Understanding Trials and Tribulations (II)Sermon passage: (James 1:12-18) Spoken on: April 22, 2012
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Sermon on James 1:12-18
Who of us here have never experienced any trials or temptation in our lives? No one? I believe that all of us have experienced some forms of trials and temptation in our lives, at some point in time. There is no one here or in the world who would claim otherwise. Even Jesus, our Lord, have experienced Satan’s three temptations at the start of his ministry. But what exactly are trials and temptations? Why do we experience them? Who is the source of these trials and temptation? God? Satan? Or someone else? What is the nature of trials and temptation? Today, we will explore the biblical understanding of trials and temptation as described in the letter of James. We will explore James 1.12-18 this morning.
The letter of James [i] has been described as like a collection of wise proverbs, with the author giving Godly advice to Christians on how to live a faithful and righteous Christian life. It is both practical and puzzling at the same time. Sometimes, we struggle to understand the relevance of this letter in modern times. But at times, we acknowledge that these wise sayings have somehow stood the test of time. Is it still relevant to the first-century readers and the 21st century readers? Our experiences may be different but nonetheless, we continue to struggle with trials and temptations today. Pastorally, James writes about concrete problems like testing, faith, wisdom, anger, compassion, the poor, envy, the rich, and praying for the sick. The question is not if James is still relevant, but how is James relevant for us today? How can we practice what is written into our daily lives? Let’s begin with v. 12.
Faithfulness and Life
12 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.
This verse is actually a summary of what was shared in vv. 2-11. It establishes the theme that “God rewards those who endures testing.” [ii] Consider it a blessing when you are being tested because when you have “stood the test”, God will reward you with the crown of life. Here, James speaks the same tone as Paul when the latter tells Timothy that he has fought the good fight and have finished the race, and a crown of righteousness is waiting for him in heaven (2 Tim 4:7-9). The reward for faithfulness is “eternal life.”[iii]
James is not suggesting a new theology here. Often we hear Christians debating about the role of faith and work in relation to salvation. Is it faith that saves us or our works? This has troubled many Christians in the past and today. The reason that James is able to say that the reward for faithfulness is “eternal life” is because his theology is Christ-centered. Faithfulness is never a work of humans alone. It is ALWAYS faithfulness in Christ or faithfulness in God. Christians often mistakenly tear the two apart: between faithfulness as humans and faithfulness in God. This is wrong. For the Christian writer, there is no faithfulness without Christ. There is no faith without works and no works without faith, for faith without works is dead (James 2:14-18). Therefore, the reward for faithfulness in Christ is “eternal life.”
This leads us to the next question. Who is the one tempting us? Here, James is quick to remind the readers that when anyone is tempted, let no one say, “I am being tempted by God”. Such a statement in quotation probably meant that it is a popular saying among the Christians at that time. The early Christians faced persecution and oppression from the Roman empire. In fact, sometimes, we continue to hear this among the Christian community today, “God is testing me.” James shares his theological insight with us, “for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one” (v. 13).
God does not tempt us. But does God test us?
Some of you may be wondering, what is the difference between trials, temptations, and tests? It is common for Christians to differentiate between these three words. Sometimes we hear that “trials” refer to the hardship in life, like the difficult times when we lose a loved one. “Temptation” is often associated with the struggle of sin in our lives, while “test” is about making difficult moral choices, doing the right thing at the right time. It is refreshing for me when I read that in this letter of James, the author does not make such a differentiation[iv].
James uses two different Greek words interchangeably (nouns: peirasmon and dokimion) to describe trials, temptation and testing throughout his letter. They are used of a person who is currently in the process of struggle or hardships. The emphasis is on being in the process or in the midst of facing trials, temptations and testing.
But in v. 12, James went on to describe a specific kind of testing and uses dokimos (the adjectival word for dokimion) instead. It is a testing that has stood the test of faith. The word dokimos is originally used to describe the refining of gold and silver but Paul and James use this word to describe also the refining of our faith as seen also in 1 Peter 1:6-7:
6 In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, 7 so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.
Here, the word dokimos is used of someone who have “stood the test”. The emphasis is used on a person who has demonstrated true faithfulness after the process of testing or refining. Are you faithful at the end of it all?
To James, it does not matter what kind of trials, temptations or tests we are being subjected to. It could be the loss of a loved one, or the loss of a job, or a struggle with sin, or making a moral choice. The emphasis is how we deal with the situation we are currently in. The emphasis is on enduring through the process of trials and temptation in life. And when we have successfully endured through the process of testing, we will be given a crown of life as reward for our faithfulness in Christ. Like they often say, it is not the destination, but the journey, that is important. The same applies here. What happens when we are tested? Who is testing us? What should we do when we are being tested?
Our sinful desire is the source of sin
James believes that the source of temptation is not God, neither is it Satan, but one’s own desire. Paul takes a more pastoral but slightly different approach in 1 Corinthians 10:13:
13 No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.
Even though Paul does not specify God as the source of testing or temptation, he believes that God is sovereign and has control over the intensity of our temptation. God will not allow one to be tempted beyond one’s ability. This understanding of God’s sovereignty is also shared by Jesus in the Lord’s Prayer, “lead us not into temptation, but rescue us from the evil one.” God may not be the source of temptation or evil, but He has control over the intensity and the various kinds of temptation we may be subjected to [v]. This is James’ message to his readers then. All of us will face trials and temptations of all kinds, of varying intensity. Take responsibility for your decisions you make in life. Watch your hearts!
Jesus says in Mark 7:21,
21 For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery.
James believes that sin is conceived right in the heart of human desire[vi] and over time, desire “gives birth” to sin, and sin eventually “gives birth” to death (v. 15). Like pregnancy, this process of desire-sin-death is just as slow and concealed. In a similar fashion, James uses the same imagery to describe the positive process of test-endurance-life. In his earlier verses he speaks of trials[vii] that “leads” to faithfulness, and faithfulness “leads” to life.
James 1:15 desire -> sin -> death
James 1:2-12 test -> endurance -> life
Here, James takes on the role of a pastor, and ministers to his community of believers by telling them that sin lives in our hearts. It is neither God nor Satan who tempts us or put us in these sinful situations. We are, by nature, sinful (Rom. 7:18). God did not put sin in us. God made us humans with free will to choose God or not. It is us who choose to disobey God’s will.
The human nature is as such, sinful, and desires things which are ungodly. When sin is left untouched, it eats us up from the inside. Anger becomes hatred. Love becomes lust. Power, greed, sexual immorality, pride are just some of the manifestations of sin in our lives. Left alone, it grows best in the dark. As Christians, many of us live a secret life of sin. An unresolved sin grows deeper and bigger with each passing day. A dark secret will soon lead to death - the death of one’s faith. Over time, we lose our faith in ourselves, in those around us, and ultimately, we lose faith in God. We lose grip of life. We lose everything. The gift of life which was freely given to you has been put to waste. God gives us life. While sinful desires give us death.
Some of us struggle with God, every day of our life. We do not hear him, even though we are in church every week. We pray, but we only hear our own voices. We live secret lives. We live in sin. We are spiritually dead every single day. We are the walking dead. We lost the joy of life and the passion of worshipping God. We no longer know God intimately. We may read the Bible, but nothing touches our hearts. Our heart is full of deceit and evil. Our heart is no longer pure.
James’ pastoral message: God is the Father of lights
James warns us in vv. 17-18, to not be deceived. Do not believe in the lies you have been hearing about God and temptation. God does not tempt. He is good and will only give good things to his children, like wisdom. Stay strong and continue to believe that the Father of lights (stars or angels) will lead us out of darkness. Like the stars which guided lost explorers in the deserts; God, the Father of lights, will guide us in our wilderness.
1 John 1:5 tells us that “God is light and in him there is no darkness.” Malachi 3:6 tells us this about God: “For I the Lord do not change.” God is faithful even when we are not. God will not change his love for us. James wants us to know that all is not lost, even when we are living in sin, God is steadfast and will continue to help us, through the good times and the bad.
In the midst of every trial and temptation, there is hope. There is renewal. There is regeneration of faith. There is transformation. Two things we must remember from James’ message: Our God is good. Our God is unchanging in his love for us. There is such hope because it is by God’s own will that “he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures” (v. 18). We should be God’s firstfruits among all his creatures. We are the pioneers of God’s redeeming work. We are God’s testimony to the world of unbelief. God sees us as most valuable and precious. It is God’s desire for us remain faithful in the word of truth, in God’s Word, who is Christ. When we remain in our old self, we are dead in our transgression, but when we are in Christ, we are a new creation. We are God’s firstfruits. Fear not, for God is our ever-help in our every trial and temptation.
Let us pray.
i Who wrote the letter? Who was it written for?
At the start of ch. 1, we read that this letter was written by “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.” In Gal. 1:19, the NT writer describes James as “the brother of the Lord.” In church tradition, he was known also as “James the Just” or James of Jerusalem. But some believe that the author was not James, brother of Jesus, but rather, a Christian versed in the Greek culture and Judaism who wrote the letter under the pen name of James. He addresses this letter to the twelve tribes in the Dispersion (Jewish Diaspora), to the Jews in exile who were living outside of Israel. Even until today, there are millions of Jews living in the Dispersion; many of them are living in Europe and in the United States. There are more Jews living outside of Israel than those living within Israel.
ii Scot McKnight, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Letter of James (Eerdmans, 2011), p. 106
iii McKnight, NICNT, p. 112.
iv McKnight, NICNT, p. 110-111.
v Some biblical scholars believe that James has a specific temptation in mind when he says, “God does not tempt.” Within the messianic community at that time, some are tempted to use violence against their oppressors in order to establish justice. James may be responding to them and making it clear that using violence for justice does not come from God but from their own human desires. This is witnessed also in the Crusades during the 11th-14th century, when Christians wage war against Muslims in the name of God. It is clear to James that these evil comes from the human heart, and not from God. Winning the world for God by killing non-Christians through territorial expansion is covered up as doing God’s will. We continue to hear such nonsense today. Sometimes when we read biographical accounts of serial killers or cult leaders, we hear them say that it is God (or Satan) who told them to commit these heinous crimes. Sometimes, they push the blame on to their parents, their environment, the computer games they play, the movies they watched, etc. We can almost hear James telling them that it is not these external influences, but your own sinful desires.
vi McKnight, NICNT, p. 119. The Jews believe that humans have two kinds of desires in our hearts: evil desire (yetzer hara) and good desire (yetzer hatov). We are often swayed between the two desires. This thinking is clearly evident in Galatians 5 and Romans 7.
vii The community of believers then and now faced similar hardship as they grow in the Christian faith. They struggle with persecution and oppression from the Roman hegemony. They struggle with staying faithful in their life. They struggle with sin. They are asking James, where does sin come from? What is the origin of these trials and temptation?
James 1:12–18 (Listen)
12 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. 13 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. 14 But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. 15 Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.
16 Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. 17 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. 18 Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.