altogether joy?

My sermon from this past Sunday – the first in a series in the book of James.

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This morning we begin a series of sermons in the book of James – a relatively short letter that comes just after the book of Hebrews in the New Testament. The book of James, as we’ll see, gets down very quickly to the nitty-gritty of the Christian life – how to behave; what’s worth putting your energy into; what our relationships should look like. James gets down very quickly to the basics of Christian life and action. In many ways we may find this refreshing. We don’t always want intellectual discussions about theology. We don’t always want conversations about realities that seem to hover 15 feet off the ground – never touching down in the world where we live. So already in terms of the big picture of James maybe we are encouraged. Sounds like someone we want to hear from. 

But of course we have to get into the details of what James says. As we do so, the going gets tough, pretty quickly. In fact, listening to James is a lot like listening to the Old Testament prophets. Listening to James is a lot like listening to Jesus. The fact that James sounds a lot like Jesus probably shouldn’t come as a surprise since the James who wrote this letter was probably none other than Jesus’ own half-brother. Just as in the case of the prophets and of Jesus, in listening to James there may well be moments when we respond by saying – come on you can’t really mean that.

But let’s get into the details of the text. After his initial greeting (hello, it’s me James writing) – after this greeting, what are the words to come from the pen of James? Well, here they are: “My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind consider it nothing but joy.”

Come again. Do you want to repeat that, James.

Well let’s listen to how another translator puts it: “Regard it altogether joy, my sisters and brothers, when you encounter various trials.”

Well, is this someone we really want to spend 8 or nine weeks listening to? Is this someone we want teaching us about the feet-on-the ground realities of the Christian life? Doesn’t he sound rather boorish and insensitive? What kind of person tells us we should consider it all joy when we suffer? What kind of a person says we should regard it altogether joy when we go through difficult times? If he’s not boorish and insensitive his view of the Christian life seems at least pretty superficial. He sounds like the kind of Christian who thinks we should just put on a smile no matter what happens to us. Perhaps we’ve met people like this before and perhaps we aren’t particularly interested in listening to a teacher who thinks we should just ignore the pain of life and pretend everything is ok.

When I lose my job I’m supposed to consider it joy; and when I’m sick in the hospital, I supposed to regard it as altogether joy; and when I’m fighting with my wife I’m supposed to think of it as joy. Sounds like something a thoughtless, superficial Christian might say.

Well, before we write James off for this seemingly boorish, or seemingly superficial comment, let’s look at least give him a chance. James is after all, the brother of Jesus – and James was himself sceptical at first about what Jesus was teaching and preaching. Not only is he the brother of Jesus, James is also one of the most important leaders of the first community of those who followed the word and way of the risen Jesus. Let’s at least ask why it is he thinks we should consider it joy when we face all of kinds of trials?

What does he go on to say? He says: “Whenever you face trials of any kind consider it nothing but joy because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.”

What’s really important here is to see that James is thinking of the sufferings and difficulties of our lives specifically in terms of the challenge they represent to our faith. James is saying: “When you face sufferings and difficulties, and when those suffering and difficulties challenge your faith in God – regard it as joy that your faith is tested in this way.”

I think we all know that it is when real difficulty and sufferings enter our life that we humans tend to question God, and perhaps turn our back on God. Those are the moments when faith is tested. When we’ve lost our job, EI has run out, and we don’t know how we’re going to pay the bills faith is tested, and sometimes faith wavers, and sometimes our faith in God fails. When we’re sick in hospital and the physical pain is so real, and we perhaps face the prospect of death – faith is tested, sometimes faith wavers, and sometimes our faith in God fails. When we’re fighting with wife or husband, and we can’t seem to get past serious differences and arguments – faith is tested, sometimes faith wavers, and sometimes our faith in God fails.

James says – consider it a joy when your faith is tested in this way. But before we go on notice what James isn’t just saying. James isn’t saying “Don’t worry, be happy.” James isn’t saying that the pain isn’t real. James isn’t saying we should float away to our happy place and pretend that life isn’t hard and painful. It is hard. It is painful.

And notice that James also isn’t bothering to say anything about the source or cause of our suffering. James isn’t engaged here in a discussion about whether God causes suffering, or why God allows suffering. James acknowledges that suffering is real and pain is real.

But even as he acknowledges that suffering is real, we notice that James uses a certain kind of language to describe our relationship to our pain. He says: ‘consider your sufferings’ or ‘think of your sufferings’ or ‘regard your sufferings’. This kind of language suggests a stepping back from our own situation – not ignoring the pain or denying the pain; not at all – but at some level taking a step back from our suffering so we can see it in a particular way. James thinks that when we see our suffering in this particular way, we will even be able to see it with eyes of joy.

But what is it that we’re supposed to see? What is it about the situation that will cause us to look on our suffering and struggles with the eyes of joy. Well, James points out that the testing of our faith produces endurance, and endurance leads to maturity in us, to fullness in us.

At some level I think that James’ words will make sense to us. Isn’t it true that going through times of trial and difficulty leads to maturity and strength? It’s not only through difficult experiences that we grow as individuals, but one of the fundamental ways we learn and grow and mature is through suffering and difficulty.

Let me illustrate this by considering a hypothetical exercise suggested by a psychologist at the University of Virginia named Jonathan Haidt. It’s an exercise I picked up by way of the a Presbyterian pastor and author from California named John Ortberg.

Imagine that you have a child – you may have a child, but in any case imagine that you have a child and for five minutes you are given a script of what that child’s life is going to be. And not only do you get the script but you also get an eraser – and you are allowed to edit the script of your child’s life. You can take out whatever you want.

You read that your child will have a learning disability in elementary school – reading, which comes easily for some kids, will be laborious for your child.

In high school your child will make a great circle of friends, but one of them, an especially close friend of your child will die of cancer.

After high school your child will go to university and get a pretty good job – but will then lose that job in an economic downturn, spending months unemployed.

Your child will get engaged but just a week before the wedding is supposed to take place his or her spouse walks away, leaving your child in a depression that lasts for weeks.

The question, of course, is whether we are inclined to erase all of the suffering from our child’s life. There may be some things that we think will be just too unbearable, that might even crush them – we might want to take them out. But I think the instinct for many of us will be to leave the suffering and difficulty in the script of their life. Why? Because we know that our character is formed, we mature, we grow, through the difficulties of life. We can’t make too much of this kind of imaginative exercise, but it at suggest we understand something of what James is saying. Difficulties and sufferings lead to endurance, and through endurance we grow and mature. 

My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trails of any kind consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance – and let endurance have its full effect so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.

But perhaps we need to clarify something here. It’s important to see that James is not advancing some merely humanistic view of human life. He’s not simply saying: you know, we grow and mature through times of difficulty – and that’s good. Rather, James is preoccupied with faith, and how our faith in God develops and grows.

Within the church, broadly speaking, not a whole lot of attention is paid to this letter of James. And if you’ve heard anything about James, it’s probably along these lines. Well, the Apostle Paul thinks that faith is the most important thing – and James thinks that works are the most important thing. Paul is concerned with what it means to have faith and James is concerned with the good works we should do.

But right here in the opening verses of the letter, we see how mistaken that view is. Faith matters to James. It is the testing of our faith that James is writing about here. His desire, his concern is that we might grow and deepen in our faith through the struggles of life. Yes, sometimes our faith is challenged and tested – but James also sees the possibility that as we go through very real times of difficulty we might grow deeper in faith, that we might mature in faith.

Let’s recall how James identifies himself in his opening greeting. He identifies himself as a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ. James lives his life, and offers his teaching, in the light of Jesus – Jesus, who lived as the fully human one – Jesus, who was crucified – Jesus, who is risen – Jesus who is fully alive as Lord of heaven and earth. And in chapter five, from which we also read this morning, James speaks of our motivation toward patience and endurance when he says: “Therefore brothers and sisters, be patient and wait for the Lord……” Wait for the Lord. Jesus will come again, and with him is the restoration of the world and of our communities and of our lives.

So it is not some merely humanistic creed James advances: “Struggles will make you stronger; painful experiences are an opportunity for growth.” The gospel doesn’t simply offer us some generic statement about how to best get on in life. If that’s what we’re looking for there are plenty of books online at Amazon or Indigo that will offer us solutions.

Rather, what James offers is an account of our human lives set within grand arena of God’s loving concern for us – within the grand arena of God’s persistent, certain love toward us in Jesus. And the hope of James is that as we see our live set within that grand arena of God’s love, we might begin to look on our sufferings as something that might lead us closer to God, deeper into faith.

He hopes that through our sufferings we might grow deeper in a fundamental trust that our whole lives – past, present, future – are in the hands of God in Christ Jesus.

He hopes that through our pain we might grow deeper into a hope in Christ that will spill over into our relationships with others.

He hopes that through our very real difficulties we might find the strength of the crucified and risen one, who equips us for meaningful acts of service

I don’t think that James beleives for even one second that there is anything simple or straightforward or easy about any of this. But in the light of God’s victory in Christ Jesus, James is nevertheless convinced that our sufferings can be an occasion for joy – through them our faith may be refined, our hope renewed, our service strengthened. Through them we might be drawn deeper into life with Jesus – following his word and way.

I think back to three of the biographies of faith we explored a few months ago – Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Joni Eareckson, Eric Liddel. Each narrative so unique – each person so distinct. Yet in some sense wasn’t this the message we took from each one. Each in his own way, her own way, sees life within the grand arena of God’s love and compassion through Jesus Christ. Each one, in fits and starts no doubt – each one growing through struggle and suffering, into a deeper faith, a maturity in hope and service. Not an easy path, yet a grace-filled path to which we also are invited.

James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ. To the twelve tribes in the dispersion. Greetings. My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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