Living Theology | James 1.1-4
Living Theology is a blog series that draws out the theological principles of each week's sermon text and thinks through how we can apply them to our personal lives. In other words, this series asks how we can live out the theology of Scripture each day.
James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes scattered among the nations: Greetings. Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. -- James 1:1-4
This text is just one of numerous passages in Scripture where Christians are told that following Jesus will mean a life of difficulty. Jesus tells us, "My yoke is easy and my burden is light" (Matthew 11:30), but he also warns us that, "In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world" (John 16:33) Just a few verses earlier, Jesus tells his disciples: "You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy" (John 16:20-22).
Following Jesus and maintaining our loyalty to Him is difficult, not because Jesus' demands are too heavy, but because we live in a wicked world. And in a wicked world, righteousness and affliction go hand in hand. Jesus tells us, "Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also" (John 15:20).
It is in these moments, when a wicked world opposes us, that our faithfulness to Jesus is tested. Will we remain loyal to Him? Will we continue to take up our cross and follow Him along the path of suffering and shame (Mark 8:34-38)? Or will we succumb to worldly pressure and abandon our commitment to Him?
James is writing to believers whose loyalty to Jesus is being tested. So what theological principles does James offer to these struggling believers?
Theological Principle #1: Trials refine and purify your commitment to Jesus.
There is one problem with the crucible metaphor that's often used to illustrate James' point in this passage. In order to refine a metal (silver, gold, whatever), a crucible needs to reach a certain temperature to separate the desired metal from other impurities. This can often lead us to think that only the 'hottest', most-intense trials provide beneficial results and that our hum-drum everyday frustrations and difficulties don't really count. But James tells us to consider it joy when we happen upon trials of many kinds--not just when we face persecution, not just when we face shame for following Jesus, but whenever our faithfulness is tested. Something as simple as an illness or an injury has the potential to make us wonder whether Jesus is still on our side. Something as simple as getting passed over for the job we want or jealousy over what others have has the potential to lure our eyes from our Lord. James wants us to know that even the smallest tests are occasions for joy because these too are able burn away the dross of immaturity.
Theological Principle #2: Trials produce perseverance leading to spiritual maturity.
The difficulties that we face are like spiritual broccoli. We may not enjoy them, but what we don't realize is that they are nourishing us spiritually, building us into a stronger followers of Jesus.
Theological Principle #3: Therefore, we should think of our trials as opportunity to rejoice.
This may actually be the most difficult principle for us to apply because it's the least intuitive. Even if we understand James' argument, that trials can be nourishing to our faith, it's still difficult for us to look past the bad taste that they leave in our mouths. This may be why James tells us to consider or think of our trials as opportunities for joy--he understands that this is not our natural reaction. But James calls us to overcome our reflexes. He calls us to shift our perspective. And this can be difficult to do.
Applying God's Truth
So how can we live out the truth of these theological principles today?
The most obvious way is to change the way we view the trials that we face as Christians. But how do we do that? Here are a few suggestions:
Pay attention to the trials in your life. Ask yourself what trials you are facing today. What trials have you faced this week? What trials do you expect to face tomorrow? Paying attention to our trials and where they come from allows us to better understand them so that we can more easily shift our perspective on them. Perhaps you can make a list of your trials and record what God is teaching you as you face each of them. It's important to remember that there is no 'right answer' here. Trusting that God has a reason for the difficulties we face does not mean that we will necessarily understand what that reason is. But it can be helpful for us to look for different ways that we have grown through trials.
Ask yourself what 'dross' this trial may be purifying from your faith. How have your current difficulties rearranged your priorities? How have they increased your dependence upon God? In what ways are you now better able to serve and empathize with others who have faced similar experiences?
Remember that Jesus has not left us alone. Jesus does not call us to follow him down a path that he has not first walked. Jesus may not have faced the specific situation that you are facing, but Jesus does know what it is like to feel completely helpless and utterly dependent upon God. He knows what it feels like to lose everything. Moreover, he knows what it feels like to voluntarily give up everything for the sake of the Father's will. And we are not facing these things alone. First of all, we have the presence of God's Holy Spirit always with us. God will never leave us or forsake us. Remember that, even when he feels distant, God's Spirit is closer to us than our own skin. Furthermore, God has given us a family of believers with whom we are meant to walk this difficult path. When we feel alone, we can reach out to our church family for support, encouragement, and prayer. The apostle Paul reminds us of this community that we have with one another when he tells us to "rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn" (Romans 12:15).
Praise God for His loyalty to us. Speaking of the apostle Paul, this is precisely how we see him and his fellow missionary Silas responding to their trials in Acts 16. While ministering in Philippi, Paul and Silas were"stripped and beaten with rods" and then thrown into prison, all for having the nerve to cast an evil spirit out of a woman. Acts 16:25 tells us that, "About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them." Paul and Silas were not bitter about their circumstances. They understood that following Christ in a wicked world meant that they would face difficulty and opposition. Their example shows us the same principle that James makes explicit: trials are an opportunity for us to rejoice in God's loyalty to us.
Remember how God has seen you through previous trials. Throughout the Psalms, we can find numerous examples of God's people crying out in the midst of trials. Where do they find comfort? They find comfort by reminding themselves of God's mighty acts of rescue from the past. Read Psalm 77. They remember how God rescued Israel from slavery in Egypt. They remember how God rescued them from the hand of Pharaoh through the waters of the sea. They remember how God sustained them through 40 years of wandering in the wilderness. They remember how God protected them from the nations that surrounded them. They remember how God, even in judgment, preserved a remnant through the exile and brought them back into their land. Remember those times in the past where God has proven himself faithful, when he has rescued you. Remember the times when God has kept his promises, and remember that he promises to always be with you and to deliver you safely to Himself.
[All Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, New International Version, NIV.]