What is the best gift you have ever received? Think about it. When did you really, really want something, and you got it! Or, when did you someone just surprise you with something totally awesome, that you weren’t expecting?
Alright, now switch gears a bit. What is the worst gift you have been given? When have you had to force a smile and a “Wooow, thanks…” more than ever?
Isn’t that the worst? Maybe it was opening a pair of socks, or your parents got you some sort of educational book, or maybe your grandparents still think you’re a little kid and keep buying that one thing that you loved when you were eight. Don’t you hate it when you have to act like you love something when you really don’t? I know I do, I hate it. When I was 15 my parents, for my birthday, bought me Driver’s Ed. I know you don’t have the same thing here, but back in WA you have to pay a couple hundred dollars to sit in a mind-numbingly boring class for two months. And that was my birthday present – that’s like having your parent’s take you to the dentist to get a tooth pulled for your birthday. Yea, it is important, but man that was a lame present.
As we begin our series in James, the first thing that James opens up with is the kind of gifts that the Father gives us. Here is what James says, “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.” (1:16-17).
When God gives you a gift, you never have to pretend. You are never yawning when God reveals the gifts He has for you. Every good and perfect gift that you have ever received, comes from God. Every single gift – your favorite presents, your food, your clothes, your home, your family, your friends, your freedom, your life – all of it comes from God.
Now, if we are honest, it can at times be difficult to see those gifts. In fact, at times it can feel like we aren’t receiving gifts from God, but we are actually receiving bad things from Him. Maybe as I list out the things to be grateful for – family, friends, food, clothes, a home, etc. – you don’t feel very grateful. Maybe because your family isn’t that great. Maybe because you feel like you don’t have any friends. Maybe you feel like God just skipped over you when it came to giving out the good gifts, and you are left with the short end of the stick. Well, if that is you today, James has something for you.
The book of James actually opens up on a bit of less cheery note. James begins, “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion: Greetings,” (1:1). James is writing this letter to a group of churches that have had to escape from Jerusalem because of intense persecution. So the people who are reading this are not necessarily feeling like everything God is sending them is great, right? And that makes James’ next couple of sentence revolutionary.
“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, “ (1:2). James doesn’t say to a group of limping, bleeding brothers to just “hang in there”, to just “grit your teeth and bear it”, to just “push through the valley” – but to count it, literally, pure joy. James says, ‘You want to know where to find the essence, the best, the finest joy? Then you must suffer. You must struggle.” The word “trial” is the same word used for how Satan tempted and tested Jesus after he had gone without food for forty days. It is meant to convey a difficult time of testing, or tempting.
We All Bleed
Some of you are very familiar with difficulty. You know what its like to feel the sting of divorce and a broken family. You know what its like to feel the chains of addiction. You know what its like to feel unloved, unappreciated, and forgotten.
Others of you, however, have lived a short, privileged life that for the most part has been fairly comfortable. You don’t know what it is like to have a parent ask who you would rather live with: mom or dad. You don’t know what it is like to be the one on the outside. You don’t know what it is like to be ridiculed or mocked for how you are dressed, or what you look like. But here is a sobering truth, James tells us that we must count it all joy when trials of various kinds come. When, not if. If you cannot connect with this right now, then please hear me, your day is coming.
We live in a broken, fallen world that is riddled with sin. Nobody escapes without bleeding. We all are either going into, through, or coming out of a difficult season. I don’t know how your story unfolds, I don’t know what trials you will meet in your life, they are “various” trials we encounter – but I do know that they are coming. And if we don’t see what James is trying to teach us about finding joy in the midst of the storm, we will be pulverized by the pain of life.
How To Be Joyful
So the natural question for us to ask is how? How on earth do we count it as pure joy when we are struggling and suffering? James explains, “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,” (1:3-4). James helps us see that it is not the trial itself that we are to enjoy, but what it produces: steadfastness. For us to be “steadfast” is to be faithful; to be able to stand up under and bear an incredible amount of weight. God’s goal in sending difficulty in our life is to grow and stretch us, so that we may be “perfect and complete, lacking nothing.” That is why we find it pure joy.
Think about this. Cake is good right? I love some good cake. Dish me up a slice of some chocolate peanut butter gooey cake and you will become my best friend. But, you notice, the cake itself is the product of a combination of a bunch of ingredients. If I were to crack open a raw egg, I would not want to just slurp that bad boy down. If you handed me a stick of butter, my first reaction would not be to pop it in my mouth. Jug of canola oil? No thank you. However, you mix all of this things together and bake them, it suddenly becomes much more tasty. Could you imagine what would happen if we were baking a cake and you decided to say, “Oh, raw eggs? That’s gross, we’re not putting that in there.” And you just did that to every ingredient you didn’t like by itself – what would happen? All you would be left with is the sugar, and that would be a very sorry excuse for a cake.
Remember when we looked at Romans 8:28? God promises us that He is working “all things” together for our good, so that we would become more and more like Jesus. This is what James is telling us – it isn’t that we have to enjoy the difficulty that comes in the pain, but we love what it produces, and that’s what gives us joy.
Trial By Fire
In 1 Peter we see a similar statement made, “In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, 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.” (1 Pet. 1:6-7). The image that Peter uses is that of a goldsmith. When gold comes out of the ground, it is pretty and shiny, but it is full of mineral impurities. So a goldsmith would take the raw gold and put it in a big cast iron pot and heat it up over a fire till the gold melted, and as the gold was heated hotter and hotter, the impurities would slowly rise to the top, and the goldsmith would skim the impurities out. This process would happen over and over and over again until the gold was so pure, that the goldsmith could see his own reflection in the gold.
This is what Jesus is doing to us. Because He loves us so much, He puts us through the intense and painful fires of suffering, so that our impurities will be burned away, and we will slowly look more and more like Him. And because you and I were made for the purpose of reflecting God to the world around us, we will find it pure joy to endure anything that will lead us to that place.
The rest of James 1 talks about how God will give us wisdom to endure these trials, if we ask Him in faith, and also to be wary of comparing ourselves to one another. James also stresses that when we encounter temptation, we should never assume that God Himself is leading us to sin, when in fact it is our own sinful desires inside of us longing for sin. We will discuss these more in our small group time.
God only gives good and perfect gifts, even when they take the form of something that is particularly painful or difficult. Your pain is not wasted, your suffering is not needless – behind the veil of the storm, there is a loving Father, refining, growing and loving you. Take heart, you are loved greatly.