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James – Part 1

James 1:1-12

I read an article some time back entitled “Congregations Have to Realize Pastors’ Stress.”  It related that aside from maternity benefits, the greatest portion of the 84 million dollars paid in medical claims in one year by the Annuity Board of the Southern Baptist Convention was for stress related illnesses.  Most of the medicines ordered through the prescription card program by preachers were for stress related problems, such as high blood pressure, anxiety disorders and ulcers.

I read an article some time back entitled “Congregations Have to Realize Pastors’ Stress.”  It related that aside from maternity benefits, the greatest portion of the 84 million dollars paid in medical claims in one year by the Annuity Board of the Southern Baptist Convention was for stress related illnesses.  Most of the medicines ordered through the prescription card program by preachers were for stress related problems, such as high blood pressure, anxiety disorders and ulcers.

Just before He died, Jesus said to His disciples, “My peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.  I do not give as the world gives.  Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:27).  Now we all want that peace that Jesus promised, but it seems so allusive.  How do we get it?  And how is it different from the peace that the world offers?

Well let’s take a look at this first section of the book of James this morning.  I love this little letter of James because it focuses on the way that Christians are supposed to behave.  This letter is so needed by Christians today because I feel there’s a real breach between our faith and our works.

And James begins his letter by saying, “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 1a).

Now that word servant is “dulos” in the Greek, meaning “slave.”  James is saying Jesus is his Master.  Jesus dictates his behavior.  James could have identified himself as a pillar of the Jerusalem church, a leader of the church, the brother of Jesus who knew Him more intimately than any other writer.  But he simply calls himself Jesus’ slave and he urges us to do more than just believe in Jesus Christ.  We are to be obedient to His commands as our Master.

James focuses on our need to maintain composure in the midst of severe pressure.  He writes to the Christians of “the twelve tribes scattered among the nations” (v. 1b).  The first century Christians were being persecuted for their faith.  Some had been beheaded.  Others had lost their jobs.  Some were imprisoned.  And everybody was threatened.  Endangered by this impending persecution, they had dispersed throughout the world like refuges fleeing from Syria, or Afghanistan, or Sudan.  They were experiencing incredible pressure—no jobs, no security, no familiar surroundings.  And they must have wondered why God was allowing all of these incredible troubles to come their way if they were being obedient to Him.

So James begins in verse 2 by saying, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds…”  Now that was a message they needed to hear.  And I believe it’s a message we need to hear because we are called upon to be people of peace in the midst of a pressure-packed world.

I want us today to look at 5 suggestions that God gives through James that can help us live calm lives in a stressful world.

I. SOME TROUBLE IS INEVITABLE IN OUR LIVES—ANTICIPATE IT.

First, we need to understand that some trouble is inevitable in our lives and we need to anticipate it.

James says, strangely, to “consider it pure joy whenever you face trials of any kind” (v. 2).  He doesn’t say if you face trials, or maybe you will, but he says, “whenever you face trials.”

I heard about a nurse years ago, during the days when expectant fathers had to wait in a waiting room, who came into the father’s waiting room at the hospital and told an expectant father, “Your wife has just given birth to twins!”

“That’s wonderful,” he said, “but it’s kind of ironic because, you know, I play baseball for the Minnesota Twins!”

Minutes later the nurse came in and said to another father, “Your wife just gave birth to triplets.”

He said, “Isn’t that strange?  I work for the 3M company.”

Another expectant father immediately became pale and bolted out of the room.  And the nurse said, “Where are you going, sir?  Your wife is in labor right now.”

“I know,” he said, “but I drive a truck for 7-Up!”

Sometimes you can just see the trouble coming and you need to anticipate it.

Now we parents, I think, make a big mistake by cultivating a naïve view of life on the part of our children.  We protect them against all hurt.  You know, don’t deny them anything they might want real badly because you wouldn’t want them to be disappointed.  Don’t spank them because that hurts and you need to give them just love and protection.  And if they get in trouble at school, make sure you go and intervene so that they’re not hurt too badly.  I read an article recently that said we shouldn’t even let our children play little league baseball because it hurts to badly when they fail, or when they lose.  So our children grow up naively thinking life is supposed to be near perfect all the time.  And when it’s not ideal, they feel cheated.  “This class is boring.  I’m not going!”  “This marriage is unsatisfying.  I’m getting out!”  “This job is hard.  I quit!”  “This church is too demanding.  I’m going to complain!”  “This life is unpleasant.  I’m just going to bail out!”

But here is the first step in learning to cope with trials: accept them as inevitable.  Trouble is not an elective in your life, it’s a required course.  And if you’re parents for very long then eventually your children are going to hurt you—you can write it down.  If you live very long, one day you’re going to die.  If you live very long, one day you’re going to have physical problems.

James points out that these troubles come in various ways.  And the word he uses for various is the word from which we get the word “polka-dot”—they are variegated colors.  Now some get hit harder then others.  For some we have fender-bender problems, for others a head-on collision.  One person may lose a wallet, another his business.  One may suffer a blister, another a coronary.  One may have his plans for tomorrow ruined by a rain storm, another his hopes for a lifetime crushed by disease.  So trials come in various sizes.

And they can come in various ways.  It can come through a teenager’s tantrum, or through the thoughtlessness of a mate.  It may come through friction at the office, or the diagnosis of a doctor.  It may come through the death of a loved one, or an injury suffered on the street at the hands of a complete stranger.  But trouble is inevitable and we need to anticipate it.

I read an article some time back in a golf magazine that was written by Bobby Jones, the professional golfer.  And he was discussing hitting balls out of sand traps.  He said that you hardly ever see golfers practicing sand shots.  You see them chipping, and putting, and driving, but hardly ever do you see them hitting balls out of the sand.  And he said, “In as much as the best players find their way into the bunker a least once every round, the average player should recognize the importance of able recovery work and be prepared for it.”  And the last sentence in the article read: “From the beginning the golfer may as well be convinced that he can never learn to stay out of difficult situations, he has to learn to get out.”

And do you remember what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount?  He said, “Do not worry…”  And then you expect Him to say, “…because nothing bad is going to happen to you.”  But that’s not what He says.  In Matthew 6:34 He said, Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.  Each day has enough trouble of its own.”  He said, “You are going to have trouble.”

In Acts 14:22 Paul warned the new converts in Asia, We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.” 

First Peter 4:12 reads, “Dear friends, don’t be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you.  But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ…” (vv. 12-13).

Now anybody who ever gives you the idea that once you become a Christian your troubles are all over is either speaking from and empty head, or a closed Bible.  James says, “…when you face trials…”  They are going to come.  And if you accept them as inevitable it will go a long way toward eliminating worry.  Now that sounds contradictory.  But the best way to cure worry is to accept the fact that there are going to be serious setbacks in your life, and thus be prepared to cope with them when they arrive.

The golfer who has practiced sand shots can stand and look at a green surrounded by sand and not be intimidated, whereas the person who isn’t prepared stands there nervous and won’t do nearly as well.

In John 16:33 Jesus warned His disciples about the coming persecution.  He said, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace.  In this world you will have trouble,” He said.  “But take heart!  I have overcome the world.” 

He said, “You are going to have trouble in this world, but don’t worry about it.  Don’t panic about it.  I’ll be there to help you out when you go through it.”  So learn to enjoy the normal days of life and to accept trouble as inevitable.

II. MOST TROUBLE EXPEDITES MATURITY—REJOICE IN IT!

That brings us to the second suggestion James shares, and that is that most trouble expedites maturity—rejoice in it.

Now I say most trouble expedites growth because it doesn’t always happen that way.  Jesus warned that some seed would fall on shallow soil and when the sun, or the heat of persecution comes, the plant will wither and die.  So some shallow Christians can’t take the heat and they give up.  I bet every one of us here today know people who had a bad experience and they got bitter instead of better.  But most trouble expedites the maturing process in us and we grow faster through adversity than we do through normal living.

Look at verses 3 and 4: …you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance.  Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature, not lacking anything.” 

Coaches have an oft repeated slogan: “No pain, no gain!”  If you don’t punish your body in disciplining it, then there will be no strengthening of the muscles.  J.C. Penney once said that there were two great motivators in his life—Jesus Christ and adversity.  I think Paul would have agreed with that.  Listen to what he said in 2 Corinthians 12, beginning with verse 7, “To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.  Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me.  But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’  Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses….  For when I am weak, then I am strong” (vv. 7-10).

Paul said, “God permitted me to have this thorn in the flesh so that I would mature and not regress into arrogance.”

Now every life has thorns.  Some of you have physical pains.  That’s your thorn.  For some of you your thorn has a first name and a last name!  Everyone has thorns.  But I’ve got to be honest with you today and say, my life has been fairly easy.  I’ve not gone through some of the hurts that some of you here have.  But I have gone through a few that have helped to mature me and I can look back and see how God has used just about every one.

In my high school and early college days it was my dream to be a professional musician.  So I poured myself into musical pursuits.  But then one day, after struggling through a couple of semesters of music theory and private voice lessons, a professor informed me that he just didn’t think I had what it would take to be a successful professional musician.  And the depression set in as I replayed his words over in my mind.

It was in the midst of that depression that someone told me that I really ought to be using my gifts and abilities for God’s glory anyway, and they paid my airfare to make the trip to visit Johnson Bible College, now Johnson University.  And from that visit I felt the strong calling to full time Christian service and my life in the ministry began.

In 1987 I was hospitalized with persistent severe stomach pain.  It was the first time I’d been a patient in a hospital since I was less then a year old.  And I learned about pain, and sympathy, and lack of privacy, and I gained a better understanding of others who were sick.

In 1988 I went through a period of conflict with the senior minister of the church I served in Indiana.  The conflicted lasted about six months.  He was caught up in some things that he shouldn’t have been and I was eventually confronted him about it.  Tensions between the staff and the eldership grew as they confronted the issues themselves, and relationships were broken.  That was one of the longest six months I’ve ever endured.  But I learned some things in that trying period.  I learned to confront disagreements earlier.  I learned to be more courageous.  I learned to stand up and function when I wasn’t the most popular person around.  I learned that even broken relationships can be forgiven and restored.  And I grew during those difficult times.

In January of 1991 I got a disturbing call from my mother.  She was going to be operated on in an attempt to remove a tumor.  They didn’t think it was malignant, and even if it was they were pretty sure that they had found it in time.  So for hours we waited in the hospital.  Finally the doctor emerged from surgery with bad news—it was malignant.  The cancer had spread and there was basically nothing he could do for her.  And I couldn’t get over how fast this had all come upon us.  With radiation and chemotherapy there was a slight chance of buying some more time, but it was a long shot.  I was devastated!  I was crushed!  “God, how could you possibly threaten the life of somebody so good, so loving?”  And then, only six months after my mother’s death, we underwent basically the same scenario with my father.

But during that time, I learned about daily prayer for people I loved.  I learned about how precious relationships are and how fragile they are.  And I felt I grew as much during that year long period of my life as I had during all the previous years of my life combined.  And I told the Lord that I never wanted to grow like that again!  But the testing of your faith develops perseverance.  And I’ve learned that God is much more concerned about developing our character then He is about protecting our comfort.

You see, the principle is true in every life: Problems provide for us the opportunity to grow at a rapid pace.  Now I’ve never met a person who, when the transmission drops out of their car on the expressway at 5:00 p.m., can say, “Oh, I am rejoicing!  It’s so wonderful this happened to me.  Now I can grow!”  That’s phony.  But there can be an underlying spirit of joy knowing that God can use extreme adversity for a positive purpose.  We can keep calm under pressure because the Bible and experience have taught us that pressure expedites growth.

First Peter 1:6 reads, “In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.  But these have come so that your faith … may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed” (vv.6-7).

III.  UNDERSTANDING TROUBLE REQUIRES WISDOM—PRAY FOR IT!

The third suggestion we need to glean from this first section of the book of James is that understanding trouble requires wisdom – so pray for it.

Look at verse 5: “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him.” 

When you experience severe pressure you need an additional measure of wisdom.  Now there’s a difference between knowledge and wisdom.  Knowledge is the accumulation of fact.  Wisdom is the ability to make practical application of those facts to life.  Knowledge is horizontal, it has to do with this world.  Wisdom is vertical, it has to do with spiritual discernment.  Wisdom is the ability to see life from God’s vantage point.  A knowledgeable person may have the facts straight, a wise person is able to make common sense judgment.  When you’re under pressure you need more than knowledge, you need wisdom.

The manager of a boat dock checked his watch then looked out through his binoculars and called out over the megaphone, “Boat number 99, would you please return to the dock!”  Ten minutes later the boat hadn’t returned, and he looked out over the lake again, and again called out over the megaphone, “Boat 99, please return to the dock!”  About that time his assistant came up to him and said, “Sir, we only have 75 boats.  There is no boat 99.”  And the manager looked out over the lake again and called out, “Boat 66, are you in trouble?”

In our upside-down world we need more than knowledge, we need insight.  And when we’re under pressure we can lose perspective and panic.  We need wisdom to see life from God’s vantage point.  That’s why lawyers are told never to be your own defender, because your emotions cloud your vision.  That’s why widows are told, “Don’t make any immediate decisions.”  That’s why a person who has been divorced needs to wait a long time before considering remarriage.  James says, “Now when you go through stress you pray for wisdom.”

When Solomon was crowned successor to his father, King David, he knew pressure.  He had a dream in which he heard the Lord say, “Ask whatever you want me to give you.”  And listen to Solomon’s prayer in 1 Kings 3, beginning with verse 7: “Now, O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David.  But I am only a little child and do not know how to carry out my duties.  …So give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong.  For who is able to govern this great people of yours?” (vv.7, 9).  And God was so pleased that Solomon didn’t ask for wealth, long life, or the death of his enemies, what did He give him?  He gave him long life, and wealth, and he made him the wisest man that ever lived.

And if we pray for wisdom when we’re under pressure, God promises that he will grant it in two ways.  First, He will give generously—there’s no rationing program.  And secondly, He will give it without finding fault.  And I really like that!  Have you ever asked for something and people find fault?  I have.  But when we ask God for wisdom, He gives generously and He doesn’t find fault.  He doesn’t say, “Hey, I gave you wisdom before and you didn’t have the courage to apply it!”  Or , “I saw you last week and you cheated on your income tax!”  He gives generously without finding fault.

But there is one qualifier.  Verse 6 tells us that we must ask believing.  Look at that verse: “…he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind.”  Just like a little cork bobbing up and down on the water.  “That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does” (vv. 6-8).

You don’t just pray for wisdom, you’d better be single-minded and you better say, “Lord, whatever you guide me in doing, I will do it.”  Because God honors prayer that is backed up by an obedient life.

IV. FINANCIAL TROUBLE THREATENS PERSPECTIVE—MAINTAIN IT!

Then the fourth suggestion I want us to look at this morning is: Financial trouble threatens perspective – maintain it.

In verses 9 and 10 James illustrates his theme by referring to financial trouble.  Now there are all kinds of trouble he could have used to illustrate his point with, but I think he chose this one because it is by far the most common.

Look at verse 9: “The brother in humble circumstances ought to take pride in his high position.  But the one who is rich should take pride in his low position, because he will pass away like a wild flower.”

James seems to imply that both extremes of poverty and wealth are trials.  When we’re poor we tend to think, “Boy, if we just had money we wouldn’t have any worries at all.”  But the Bible, and experience, make it clear that riches often produce more stress then poverty.  Jesus said, “…it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:24).  Jeff Bezos has all those billions of dollars, but he’s got more worries today then most of you sitting in this room.  Solomon said, “The sleep of the laborer is sweet whether he eats little or much, but the abundance of the rich man permits him no sleep” (Ecclesiastes 5:12)  And James says, “Now don’t allow financial trouble to cause you to lose your value system.”

If the rich are flaunting their wealth, that’s wrong too.  James says, “the brother in humble circumstances ought to take pride in his high position.”  In other words, allow God’s wisdom to penetrate through that facade of wealth.  Don’t wallow in self-pity and envy.  Take heart that your riches are in Christ.  You’re the child of the King.  And if you have health, and family, and friends, and the promise of eternal life, realize how spiritually blessed you are.  There are people who would give millions to have what you have right now.

And if you’re rich, take pride in your low position,” James says.  Don’t think you’re superior because you drive a nice car and live in a luxurious home.  Those things can fade away in an instant.  Take pride in your low position.

Now your wealthy friends may not think that your responsibilities at church are very prestigious.  They may downplay your spiritual concerns.  But that’s where your real riches are.  That’s where your priorities should be.  King David was wealthy, living in a palace, but he wrote in Psalm 84, verse 10: “Better is one day in your court, Lord, than a thousand elsewhere.  I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than to dwell in the tents of the wicked.”

V. OVERCOMING TROUBLE PRODUCES A REWARD—FOCUS ON IT!

Then the final suggestion I want us to see is that overcoming trouble produces a reward – focus on it.

Look at verse 12: “Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.” 

When you face difficulty, get your mind off the difficulty and on to what you want to accomplish.  Emmitt Smith, the all-pro running back for the Dallas Cowboys, gained a record 10.4 miles in his career in the NFL.  But just think, in order to do that every 4.2 yards somebody knocked him down.  But he persevered, he succeeded, because he kept moving toward the goal line.  And the Christian who goes through difficulty can endure if they focus not on the immediate pain, but on the ultimate reward.

And that reward is both eternal and earthly.  God has promised an eternal reward for those who have suffered for His sake.  But the crown referred to here is not just eternal life, it takes place right here.

In John 10:10 Jesus said, “…I have come that you might have life and have it abundantly” (ESV).

When you go through a trial and you get to the other side there’s a sense of satisfaction that you’ve accomplished something.  And you are blessed, James says.  “Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial…”  Happy is the man who perseveres under trial.  He’s going to receive a crown, the stamp of approval from God.  And in verse 2 he even says, “You count it all joy when you face trials.”

You know, some of the happiest people I know are people who have had severe trouble in their life, and they’ve gone through it and maintained their faith.  Some of the most unhappy people I know are people who have just little pinpricks of trouble and they totally focus on it, and they constantly complain about it.  But it’s all a matter of attitude.  If you’re not happy, most of the time it’s your fault.

Doctor’s Minerith and Meyer have written a book entitle Happiness Is a Choice.  And when you leave this building in just a few minutes, you can choose to be unhappy or you can choose to be happy.  You can focus on your problems and feel sorry for yourself, or you can focus on the goal and be joyful.  And if you don’t remember anything else from this message today, would you please remember this: suffering is inevitable, misery is optional.  It’s all up to you!

Beverly Sills, the opera singer, had every reason to be bitter.  Max Lucado, in his book The Applause of Heaven, points out that though she was talented, Beverly Sills was unrecognized for years.  Prestigious opera circles that she tried to enter closed their ranks.  American critiques ignored her compelling voice.  She was repeatedly rejected for parts for which she was easily qualified.  It was only when she went to Europe and won the hearts of tough-to-please European audiences that stateside opinion leaders acknowledged her talent.  Lucado said:

Not only has her professional life been a battle, her personal life has been marked by challenge.  She is overweight.  She is the mother of two handicapped children, one of whom is severely retarded.  Years ago, in order to escape the pace of New York City, she purchased a house on Martha’s Vineyard.  It burned to the ground two days before she was to move in. 

Professional rejection.  Personal setbacks.  Perfect soil for the seeds of bitterness.  A receptive field for the roots of resentment.  But in this case they found no home. 

Her friends don’t call her bitter; they call her “Bubbles.” 

Beverly Sills.  Internationally acclaimed opera singer.  Retired director of the New York City Opera. 

Her phrases are sugared with laughter.  Her face is softened with serenity.  Upon interviewing her, Mike Wallace stated that “she is one of the most impressive—if not the most impressive—ladies I’ve ever interviewed.”

How can a person handle such professional rejection and personal trauma and still be known as Bubbles?  “I choose to be cheerful,” she says.  “Years ago I knew I had little or no choice about success, circumstances, or even happiness; but I knew I could choose to be cheerful.”

That’s considering it all joy when you face trials of many kinds.  That’s the peace that passes all understanding.

But you know what?  There was one who did it even more effectively then Beverly Sills.  No one ever knew more stress then Jesus.  Under the threat of execution He was calm.  Just minutes before He went to the cross He said, “Now my peace I give you.  Don’t let your heart be troubled.  Don’t let it be afraid” (see John 14:17).  That’s maturity.  That’s calmness under pressure.  And that very same peace is available to us today!

 

David Hall
First Church of Christ
June 28, 2020