Paul Jennings was born a slave on the Montpelier plantation of James Madison. He was sometimes a playmate for Madison’s stepson, Payne Todd. Madison’s wife, Dolly, had been widowed with a small child. Eventually, Paul became the body servant to James Madison himself. He accompanied the family to the White House when Madison became president. It is said that as the British army approached the White House in the War of 1812 to burn it, he helped Dolly save many White House treasures, including the portrait of George Washington.
Jennings returned to Montpelier to assist the president in his retirement and was present as the former president took his last breath. Jennings also took care of Dolly in her widowhood. While she had hoped to free him, Dolly was destitute and had to sell Jennings. Daniel Webster purchased him and set him free.
As a free man, Jennings found noble employment in Washington, D.C., assisted African-Americans coming north and wrote a book about his experiences. Jennings helped Dolly Madison in her destitute old age out of his own pocket. Why was Dolly destitute? It was because of Jennings’s old playmate, Dolly’s son, Payne Todd. Todd had lived in privilege but never found a real job, served jail time for assaults, amassed huge gambling debts, drank to excess, mismanaged the family business, lost the ancestral home and stole from his mother. It is an example that some have limited opportunities and make the most of them while others have great opportunities and squander them.
We are all given different opportunities in life, sometimes we are given good things, but sometimes opportunities are disguised as problems. But whatever circumstance we are going through, we can consider it pure joy, because God is at work in our lives. You might have a good job, family, circumstances, etc., but does that really make you blessed of God? People of who have good things can take that for granted and cause more headaches for those around them; whereas the person who has to struggle can find motivation to push themselves to improve themselves despite their circumstances. God does not judge us because of the circumstances or problems that we are in; instead, it is what we do with those opportunities that are dumped in our lap that God will judge us on. That is what we will look at today, we can go through this life with pure joy, even if we are not given the best of health, finances, relationships, etc.
This lesson is from James 1:1-15. The book of James is considered the Proverbs of the New Testament; like Proverbs, it also goes from one subject to another. James aims to provide wisdom to Christians everywhere by giving practical advice on many subjects, especially giving advice to those who feel the pressure about society’s influences. There are a few different James’ in the Bible. The James they believe who wrote this is not the Apostle James, but James the half-brother of Jesus. He started out not believing that Jesus was the Son of God, but he later rose to be the leader of the church of Jerusalem; Paul even reported to him when he came back from one of his missionary journeys. But look at the way James talks about himself in the beginning of verse 1, “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ”. He was a prime minister in Christ’s Kingdom, yet James considered himself only a servant; He knew that he was accountable to his Big Brother; Jesus literally is his big brother. Jesus set a powerful example to follow in leadership. Jesus told his disciples in Luke 22:25-27 “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. 26 But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. 27 For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.” Jesus was a servant leader who did not lord it over people, but He served those around Him.
James also found joy in being a servant leader. I have even read where he wore some holes in the floor by his bed because he prayed so regularly on his knees. Servant Leadership is exercising real, godly leadership, as Christ did when He used a towel when he washed the disciple’s feet, and influencing, equipping, and empowering people to accomplish God’s purpose and plan. It is serving others unselfishly while influencing and empowering them to grow in a Christ-directed, purposeful direction. [i] Servant leaders not only cast the vision for the church, but they empower those around them in their spiritual formation and growth by laying the foundation and supply the building materials they need. Servant Leaders build up and encourage those around them, because they realize that all of us are needed to do Christ’s work. We all have different skills, so the servant leader needs to encourage and equip people to use their abilities for God. In this book, James provides many building materials to the people he was writing to.
Verse 1 also states to whom James wrote this to; “To the twelve tribes scattered among the nations: Greetings.” Scholars are not sure exactly to whom James is referring. Either it is the believers who fled after the persecution of Stephen or it is the Jews who were dispersed among many nations’ centuries earlier due to their own wars. But one thing we do see for sure is that God looks after His people no matter where they are. These believers lived away from home, so they felt more pressure due to the influence of the societies they were living in. James wanted to give these dispersed believers the wisdom they need to overcome these cultural pressures; to stay true to and honor God.
Verses 2-4 starts out in a way that would seem to defy logic; “2 Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. 4 Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” Why would James say that we should consider it pure joy when we have trials of many kinds? That is not what several Christian teachers tell us. This just seems to spit in the face their teaching. After all, we should be happy, we should be champions; God wants to bless us with good health, money and other nice things. Why should we consider it pure joy to endure problems of different kinds when God says that we should be feeling good? Because always being happy and feeling good are teachings of man, not of God. I like what C.S. Lewis said, “I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.” Joy is different than happiness. I like Kay Warren, Rick Warren’s wife, definition: “Joy is the settled assurance that God is in control of all the details of my life, the quiet confidence that ultimately everything is going to be alright, and the determined choice to praise God in every situation.” [ii] Our faith is in Someone, not something. Our faith is in Jesus, not the circumstances we are in or the good things we should receive. Christianity isn’t about putting a soft touch on life, about always being happy; it is about such things as: dying to self, putting others first, repentance of sins, self-control, being gentle, faithful, serving God, and – suffering through trials. These are not things that will make for our personal happiness. But all of these do have their rewards. Yes, even trials have their reward; perseverance. Perseverance, or longsuffering, is one of the seven fruit of the Spirit that Galatians says all Christians should have. Do you want to be mature and complete in Christ? Then James says that we need to let perseverance finish its work; we have to go through hard times. When we can persevere through the trials, then we won’t let anything keep us down, we can just get back up and continue on. Trials and problems are a part of life; if we let them keep us down we will never be able to accomplish anything good for the Lord.
Sometimes when we are going through the darkest times, our fragrance is the best. You know the best European perfumes come from flowers that are grown high up on the Balkan Mountains over in Serbia in the Black Sea area. They say that they harvest these flowers in the darkest part of the night, between twelve midnight and two a.m. it’s a very short time where they’ll cut these flowers, take them back and mix them up for perfume. That’s because, they say, that scientific tests prove that the greatest aroma is during the darkest part of the night. In fact, the report that I read said that forty percent of this aroma will disappear in the light of the day. [iii] When we are going through difficult times with grace and dignity, those around us can see something different about us. That is when we can show in practical terms the wonderful difference that God makes in our lives.
You might say that it is hard to go through the hard times. After all, it’s easy for me to say; I don’t know everything that you have gone through. Maybe you will say that one or both of my parents didn’t treat me nice – I have cancer – I was born with a birth defect – my spouse isn’t saved – I lost my job and can’t make ends meet – a loved one died. Yes, we don’t know everything that you have particularly gone through, but my problem isn’t any less than yours. Our problems are all different, but just as serious and painful to the person who is going through it.
God wants us to be resilient – able to bounce back. Do you remember the kids toy Weebles? They were round and weighted heavier at the bottom; so if they were knocked over they would stand right back up again. Their motto was “Weebles wobble but they don’t fall down”. That is the way we need to be. We might be knocked down with a problem, but we need to have a low center of gravity and bounce right back up again. We all go through problems; it is the way we go through the problems that tests what kind of a Christian we are. We need to be patient, longsuffering, gentle, etc. Resilience is not something that we are born with; it is something that we have to commit to it. It is not to say that we can get knocked down when we have problem. We can have our little pity party when something bad happens, but we need to decide that we are going to let harm roll right down our backs and get right back on our feet. Yes, the harm hurts; but we serve a big God who is bigger than the hurts, and He will see us through them.
God gives us various ways to focus on Him to give us a heart of peace and joy through the hard times. We are to get our minds on God. We need to seek out God’s promises in the Bible. Such promises as Psalm 23, which starts out “The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing”. Read the Bible, there are books that will list out God’s promises to us. Jesus told us to “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God” (Mt. 6:33). Find what God has to say, trust and obey His word. Another way God gives us is Praise songs. Worship Him through songs; they have a way of getting into us and helping us. I think of a favorite old worship song; – He gave me beauty for ashes – The oil of joy for mourning – The garment of praise – For the spirit of heaviness – That we might be trees of righteousness – The planting of the Lord – That He might be glorified. (By Robert Whitney Manzano) God wants to lift us up out of our difficult situations; we need to get our minds upon Him. Whether with the congregation or by ourselves, we need to focus upon the Lord in worship and praise and to not let our minds drift on other things. It’s like Isaiah 40:31 says; “but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.” Another way is what we are told in Phil 4:8: “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” We are not to focus upon our problems, but focus on the good things of life. Not only get your mind upon God, but just think about things and people that make you happy. I know a lady who says she likes to put on feel good movies; that is ok, it gets our mind off of the problems of life. God has given us the resources we need to get through life’s difficulties, but if we don’t use the resources God gives us then we only have ourselves to blame for not using them and staying in the pit of our problems.
One person I think about when I think of joy through perseverance is Rhonda Griffin. I knew her about 15-20 years ago. Years before that, Rhonda was in a car accident and broke her neck. She is a now a paraplegic. She is stuck in a wheelchair, has to put up with bedsores and all the inconveniences of depending on someone else. But I know few people who have the kind of joy that she has. She is always smiling and has a good sense of humor that can make you laugh. She is one of my heroes of the faith. One thing that gave Rhonda a sense of freedom for many years was that she had a van that was modified so she could still drive. But last year she realized that she didn’t have the strength to make a quick stop. The Dr. found the problem and was able to operate so it wouldn’t get worse, but he commented that she might not get her strength back enough to be able to drive. She was devastated; her only source of freedom was gone. Now to get around she has to take Access Paratransit. But she quickly realized that now she has more opportunities to witness to people. She took a negative, turned it into a positive and found even more reason to share her joy. Even though she has been like this a good many years, our common friend Ann, who is her close friend, recently told me that Rhonda can still make you laugh at some of the problems that she goes through.
Some of the problems we have seem like they are impossible to go through. But alleged “impossibilities” are opportunities for our capacities to be stretched. [iv] God entrusts us to take the difficulties in life and turn them into something positive. It is about the attitude you have when you go through it. Let God help you through it and you will be able to have that ‘pure joy’ in learning to persevere, making the best out of the situation and glorify God through it.
Verses 5-8; “5 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. 6 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. 7 That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. 8 Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do.” One of the most important things James tells us we can do is to pray to God for wisdom. The wisdom that James talks about here isn’t the smarts to help you be scientist, to be the first to build a fusion reactor that works like the sun or to buy the right stocks so you can get a lot of money. This is the wisdom to know how to correctly use the knowledge that we have. There are a lot of people with high IQ’s and have a lot of terrific information stored up in their heads. They can formulate difficult mathematical formulas, build ships to explore the solar system, build and run successful businesses, but they are all the greater fools because they don’t know how to properly use knowledge to be better people, how to treat others nicely, use common sense and to serve God. Charles Spurgeon has said “There is no fool so great a fool as a knowing fool. But to know how to use knowledge is to have wisdom.”
We have the encouragement here to ask God for the wisdom we need and the promise that God will generously give us that wisdom so we can make the right decisions. This includes the wisdom we need to not give in to the pressures that we get from our culture to sin. God knows that we cannot make it through this life on our own; our culture bombards us every day. We need God’s strength and help. God is always only a prayer away. When we ask, He will send us His precious Holy Spirit right away to help us through the challenges that we have.
Look at one of the cultural challenges that the church in America has to go through now that gay marriage is the law of the land. Pastors may have pressure put on them to have to marry a homosexual couple since they represent the state to be able to marry people. Christian schools may have to allow homosexuals to teach because a student is getting Federal assistance. Christian adoption agencies may be forced to allow homosexuals to adopt kids. The cultural pressure is on for Christians to change our doctrine and to conform to what the world says is right. We need the wisdom of God to overcome this challenge to our beliefs.
But it’s not just the cultural wars, each of us need God’s wisdom as we go about our daily lives. Last year my wife got diagnosed with cancer. She had surgery to remove it; then had chemotherapy and radiation treatments to reduce her risk of getting it back. She and I depend on God quite a bit with the cancer she had. I am not going to tell you that it has been easy; it was not. There were several tough choices we had to make along the process and chemotherapy is very hard on the body. We are still asking God for His wisdom because we are not through the problems of that yet.
James admonishes us here to pray with a believing, steady mind. This is where faith comes in; we must have faith that God is going to answer our prayer for wisdom. He alone can make the simple wise; God is able to make good His word to those who approach Him. We can’t be like the waves of the sea; driven by the wind and tossing to and fro. We can’t let the wind build up our faith to a high place of trust only to let it drop down by not trusting God. A mind that is wholly trusting God and keeping steady in its purposes for God will grow wiser by problems, it will continue being fervent in being devoted to God and will come through trials and temptations with a closer walk with God. I can testify that through the trials we have had with Kaye’s cancer we have seen God come through and meet several needs. Not our wants, she is not healed yet, but He has met our needs. Our faith in God has grown. Now when a need comes up, it is easier for us to wait to see how God will meet that need. Trials can help your faith and trust in God to grow; it can enable you to persevere and draw closer to God.
But those who doubt that God will answer their prayer for wisdom are like sailing ships that are driven about by the waves and the seas; they might not make it to their destination. They need to trust in God, in the direction that He has for them, then to be steadfast when they feel they have the answer. When they feel they have the answer, they need to set their sails, steer the rudder in the right direction and drive ahead in the direction God has for them. “An indecisive man is unstable in all of his ways”; his indecisiveness affects all of the ways he conducts his life. When we feel we have God’s wisdom, whether for ministry, life’s decisions, cultural pressures or anything else, we need to be people of faith and action; we need to step out and do it.
To show you that people who are going through hard times are not forgotten by God, check out V. 9; “9 Believers in humble circumstances ought to take pride in their high position.” Listening to some people in the Christian community you would think that these people aren’t blessed of God. James teaches contrary to this belief. Reading this, it sure looks like God actually favors His believers when they are going through hard times; because these are usually the people who are richer in faith. They know how to depend on God for their strength; so it is harder for them to fall away from God.
There are many people in the world who owe the grandeur of their lives to their tremendous difficultly. It made them better people. Look at Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the U.S. He had many failures and setbacks in life. He was defeated for State Legislature, failed in a business, had a nervous breakdown, defeated for Congress, twice defeated for U.S. Senate, defeated for nomination as Vice President, before he finally won election and is known as one of the best Presidents the U.S. has had. Trials and difficulties can make us better people, we just have to learn the lessons that they teach us.
The people who need to be more careful are those who have a lot of money or are in high positions; because it is easy for them to think that everything is going well for them. V10-11; “But the rich should take pride in their humiliation—since they will pass away like a wild flower. 11 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 will fade away even while they go about their business.” Their money and success seems to make them satisfied, they don’t think that they have any needs; but everything they have can be quickly and easily taken away from them. Remember the way the stocks took a huge tumble in 2008. God gives many kinds of gifts to His people. God has entrusted the rich with more money and expects them to be good stewards of the financial riches that they have, so they need to be humble and giving to the things of God.
God will give a blessing to those who not just suffer, but endure the trials of life with patience and faithfulness. V. 12; “Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.” Nobody wants to suffer through trials, it is painful. If we do things to bring harm upon ourselves; like if we steal and get put in jail, then we have no one to blame but ourselves. But if trials happen to us that is out of our control, then we are like metal going through the fire and being refined to remove the impurities. So when we are put into the fire of trials and temptations, our integrity and faith are tested, we are to come out purer. Our future reward will come to us not as a debt that we are owed, because God does not owe us anything but Hell for our sinful ways. Instead, our future reward will come to us as a gracious promise. Do you realize that any rewards we get in Heaven will be because of the way we have acted here? This is a time when we can’t see God; we have to depend upon our faith in God. I have heard some teachers compare it to the faith that we have to sit in a chair. We have to have faith that the chair will not collapse. But we can see and touch the chair so it doesn’t take much faith that it will support us. Say someone is blindfolded, they are told about the chair but they can’t see it or touch it. If someone puts the chair behind them and they sit down in it; that takes more faith. That is more like what faith is like. We can’t see God, we can’t touch God, nor can we directly hear His voice, but we can still have faith and trust in Him to guide and direct us, knowing that He is right there with us supporting us.
When we are approved by our Great Judge and our integrity and faith are found to be true and of the highest worth, then we will receive an eternal reward, the Crown of Life. The Christian who is tried and found true shall be a crowned one, and that crown will last forever. We only have to bear the cross for a few years while we are on the earth, but the crown we receive will be for all of eternity. When heaven and earth pass away, the word of God will be fulfilled. Every believer that truly loves God will have our share of trials, but those trials will be fully rewarded in a world where love is made perfect.
Some people actually believe that God will throw temptations their way to test them or try to make them fall. But that is not God’s way. V. 13-15; “13 When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; 14 but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. 15 Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.” It is not in God’s nature to sin. So if God can’t be tempted by evil, why would He tempt someone? It is His desire for everyone to make it to Heaven; He even provided the way by sending His Son Jesus. So why then would God put a stumbling stone before someone? If someone falls into sin, they have no one to blame but themselves. There is a big difference between temptations and the trials that God puts us through. The trials that God sends our way are designed to draw out our graces, to help us to grow in our faith in Him. They are not designed to draw out our corruptions. Sin is an active force in this world; Satan is constantly probing for our weak spots; he is trying to draw as many people away from God as he can. But if we do fall into sin, we can’t blame Satan or any person to excuse ourselves of the sin, because the true origin of the sin is in our own hearts. Every man is drawn away by their own evil desire and chooses to give in to sin by themselves. The flame might be fanned by an outside source, but the fact is, the combustible matter is in our own hearts.
When you feel the beginning temptations of sin in your lives stop it, so it can’t gain a foothold in your life. Maybe you have given into sin so that it has begun working inside of you. As Christian’s the Holy Spirit is already inside of us, trying to keep us strong in the Lord. He has been warning you about the sinful problem; you should heed the Holy Spirit’s promptings inside of you and stop the sin. Let sinful desires be repented of and rejected before the sinful desire is fulfilled or does more damage. As Christians, sinfulness is no longer to be part our nature, we belong to God. It is now in our nature to want to serve God in holiness and righteousness.
I will close this with a story to help us to understand that the trials and temptations that we go through our meant to be like metal thrown into the fire.
During the reign of Oliver Cromwell, the British government began to run low on silver for coins. Lord Cromwell sent his men to the local cathedral to see if they could find any precious metal there. After investigating they reported: “The only silver we can find is in the statues of the saints standing in the corners,” to which the radical soldier and statesman of England replied: “Good! We’ll melt down the saints and put them in circulation!” That brief but direct order indicates the essence of the practical goal of authentic Christianity—not rows of silver saints crammed into the corners of cathedrals, but melted saints circulating through the mainstream of humanity, where life transpires in the raw.
The cost factor of being a saint occurs on Monday, Tuesday and throughout the week. That’s when we’re “melted down and put in circulation.” [v] When we are melted down, and being molded by the Lord, then we can better relate to non-Christians as well as other Christians because we have a good understanding of the difficulties of life. We can consider it pure joy because we know that God can work through us somehow for His glory. Instead of us telling everybody about our problems, we can share with them how the Lord has given us the help that we need through the problems. We can better know what the pure joy of the Lord truly means and become better witnesses for the Lord because we recognize God’s grace in bringing us through our problems.
Matthew Henry Commentary on the Whole Bible (Concise); http://www.biblestudytools.com/commentaries/matthew-henry-concise/
Various quotes: Charles Swindoll, C.S. Lewis, Charles Spurgeon http://christianity.about.com/od/newtestamentbooks/a/Book-Of-James.htm
[iii] Skip Heitzig – Are You a Big Godder or a Little Godder? – 10/20/02
[iv] Charles Swindoll
[v] (Chuck Swindoll – Dallas Seminary Daily Devotional, 5-30-06) – Thru Biblestudytools.com