count it pure joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds …). Sooner or later, we’re all going to face trials. That’s what the word “when” implies. It’s not a matter of “if”, but “when”. One of my friends says, “In this life, you are either in a trial or you’re preparing for one.” I know that sounds pretty pessimistic, but the truth is that we live in a fallen world corrupted by sin where bad things happen to people. Jesus said, “In this world you willhave trouble — John 16:33. Now, given that it is inevitable, especially for us as Christians who are often misunderstood and rejected by a culture under the control of the evil one, James wants us to know what kind of attitude we ought to have in the midst of our trials.  He says we are to count it pure joy whenever we meet one of any kind. Is He kidding? Why would He say a thing like that? Understand that James isn’t teaching this can be a believer’s only response to undeserved hardship as if we’re never to express sadness. He simply says that when we suffer hardship, it  should also be an occasion for genuine rejoicing. I like the J. B. Phillips translation that tells us “not to resent trials as intruders, but welcome them as friends.” It might help you to know a few of the trials that the believing Jews to whom James wrote this  letter were facing: they were suffering from poverty that stemmed from persecution by Jews who rejected Jesus as their Messiah (James 2:6-7 — Are not the rich the ones who oppress you…?); some of them were being dragged into court while their accusers slandered the name of Christ (…are they not dragging you into court and blaspheming the honorable name by which you were called?). Other believers were probably having their wages withheld(James 5:1-6 — the wages you failed to pay the workman who mowed your fields are crying out against you). At this point, it doesn’t appear their trials included death, but they weren’t easy either, yet they were to choose joy as their attitude in facing them. Of course, it’s not natural to count it all joy during trials, but then again, James isn’t asking us to accomplish this in our flesh. It’s only possible when we’re relying on the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit who enables us to see these things from God’s perspective and respond accordingly. It always helps me to remember that a trial has been permitted by God to serve His purposes in me. If I can see it in that way, I can overcome self-pity or despair and choose to be joyful. Illustration: Which of us planned on the coronavirus (covid-19) sending us into a lock-down this spring? This has really interrupted our lives! Thousands of small businesses may be closing their doors for the last time. Ten million or more people have lost their jobs and are wondering how they’re going to meet their financial obligations. Thousands of families are making plans to memorialize loved ones who have passed from the virus when they’re allowed to do so.  On a much less tragic note, a year ago my family planned a trip to Orlando in May of this year that was going to bring us all together for a week of fun and relaxation. It’s not going to happen.  We are all suffering as a result of this pandemic. And now in our passage for today, God tells us to count it pure joy!  WOW! Listen… I get it that joy may not be our first response to hardships, but as believer’s who trust in the Lord, James says it ought to be where we find ourselves when the dust settles!   JOY is the Christian’s defense against depression and resentment. It keeps us focused on the Lord as opposed to our circumstances.

How believers find HOPE in their trials (James 1:3-4 — … for you know that the testing of your faithproduces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing). Here we’re made to consider God’s purpose for suffering. When we understand what He’s doing, it gives us hope to endure. The fact is that God uses trails to test our faith and give us greater resolve to follow Jesus! The word for “testing” refers to the ancient process of refining silver or gold. It was super-heated in a crucible to burn away any impurities. Once the process was completed, what was left was pure gold! Suffering has a similar purpose. It purifies the faith of Christ-followers and enables us to be steadfast (to persevere) in our faith. It points to the idea of one remaining under a heavy load for a long time The longer we bear the load, the stronger we become, like a muscle that gets stronger when it faces resistance. Believers who remain steadfast in their faith while undergoing trials will eventually discover that they know the Lord better and rely on Him more as a result. Perseverance, however, is not the end goal. James says, “Let endurance have its full effect.” The purpose of a trial is to perfect and complete us. Not that we will attain moral perfection, but James doesn’t see that anyone should lower the bar either and settle for anything less than purity and holiness. It’s safe to assume that the excuse when we fail a test, “I’m only human,” wouldn’t sit well with him. Our troubles are never optional, but when we allow the Lord to use them to refine our faith and teach us to trust in Him all the more, we find a lot of reason to hope in the midst of them.

Where believers find HELP in their trials (James 1:5-8 — (but) If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways). Let’s review what we’ve talked about: The attitude we’re to have in our trials is one of joy. Our hope in trials is that as we remain steadfast, God will use them to refine our faith. Now in these verses we discover that while we’re joyfully enduring suffering God provides us with wisdom so that we can know and walk according to His will. Without wisdom, we would fail the tests. It is that important!  But it doesn’t come to us just because we Christians.
·      We must seek God’s wisdom (If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given to him). God is the source of wisdom according to the Bible (See Proverbs 2:6). And wisdom keeps us from acting foolishly and sinfully and enables us to carry out the will of God. Perhaps James was thinking of Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:7 — ask and you will receive, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened to you. Our Father gives good gifts to those who ask Him! When we ask for His wisdom, He graciously provides it. In fact, God will never find fault in us for seeking it from Him.
·      We must follow God’s wisdom. Wouldn’t it be wrong to ask God for wisdom and then to refuse to follow it? That would mean that we were doubting God’s counsel. We all know what doubt is. It’s an internal conflict within the believer that causes us to waver in our attitude toward God. The Bible tells us that men and women of faith do not doubt God. Abraham did not waver when God promised Him a son even though he was an old man (Romans 4:20-21 —  Abraham did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised). And if we say we trust God, then we shouldn’t waver either. Doubt may be the reason why so many of us don’t receive God’s wisdom when we need it. James says that in our fear and lack of faith, we are like a wave in the sea, driven and tossed by the wind. Most people (even doubters) pray during trials, but many without any kind of sincerity of purpose. James refers to these people as “double-minded” and “unstable.” The doubter cannot please God or expect to receive His wisdom in handling trials because he is not whole-hearted in his faith. He is only willing trust when it makes sense to him! But you and I both know that not everything God does makes sense to us. We either have to trust Him in these moments or not!  Illustration: When Joshua was leading the Israelites into the Promised Land, God instructed the Levites to carry the Ark across the Jordan River. He told them that the waters would not recede until they set foot in the Jordan. This occurred in the springtime when the river was a raging torrent. You have to wonder if they were tempted to doubt God. After all, if He didn’t come through, their lives would certainly have been in peril. Yet when push came to shove, they took the step and God did what He promised…the waters on both sides stood in a heap and they passed through on dry ground(Joshua 3). James point in verses five through eight is simple. Don’t ask God for the wisdom to discern His will if we’re not obey once you receive it.

Applications: Trials are part of God’s plan to grow us to maturity in our faith and trust in Him. But, by definition, they can still be difficult to handle. Let me conclude by giving you with three things to remember as you endure the hardships God has allowed into your life.
·      Trials are inevitable.
·      Trials often hurt. Peter uses the word “fiery” to describe trials in 1 Peter 4:12. They can cause us a lot of pain, but at least you can take comfort in knowing that it is pain with a purpose.
·      Trials don’t last. Paul calls them light and momentary afflictions (2 Corinthians 4:17). On the boy’s locker room wall in my high school someone put this quote … Tough times don’t last; tough people do. Trials are God’s way of making us spiritually tough!

Conclusion: Author and New York Times columnist David Brooks writes this about trials and hardships: People don’t heal from suffering. They come out changed. It’s absolutely true. So, the question we must ask ourselves is: Will the adversity we face cause us to grow increasingly bitter or better? The answer depends on how we choose to face them. If we do so with joy and hope and the wisdom of God, they will in the long run be a blessing.