“James, a bondservant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad: Greetings.
My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing.”
If Philippians is a book written both from joy and really on the topic of having joy, James is not far off from Paul’s letter as he begins his letter “to the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad.” Most New Testament letters are identified by their recipient, but the book of James is identified by the writer himself. Obviously, this book has a much farther-reaching message than to its scattered original audience, as the book is very practical and very applicable to the modern reader. It’s a great place to start for those who haven’t read the Bible much or want to get back into reading the Bible as it is relatively short, very practical, and very straight-forward with little need to understand culture aside from what’s highlighted. James also uses a lot of word pictures and analogies, and that makes this a memorable book of the Bible as well.
What is joy? As I have read it in multiple Christian dictionaries and Greek lexicons, it is essentially “the experience of gladness or well-being.” It has very little to do with the externals of life, those happenings into which we often walk many times unassuming. It has very little to do with what goes on physically, as though health, be it good or bad, really affected what it meant to be glad. Joy is not predicated upon those three old prosperity gospel tenets: health, wealth, and happiness, though it is often assumed that it follows not far behind. In fact, it is important that we discern the common reasoning behind such desires, which if we’re truly honest is often tied to the false conclusion of what brings people joy. The Bible would tell us very different things that lead to joy other than what is typically assumed or preached today.
Paul wrote from prison in Philippians, an unlikely place for joy if we equated joy with circumstances. James, in a similar vein, tells us to “count it all joy when we fall into various trials.” If trials and the lack thereof are a standard by which you determine your faith or your closeness to God, you are in for a hard road, and James makes that clear with his initial words. Thankfully, he doesn’t just say that as someone telling us to “just think positive thoughts,” as though we should just console ourselves with wishful thinking. The comforting effect of trials is found in what they “produce.” What James is saying is that we can be glad as we face trials for we know that God is at work to make us better than we were before the trial happened. It’s very hard to look at trials positively without this wisdom towards them.
Maybe you’re wondering, though, what a trial is. This is a great example of a place where eisegesis can get us off from the author’s intention. “Trial” as it is called here is often translated “temptation” in the New Testament. It’s not an issue of difficult circumstances like we often think of; BDAG refers to it here as “an attempt to make one do something wrong, temptation, enticement to sin.” (BDAG Lexicon, Bibleworks) We know from later on in v. 13, “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He Himself tempt anyone.”
How could we have joy in stepping into something meant to cause us to stumble and how could it not be from God? The answer is that God allows temptation without promoting it for the sake of purifying His people. He calls us to grow and to trust Him while letting the winds of adversity blow against us. Faithfulness through this resistance accomplishes the goal, which isn’t just serving, but it’s also being sanctified. This principle has to be one of Satan’s least favorite gems: God uses Satan’s opposition to make His children stronger and better if they’ll endure those winds by faith.
James says that the “testing of your faith,” produces patience. It’s not “having faith,” that produces patience, but rather faith that has the winds of opposition driving against it, which like a tree causes us to drive our roots deeper. The believer drives their roots of faith into God and His promises, whereas the tree drives its roots further into the dirt for moisture, nutrients and anchoring. Both are made more capable of producing fruit and enduring the seasons of life by this very process.
Furthermore, the more firm the root system of the believer, the stronger the believer. “Let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing.” It’s somewhat of a disservice for English translations to say “perfect,” because our vernacular identifies perfect as flawless and pristine, an issue of standards when that’s not always the way to read the word. Let me clarify: in the BDAG Lexicon, it actually identifies the word as being used in three different ways: “1. pertaining to the highest standard; 2. pertaining to being mature or full-grown; 3. pertaining to being fully developed in a moral sense.” (BDAG Lexicon, Bibleworks) We see, therefore, that there is some interchangeability between the same word, context often driving the interpretation of the word. (As a side note, we should always let context do this for us with our English translations; eisegesis, pronounced eye-seh-gee-sis is the practice of taking perspective and using it as our interpretive guide-this can lead us astray. Exegesis, pronounced ex-eh-gee-sis, is to draw the meaning out of text, whether that’s a word or a paragraph or a book of the Bible).
A full-grown tree, with healthy branches and green leaves and producing beautiful, healthy fruit (if it’s a fruit-bearing tree) is a mature tree. It has become what is was made to become; it is not waiting for future years in which it will yield forth those elements which it might currently lack.
For a believer, maturity would be a healthy, obedient Christian that is wise and committed to God, bearing much evidence of a life yielded to the indwelling Holy Spirit. This person forsakes sin, confesses when they do sin, lives in light of the grace of God, and seeks to be pleasing to Him. When facing the temptation to sin and patiently outlasting the temptation, we become mature believers. The perfect (as a standard) work of patience is a perfect (morally mature) child of God.
We often come upon difficulties and what is our response? Remove this from my life, God. Just make everything better. What does this show about us, though, but that our perspective is found to be lacking? When we pray for these issues to go away, invariably we are often asking God, “Please, can just make my life easy, or easier?” Listening to a Jim Rohn video this morning on YouTube from the early 1980’s, he said these words: “Don’t wish for your life to be easy; work to be better.” Good point. What’s hard for a child may be a cakewalk for an adult; this is why growing and learning and maturing make the same tasks easier. The same concept holds true for being a believer; it may never be easier, but we may be more mature and handle difficulties better. Once again, though, we’re talking in this particular passage about being better by resisting the temptation to sin. Immature believers are push-overs when sin comes knocking; that’s what God is trying to get out of our system on our way to glory.
If perhaps your hope has been to grow in maturity in Christ, know that God may be answering that hope with the process that will bring it so long as you or I are committed to riding it out in faith. We can pray for temptations to never come our way, but the harder challenge will be resting in God’s grace to endure it by saying no to our sinful desires when they arise. It’s much harder than just not having the temptation, isn’t it?!
All too often, God is far more vested in our growth than we are, and as such, we run into temptations and difficulties regardless of wanting to be more mature or not. In highlighting what is probably a pretty common problem among us Christians, it would be best advised that we get on board with growth if that’s where God has clearly said He’s taking us, because it’s one thing to face temptations for maturity, but something else to not even have maturity as one’s own goal.
I read a quote years ago that still makes me chuckle when I think about it: “Why does life keep teaching me lessons I never asked to learn?” The Devil himself likes those kind of Christians, the ones who keep getting tempted but see no hope other than not being tempted. Consider Peter’s words from 1 Peter 5:8-9: “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour. Resist him, steadfast in the faith, knowing that the same sufferings are experienced by your brotherhood in the world.”
How do we resist? Maybe, just maybe, it starts with understanding “why” we resist in the first place. Why would we ever carry on in resisting when we’re not convinced of the point? A teenager may mumble what mom or dad said, “We don’t do it so we can glorify God…” and that’s true, but God has given us more in James 1:2-4. We resist sin to become mature, like a weightlifter uses resists the gravitational pull of a bunch of weight plates on a barbell as they lower it down and push it back up. When temptation comes your way, you’ve got to welcome it with joy because on the other side of resisting it is greater spiritual maturity and character. Don’t be the person standing there near the water-cooler watching people running on treadmills, dismissing them like hamsters on a wheel. They walk and others lift so as to be stronger and better, not so they can walk and push weights alone.
If you’ve noticed that the world as a whole struggles with sin, you’re right; it does. Don’t think that temptations exist because you’re a Christian; temptation happens to every sinner in a sin-cursed world. There is hope for every Christian because there is deep purpose to our pain, and it will not be wasted by God. He will use it and our faith to make us into who He wants us to be, and that’s part of the redemptive plan of faith-based moral resistance for our mortal season of eternity. Maturity precedes perfect glorification in Heaven where we will be with the Lord in a place of no more tears or pain. We may lose sight of the purpose of our pain at times, but thank God that He never does. He will never leave us or forsake us, and nothing will happen to us that He doesn’t intend to use in perfecting the masterpieces of who we are in Christ for His glory. Amen.
Thank you for your time and may God bless you in your endeavors to please Him. We are in this fight together.
Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.