This month, we get to study James’ letter to Jewish Christians who were living in gentile communities. He wrote his letter before A.D. 50, and he used it to expose hypocrisy and to promote right behavior in life before God.
Jewish Christians who lived in gentile communities had some significant struggles. They were surrounded by practices that were foreign to them and many of those practices were pagan practices used to worship false gods. We have some similar struggles in our lives as we try and live to honor God. Of course the two greatest false gods in our society are entertainment and comfort. If we are going to be honest with ourselves, we want to be entertained according to our preferences. We desire to be comfortable. At what point does desire turn into sin against God?
Not only do we struggle because of our desires, we can also describe our struggles in this life according to things that are out of our control. We endure physical suffering, both our own physical suffering and the physical suffering of those we love. We endure the loss of loved ones. We endure financial hardship. We endure family problems and conflicts with friends. We endure the hatefulness of many in this world. We endure difficult circumstances. We endure a great multitude of things in this life.
As we enter into the book of James, I have to ask: Why would God allow us to struggle against our own desires? Why would He allow us to have desires that could cause us to sin? Why would the all-powerful God of the universe allow us to have to endure so many devastating trials on this earth? Why is there so much suffering and so much pain, and why doesn’t the all-good and all-powerful God of the universe just take it away so that we can be comfortable in Him?
James 1:12-27 (HCSB)
A man who endures trials is blessed, because when he passes the test he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love Him.
No one undergoing a trial should say, “I am being tempted by God.” For God is not tempted by evil, and He Himself doesn’t tempt anyone. But each person is tempted when he is drawn away and enticed by his own evil desires. Then after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and when sin is fully grown, it gives birth to death.
Don’t be deceived, my dearly loved brothers. Every generous act and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights; with Him there is no variation or shadow cast by turning. By His own choice, He gave us a new birth by the message of truth so that we would be the firstfruits of His creatures.
My dearly loved brothers, understand this: Everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger, for man’s anger does not accomplish God’s righteousness. Therefore, ridding yourselves of all moral filth and evil, humbly receive the implanted word, which is able to save you.
But be doers of the word and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. Because if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man looking at his own face in a mirror. For he looks at himself, goes away, and immediately forgets what kind of man he was. But the one who looks intently into the perfect law of freedom and perseveres in it, and is not a forgetful hearer but one who does good works — this person will be blessed in what he does.
If anyone thinks he is religious without controlling his tongue, then his religion is useless and he deceives himself. Pure and undefiled religion before our God and Father is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
In the text above, we learn that every person is tempted to dishonor God when he or she is drawn away and enticed by his own evil desires. So, from the start, we know that our first priority should not be to fill our own desires; either for comfort, pleasure or entertainment; but we should live life to honor God even if we have put our own desires and our own pursuits on hold. This is one type of trial that we face in this life. It is the trial of temptation. We suffer an internal conflict because we want the things that we want, and it can be so difficult to put those things aside in order to honor God instead of ourselves. There is a constant war raging within us. Do I meet my own preferences when looking for a church home or do I commit to being where God wants me to be no matter what? Do I pursue intimacy before marriage because that is what I want, or do I honor God by making the life-long marital commitment first? Do I perform on the lowest acceptable level at work because I want to take it easy, or do I work harder than what is expected because I work for God and not people? Do I give up meeting with my church family so that I can be more comfortable or do I deny myself so that I can follow God’s command not to forsake meeting together with my brother’s and sisters in Christ?
Trials of temptation are the most pervasive trials in the Christian life. Unfortunately, they are also the most ignored. According to james, these are the trials that, when not endured, lead us to death. Here is what I find: That most people who claim to belong to God actually fail to endure the most basic trials on this earth, trials that are born of our own desires and in our selfish pursuit of those desires. Anyone, then, who claims to belong to God, yet forsakes the assembling together of believers, has failed the trial of temptation. Anyone who claims to belong to God and pursues intimacy before the commitment of marriage has failed the trial of temptation. Anyone who claims to belong to God but doesn’t pursue good work ethic fails the trial of temptation. Anyone who claims that all people are to be loved, yet constantly gossips and looks down on others has failed the trial of temptation.
This, though, is not the only type of trial that we must endure. We have to endure trials that we don’t have any control over. There are trials of loss, trials of relationship, trials of health, and trials of oppression. Where do these trials come from? First, trials of temptation come when we want to fulfill our desires in a way that opposes God’s desire for us. Other types of trials, the ones that are beyond our control, happen because we live in a fallen world.
In Genesis 3, we see the story of humankind’s first rebellion against God. God created the world in a perfect condition, and people chose to take things into their own hands. The first sin came when Adam and Eve failed the trial of temptation. All other trials resulted from that, according to scripture. In Genesis 1:28, we read that when God created the world, He gave people the authority to rule over it and steward it for Him. Because people had this representative authority over creation, creation was infected with sin and imperfection when people chose to rebel against a perfect God.
Since the world is infected with sin, we must endure trials that we do not have any control over. People now suffer because of the imperfection in the world that people caused. This is the case with natural disasters and many sicknesses that impact our homes and our communities. I often hear the question, “Why do so many bad things happen to people who serve God so faithfully?” It is simply this: We live in a world that has been infected with sin. Suffering is not a direct punishment most of the time. We are just recipients of the imperfections of the world because of this sin disease that has overtaken the world in the current age. Even Jesus, when he told the story about a tower falling on eighteen people, killing them (Luke 13), said tt wasn’t because they were more sinful than anyone else. It was just something that happened in this imperfect world.
People also suffer because other free people make decisions that do not honor God. This is the case with tyranny, terrorism, some financial struggles, and some conflict in relationships. These are all trials that we must endure for the sake of our relationship with Christ. We endure them because we serve a perfect God in an imperfect world. James even tells us that those who endure trials are blessed.
God blesses through trial
Considering all of the hurt in the world, we might ask the next logical question: If God has all power, why doesn’t He just fix the world? If God were to rid the world of all imperfection, all sin, all rebellion, and restore it to perfection so that there is no more suffering, how many people would perish because they are imperfect? If God were to fix the world, He would have to destroy almost the entire human race at this moment. There would be no hope for salvation, and no hope for anyone to be redeemed because people are imperfect. It amazes me that so many people are so quick to blame God for the problems in this world, when the existence of these problems is evidence of God’s grace, God’s patience with us, and God’s eternal goodness. He allows the world to exist in its current state because He has mercy, always giving an opportunity for people to return to Him.
Our sin led to our death, but God offers new birth, according to James. New birth is this: that we are taken out of sinfulness and placed by God in the righteousness of God. This is the very reason Christ came and became a substitute for us by dying in our place after He lived a life without sin. God is so good.
It is amazing that the way God is choosing to fix the the world is by first offering all people a chance to return to Him. Then, He promises to do away with all sin so that there will be no more suffering. Those who pledge their allegiance to Christ are able to endure the trials of this world and receive this everlasting life. Those who do not will not endure the trials of this earth and will be separated from God forever. The decision is each person’s to make.
James also reminds us that every good thing in this world is a gift from God. We don’t deserve good health. We don’t deserve financial security. We don’t deserve comfort. We don’t deserve our preferences to be filled. We don’t deserve to be entertained. We don’t deserve eternal life. God is good, so He gives gifts anyway. We can be so thankful for that because it means we don’t have to earn them.
Trial gives opportunity to deny self
James continues, “Everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger, for man’s anger does not accomplish God’s righteousness. Therefore, ridding yourselves of all moral filth and evil, humbly receive the implanted word, which is able to save you.”
Any time we go through a trial of any kind on this earth, we have a great opportunity to practice humility. Whenever we are in a trial, we ask this question: How can I honor God, even if I have to put my own desires aside? We should not act in our anger during times of great trial. We should concern ourselves with getting rid of all moral filth and evil. Again, this is the greatest challenge and the greatest trial we encounter on this earth.
Here is an example. I love technology. It helps me get so much more done than I would get done without it. I love social media. It’s a great tool to stay in touch with friends, family and to do ministry. There is one thing I absolutely hate, though. I hate phone calls. Before I dial a number, there is so much anxiety that builds up within me. If I could operate without a phone in today’s world, I would probably take mine to the range and do what people usually do at the range. In order to do ministry well, I have to call people. I have to be available for people to call me. I realize that this is irrational, but I can’t operate a phone without getting nervous, without worrying about rejection, without fearing that I’m calling the wrong person, and without general anxiety about placing a phone call. I really do hate talking on the phone. I have an opportunity to deny myself in order to serve God better because my being available honors Him, or I can deny the work that God has called me to in order to stay comfortable. My small fear does not change what God has called me to do. It doesn’t change the fact that I ought to use the tools at my disposal to accomplish that work even if I don’t like them. Feel free to laugh at my irrational anxiety as much as you like. I’m glad I can be a source of laughter and joy, but also know that in some ways we are all like this. Maybe for you it’s not an irrational anxiety about calling people. Perhaps it is a fear of failure, of rejection, of being uncomfortable, of conflict, or of burden. When we experience trials, no matter how small or big, we have an opportunity to deny ourselves in order to honor God. As we endure trials, James claims that there is a crown of life waiting for us with God.
Pure and undefiled religion
This means that, in our religion, we should probably focus more on pleasing God than pleasing ourselves. James actually defines pure and undefiled religion for us: “If anyone thinks he is religious without controlling his tongue, then his religion is useless and he deceives himself. Pure and undefiled religion before our God and Father is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”
If we fail to provide for anyone in need, we have failed to practice pure religion. If we refuse to focus more on fulfilling our own desires (either at church, work or in the home), then we have failed to practice pure and undefiled religion. James challenges us to be doers of the Word and not hearers only. We can have all the head-knowledge we want. If we do not follow God’s instructions, our religion is tainted. If we see someone who is in need or hear of someone who is in need, we have a responsibility to be a blessing to that person. I don’t hand out money unless God really tells me to, but I can offer to take someone to the store or buy someone a meal. We all can, even if it causes us to experience a little financial burden. We are not in this to be comfortable. If I look into Scripture and God reveals my flaws to me, I do not want to be guilty of ignoring those flaws by any standard.
In this life, then, we will experience trials. Our objective is not to pursue comfort or our own preferences. It is not to pursue pleasure. It is not to get our own way. Our objective is to endure those trials by pursuing God’s direction and being slow to anger. There is a promise of life for us and we endure these types of trials for just a little while on this earth. We practice pure and undefiled religion by taking care of those in need. We are not judged on whether or not someone is pretending. We are judged based on our willingness to provide. We work to keep ourselves unstained from the world.