Single-minded in Adversity

June 4, 2017 sermon
By John Ulrich, Lead Pastor

James 1:1-12

James’ plan for growing a steadfast faith may echo a “no pain, no gain” declaration. It states, we are to rejoice in adversity when we can, and ask God for wisdom when we can’t. In between — we trust that God is good — believing the very hurt that wounded can bring about a beneficial character it lacked. This brother of Jesus and shepherd of persecuted Christians in Jerusalem, instructs us to practice the discipline of believing a path of adversity leads to a single-minded faith centered on God’s goodness and generosity.

1. Rejoice in adversity when you can – the plan.  James wants us to have a “sticky-kind” of faith. In the command that joy will result from “many kinds” of trials, an accounting term is used in the Greek. Thus, despite the type or source of adversity, we are to take “in account” all the factors, and conclude that on the whole…God has our best interest at heart. We practice this mindset to develop a steadfastness, or perseverance in our faith. It is a necessary element of a mature faith, making us more like Jesus, and more compelling to others who need the gospel. God uses adversity to mature…to complete…and even to sweeten…his people.

2. Ask God for wisdom when you can’t – the backup plan.  When we can’t get to joy on our own, we are to ask God for His perspective. Ask for the wisdom not only to see our trial from His perspective, but to see God for who He is as well — good and generous! A single-minded faith is one focused only on God’s perspective, not shared between His and the world’s point of view. So when we ask – be unwavering in our resolve – that God’s way (the purpose and plan and path of God) is the very best – even if suffering is involved.

3. Rejoice no matter where you are in life – an example to live it out.  Whether rich or poor… rejoice. As for the poor, the adversity of poverty makes you more open for spiritual blessing as you are less distracted by possessions. As for the rich, you will rejoice when you become aware, in humility, that you are not self-made, nor self-sufficient. No matter the position, may we consider all these things and conclude to live a life with God’s kingdom in full view!

Discussion Questions

  1. Describe the difference between “happy” and “joy”? Correlate the important distinction to the “joy in trials” discussion. (Hint: James isn’t calling us to emote, but to calculate).
  2. Why is adversity essential to the development of one’s faith? (See Romans 5:2-4, 2 Corinthians 4:16-18; Isaiah 43:10)
  3. Why is it critical to understand God’s nature when we are faced with adversity? (See John 10:14; Psalm 46:1;Psalm. 107:1; Psalm 145:13; Isaiah 41:10)
  4. Share a personal experience of adversity that gave you a new understanding or a deepened faith you wouldn’t otherwise have without it?
  5. Share a current experience perhaps yet without the “totality of understanding?”
  6. How can our church community be a resource to help carry each other through times of adversity? (See Rom. 8:35, 37-39 and circle the words “we” and “us”).

Introduction

At about fifteen minutes into it, I gotta say I was very happy! I had been driving down one of the streets in Zimbabwe past the gas station where we did business when I saw a line of about seventy cars at the fuel pump. Now this was a really good thing, because fuel was almost unobtainable in Zimbabwe at this time. We had paid this gas station in advance for fuel in US dollars, so if they got fuel we were supposed to get fuel. I was pretty sure they had enough fuel to fill seventy cars. So I called Kelley to tell her I found fuel and was going to be home a little late. I pulled to the back of the line. I was very happy fifteen minutes into it.

At forty-five minutes into it, I was still happy. I was in the zone. I was still way far back in the line, but I had materials with me so I could work as I sat in my car and things were good. About two and a half hours into it I was not quite as happy but I was still good. I had finished a writing a prayer letter to our supporters, and I was making tracks studying for my class on the New Testament book of James at the Theological College.

Three hours into it with twenty cars left I was much less comfortable. I realized that I needed to go to the restroom a lot more than I originally thought. But I couldn’t, because there wasn’t a decent restroom anywhere near, and because there were cars running up and down the line just looking for a place to cut in, so I knew I really couldn’t abandon my post three hours into it.

Four hours into it, I left the car. Not to go to the bathroom, but because although I was only four cars from the pump the person who was four cars ahead of me – instead of pulling up to the pump like he was supposed to – was letting all his friends cut ahead of him. Being American, I thought I would just fix the situation so I got out of the car and went to talk to the attendant who was filling the cars. But I was told that there was nothing he could do. These guys knew where he lived, and they would take vengeance on him if he didn’t let them cut in line. Either that or he was taking a bribe. But either way, I went back to my car unhappy and uncomfortable. In the end with four cars to go, this guy let six cars in ahead of us. Then finally, the guy filled up, and they filled up the next couple.

I think it was at about four and a half hours into it that the guy right in front of me pulled up to the pump, and they told him they had just run out of fuel. Now, that brings up the topic that I want to talk about today which is murder. Just kidding. Actually today I want to talk to you about this: How do you handle adversity? How do you handle the moments or days or months in life where things do not go the way they are supposed to go and you feel the brokenness of this world? How do you handle the trials of life?

We need to know, because we all face adversity. For some of us, it’s more than just a four hour wait at a fuel pump. For some, this is no laughing matter. It’s a job search or a business where we just can’t seem to get a break. And it’s been too long! For some, it’s a sickness or a condition that won’t heal. For some, it’s a relationship that hurts or a hardship that impairs your life. How do we handle adversity? We’re going to look at that today.

Actually, today we are going to start our summer series. As you can tell by the graphic, it’s called “Unwavering: Living out a single-minded faith.” It’s a study of the book of James.

I love the book of James! It’s one of my favorites. James has always been a controversial book. Some Christians are afraid of it, because it is so demanding. Some Christians don’t like it. Martin Luther called it “an epistle of straw” because he thought it was legalistic.

This is an amazing book, written by Jesus’ brother who only came to believe in him after the resurrection and written to a suffering church. This book is intensely practical and surprisingly deep. In it, James is going to call us again and again and again to have a single-minded faith. He is going to call us to a life that is completely lived with God’s kingdom in view.

He’s going to start today by talking about adversity. Let me invite you to turn in your Bibles to James 1:1-12. As we look at this passage today, we’re going to see three things about adversity:

  1. James is going to look at a plan for dealing with adversity.
  2. He’s going to give us a back-up plan.
  3. He’s going to give us a specific example of how to live out what he’s telling us to do.

Every person here today – whether you are nine or ninety – will have a chance to put this passage into practice this week. It’s my prayer that as we look at this passage, our thoughts about adversity will be captured and brought into line with a single-minded faith. We will see things more and more from God’s perspective.

So let’s read James 1:1-11: This passage may sound a little scatter-shot at first, but trust me, it is very tightly reasoned and all fits together:

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, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does. The brother in humble circumstances ought to take pride in his high position. But the one who is rich should take pride in his low position, because he will pass away like a wild flower. For the sun rises with scorching heat and withers the plant; its blossom falls and its beauty is destroyed. In the same way, the rich man will fade away even while he goes about his business.
– James 1:1-11

We are talking about adversity today and the first thing James gives us in this passage is a plan for responding to Adversity, and the plan is this:

Rejoice in Adversity when you can

James gives us a very disturbing command in verse 2. They say half the verses in the book of James are commands, and he surely gives the hardest one first. Look! It comes right after “greetings”

“Greetings. Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds,”

I notice that James has chosen the exact words to make this command most difficult. He doesn’t say “consider some trials pure joy.” I would be happy perhaps with “consider big trials” or “consider small trials” or “consider persecution for your faith,” but James says “trials of many kinds.” He also doesn’t say “don’t grumble during trials” or “make sure you see the good side too.” James says “Pure Joy.” It’s disturbing. It seems kind of impossible.

About eight years ago when Kelley and I were still living in Kansas, on the week when I was teaching this very passage, our house flooded. Dad and I had noticed that the toilet in our first floor powder room was using a little more water than it should, so we replaced the flapper and the fill valve. Then Dad went home and everything seemed great until about 3:00 in the morning. I was laying in bed, thinking that I was hearing a babbling brook in my dream. But I gradually woke up and realized that the sound wasn’t in my dream!

I shot out of bed and ran into the powder room. I shut off the water, and at first it didn’t seem that bad. There wasn’t that much water on the floor. Then I realized that the reason there wasn’t much water in the bathroom floor is that it was all running down the air conditioning vent into the ceiling and walls of the basement. As I stood in the basement watching water and sheetrock drip down, Kelley walked up in her PJ’s and said “what’s going on?” Do you know what I said to her? “Pure Joy – that’s what’s going on – pure joy!” OK , that’s a lie. Never mind what I said to her, but it wasn’t “pure joy.” My point is – this seems like an impossible command.

The idea that I’m going to respond to moments like that with rejoicing seems ludicrous. It doesn’t seem possible! So Christians have come up with all sorts of explanations for this passage to make it easier to do:

  • Some say James is just saying “don’t get depressed” when you face trials.
  • Others say James is only talking about persecution for our faith.
  • Some say “James isn’t saying ‘rejoice because of trials’ – he’s just saying ‘rejoice during trials’”.

There are all kinds of explanations.

So what is James really saying here? What is he telling us to do? I don’t think he’s saying “be happy happy happy” during trials. I don’t think he’s calling us to ignore the bad things we go through. You’ve heard me say “God never calls us to pretend.”

So what is James saying? I think the key here is the word consider. In Greek, it’s the word “ergeomai.” It doesn’t just mean look on the bright side. It’s actually an accounting term. It means to look at all the facts very carefully and come to a conclusion. In Philippians 3, Paul ergeomai’d (concluded) that everything in this life was loss compared to the greatness of knowing Christ. He adds it up. Hebrews 11 tells us that Moses ergeomai’d (concluded) that it was better to suffer with God’s people than to enjoy the pleasures of Egypt. It doesn’t mean that Moses enjoyed being thirsty in the desert. It means that when he added it all up, he concluded that being thirsty in the desert with God’s people was better than having all the little umbrella drinks he wanted in Egypt. James isn’t really calling us to emote. He’s calling us to calculate – to add things up and draw a conclusion.

Now what kind of Adversity does James have in mind here? Some say just persecution for Jesus, but that is really foreign to the context. The word “trial” here is a very general word. James says “many kinds” of trials. The word there is “poikilois.” It refers to something that is many colored.
What is James referring to? All shades of trials.

So (and this is important) this passage relates to all kinds of adversity:

  • From persecution for your faith, to problems that have nothing to do with faith
  • From trials we are not responsible for to those we have some part in causing
  • From big trials to little trials
  • From devastating medical diagnoses to bad hair days
  • From cancer to criticism

All kinds of trials related to what James is saying. You must learn to practice when you confront little trials.

James says when we face all kinds of trials, we are to take in all the factors and conclude that on the whole these trials are a source of pure joy.

Question: Why on earth would James tell us to do that? Why would he tell us to conclude that trials are going to result in joy? Here’s why: Look at versus 3-4:

“Because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything”

James says that the testing of adversity develops steadfastness in your faith called “perseverance” here. It is an active sticking to something in the midst of adversity. James says that testing refines (like gold) your faith into steadfastness. Testing makes your faith more accurate. It’s one thing to say God is good. It’s another thing to mean it when you’re suffering. Testing displays the depth of our commitment. Testing strengthens the faith that is there. My Dad used to say faith is like a muscle: when it meets resistance not only do you see how strong it is, it also gets stronger. So James says testing refines faith into perseverance. Then look what he says in verse 4 again:

“Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything”

What is he saying? He’s saying steadfastness is a necessary part of maturity. It’s not the only part of maturity. You also have things like love and hope, but it is a necessary element. You cannot have maturity without steadfast faith, and you cannot have steadfast faith without adversity. No adversity – no maturity

Listen there is a part of the “you that God wants you to be” that is missing. The only way to develop it is through the pain of adversity. You can’t get it any other way. There is a part of the “you that God wants you to be” that can only be developed through the pain of difficult job situations – and marriages that are more work than we think they should be – and scary medical diagnoses – and painful betrayals. These things as painful as they are – as wrong as some of them are – grow us up. They make us more like Jesus. They make us more compelling to fellow Christians that need godly counsel and to a world that desperately needs the gospel. God matures his people through adversity.

Think of all the character traits that God wants his people to have. How many of those are developed through the pain of adversity?

  • Compassion: show me someone who’s compassionate, and I’ll show you someone who has experienced pain.
  • Courage: you only get real courage from doing the right thing in adversity.
  • Patience
  • Humility: Dan Allender says “For most people, there’s only one way to humility and that is through humiliation”
  • Self-control: All of these are developed through the pain of adversity.

That’s why James is saying “No adversity – no maturity.” God uses adversity to mature – to complete – and even to sweeten – his people.

This week I met with someone from this congregation who does ministry to hurting people who walks alongside them in their pain. As he shared his story with me, he told me how he was not accepted as a child and how he was really emotionally abused in his family. He shared some of the struggles – even ultimately physical struggles – that he has had as he’s tried to deal with that. It was heartbreaking to hear that. It’s painful. It’s not his fault. It’s something I would never, ever wish on him for anything.

But I could see how God used even that rejection and abuse to complete him. It was clear to me that the reason he ministers to people in pain is because of the pain he experienced earlier in his life. That pain filled him with compassion, and helped him care for the outsider, the hurting. He would not be everything that God wants him to be – there would be a part of him missing – if it weren’t for that pain.

Now here’s the thing: We were able now – years later – to look back on that pain and see the totality of what God was doing and rejoice. We can look back now and see that pain as a source of joy. James is saying this: “Don’t wait to look back.” Develop the discipline of thinking ahead and rejoicing in adversity now,.

So the first thing James says is “rejoice in adversity when you can.” That’s the plan. James also gives us a back-up plan in this passage, and it’s this:

Ask God for wisdom when you can’t

We should rejoice in adversity when we can, and we should ask God for wisdom when we can’t. Look at verse 5. James says something interesting:

If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him.

James tells us to ask for wisdom. I used to think that this was a verse just about wisdom in general – like if you needed wisdom of any kind (to take a test at school – to make a tough decision – to win a chess match) ask God and he will give it to you. Maybe in a broader sense this verse would apply to those things. But if you look at the actual context here, that’s not exactly what James is talking about. The verse before this is about adversity, the verses after it are about adversity.

So what James is talking about here is not just wisdom in general. Rather he’s talking about the kind of wisdom that allows us to see trials as a source of joy. If you don’t have that – and many times I don’t – James says ask for it. He invites us to go to God and ask for wisdom.

But James also tells us something about the manner in which we should ask. How should we ask for this wisdom? Look at verses 5-8:

He should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does.

What is James saying here? He’s calling us to be single-minded in our faith. He describes God as one who “gives generously,” and the word “generously” there actually means whole-heartedly or single-mindedly. Then he tells us to be single-minded in our faith.

With this call to single-mindedness, James is stating something he is going to return to again and again in this book. Throughout the book, we are going to be called to a single-minded faith. A faith that doesn’t divide its attention between the world’s way of looking at things and God’s way of looking at things. A faith that places 100% of its weight – 100% of its priorities – 100% of its hope – in the truth of the gospel and of this book. James is going to call us in no uncertain terms to take all our eggs and place them in the basket of Faith in Jesus.

He’s going to call us to do this in every area of our lives:

  • In the way that we look at wealth and poverty
  • In the way we look at power
  • In the way that we use our tongues
  • In the way that we view leadership
  • And in the way that we view adversity.

In all these things, James is going to call us to get rid of our double-mindedness and to live out a single-minded faith.

How does that – how does faith and single-mindedness – relate to our request for wisdom in the midst of trials? What does asking for wisdom have to do with faith? When we first read that “You have to ask in faith, nothing wavering – if you waver you’re double-minded and you’re not going to get anything from God.” When we first read that, we might feel like James is saying “You have to really really believe hard that God will give you wisdom, because if you don’t have enough faith, God is going to be mad, and you’ll get nothing.” Like what we have to believe is that we are going to get wisdom.

It kind of sounds that way, but I don’t think that is what James is saying: The thing we have to believe is not that God is going to give us wisdom. The thing we have to believe is what James said in verse 5: We have to believe that “God gives generously without reproach.” We have to believe that God is good, that he’s generous and that even though we can’t see it he’s working in the midst of trials to do good things in our life.

I think James is saying this: We have to believe that God has our best interest at heart. Because if we don’t, two things will happen:

  1. We will constantly be second-guessing the wisdom of his plan.
  2. We will be trying to hedge our bets by walking according to two standards.

We will say “Yes I want to acknowledge that this adversity has been allowed by God and is ultimately for my good. But I also want to make sure I’m going to be comfortable again. I want to protect myself from an earthly perspective.”

James says asking God for wisdom in that way will get nothing. We have to be single-minded in our request for wisdom.

By the way, that kind of single-mindedness may not be as daunting. As impossible as it sounds at first, Jesus was absolutely single-minded in his faith. Do you remember his prayer in the garden?

“Father, I desire that this cup of suffering would pass from me – nevertheless not my will, but yours be done.”

Jesus has a human perspective on the matter. He had wishes. He had no desire to suffer unnecessarily. But more fundamental than those desires was his belief that God’s way – that the purpose and plan and path of God – was best. Even if it involved suffering. That’s what single-minded faith is. It’s not pretending that you want to be uncomfortable

By the way, James knew a little bit about that because when persecution and abuse broke out against Christians in Jerusalem and most Christians fled, James stayed in Jerusalem – and endured the persecution – and shepherded the flock – eventually dying as a martyr. He knows what he’s talking about.

Some of you have been suffering adversity and have been enduring a trial in an area of your life for years. It’s been hard. I watch you carry that load – and hurt – and I wish I could take it off of you. You have a human perspective on that trial, you have wishes, and you have no desire to suffer needlessly, and you’ve asked God to remove it. That’s fine – Scripture invites us to do that.

But I’ve talked to you and I know that more fundamental than your desire to be released from that trial is your belief in the goodness of God. Your trust in his character. As much as I want to see that trial taken off of you, I want even more for God to finish what he’s doing in your character in your faith. I don’t want any part of the you that God wants you to be to be missing.

That’s the single-minded faith that God calls us to. We can’t ask God for his perspective on a trial unless we have the faith to accept what he says because the trial may be what’s best for us.

Rejoice in adversity when you can. Ask God for wisdom when you can’t. Now James is going to give us one more piece of advice about trials:

Rejoice no matter where you are in life

James finishes by giving us two examples of how this view of adversity plays out. Look at verse 9. James says: The brother in humble circumstances ought to take pride in his high position. James says “The brother in humble circumstances (that is the poor) ought to take pride in (ought to boast in – ought to rejoice in) his high position.” How can that be? How is a poor person in a high position?

What James is talking about here is the fact that the poor are in a unique position to receive God’s blessing. Paul says God has chosen the weak and the lowly for salvation. Jesus said “The Spirit has anointed me to preach the Gospel to the poor.” James himself says “Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised to those who love him?”

The poor are more receptive to the Gospel. The poor are also less distracted by possessions. God will reward them for the adversity they’ve faced. So James is saying rejoice in that! The trial – the adversity of poverty – has made you more open for spiritual blessings! So he’s saying if you are poor – or poorer – rejoice in your high spiritual position! Then in verses 10-11 James addresses the Rich Christian. Here’s how the instruction of this passage plays out for him:

But the one who is rich should take pride in his low position, because he will pass away like a wild flower. For the sun rises with scorching heat and withers the plant; its blossom falls and its beauty is destroyed. In the same way, the rich man will fade away even while he goes about his business.

Here the word “low” doesn’t refer to spiritual lowness (why would we rejoice in that?) or even to making oneself low. This is a slightly different type of word from the one used in verse 9. In fact this word relates specifically to humiliation as an experience. It could be translated “The rich should rejoice when he is brought low. ” What is James saying? If you are rich (or richer) and you experience adversity, you too should rejoice. Why? Because it reminds you how temporary riches and this life are.

I have an African friend who visited a very prosperous western country. He came back amazed and said “It’s as if God has simply been dismissed.” When we’re rich, it’s easy to focus on those riches and to feel self-sufficient. But when we face adversity, we are reminded that like the flower, we’re all going to fade away and die one day and the amount of stuff we have won’t matter one bit. That’s a good thing to keep in mind when you live your life.

So James’ message to us today is simple:

  1. Rejoice in adversity when we can.
  2. Ask God for wisdom if we can’t.
  3. Rejoice in the benefits of adversity no matter where we are in life.