Handbook for Hard Times
October 13, 2014
We live in dangerous times.
Does anyone doubt it?
Here are a few recent headlines:
“Woman beheaded in Oklahoma.”
“Mystery Virus Causes Paralysis.”
“ISIS Threatens to Kill Families of US Soldiers.”
“2,000 flights canceled: Airlines still recovering from Chicago fire.”
“Losing the Race Against Ebola.”
“Pope Francis: World War III Is Already Here.”
When a friend wrote to say that his daughter was leaving to serve in the Armed Forces in Afghanistan, he asked special prayer because she would be “in harm’s way.” I prayed for his daughter and am happy to report that she made it back safely. But given the instability of our world, a question comes to mind: Where can you go where you aren’t “in harm’s way”?
We are all “in harm’s way”
Job 5:7 reminds us that “man is born for trouble as surely as the sparks fly upward.” I see no way to deny that statement. We are a troubled people living on a troubled planet.
Because we live in a fallen world, nothing works the way it’s supposed to. Sin has stained every part of the physical universe. And sin has deeply infected the human bloodstream. Things break. Our bodies wear out. We grow old and die. People kill each other. Marriages break up.
Children get hooked on drugs or alcohol or sex. Or all three. Babies are born with defects that cannot be corrected. Our leaders disappoint us. Our friends turn into enemies. One day we wake up to find out that we’re being sued by a former colleague. Or the boss decides that we aren’t the right “fit,” whatever that means.
Be a student, not a victim
Years ago my friend Jim Warren told me, “Ray, when hard times come, be a student, not a victim.” That’s good advice. A victim says “Why did this happen to me?” while a student asks, “What can I learn from this?”
These are difficult days in many parts of the world. I believe that hard times are coming to Christians who live in the West. We need to know how to survive as the culture turns against us. That is why we are beginning a study of the book of James. Though it is the earliest of all the New Testament books (written around AD 38-44), it reads like a letter for the 21st-century. Here’s what we need to know about the book. James was evidently the half-brother of Jesus, meaning that he was the biological son of Joseph and Mary. We know that he wrote very early because the book is addressed to the “twelve tribes scattered abroad” (1:1), meaning the very earliest Jewish believers who had been scattered because of the persecution of the church in Jerusalem (see Acts 8:1-3). Those early Christians were Jewish, scattered, poor, and struggling.
Coach James Talks to the Team
In many ways the little letter of James is the most practical book in the New Testament. It reads like a sermon or perhaps even more like a pep talk from a football coach. When we read this epistle, we get a glimpse of Christianity in its earliest form. No theory here. Just straight talk from Jesus’ brother about what works and what doesn’t work in the Christian life. Someone has counted over 50 commands in these five chapters. This isn’t like Paul in Romans with his intricate theological arguments. This is cut-to-the-chase, here’s-the-bottom-line talk from a man who knew his readers needed encouragement to stand strong in hard times.
James begins with an exhortation about how to respond when hard times come. After 2000 years, his words still ring true today.
I. The Command
“Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds” (v. 1).
James begins by reminding us that sooner or later (probably sooner) we will all face trials of various sorts. The word “face” has the idea of falling or stumbling over a problem. Picture someone driving down the highway in a convertible. The top is down, the music is blaring, and the driver is having a blast. Not a problem in the world, not a care or a concern. Without warning there is a sudden jolt, the car swerves to the right and comes to a halt. What happened? The car hit a massive pothole and suddenly the happy journey is over. Life is like that for all of us. No matter who we are or where we live, trouble is just a phone call away. A doctor may say, “I’m sorry. You’ve got cancer.” Or the voice may inform you that your daughter has just been arrested. Or you may be fired without warning. Or someone you trusted may start spreading lies about you. Or your husband may decide he doesn’t want to be married anymore. The list is endless because our trials are “multi-colored” and “variegated” (the phrase “many kinds” has this idea behind it).
Joy means joy!
How, then, should we respond to these hard times that suddenly come to us? James offers what appears to be a strange piece of advice: “Consider it pure joy” or “Count it all joy” (KJV). That sounds so odd that one wonders if he is serious. “Count it all joy? Are you nuts? Do you have any idea what I’ve just been through?” It does sound rather idealistic, if not downright impossible. I confess to be being bothered by this so I decided to check it out in the Greek. No help there. The word “joy” means … joy. Pretty simple. So I decided to check out some other translations. One version says, “Be very glad” and another says, “Consider yourselves fortunate.” That didn’t help at all, so I turned to the translation of J. B. Phillips, hoping for some light (if not a way of escape). This is how he handles verse 2: “When all kinds of trials and temptations crowd into your lives, my brothers, don’t resent them as intruders, but welcome them as friends!” Even as I type these words, there is a rueful smile on my face. I think it’s the exclamation point at the end that does it for me. It’s not just “welcome them as friends,” which would be hard enough, but “welcome them as friends!” which to me sounds positively giddy, like I’m welcoming long-lost friends to my home.
Don’t Trust Your Feelings!
As I have pondered the matter, and considered my own difficulties with this concept, the thought occurs that “counting it all joy” when troubles come is not a natural response. If we want a natural response, we can talk about anger or despair or complaining or getting even or running away. It isn’t “natural” to find joy in hardship. But that’s the whole point. James isn’t talking about a “natural” reaction. He’s talking about a “supernatural” reaction made possible by the Holy Spirit who enables us to see and to respond from God’s point of view. I conclude, then, that counting it all joy is a conscious choice we make when hard times come. Truthfully, it’s probably a choice we’ll have to make again and again and again. And to do it we’ll have to take the long view of life, to understand that what we see is not the final chapter of the story. If we can make the choice to view life that way, then we can make the following statements about our struggles and our trials:
1) This is sent from the Lord.
2) This is necessary for my spiritual growth.
The first statement reflects a high view of God’s sovereignty. Everything that happens to us is either caused by God or allowed by God. If I truly believe that, then I can move to the second statement and begin to look for ways to grow spiritually.
Our troubles are never optional
Here’s a practical hint. Don’t trust your feelings! When those you love are in great pain or when you face senseless tragedy or when friends turn against you or when life tumbles in around you, your feelings won’t be an accurate guide. You probably won’t “feel” joyful or grateful or full of trust. You are quite likely to be filled with a whole bag of negative emotions. So don’t judge your circumstances by your feelings. Judge your circumstances by the Holy Spirit and by the Word of God. When you do that, a powerful conclusion emerges: These great trials give me great hope that God means a great benefit to me. Seeing things God’s way doesn’t cancel your trials and it doesn’t turn them into non-trials, but it does transform your evaluation of those trials. You will view them differently because you believe that God intends through them to give you a great benefit that could not come any other way.
“A Wonderful New Platform”
I have a friend who within the space of two years lost his job of 30 years, found a new job that required him to relocate, and then was diagnosed with cancer. As he said, “I would have preferred to find out what’s behind Door # 2.” We all feel that way when trouble come our way. Unfortunately our troubles are never optional. They come when they come, and we have to cope as best we can. At the moment my friend is currently in treatment for his cancer. The doctors are hopeful but there are no guarantees. Here is part of what my friend wrote as he looked back on the upheaval:
Now that I am on the other side of those two years, I can see quite clearly what the Lord has had in mind, and I rejoice in it and praise him for the time in the crucible–how it has sharpened me, further deepened my faith in him and love for him, and multiplied my opportunities to serve him.
When I told my brother—a medical doctor–of my diagnosis, he was almost giddy with excitement, proclaiming, “Great, God has given you a wonderful new platform to tell others about him!” And he has been right, it is a great platform. Just as practically no one will tell you to go away if you ask them how you can pray for them, there is a tremendous openness to discussions with others of matters of life and faith when you have just told them you have cancer.
That’s what James is talking about. My friend has decided to “count it all joy” in the midst of his cancer. No doubt our main problem comes because we misunderstand the word “joy.” In contemporary parlance, the word is virtually a synonym for happiness. Joy to many people speaks of a pep rally or a champagne party or a New Year’s Eve bash. To us, joy means the absence of all pain. But that’s not what the Bible means. Here’s a working definition: Joy is deep satisfaction that comes from knowing that God is in control even when my circumstances seem to be out of control. Joy grows best in the deep soil of the sovereignty of God. If you know that God is in control, you can be satisfied at a very deep level even while you weep over what is happening around you and to you.
II. The Reason
“Because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance” (v. 3).
Every word of this verse is crucial. The phrase “you know” refers not to head knowledge (what we sometimes call “book learning”) but to heart knowledge, the kind gained by years of experience. Some things we learn from books, others we learn in the School of Hard Knocks. God intends to put our faith to the test. The word “testing” refers to the process by which gold ore was purified. In order to separate the gold from the dross, the ore was placed in a furnace and heated until it melted. The dross rose to the surface and was skimmed off, leaving only pure gold. That’s a picture of what God is up to in our “fiery trials.” We all have to undergo some “furnace time” sooner or later. And some of us will spend an extended time in the furnace of affliction. But the result is the pure gold of Christlike character. Job spoke of this experience when he declared of the Lord, “He knows the way that I take; when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold” (Job 23:10).
Until your faith is put to the test, it remains theoretical
Until your faith is put to the test, it remains theoretical. You never know what you believe until hard times come. Then you find out, for better or for worse. When the phone rings with bad news, when your son winds up in prison, when your best friend betrays you, when you lose your job, when your parents suddenly die, when life comes apart at the seams, then you discover what you truly and actually believe in the depth of your soul. Until then, your faith is speculative because it is untested. You can talk about heaven all you want, but you’ll discover whether or not you believe in it when you stand by the casket of someone you love.
God’s uses our trials to produce “perseverance.” The Greek word is sometimes translated as “endurance” or “steadfastness” or “patience.” In the book of Revelation, this word describes the faith of those brave saints who would not take the Mark of the Beast (Revelation 14:12). This is “battle-tested” faith that stands up under withering fire from the enemy and does not cut and run. William Barclay notes that in the early church the martyrs gained the respect of unbelievers because in the moment of death, they had this quality. To the very end, they died with their faith intact. Of them it was said, “They died singing.”
We need “battle-tested” faith
It is the quality of Meriam Ibrahim who when pressured by the Muslim prosecutor in Sudan to renounce her Christian faith, knowing that her life was on the line, said, “I am a Christian and I will remain a Christian.”
That’s what perseverance looks like.
You don’t get it in the good times.
You get it in the hard times.
III. The Promise
“Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (v. 4).
There is a process involved in our trials that leads to a product. Perseverance requires desperate dependence and dogged determination to hold on to our faith even when the world seems to disintegrate around us. Perseverance says, “I will not give up no matter what happens or how bad life may be. I will hold on because I promised and because I believe the Lord has something in store for me.” That sort of gritty stubbornness produces genuine spiritual maturity. When trials have finished their work in us, we will not lack anything the Lord wants us to have. If we need faith, we will have it. If we need hope, we will have it. If we need love, we will have it. If we need any of the nine-fold fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23), it will be produced in us. Nothing will be left out; nothing will be left behind.
Don’t cut and run!
The great danger is that we will try to short-circuit the process by running away from our problems. Eugene Peterson (The Message) translates part of verse 4 this way: “Don’t try to get out of anything prematurely!” That’s good advice; it’s not always easy to follow. We often see the full flowering of this process in the life of an older saint of God. These days I spend a lot of my time teaching young people. Recently I spent a week teaching the book of James at Word of Life Bible Institute in Hudson, Florida. In a few months I’ll teach Ezra in South Korea and then Galatians in New York. I love the enthusiasm of the younger generation for the Word of God. I’m glad to invest in them because the future belongs to the young. That said, if I’m looking for wisdom, I won’t start with them. They haven’t lived long enough. Proverbs 20:29 puts it this way: “The glory of young men is their strength, gray hair the splendor of the old,” and Proverbs 16:31 adds this insight, “Gray hair is a crown of glory; it is gained by living a godly life” (NLT). To be sure, there are many gray-haired fools (and there are many wise and godly young people), but Solomon means that if you have walked with the Lord, you will be filled with wisdom in your old age. How do you get that wisdom? By not running away from the trials that come your way.
Many of us know the story of Elisabeth Elliot. She and her husband Jim joined a group of missionaries reaching out to the Auca Indians of Ecuador. After several promising attempts at first contact, a team of five missionaries flew to a jungle landing strip, hoping to establish friendly relations. It was not to be. Jim and his four co-workers were speared to death by the Indians. Years later Elisabeth married Addison Leitch, former president of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. But he contacted cancer not long after their marriage and died slowly and painfully. What was her testimony?
The experiences of my life are not such that I could infer from them that God is good, gracious and merciful necessarily. To have one husband murdered and another one disintegrate body, soul and spirit through cancer, is not what you would call a proof of the love of God. In fact, there are many times when it looks like just the opposite. But my belief in the love of God is not by inference or instinct. It is by faith. To apprehend God’s sovereignty working in that love is – we must say it – the last and highest victory of the faith that overcomes the world. (Cited by James Montgomery Boice in his “Romans” series.)
James would say Amen to that.
When trials come (and they come to all of us eventually), there is something we can’t know and something we can know.
We don’t know why things happen
We can’t always know why things happen the way they do. No matter how hard we try to figure things out, there will always be many mysteries in life. The greater the tragedy, the greater will be the mystery. God does not explain himself to us. As we go through life, we can look back and see many blanks that we wish God would fill in for us. Most of the time we will carry those unfilled blanks with us all the way to heaven.
When hard times come, we can know that God is at work in our trials for our benefit and for his glory. To say that is to say nothing more than the words of Romans 8:28. For the children of God, “all things” do indeed work together for good. Sometimes we will see it; often we will simply have to take it by faith. But it is true whether we believe it or not.
Stairway to Heaven
The Christian way is not an easy way and any representations to the contrary are false. There is an abundant life to be had, and there is spiritual victory, and there is joy in the Lord and the filling of the Spirit, but those things don’t come in spite of our trials. Most often they come through and with and alongside our trials. In various ways we will all struggle every day as we make our earthly pilgrimage. In a fallen world, there can be no other way. And for the most part, we can’t choose our trials nor can we avoid most of them. But we can choose how we respond. That part is up to us.
God does not intend to destroy us
Joy or bitterness.
Forgiveness or anger.
Trust or unbelief.
Faith or fear.
Love or hatred.
Kindness or malice.
Gentleness or stubbornness.
Mercy or revenge.
Peace or worry.
Hope or despair.
Our perspective makes all the difference. God does not intend to destroy us by the trials he allows to come our way. Those things that seem so painful now will one day be clearly seen as benefits to our spiritual growth. They are not meant to defeat us but to be the means to a greater spiritual victory. Therefore, we should not complain when hard times come. We should rejoice. And we will rejoice if we believe what God has said. Every hard trial is another step on the stairway that leads from earth to heaven.