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Understanding Trials and Tribulations (I)

April 15, 2012, More from this speaker 更多关于此讲员: Rev. Wong Siow Hwee (James 1:1-11) For more of this sermon series 更多关于此讲道系列: James
Preached at a Bilingual (Mandarin-English, Sunday) service

Tags: James, 雅各书

Listen to sermon recording with the play button or download with the download link. 您可点播或下载讲道录音。
About Rev. Wong Siow Hwee: Rev. Wong is the moderator of Jubilee Church, serving there since 2002. 王晓晖牧师是禧年堂的主理牧师。自2002年,在那牧会将近20年。
Bible passage (ESV) of the sermon can be found at the bottom of the page.

Sermon on James 1:1-11

This is the first Sunday after Easter, and we shall embark on a new sermon series now that Mark is over. Since the theme for the church retreat this year will focus on the practical aspect of the community living, the church retreat committee has requested that we do a practical series on Christian living. This is why we will be doing a sermon series on James which is generally considered a “practical” book. [1]

We start with a subject matter close to everybody’s heart: Suffering. James calls it the “trials of many kinds.” Hardships can come in many forms. Internal hardships are the struggles and pain when we have to deal with our personal weaknesses and mistakes. External hardships are the difficulties of life that can come from tough situations or bad people. Suffering can come from many aspects, be it financial, psychological, sexual or physiological such as sickness. But whichever kind it is, as humans, we are wired to prefer happiness and joy over pain and suffering. Unless we have a masochist here? Anybody? Good, because that is a different kind of issue. Now, as we are wired towards happiness and joy , suffering often becomes a theological problem for us. If there is a God, why is there suffering? To sharpen the question further, we ask “Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people?”

Since we are going to address this topic over a few sermons, and this is the first of the series, I wish to lay an important boundary when we address such questions. And the boundary is this: as a theological question, we are restricted by the authoritative witness of the Bible. [2] It is crucial because the Bible is not particularly interested in explaining the existence of evil or defending the existence of God. Their existences are assumed to be a natural part of life. Rather the Bible speaks more of God’s response and our desired response to suffering and evil. If it is a sin, then repent. If there is evil, then fight evil. If there are difficulties, then overcome them with God. If there is injustice, trust in God’s righteousness. If there is death, God sent his Son. I know that philosophically speaking, there will always be counter arguments to these biblical answers. But theologically speaking, these are the answers that God is concerned about. It is only within this parameter that we can speak as Christians. These are not “the best answers” we have. These are the answers we should have as Christians.

In our passage today, James gives us one of the classic Christian advice to suffering. No matter what difficulties you are facing, you can face them joyfully as a testing of your faith. Some Christians are fond of saying, “Oh, your troubles now are a test from God”. No, this was not what James meant. But you can “consider” your trial as a test, not from God, but as a test of your faith. Now, this is not self-deluding, because delusions are based on falsehood, whereas faith is about the truth. This is also not positive thinking, because you are not avoiding the half-cup empty scenario here. Instead, the word “consider” tells you that Christians and non-Christians can look at the same matters differently because of our faith. What Pharoah saw as treasures of Egypt, Moses “considered” it worthless (Hebrews 11:26). What others saw as equality with God, Jesus “considered” it as submission to God (Philippians 2:6). What many people saw as things of value and of status, Paul “considered” as garbage (Philippians 3:8). Because we believe that our God is a part of our life and our world, that should result in very different perspectives from the believers of other gods or no gods.

Of course, not every suffering can be considered a test of your faith. If you are lazy in your schoolwork or you cheat in your marriage, your suffering is your own fault. But depending on the contents of your faith, many difficulties in life can be “considered” as a test of your faith. What are the contents of your faith? When you face injustice, you can consider it a test of your faith in the righteousness of God. Then you work in overcoming injustice. When you face suffering in natural disasters, you can consider it a test of your faith in the compassion of God. Then you work in alleviating suffering. When you face poverty, you can consider it a test your faith in the providence of God. Then you work in living a simple life. In James, faith is inseparable from works. Trials and hardships therefore become opportunities to work out your faith. This is why trials and hardships can be considered with joy. If you say you believe in something, this is your chance to prove it. I do not know how to further explain this. However, I can speak from experience that it is actually joyful to fight for your faith and to experience the truth of your faith. This joy goes beyond luxury and comfort which is often taken for granted. No, I am not a masochist. [3]

Friedrich Nietzsche, the German philosopher, famously said: "That which does not kill us makes us stronger." The conventional wisdom is that hardships toughen us. You sometimes hear from well-meaning Christians that suffering is God’s way of teaching us a lesson or something like that. Unfortunately, based on what we know from research in Psychology today, Nietzsche may be wrong. “Developmental research has shown convincingly that traumatized children are more, not less, likely to be traumatized again. Kids who grow up in a tough neighbourhood become weaker, not stronger. They are more, not less likely to struggle in the world.” [4]

This is probably why James asks us to seek wisdom from God. The difference between someone destroyed by hardship and someone enriched by hardship is wisdom. Wisdom allows us to find meaning in our trials, so that we may persevere with the right reasons. And it is out of this purpose, which we may mature after the experience of hardship. Without wisdom, pain is just crippling pain. But with the right wisdom, the truth of the contents of our faith is manifested through the pain. I am sure you can recall many testimonies from Christians who have overcome their disabilities. It wasn’t the pain that gave them wisdom, though some may say that their disability was God’s gift. Rather it was divine wisdom that allowed them to display their faith through their disabilities.

James reminds us to ask for this wisdom without any doubts. Doubts are good for us when we have to re-examine the contents of our faith. Through scrutiny with a positive attitude, and questioning in a constructive manner, the contents of our faith become more nuanced and well-developed. I think this is crucial for spiritual maturity. But doubts have no place when we are asking for wisdom from God. That is because in James’ theology, there is a bottom line: God is good and he desires to give good things to us. Of course, what is good can be very subjective. What we think is good may be different for God. But the Bible has 2 instances where it is stated without reservations, that if you ask, “it will be given to you”. In both of these instances, the subject of request is very clear and it is always good. The first is the Holy Spirit which was spoken by Jesus in the gospels (Luke 11:13). The second instance is wisdom which is found here in James. Though they may seem like two things, but they both refer to good counsel and discernment. In the New Testament context, you can’t have one without the other. And this is also why you cannot ask for wisdom, or the Holy Spirit for the matter, with doubt. Working through your faith is about commitment, especially commitment to God. What wisdom can you hope to receive if you are half-hearted about the nature of God, or his will, or his kingdom? If your faith is absent, your works will be absent, and without the work of exercising your faith, there can be no fruits.

James used financial suffering as an example, and it would help to clarify my points as well. One of the major trials of life is financial difficulties. If you have too little, you are struggling to make ends meet. You worry about your future. You agonize over the things you cannot afford, like your medical expenses. If you start going into debt, things can turn ugly very fast. But wealth can be a problem if you have abundance, because money is never enough. Now, you struggle to maintain your lifestyle, working long hours away from your family. Some guys spend their money on women. Some ladies spend them collecting designer brands. Some families fight over inheritance. Countries fight over natural resources. Whoever you are, you will face the trials of wealth, either too little or too much.

Is there wisdom to be asked regarding wealth? Of course. In the Old Testament we have lots from the Proverbs. Proverbs says, on one hand, wealth is good. With wealth you have security (10:15), you have friends (14:20), you have social status (22:7). But on the other hand, wealth has its downsides. With wealth, it makes you wise in your own eyes (28:11), it is also transient (27:24) and may bring judgment upon you (11:28). But most importantly wealth means responsibilities in the eyes of God.
Proverbs 19: 17 Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the LORD, and he will reward them for what they have done.
Proverbs 22: 9 The generous will themselves be blessed, for they share their food with the poor.

In the end, we observe that all is equal to the Lord, and he expects mutual respect whether you are rich or poor.
Proverbs 22: 2 Rich and poor have this in common: The LORD is the Maker of them all.
Proverbs 29: 13 The poor and the oppressor have this in common: The LORD gives sight to the eyes of both.
Proverbs 14: 31 Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God.
Proverbs 17: 5 Whoever mocks the poor shows contempt for their Maker; whoever gloats over disaster will not go unpunished.
In summary, the two concepts of wealth are responsibility and equality. Don’t let wealth fool you into thinking that you are above others.

In the New Testament, the words of Jesus regarding wealth are very similar. Wealth is important in giving to the needy. But beware of storing treasures on earth, because “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:21) Then in verse 24, “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” I’m sure you are familiar with the Parable of the Rich Fool (Luke 12: 13-21) and the story of the rich young man (Matthew 19:16-30).

In the world, wealth is a determining factor in your social status. It is hard not to admire the rich and famous. It is also hard for the poor and needy to have a voice. But this should not be the contents of your faith as a Christian, and it should never be so in a Church. Status-wise, we are all equal in the eyes of God, whether you are rich or poor. This is what we believe and this is how we should live and act as Christians. We all face trials of wealth in our life, depending on our circumstances, either too much or too little. It can be difficult. You may be struggling in your work to support the family. Another person could be struggling because his principles or work-life balance is being compromised by tons of money. In times like this, our lesson from James is: we can face all these struggles with joy when we “consider” them as a test of our faith. The question is: What do you truly believe in?

To the poor, James tells them, poverty is not your position. Instead, you now have a high position. Along with Jesus, you are a child of God. As a people, you are a royal priesthood. This should be the contents of your faith. When you struggle, it is not to be accepted or to be recognized as an equal. You are not struggling for better security or to gain buying power. All these you already have in God’s eyes and in the Christian community. Yes, you have to continue to struggle and toil, but you do it because work is a meaningful gift for mankind. Take pride in how much God honours your work. When you act out your faith in this way, you live with joy.

To the rich, James tells them, wealth is not your position. Despite all the wealth you have, you are in humiliation just like all the rest of us. Along with Jesus, you are now a servant to the people of God. This is why James as the leader of the Church calls himself a servant too. This should be the contents of your faith. In this community, you are an equal and that might be a humiliation from your status outside. But it would be joy to live your faith in this way. Wealth is alluring but transient. If you put your faith in riches, you will surely regret the day when you discover that they mean nothing in the most important things in life. Consider your struggles with temptation as a test of your faith. Take pride in your humiliation that you are now merely a steward of your wealth, not the owner of your wealth. If you do endure through this test, I think you will gain maturity like no other.

This is how James “considers” the trials of wealth as a test of his faith. And it can be applied to all other aspects of life. The work for us is to fill up all these different issues of faith with good contents. But no worries, God gives generously to those who pray for such wisdom.

Footnotes
[1] But before I get started on the book, allow me to grumble a little about the unfortunate perceived dichotomy between theology and praxis (practice). In my opinion, theology and practice are not polar opposites but rather two sides of the same coin. Good theology directly impacts your daily living and your important decisions in life. If the sermon speakers had failed to draw out the practical implications, it’s the fault of the speakers and not the irrelevance of the theology. For that, we aim to try harder. Similarly, good practical advice and instructions for life stems from good theological foundations. If you are told what to do without knowing the “who” and the “why”, your actions are easily misapplied and superficial. When Jesus confronted the Pharisees, it wasn’t that their actions were wrong, it was a case of bad theology. So although we are embarking on a journey to learn and practice good Christian living, we would be liable if we don’t also ground you in good Christian theology. Fortunately, that it is exactly the presentation we would discover in James: a seamless weaving of strong theology with good practical advice for daily living.
[2] This means that we can only say what the bible says, and anything further is really beyond the limits of what you can say with authority. This boundary is important because most people, believers or not, would find many of these answers of theodicy unsatisfying. It would seem like that there is no perfect solution to all your problems. You would likely still question “why can’t God prevent this rape or that earthquake” and so on. In our mind, whichever so-called answer we are given, we could still conclude, “well, if there is a God, things could have been better, it should not be this way”. Of course, it could and maybe it should. But we are not dealing with hypotheticals and speculations here. We are bound by the proclamations of the Bible.
[3] A word of caution here: it is important to note that the contents of your faith are therefore very important. It is a worthwhile effort if what you are fighting for and enduring through is a noble cause. But even if your contents are shallow or wrong, you would likely consider the difficulties and oppositions you face as tests for your faith. For example, if I believe that Jubilee is the one true Church, I would be persecuted as a heretic. I may “consider” them as tests and trials, and continue to plunge further into my wrong-headed faith. Or I may face criticisms because I am the type that always thinks I’m right. “Considering” criticisms as tests of my faith would only make my stubbornness more resolute. So when is such “considering” desirable, and when is it misguided? I don’t think I have a solution, but I think humility would help. We should look at Church history and see the tons of misguided faith, from the Crusades in medieval times, to the religious wars after the Reformation, to the defenders of racial discrimination in the last century, and know that the contents of our faith deserve close examination and a willingness to be corrected. This is why I’m such a humble man. (Joking)
[4] http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/insight-therapy/201008/what-doesnt-kill-you-makes-you-weaker

James 1:1–11 (Listen)

1:1 James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ,

To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion:

Greetings.

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, 10 and the rich in his humiliation, because like a flower of the grass he will pass away. 11 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.

(ESV)