Today I’m kicking off a Bible Study on the Book of James. His overriding concept in writing is to help people put feet to their faith. It is one thing to say you believe something. It is a totally different thing to actually live it out.
James wants to help Christians live out their faith in practical ways.
He begins with one of the hardest questions humanity faces: How do you manage when life throws tough situations at you?
Why is this so important? The simple fact of life is that we all go through tough times—no one is exempt from life’s struggles. If we’re being totally honest, when we look at the trials of some, we would gladly swap our own tough times with theirs! No one feels our tough times like we feel our own. So it does no good to tell people, “Well, you should be thankful that your tough times aren’t as bad as (fill in the blank _____). You should count your blessings because it could be a lot worse!”
Yeah. I feel much better now. Thanks for your help. I still feel my pain. You don’t feel my pain the way that I do. Go feel your own pain, and leave me and mine alone.
So we can’t really compare our troubles to someone else’s or their troubles to ours. What we can do is learn how to manage and survive through our tough times. We all have different ways of coping, from mental tricks to substance abuse. Here’s what James says in verses 1:2-18:
Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.
Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, and the rich in his humiliation, because like a flower of the grass he will pass away. For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. So also will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits. Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him. Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.
Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.
James begins his letter by describing the readers’ beliefs about trials, the testing of their faith, and their responses to them. He’s not saying, “You should cope by being happy about tough times because tough times produce good things.” He’s saying, “This is how you have coped in the past.” But putting up with tough times isn’t the best way to gain wisdom. If you want wisdom, ask God.
Some ancient thinkers stressed the idea that God uses hardships in this life as a means of correction and discipline for the people of God, especially with the expectation that one result of this discipline will be learning wisdom. James’ readers were doing that. “We will cling to our troubles because they will make us wiser!” What? Who wants to trade hardship for wisdom? Not me! James is telling us something different.
Rather than being opportunities for self-improvement, trials serve to reveal our need for and dependence on God. They drive us to ask God for the things we need. Too often we get confused about what we need and what we think we need. We also start to view stuff as a sign of blessing. It’s not new. It was a common error in the first century, as much as today—to suppose that one’s prosperity is the result of “living right.” In fact, it became a joke in my family. I think it started out playing a board game. Dad had a great roll of the dice, made a great move, and he responded, “Hey, I live right!” As if God cared about a silly board game. But we do believe that way with a lot of life. “Look at everything he has going for him. Yup, he must live right.”
Sometimes bad stuff happens to really good people. And sometimes good stuff happens to really bad people.
Wealth and success are not a sign of your spirituality. James specifically says to consider God’s work at the end of time—those of us who are low can think about being lifted, and others who are high can think about being lowered. In God’s kingdom, there is no class system. There are no “haves” and “have-nots.” Material wealth is irrelevant to the big picture, so don’t use it to judge your self-worth and value. If you’re going through a tough spot, hold on tight—God will give you a “crown of life.” But it might mean enduring the crud right now.
The apostle Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 1:8-2:
For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.
While we sometimes endure hardships because of our own choices, oftentimes we go through junk because we live in a broken and junky world. Don’t blame God.
How do we endure? Here are 4 tips to help get you started:
Recognize that we live in a broken world and that we live with the consequences of broken behavior (sometimes our own, sometimes, others’).
Recognize that God desires good things for you and isn’t capriciously sending you trouble.
Pray that God would give you wisdom and insight on how to endure and survive the difficult time so that you can make it through to the other side.
Practically speaking—lean on good friends who will pray for you and come to your aid.
No matter how joyful or patient a person’s response is to the hardships of life, spiritual maturity and completeness can’t be obtained through human determination and perseverance. The hardships of life are not the “school of hard knocks” in which one learns wisdom, but rather are occasions that cause believers to recognize their complete dependence on God. They drive them to ask God for the wisdom that can only be obtained as a divine gift.
Going through a rough patch? God might not take you out of it, but he will be right beside you through it. And so will I, praying that God will give you wisdom as you daily take one step at a time, knowing that he wants the best for you.
– What struggles have I been going through lately?
– Have I blamed God for situations caused by others or myself?
– How can I use my troubles to rely more on God?
Chris Linzey is husband to Tené, father to the three most beautiful children in the world, movie addict (seriously, if it’s on a screen he'll watch it—doesn’t matter how crummy or low-budget), and a Navy Chaplain, currently assigned to Naval Air Station, Meridian. Chris has a deep desire to help people live lives of faith where the Bible is more than mere words on a page, but the way we live everyday. His undergrad and Master’s studies were in Biblical Studies and he focused on the New Testament (his mentor was a Gospel of Mark scholar). He went on to get a Master of Divinity (MDiv) in Pastoral Preaching. Follow him at @chrislinzey.