Saturday, June 26, 2010

Why should we count it all joy? Second Reason

The first reason we should "count it all joy" is that trials build our faith's capacity to endure (James 1:3).

James gives the second reason in verse four: "... that you may be perfect, complete, lacking nothing." (ἵνα ἦτε τέλειοι καὶ ὁλόκληροι ἐν μηδενὶ λειπόμενοι.)

But before he gives the second reason, he gives a second command: "Let endurance have its perfect work." (ἡ δὲ ὑπομονὴ ἔργον τέλειον ἐχέτω)

What does it means to "let endurance have its perfect work?" Think of the 10k marathon. If a runner gives out after 9k, his endurance did not complete or finish the job. Endurance "has" its perfect work, when it makes it all the way to the finish line. That's what endurance is supposed to do: take you the distance.

Here's James' point. When you're still in pain, or you're out of a job, or you're still not sleeping well, or your situation is getting worse not better, or all of the above are true simultaneously ... don't quit trusting God! Don't jump off the Potter's wheel! Continue affirming and trusting in God's goodness, wisdom, faithfulness, and sovereignty.

Easy to say!! Sure it's easy to say, and Yes, it's teeth-clenchingly difficult. But that is what James is saying.

But HOW do you "let endurance have its perfect work?" Just mindlessly mantra Romans 8:28?!! No ... but to answer the how question will require a separate post ...

So ... A key reason not to give up and the second reason we should could it all joy when we fall into various trials is God is using them to make us perfect and complete, lacking nothing.

I think it is a mistake to try to distinguish between "perfect," "complete," and "lacking nothing" here. James is piling on the synonyms for effect -- like we do when we say it is a wonderful, fabulous, glorious day.

What does perfect mean? It doesn't mean God is fixing our minds, so they think without logical error. It doesn't mean God is fixing our bodies, so that they are always hale and hearty.

"Perfect" in James describes the kind of gifts that come down from the Father of Lights (James 1:17), the law of liberty (James 1:25), and the man who is able to bridle his whole body (James 3:2). The variety of items James describes as "perfect" makes it a bit difficult to determine precisely what he has in mind.

Perhaps it is best to allow the other two synonyms he uses to focus his idea for us: complete and lacking nothing. The perfection God is working in our lives is a completeness where nothing that should be present is lacking. That sounds like what Paul describes as "the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ" (Eph. 4:13). In other words, full Christlikeness of character.

Now, unless you are really enthused about gaining spiritual maturity or full Christlikeness, learning that your trials are helping you become fully like Jesus won't incline you to "all joy." And, frankly, that is a major part of our problem. We have forgotten that being a disciple of Jesus means making being like him the ultimate and focal object of our life (Mat. 10:24-25).

When we do long to be like Jesus more than we long to be like anyone or anything else, then knowing that God is perfecting us into the image of His Son will be a grounds for great joy.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Why should we count it all joy? First Reason

In my previous post, I argued that James has in mind trials that challenge our confidence in God's goodness, wisdom, faithfulness, or power. Why are we supposed to count falling into such trials all joy?

James gives a two part answer. The first part is in Jam. 1:3 -- "knowing this that the trying of your faith works patience."

The word "knowing" is a participle both in English and in Greek. In both languages, participles are usually subordinate to (dependent upon) the main verb in a sentence. That means that participles give additional information about the main verb.

In this case, the main verb is "count" (ἡγήσασθε) in Jam. 1:2. The participle in v. 3 gives the reason why James is telling his readers to count faith-testing trials all joy: because we know that such trials of our faith produce patience.

As noted previously, the word translated patience (ὑπομονήν) is not the ability to stand in a long checkout line at a Walmart without losing your cool. It is the ability to keep on running the 10k marathon when you hit hills in the 7th kilometer.

But James isn't talking about endurance in general. He certainly isn't talking about physical endurance. He is talking about faith's endurance. Our faith is like a set of muscles that require practice and exercise to build the stamina necessary to endure the rigors of spiritual battle.

God is much like the drill instructor who wisely and appropriately pushes his soldiers to their limits to build their endurance. An officer knows that his soldiers will be worthless in battle without stamina. We too are soldiers (2 Tim. 2:3-4), but we are of no value in Kingdom warfare without enduring faith (Eph. 6:16; Heb. 11:6).

He whose faith in God's wisdom, power, goodness, or faithfulness wavers in the battle is unsteady, unstable, and displeasing to God. "Let not that man think that he shall receive anything from the Lord" (Jam. 1:6-7).

So God intentionally puts us through tests, not primarily to see IF we will believe Him, but rather to strengthen our faith, our confidence in Him. As we come through faith-tests, by His grace, our confidence in God grows firmer and firmer.

Steadfast and immovable faith greatly glorifies God. It magnifies Him as the All-Sufficient, Fully Trustworthy One. His goodness, wisdom, power, and faithfulness shine brightest when His children continue to trust Him in trials that appear to belie His character.

This is the first reason we should rejoice: God is strengthening our faith and glorifying Himself through our trial(s).

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The kind of trials James has in mind (Jam. 1:2-4)

Most commentaries will note that the word translated "trials" in James 1:2 means a "test." BDAG offers "a test to learn the nature or character of something."

That suggests synonyms like problems, difficulties, issues, inconveniences, or perhaps examinations. If we work only with verse 2, then James seems to be talking about counting it all joy when you encounter life's difficulties, regardless of their nature.

However, verse 3 narrows the focus of this passage and further defines the specific kind of trials that James has in mind. Specifically, James is addressing trials that test a person's faith.

What is a "trying of faith?" A trying of faith is a test that challenges what you believe about God. If the trial you are facing doesn't raise questions about God's goodness, power, wisdom, faithfulness, or love, then it isn't the kind of trial that James is thinking about.

I have my share of problems, difficulties, issues, inconveniences, etc. But the vast majority of them never raise any questions about God's character in my mind, let alone serious questions.

But when I'm standing by the bedside of my wife who's starting to be out of her head with pain, and she's pleading with God for mercy and relief, which does not rapidly materialize, that's an opportunity for questions to arise about God's goodness.

Or, I'm sitting on the chapel platform and hear prayer requested for a young father who accidentally ran over and killed his four year old son who was running to greet him as he returned from work -- questions about God's wisdom, love, and goodness easily enter the mind.
  • How can God be good an allow this?
  • Why doesn't God answer my prayer ... Does He care?
  • Things sure don't look to me like God's in control ... is He really sovereign over all of life's circumstances?
When these or similar thoughts enter your mind, welcome to a James 1:2-4 kind of trial.

But don't quit with verse 3. Verse 4 adds an additional dimension to the kind of trials James has in mind.

But let patience have her perfect work
that you may be perfect, complete, lacking nothing.

The first half of the verse is fairly obscure until you understand that "patience" (hupomone) is "endurance, staying power, fortitude." It is the ability to keep on keeping on when the road is rough and the journey long.

In other words, verse 4 indicates that at least some of these faith tests may be long. It is one thing to affirm God's wisdom, love, power, faithfulness, and goodness 24 hours after the enemy rolls up his faith-toppling battering ram. It is quite another thing to continue unwaveringly in that affirmation as days stretch into weeks and weeks into months, even as Grond continues its unrelenting blows.

At least two places in the rest of this epistle touch on examples of faith-tests: legal abuse of poor Christians by the rich (Jam. 5:4-6), and extended bed-fast sickness (Jam. 5:14-16).

It is in the midst of such faith-testing trials that James directs us to count it all joy!

Saturday, June 19, 2010

When you fall into various trials ... (Jam. 1:2-4)

I have fallen into various trials over the past month:
  • Three weeks ago my wife's post-op pain got out of control and she was hospitalized for 2 days..
  • Five days later all five members of my immediate family, myself included, plus my father-in-law, got food poisoning and we were vomiting in turns and simultaneously over a period of 12 hours.
  • Four days later my wife reacts horribly to a medicine prescribed by her gynecologist--burning in the chest, then overwhelming nausea, then overwhelming irrational fear, then return to normal, to be repeated every 30-40 minutes for the next 24-36 hours.
  • Another four days and another medicine is prescribed to which she reacts even more violently and that puts her in the hospital for three days. (She does not tolerate SSRI or SNRI meds!)
The results of all the above plus the stress of the surgery and a long list of other stressors preceding the surgery: her adrenal glands appear to have gone haywire, messing with her ability to sleep, putting her out of commission for a while as she attempts to rest enough to recover. That placed her care and the care of our three boys on my plate: all summer projects out the window!

I think that qualifies for James' "various trials." And regarding all such trials he commands, "Count it all joy!"

James' command raises a host of questions: What is joy? What is "all joy?" What does it mean to "count" it all joy? Why should we count falling into various trials all joy? And how do you do that?

In this and the (hopefully) following posts I'm going to try to answer these questions. But a little background first. I first worked on this passage back in 1992 for second year Greek exegesis project. I've preached this passage probably more than I've preached any other passage in Scripture. And, since 2002 I've been requiring my Advanced Homiletics students to preach this passage. So I've heard it preached, both well and poorly, quite a bit!

All that to say, I've been mulling this one over for a long time. As the Lord takes me through deeper waters, I have found this passage to be unshakable bedrock. My appreciation for its profundity only grows as I face more difficult trials.