James 1:1-8 – How to Face Painful Trials

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

To the twelve tribes scattered among the nations:

Greetings.

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds,because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do. (New International Version)

Where do you turn when unwanted circumstances leave you wondering how to cope?

The Apostle James, no stranger to adversity and stressful situations, likened our position in hard situations as faith being on the witness stand, put to the test. Faith is being examined and cross-examined. And it must stand the test. 

Our attitude toward such trials, in all their varied forms, determines whether we will become upset, hard-hearted, and calloused, or, come through having our faith confirmed with newfound peace and joy.

James wrote to Jewish Christians who felt like fish out of water. They were part of the dispersion of believers from Jerusalem in the persecution against Stephen and the church (Acts 7). The dispersed believers were refugees – poor, in a foreign country, just trying to carve out an existence and live for Jesus the best they could under a lot of adversity. 

James exhorted the Christians to view their situation as an opportunity for their faith in Christ to develop and grow.

Rejoice in the midst of trials.

“Consider the adverse circumstances as joy? Are you smoking something?” we might wonder. Telling someone to consider their tough situation as pure joy is a really hard pill to swallow. 

I’m not sure what the believers were thinking when they first heard this from James, but they might have thought the guy was crazy. These were people experiencing a lot of hard things. To tell hungry families with scant resources, wondering where their next meal is coming from, that they ought to consider their situation as pure joy may seem strange, even downright calloused. 

James, however, was looking to fortify the believers’ faith. Whenever we get a cut or a laceration, the first thing needed is to apply peroxide to the wound so there will be no infection from the injury. It might seem insensitive because peroxide applied to an open wound, frankly, hurts like hell. Yet it must happen. It’s a necessary part of healing. 

The Apostle cared enough about the people to tell them what they needed to hear, up front. Without a positive, godly, and wise perspective on their difficult situation, they would not make it. Infection would set in and destroy the fledgling church.

Suffering, in the form of spiritual peroxide, is necessary. To merely say what itching ears want to hear helps no one. Suffering is a significant part of the Christian life. God never promised that life would be or should be all cupcakes and unicorns. 

In fact, Christ promised just the opposite – that everyone who wants to live for Jesus in this present broken world will have a hard time of it. It’s not a matter if you will face the testing of your faith, but of whenever you face trials.

The good news is that adversity can become our teacher. We can learn patient endurance, which is necessary to the development of our faith. Spiritual growth only matures through the testing of faith through adversity.

Faith is not a neutral or static thing. Faith is active and dynamic. It’s always either developing or degenerating.  Without spiritual peroxide, faith degenerates and becomes rancid. Eventually, gangrene sets in, and an amputation will happen. To avoid this, we need to learn how to experience joy in the middle of hard things.

It seems to me a great tragedy, for many Christians and faith communities, is that we can live a trivial, blasé, and superficial existence as believers in Jesus, and get away with it. Because we have the ability to be independent, self-sufficient, and hold our own, we don’t really need anybody, including God. We say we need God, then turn around and live our lives as if no divine being existed, at all. 

Too many folks are doing everything but exercising spiritual disciplines that would put them in touch with Jesus. To try and keep from getting hurt, church becomes optional; reading and reflecting on Scripture becomes our daily crumb instead of our daily bread; prayer becomes a hail Mary, only for times of desperation, and not as a means of connecting with Jesus; giving and serving becomes ancillary, done only if there is any discretionary time and money left over. 

The Christian life was not meant to be easy! It requires blood, sweat, and tears. Faith is challenging, and often hard. Yet, even within the pain, faith is incredibly invigorating and joyful.

Do not avoid trials.

We need perseverance. If we always bail out when things get hard, we will be immature. Only through endurance does the maturation process occur. Let your hard situation do its necessary work. Immature people avoid hard things and instead put their energy into keeping up appearances.

Conversely, the mature person spends energy standing the test and trial of faith. They understand that there must be pressure for spiritual maturity to occur.

Oyster pearls are valuable and expensive. They result from years of irritation. Natural pearls form when an irritant – usually a parasite – works its way into an oyster. As a defense mechanism, a fluid is used to coat the irritant. Layer upon layer of this coating is deposited until a beautiful pearl is formed.

God is looking to do something beautiful in our lives. So, if we constantly run away and do not deal with our hard situations, there will never be a pearl. It takes about ten years for a pearl to form in an oyster in the ocean.  Observing an oyster every day, you never notice any movement is happening. You only see the irritation.

In the Christian life, the consistent daily choices over a long period of time (perseverance) form the eventual beauty.

No one needs to go looking for trials. And, I might add, you don’t need to take upon yourself being someone else’s trial. There’s no such thing in the New Testament of anyone having the spiritual gift of irritation. The trials come from God, not people. Therefore, we are to let our faith develop and grow through the testing.

Yet, what if I am in the middle of something so hard that I just cannot see God’s perspective on it? What if there is seemingly nothing redemptive from this adversity?

Pray for wisdom in the trials.

Ask God for wisdom to see the situation from a different angle – of its positive good, and for what God is accomplishing in and through it. The truth is, God is developing within people a strong vibrant faith, if we allow it.

Growing up on the farm, we had apple trees on the property. My Dad had a shop in the garage with a big vice on the workbench. Vices and little boys were made for each other. My brother and I used to find all kinds of things to put in that vice and squeeze them until they broke, split, or exploded. 

Putting fresh apples in the vice was one of our favorites. The best were the strong juicy ones because we could get them to splatter everywhere. We hated the wormy apples. They were rotten inside and collapsed with only a little pressure.

God will, at times, put us in the divine vice – not because the Lord is mean or delights in our pain. God places us in situations of extreme pressure for fresh prayers to explode out of us to heaven.

If we are walking with God, we will be strong and juicy. However, if we have neglected God, then just a smidge of pressure will create a collapsing wormy mess. With no meaningful prayers, there is no meaningful wisdom for our circumstances.

Believe God is good no matter the trial.

God is not mean, but generous. The Lord gives with no questions asked, and without giving us a hard time about our situation. Yet, there is a condition….

We must believe – that God is good, answers prayer, and gives wisdom. Doubting God’s generosity and benevolence is a demonstration of a weak wormy faith. We may doubt a lot of things. Yet we are always to be secure in the knowledge that God has our best interests at heart. This is why there can be joy and perseverance, even when everything around us is going to hell.

Grant, O God, that we may never lose our way through stubborn self-will, and never abandon the struggle but endure to the end. Help us never to choose the cheap way of avoiding or circumventing our trials but embrace the Via Dolorosa. May we never forget that sweat is the price of all things, and that without the cross, there cannot be the crown. Amen.

The Beatitudes of Jesus: An Introduction

Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them. He said:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
    for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
    for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
    for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
    for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
    for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
    for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:1-12, NIV)

The human brain is hard-wired, in such a way, that it works its best when healthy rhythms of giving and receiving occur. God created us to thrive and flourish when we pay attention to particular ways of being with one another as people.

Jesus used the term “blessed” not in a financial sense, as if having lots of money is what it means to experience blessing. The word “blessed” means to have God’s stamp of approval, his favor, with the emotional and spiritual response of joy or happiness. 

Real and lasting joy comes from a right relationship with God, defined according to what Jesus says – different from the false righteousness of the religious establishment which is based on outward appearance rather than inner attitudes. We need to know how to relate to our God, instead of simply conforming to an outward form of Christianity that everybody is doing.

Our entire selves are blessed when we engage in consistent rhythms of practicing humility before the Lord; sitting with grief; putting ourselves in another’s shoes; seeking right relationships with both God and others; pursuing mercy, purity, and peace-making in all our affairs; and allowing persecution to form us in ways the good times cannot.

Jesus preached the Beatitudes to clarify what it means to be approved by God. He wanted to gain true disciples who follow God for the right reasons. The crowd was following Jesus physically, but not necessarily spiritually. They all followed for different reasons: for healing, curiosity, or a genuine desire to be a disciple. So, Jesus sat them down to communicate what a true follower and disciple is.

Imagine we are part of the crowd originally hearing Christ’s Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7).  The world in which the people lived, and the religious system which they took for granted, was highly restrictive. 

In order to approach God, enter the kingdom, and be a good citizen, one had to be Jewish, male, a faithful Law-keeper, physically whole, healthy, and able; and, if not wealthy, able to make a good living. 

Yes, this reality meant that Gentiles, women, those who struggled to keep the Law, the diseased and disabled, and the poor had no shot whatsoever in the kingdom of God. To be blessed and have God’s stamp of approval on your life meant you were a healthy and wealthy Jewish man who practiced a legalistic form of righteousness. 

Not a single one of us here would have any shot at the kingdom of God. Yet, we have heard something about this guy, Jesus. There seems to be something very compelling about him. We go seek him out, sit down on a mountainside and hear him say the most refreshing and scandalous words we have ever heard…

God approves of the spiritually bankrupt who realize they’ve got no leverage to make any deals. They shall be given the riches of God’s grace.

God approves of those who grieve over personal sin and lament the presence of sin in the world. They are the ones who will experience God’s forgiveness and comfort.

God approves of the powerless and those who use their authority to champion others. They will inherit God’s power and take up authority to command dark forces and put them in their place.

God approves of those who have a voracious appetite for right relationships and doing everything for the right reasons. Their growling spiritual stomachs will be stuffed with God’s righteousness.

God approves of those who liberally extend grace to others, being always considerate of everyone’s needs, showing neither prejudice nor favoritism. They shall receive God’s grace at the end of the age when Christ comes to judge the living and the dead.

God approves of the spiritually clean who have bathed in the waters of divine mercy. They will see Jesus face to face.

God approves of those who facilitate and negotiate peace. Because that is precisely what God’s children do.

God approves of those who are persecuted for living by these counter-cultural Beatitudes. They have an inheritance that will never perish, spoil, or fade.

Grant us, Lord God, a vision of our world as your love would make it: a world where the weak are protected, and none go hungry or poor; a world where the benefits of abundant life are shared, and everyone can enjoy them; a world where different races and cultures live in tolerance and mutual respect; a world where peace is built with justice, and justice is guided by love. And give us the inspiration and courage to build it, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

John 16:16-24 – There Must Be Suffering Before Glory

Jesus went on to say, “In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me.”

At this, some of his disciples said to one another, “What does he mean by saying, ‘In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me,’ and ‘Because I am going to the Father’?” They kept asking, “What does he mean by ‘a little while’? We don’t understand what he is saying.”

Jesus saw that they wanted to ask him about this, so he said to them, “Are you asking one another what I meant when I said, ‘In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me’? Very truly I tell you, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born, she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. So, with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy. In that day you will no longer ask me anything. Very truly I tell you, my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete. (New International Version)

“Even a happy life cannot be without a measure of darkness, and the word happy would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness. It is far better to take things as they come with patience and equanimity.”

Carl Jung

An Unpopular Message

Jesus often said things that were neither expected nor wanted. Jesus consistently told his disciples there must be suffering before glory. The disciples either could not or would not hear of it. They didn’t sign up to follow Jesus into suffering! Trying to get people to pay attention to suffering is like trying to get a bunch of Baptists to put their names down on a sign-up sheet at church.

Christ was speaking to his disciples in the Upper Room, the last meal he had with them before his death. When they were called by Jesus three years earlier, the disciples were not expecting all the gibberish about leaving and grieving. To put this in contemporary terms, the disciples’ response was akin to saying, “I only think positive. I don’t listen to things that are negative.”

Suffering, death, and grief were far from the disciples’ expectations of how things would and should shake-out. They had such a hard time understanding what the heck Jesus was saying because his words were out of alignment with their assumptions. Yes, there would be glory and joy. First, however, there must be suffering and grief.

A Real Message

Just as a woman experiences terrible pain in childbirth, then ecstatic joy over seeing her child for the first time, so the Christian’s excruciating pain in this life points to the inevitable joy at the end of that suffering. In the scope of eternity, adversity and pain last only a moment. Glorious joy, however, will be forever.

In talking with his disciples about their disappointment, even depression, about Christ’s words of leaving and grieving, Jesus graciously gave them the gift of joy. Yes, there can be and is joy even in the mourning. Not every story has a happy ending.

I can say, however, that the grandest story of all – Jesus Christ’s suffering and death – has resulted in resurrection and ascension. It will all be complete when Christ returns to judge the living and the dead. Then, the grand narrative of redemption will realize its conclusion of no more crying, tears, or pain. There will be only unending joy.

For now, however, we still experience heartache along with the great joy of resurrection and new life. It can be confusing, living in the awkward state of simultaneous grief and joy. Yet, keep in mind, the grief is temporary. The despair will not last. Joy, on the other hand, has staying power and will be the permanent state of the believer. It is only the smaller stories which may or may not end well. The big story of redemption already has the ending written – joy without grief.

A Good Message

Christians serve a risen and ascended Lord. Therefore, we need not wait to be happy, and we need not expect everything must go our way. The good news is that there are always fresh opportunities to be happy through asking and receiving. Imagine a Partridge Family sort of bus coming around to all the bus stops of life. Happy times and music arrive around the clock. Chances are the opportunity to be happy has already arrived. Often, it is right in front of us; we just missed the bus because we were daydreaming about a future state of joy.

We are living days of constant change followed by ever new normal. Just as there was no going back to a three-year hiatus of walking with Jesus for the disciples, so we need to embrace new and different ways of life together here on planet earth. We have the gift of joy. Its just a matter of unpacking it.

Now to him who can do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.

Psalm 47 – Clap and Shout!

Sing, Clap, and Sound the Trumpets by Melani Pyke

Come, everyone! Clap your hands!
    Shout to God with joyful praise!
For the Lord Most High is awesome.
    He is the great King of all the earth.
He subdues the nations before us,
    putting our enemies beneath our feet.
He chose the Promised Land as our inheritance,
    the proud possession of Jacob’s descendants, whom he loves.

God has ascended with a mighty shout.
    The Lord has ascended with trumpets blaring.
Sing praises to God, sing praises;
    sing praises to our King, sing praises!
For God is the King over all the earth.
    Praise him with a psalm.
God reigns above the nations,
    sitting on his holy throne.
The rulers of the world have gathered together
    with the people of the God of Abraham.
For all the kings of the earth belong to God.
    He is highly honored everywhere.
(New Living Translation)

God is King. In the Christian tradition specifically, Jesus is King. Christ is the One who gives shape, form, and substance to the reign of God over the earth. This is what the Lord’s ascension to heaven communicates – that Jesus sits at the right hand of God the Father, exercising a benevolent rule as the rightful Sovereign over all creation.

This redemptive reality of the Lord’s good reign is a cause for praise. And this is what today’s psalm is all about. We, as the subjects of God’s kingdom, are called to praise the Lord.

The psalm tells us exactly how to praise the Lord because of powerful and compassionate authority: clap your hands and shout! For worshipers who believe acknowledgment of God is most appropriate with silence and contemplation, even a cursory reading of the psalms will inform them differently. Although it seems to me most worship experiences need more familiarity with silence, I also passionately believe they could use a whole lot more enthusiasm with clapping and shouting.

Depending upon where you fit in the spectrum of Christianity’s tradition of worship, high church or low church, very liturgical, or not, it behooves all churches to incorporate the full range of human expression to God – including both silence and shout, hands clasped reverently in prayer as well as exuberantly clapping in praise.

“Let all the rivers clap their hands; let the mountains rejoice out loud altogether.”

Psalm 98:8, CEB

It is biblical to applaud God! And it’s healthy, too – both spiritually and physically. Whenever we fail to pause in our feelings of happiness and enjoy the moment, it is more than a missed opportunity. Unacknowledged and unexpressed joy trains us to depress our feelings, eventually leading to depression itself. Yet, whenever we stop to outwardly demonstrate gratitude through the exuberance of shouting and clapping, it benefits everyone – God, others, and self.

Physically clapping and shouting helps keep the heart and lungs healthy, even playing a curative role with pulmonary problems. It gives relief to joint pain, gout, headaches, insomnia, and digestion. Shouting and clapping even sharpens the intellect and increases the brain’s ability. And, of course, applause is a social phenomenon which binds folks together in community.

For the psalmist, applause to the Lord is the appropriate response to God’s power and victory in the world. Since divine presence is everywhere – and that presence is merciful, just, and kind – we ought to pause long enough to acknowledge and celebrate a loving God watching over us with tender care and concern.

No matter the circumstance, God is with us. That reality alone is enough cause for exuberance and celebration. Even though evil still resides in this old fallen world, God is King, and still sits on the throne. The pastor and hymnwriter, Maltbie Davenport Babcock (1858-1901), had it right:

This is my Father’s world:
O let me ne’er forget
That though the wrong seems oft so strong,
God is the Ruler yet.
This is my Father’s world:
Why should my heart be sad?
The Lord is King: let the heavens ring!
God reigns; let earth be glad! 

It is not the attempt to gin-up human and personal confidence which enables us to face the foulness and degradation of this world. Rather, it’s the spiritual awareness of God’s presence and power which resides around us and within us. This is the basis of our confidence. It is the ground of our peace. It’s the reason for the believer’s joy, even amidst awful circumstances.

Our connection with one another as worshipers is the common acknowledgment of God’s rule and reign over all creation. And our link as followers of Jesus is the collective conviction that Christ is King, we are his subjects, and all things belong to God, including us.

Whenever we connect with this basic theology, spontaneous and joyous praise is the result. So, if we lack the joy of the Lord in our lives, the place to go is to use today’s psalm. Read it several times over, out loud. Shout the psalm! Clap while shouting the psalm! Sing the psalm aloud! Praise the risen and ascended Lord!

May it be so to the glory of God.

This Is My Father’s World, sung by Amy Grant.