Series > James: The Wisdom of Faith

The Wisdom of Trial

Ryan TOmpkins // January 6, 2019

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scripture Passage // James 1:1–16 (ESV)

1 James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ,

To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion:


Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, 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.

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind.For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord;he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.

Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, 10 and the rich in his humiliation, because like a flower of the grass he will pass away. 11 For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. So also will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits.

12 Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him. 13 Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. 14 But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. 15 Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.

16 Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers.”


We've just finished the sermon series that was topical, and in the old testament, so we turn our attention to the new testament. To consider a book in its entirety, we find ourselves looking at the book of James. James is one of my favorites, mostly because it is so pragmatic. James is very interested in giving you practical advice, practical wisdom on how to live a godly life in the context in which you find yourself.

There are a few other aspects of James that I think are important to mention, even as we start the series, to be thinking about the book of James, and to be thinking about why it's actually a great book, with which to start a new year. First, if you know the book of James, you know that there's sometimes perceived a tension between James and Paul.

By the time we get to chapter 2, we'll read James say, "So also faith by itself if it does not have works is dead." James says if your faith doesn't have works, it's not real faith at all. Well, Paul does place an emphasis on faith as the sole instrument of salvation. Now, this tension is largely perceived, Paul will say that works are essential to demonstrate faith, as James is also saying.

But James does put kind of an acute emphasis on the needs for faith to be proven by works. One of the things we're going to be doing as we move forward, is to wrestle with our faith and ask where we are in our faith. It's not simply a question of what am I thinking and what am I confessing, it's a question of what am I actually doing? What works are on display that give me evidence of my faith, and give the world evidence of my faith?

Secondly, James is fascinating for a number of reasons. In fact, I'm going to tell you seven quick tidbits about James, and I want to see if you can start to hypothesize something that would explain all of these seven aspects. Number one, there's no concern for church structure or authority. Number two, the substitutionally death of Christ receives no attention.

Number three, there is no emphasis on inclusion or union with Christ, which is the most important thing to Paul. Number four, no mention of Jews and Gentiles and their relationship, particularly interesting because James is the one who oversees the Jerusalem council, Mark 15. Number five, no reflection on how Jesus fulfilled the expectations of the old testament.

Number six, suffering is not evaluated in light of identification, or completion of Christ's suffering. Unlike Paul and Peter, James advocates endurance because it pleases God, it brings maturity, and some day will be over. Seven, James reflects much of Jesus teaching, but there is nowhere a quotation of anything that we have in the gospels. In other words, James seems to be very intimate with the teaching of Jesus.

Not necessarily surprising, given that historically, James is considered to be Jesus' half brother, a brother born later to Joseph and Mary. It's not surprising that he would be intimate with that teaching. But there doesn't seem to be anything circulating. This last part is saying that there's no reference in James to anything that's written, either by Peter or Paul, or any of the gospel writers.

So, if you put all those in a stew pot and stir them together, what do you come up with? James may be the earliest book of the entire new testament, for all of these reasons. Probably written in the early '40s, there's no evidence that Paul's letters are circulating. There's no evidence that the Jesus tradition has been written down at this point in time. There's not even any evidence yet that the Jews and Gentiles are butting heads, and how they understand the effect of the work of the messiah.

We're looking at the basic foundation stones that were put in place for the early church. As we begin 2019, what a great question to ask, are we really having the foundation stones that were put in place first, are they put in place in our lives and in our life as a church, as we move forward into 2019? Then third, as I've suggested and as Zach mentioned, James is a book of wisdom. In fact, it's the only book in the new testament that's considered wisdom literature.

As such, it invites us both as we'll see today to ask God for wisdom, but then to really pursue it by reading this book. For James, wisdom is not something that you simply have a clever answer to a hard question, wisdom is that your entire life would be ordered to engage the wisdom of faith. That's what we're after, as we consider James over the next twelve weeks. What is it to live the wisdom of faith?

This week what James puts forward to us first and foremost, is that there's a wisdom that is required for trials. It's interesting that James starts there. Already the church is suffering, because James begins immediately to deal with the trials that is coming upon them. If you've lived any degree of life, you know that a trial is a fork in the road for a Christian. One will either move toward God in obedience and trust, long suffering in the direction of faith and faithfulness.

Or one will choose to move away from God and decide that in the midst of the trial, there is more immediate salvation to be had rather than God. James is going to challenge us to have a completely different perspective on the nature of trials, and to appreciate them, which is our first task. He's going to warn us. He's going to give us, he's like a coach. He's going to say, "If you want to navigate trial, if you want to survive through trial and keep heading on in the right direction, you better have these four things in mind."

First, we'll appreciate the trial, and then we'll talk about some of the dangers that James warns us about in his writing. If you look at verse two, it's where James begins, count it all joy my brothers when you meet trials of various kinds. Really? Count it all joy as you meet trials of various kinds. Depending on what trial are you talking about, maybe that's easier to say.

Some of you are in severe trials, some of you are in minor trials, but all of us recognize that the next trial is not a matter of if, but when. We have a friend, her name is Elizabeth, and Elizabeth was Jennifer's first roommate out of college. Jennifer graduated from Baylor and moved to New York city to join staff at Campus Crusade. Another girl did the same thing from Ohio, and they roomed together in New York city for a number of years.

First forward today and Elizabeth would go through a bout of cancer, from which she emerged and went into remission. If you fast forward then a bit again, that cancer returned with a vengeance. Thursday night, we got an update from her husband that said they are suspending chemo, that Elizabeth has days, maybe weeks to live. She leaves behind three kids that are the ages of our kids. Now, in light of that trial, count it all joy, how? Why?

Where is joy in the midst of that kind of tragedy? That kind of suffering that's difficult to explain. Well, James is not scared of this task. If you look at verses three and four, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness, and let steadfastness have its full effect, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. Now, when James writes about testing of your faith, the word there for testing is a word that's typically used for the testing of metals to see if there's any value there.

Say you're in the ancient and you work with metals, and you're always looking for precious metals. You grab that ore, and you stick it in the fire. After the fire does it work and burns away the dross, you realize if you have something valuable or not, something that emerges that's worthwhile. But the testing is in the fire, and without the fire, you don't know if there's anything of value there. The first question to us is, is your faith worth anything?

Is it valuable? Well, according James, you only know this if it's stuck in fire. The fire is the testing, and the trial is what communicates to us, what allows us to know if our faith is something that's valuable, or something that is worthless. Now, what is really being tested? We're saying faith is being tested, but what do we mean by faith?

There's a big challenge when we read the new testament, because after the enlightenment, faith in the church often gets reduced to something that we think about in our mind, or we say it's something that we confess, but it becomes very superficial. In the biblical sense, particularly when we look at the Hebrew concept of faith, upon which the Greek concept of faith is being built in the early church, the notion of faith is complicated and deep and all encompassing.

It captures the idea of sincerity and truth, and commitment and fidelity. Faith is not simply signing off on a list of statements. Faith is the commitment that your entire life will be ordered based on certain values, and those values come out, in this case in a relationship with God. The first thing that we need to see from James to appreciate trials is that we actually don't know what our faith is without a trial. But not only do we not know what it is, it will never be improved upon.

Our faith will never grow. It's a muscle that will become atrophied without a trial to actually work it. This is what James says when he goes on to say, "If you're steadfast, if you endure, right, what then is coming? That you would be made perfect and complete, and lacking in nothing." What is that? In part, it's an echo of Jesus command that his disciples were to be perfect as the father is perfect.That's a pretty high bar.

It's also a pretty loving bar, that we would actually be freed from the encumbrances of this world, and being misled in the wrong direction, to actually experience the freedom and peace of being complete and perfect in Christ, as a result of a trial. In other words, do you want to walk through this world like Jesus, and knowing that degree of peace and completeness, or do you want to walk through this world like you’re anxious and narcissistic self?

Who knows greater freedom? Of course, the one who is perfect and complete, and walks more like Jesus. Friends, we cannot control what happens to us. We cannot control our environment, and we have no control over tomorrow. But what James is saying is you can control how you respond to what's coming upon you. You can decide how you're going to think about that, and what actions are corresponding to the proper thinking.

For James, if we're really to embrace James, it would be completely radical. Because what James is saying is that most of the things that we value in this world and that we're committed to and that happen, they don't really matter. What James is saying is the whole intent now of this life, meaning you can ask the question from a different angle and say, "If Jesus effected the atonement, and sin and death are done away with in his resurrection, what in the world are we still doing here?"

What are we waiting for? Now, the scripture doesn't actually completely answer that question, but what it does tell us is that after that point, the life on this earth takes a completely different bet, in which we're actually being molded into the lightness of Christ. From James perspective, the most important thing that's happening in your life are your trials.

Your trials are what actually complete you and mature you, and make you more and more Christ like. When we think about our lives, what's really the most important thing to us? All the highs, all the successes that we won. Everything that we think that we can deserve or earn or achieve to make our name is great. James is saying, "No, the most significant thing happening in your life from knowing Jesus to your death, is the trials that come upon you, and how you handle those trials."

When you stand before Jesus and look back on your life, most of the things that you valued in this life would be rubbish. What will actually be valuable at that point in time is how you endured your trials. That's how significant it is. What James is describing to the church and calling us to be. Now, James knows that there are a lot of dangers on that road. It's not easy to be steadfast in the midst of a trial.

He's going to offer several warnings. This is why James is so great. Boy, if we want to be a people who encourage one another in the midst of trials, this is coach stuff. You're sitting down in a hurdle, and the coach says, "This is what we're going to do." This is what James is doing as he moves forward. Four aspects to be aware of in the midst of enduring trial, maybe perhaps is your enduring trial something that you need now.

Number one is the need for wisdom. It's where James begins with the people to whom he's writing. Presumably they have achieved very much wisdom, because what James is saying to them is listen, what you really need is wisdom, and if you lack wisdom, don't be alarmed or dismayed, because anyone can ask God for wisdom, and God gives wisdom generously. The trick though, he says, "You must ask with faith." Now, faith here is not simply the notion, I ask and have to be a hundred percent confident that God is going to grant it.

So the deliverance of wisdom is dependent upon my being 100% sure. Notice the analogies that James uses to explain what he's talking about. The person who doesn't have faith is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind. It has no direction or consistency. It isn't able to chart its own course, instead, it's simply moved by what's happening around it. In the same way it says a man who asks for wisdom but does not have faith in the asking, is double minded, unstable in all his ways.

Literally, the person who is unstable in all his ways is a drunkard. Someone who is so intoxicated that they cannot walk a straight line. They don't know north from south. They can't chart a course. What James is saying is that if you ask for wisdom from God, and then think, "Well, maybe yes, maybe no, but I'm going to pursue wisdom from wherever else I might find it," then you really don't have any confidence in God's wisdom being superior to other forms of wisdom.

If I pray on Sunday that God might give me wisdom, and then on Monday, I make sure to catch my TED Talk, and on Tuesday my NPR program, and on Wednesday, make sure I get my FOX News briefing. All of those, roughly, are on the same level as the wisdom I believe that God may or may not give, I'm a wave tossed to and fro, in whatever direction the loudest voice at that moment is speaking to me. I won't be able to chart a course.

Why would God throw his pearls before swine? In the sense that you ask for wisdom but not really believe that his wisdom trumps all other wisdom. This is the first thing that is essential to navigating appropriately any kind of trial that comes upon us. It's the wisdom of understanding the nature of that trial. It's the wisdom of having eschatological hope, and knowing that what happens here, the significance of it is that I would endure with steadfastness.

The second thing that James warns is that money will not rescue you. He goes on from wisdom to say that the lowly brother is raised to a higher state, and the rich will learn that their money ultimately means nothing. If you're in the midst of trial, and you may think to yourself and of course money is somewhat of a metaphor for any earthly resource. And you think, "Oh, I can handle this trial. I'm just going to exercise my resources.

I'm going to figure it out. I've got money to spend in this direction. I'm going to exert control." Now, none of that in and of itself necessarily is wrong, unless you think that really is the trump card that's going to save you. James is saying that's foolishness, because in God's economy, money and the powers of this world mean nothing compared to what he's going to deliver.

To really process our hearts, to drive home the point, I might ask you in the past week, how many times did you ask God for wisdom? And how many times did you think about money? Which do you really believe is going to save you? The third aspect of danger in the midst of trial is to blame God. Look at verse 13 with me. “Let no one say when he is tempted, "I am being tempted by God," for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one."

Now, a quick exegetical aside, you know that here we pray frequently the Lord's Prayer, in which we pray, do not lead me into temptation. Did you catch what we just read? God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. Well, if James tells us that God tempts no one, why do we pray that God will not lead us into temptation? Frankly, it's a lousy translation of that verse, and most English translations are afraid to touch it, 'cause they don't want to be known as the translation that messed with the Lord's Prayer.

But it's actually being changed in a number of Protestant bibles English groups. It's even on the Roman Catholic side, the Pope even announced that they were going to be changing it a number of weeks ago. The reason I bring this up is it's very confusing if you're always praying, God don't lead me into temptation, and James says God doesn't actually lead you into temptation.

You need to understand that the Lord's Prayer is more, the sentiment is God let me not be left to my temptation, or let me not be devoured by temptation. It is an appeal to God to be active on our behalf, but it is not the notion that God might actually lead us into temptation. What then are we talking about? Well, we're talking about the danger, even the temptation itself that when things are overwhelming, we might have a tendency to blame God.

The sensory say, you find yourself tempted to do something that you know you shouldn't do. You think, but you know what, God has let so many stressors rise in my life, and he has not remedied X, Y and Z. Because he has created this environment, who would not sin in this environment? I hold God responsible for not changing this in a more effective way.

On a comical note, I had a man who was once struggling with infidelity tell me that he held God responsible for making him so attractive. That he found himself in this place, so totally serious. Who could stand when he was that good looking? God has spared me that challenge. In what case or regard, do you find yourself tempted to blame God? Tempted to say, "You know what, I'm off the hook today from my sin, because God has created a temptation that is too overwhelming."

Well, Paul says explicitly that God will never tempt you beyond, or allow temptation to occur that is beyond your ability. But even more so, I think the language here is phenomenal, and you have to pay close attention to verse 14. James says, "But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire." First of all, notice lured and enticed. Now, that's language that's typically used for the baiting of animals. Whether you set a trap and put some food in the trap to catch an animal, or whether if you bait a hook to catch a fish. This is the idea that's being put forward.

But what does James say the trap is baited with? Lured and enticed by what? His own desire. James is saying, "You bait your own trap. You put the worm on your own hook." It's like the person who knows they struggle with materialism and likes to get online but say, "I'm not going to do anything here. I'm going to be really careful. But you know, I may throw a few things in my Amazon cart."

Then the trial comes, and the trial weighs down on them, and they think, "Oh, I just would like some relief." Well, can you believe what God has allowed to come upon me? Who wouldn't go into the Amazon cart and order a few of those things to the house? Knowing that you had that difficulty even before the trial, you baited the hook. You put the food in the trap.

James is saying that this is actually our biggest problem when it comes to being given over to temptation in the midst of trial. Don't underestimate how seriously James takes this. If you look at verse 15, verse 15 says that when you begin to go down the road of temptation and in the midst of trial, you begin a reproduction of evil. When you have conceived, your desire has conceived, meaning that you act on it, you're going to have a sin baby.

Then you're going to take care of that sin baby until that sin baby grows up and does what, it kills you. This is the metaphor that James uses that as you go down this road, as your desire, as you continue to bait that trap, and then you act on your desire, it causes a chain of events to unfold, that ultimately leads to your self destruction. James is saying that you are your own worst enemy. He says this, he drives it home again in verse 16.

Now, in verse 16, if you're looking at the ESV, it starts a new paragraph, but there's a lot of debate about remember in the ancient world, there's no paragraph markers. If you look at a manuscript of the new testament, you don't get ... If you look at the earliest manuscript, you'll not even get punctuation, let alone paragraph markers, so all that has to be decided by an interpreter. There's a big debate whether (verse) 16 closes the section we're considering, or if it begins the next section.

I would suggest to you that it closes the section that we're considering. James is driving home this notion, your biggest problem in the midst of trial is that you would deceive yourself. You might deceive yourself that you have wisdom when you don't have it. You deceive yourself when you think money will save you. You deceive yourself when you blame God rather than taking responsibility.

You deceive yourself that you've been lured into some temptation that you had nothing to do with, when you were the one who in fact baited the trap. Do not be deceived brothers, is what he's driving home and we'll see next week, when he goes on to talk about deception, the biggest challenge or the biggest danger in deception that James wants to talk about is that notion of self-deception. When we deceive ourselves, we set ourselves up to be destroyed by sin, and to fail in the midst of trial, to be faithful and walk faithfully.

These are the dangers that James is sitting down the early church and saying, "Listen, trials are here, trials are coming, they're not going anywhere. So are you going to navigate it well?" You desperately need wisdom. Are you asking God for that wisdom? Don't rely on money, don't be a fool. It's not going to save you. Don't you dare blame God, and how are you baiting your own trap? How are you setting yourself up to fail in the midst of trial coming upon you?

Even as we might think, okay, that's some good pragmatic advice, I know maybe now, how to better navigate trials. But trials are hard, and they're certainly certain relief vows in the midst of trials that seem really valuable. This is how James phrases what's at stake in verse 12, “Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.” Blessed does not mean happy.

The notion here of Christianity of God meeting us and rescuing us in Jesus Christ, and then calling us to a life of perfection, to be complete, to let nothing, has nothing to do with an American sense of happiness. As if I would like all of my dreams to come true, and I would like to avoid all pain. Blessedness is a state of being in satisfaction and completeness in one's union with Christ, and being reunited with God himself.

Out of that flows peace and joy and patience and kindness, all the fruits of the spirit. But that's what is at stake in the midst of this life. Steadfastness brings blessedness. If you want steadfastness, then you give up blessedness, and all of the benefits that come with it. What is also at stake is the crown of life. Now, this isn't simply a metaphor. This could be translated just as easily the crown that is life.

In other words, James is saying if you remain steadfast in trial, what you receive is not simply a metaphorical crown for crossing the finish line, you actually receive life. The crown of eternal life that God bestows upon those who have stood. Isn't that just the reality of verse 12? The crown of life is not reserved for everyone, but for whom? Those who stood the test.

If we're going to be a people of faith, a people who together endure trial, a people who together aspire to the crown which is life, then we must be a people who encourage one another to stand the test.

Let's pray.

Jesus, we acknowledge that you have endured more trial than we could possibly endure, and it is only by your perfect obedience, that we can talk about aspiring to stand steadfast in the midst of trial.

Would you forgive us for our weak limbs and our weak knees? Would you meet us this morning at your table and encourage us, encourage us and strengthen us and help us to look forward on that day, from which when we look back no one will regret the maturity and completeness and perfection that comes, with standing steadfast in the midst of trial.

Would you help us to be wise? Would you help us not to blame you? Would you help us not to rely upon money? Would you help us to realize, to recognize, to see the ways in which we bait our own traps? Would you free us to be committed to standing fast because we know that the most important thing is blessedness from you, and the crown that is life.

We pray that you would walk with us on this journey, and that you would nourish us for it on its table. We ask you in Christ's name, amen.