Wisdom and Suffering in the Christian Life
Christians can’t mature without suffering. It’s why we are to count it pure joy when we face trials. The good news is that we can ask for wisdom if we lack it and it will be given.
Wisdom and Suffering in the Christian LifeJames 1:1-18
October 21, 2018
Malcolm Muggeridge was a famous English journalist who was an atheist in his younger days. Later he became a Christian and said, “In my seventy-five years in this world, everything that has truly enhanced and enlightened my existence, has been through suffering not through happiness.”
Some of you are saying, “Wow, that is deep, man!” and the rest are saying, “That guy needs to get a life!” James the half brother of Jesus—who shared the same womb as his saviour—wrote these words in James 1:2:
Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds (NIV)
Whatever kind of suffering comes your way, don’t just tolerate it, but make it your friend. We are called to do this not because Christians are masochists who train themselves to find pleasure in pain? Rather, we do this because suffering has a God-given purpose.
We live in a pain-pleasure culture, where pain is always bad and pleasure is always good. James, who writes to scattered Jewish Christians, answers the obvious question, “Why would we want to consider trials pure joy?” James 1:3b-4:
[…] because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything (NIV)
Victor Frankl survived the Holocaust and Nazi concentration camps. He observed that those who survived the suffering were those who had a purpose. “Angst is suffering without purpose”. An athlete goes through hours of pain each day with no complaint. Why? The suffering has a purpose—the hope of a gold medal. Trials function to grow your faith, and to produce and develop in you endurance, which produces mature Christians. Suffering turns weak Christians into godly Christians who will be found faithful on the last day. Do you want to be mature? Then consider suffering pure joy.
We all want to live a life on a bed of roses. We want to get to 100 years of age and receive birthday greetings from the Queen. Then we hope to die in our sleep and be taken to glory.
The older I get the more I realize that comfort is my idol, but God keeps stopping me from enjoying my idol. What this means is that it is better to be in a bad marriage that drives you to Christ than to be in a good marriage where you idolize your partner. Better to be broke and trusting God than rich and ignoring him. Better to be sick and faithful than healthy and self-sufficient.
Perhaps you are saying, “What planet do you live on? Ray, when suffering and difficulty comes, I collapse like a deck of cards. I just spit the dummy! When I’m stressed, I get either stressed or feel sorry for myself. And if that is the case, James is saying “You lack wisdom!” And God says, “Ask me and I will give it to you.” James 1:5:
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. (NIV)
Be assured that having God’s wisdom is God`s will for you. When I pray for my cousin’s broken back, or my friend’s conversion, I don’t know God’s specific will. Have no doubt that it is God’s specific will that you be wise. You can be confident about this because God is generous. He loves to answer these prayers. He won’t blame you for taking so long to ask God for this wisdom. God is not going to say, “Too late, buddy. Don’t waste my time.” You are not going to hear, “About time you pathetic ungrateful Christian!” What he will say is, “Gee, it’s good to have you back in the game. I’m so glad that you are asking for the ability to handle suffering for my glory. I love it when you ask for wisdom. God is saying that it is never to late.
Vickie Hutchinson was a single parent of two boys. She was diagnosed with a tumour the size of a tennis ball in her uterus. You know it is bad when the doctor delays his holiday by a day to tell you the news. When I went and saw Vicki, I said, “Vicki, you seem to be handling this very well.” She said, “I am and I’m just waiting for the doctor to ask me why. And Ray, it’s so unlike me. I’m normally such a whinger.” She was right. She would say of herself that she constantly felt sorry for herself. But that suffering made her into a spiritual giant for the next two years before the Lord took her home.
But when you ask God for wisdom, don’t waste God`s time asking for something you don’t want. James 1:6-8:
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. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do. (NIV)
If you’re not interested in considering it pure joy when suffering comes, if you are not prepared to think differently about those trials, if you are not prepared to trust that God is good in the pain, then God says, “Don’t waste my time and yours”. The one who doubts is like a rudderless boat on a stormy sea. Trials will make you either bitter or better. So ask yourself, so far in your life has suffering made you bitter or better? It is not too late. Ask God who is generous, and he will help you to consider it pure joy.
Did you hear Dan say last week that he was thankful for so much, even though he lives with a heavy dose of grief after burying his baby Evie?
One of the trials in James is poverty. It’s a problem that keeps cropping up throughout the letter. You know the stress. There are wives who worry when the bills are bigger than the pay packet. There are husbands who feel like failures when they can’t give their families what they want. Still others feel left behind when others buy homes while they are left to rent. Most of this ends up in a whole lot of fighting instead of counting it as pure joy. There is resentment, anger, and self-pity. The answer is right thinking about being poor and being rich, James 1:9:
Believers in humble circumstances ought to take pride in their high position. (NIV)
The word here to the poor is “Don’t live in shame”. You are commanded by God to walk with your head held high and a deep sense of pride. You are a brother or sister of Christ and a child of the king. Harry and Meghan may be the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, but you are the duke or duchess of the new creation. In contrast, the rich are to be humbled by their temporary grasp on life. Remember that most of us in Australia are rich by world standards. James 1:10-11:
But the rich should take pride in their humiliation—since they 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 will fade away even while they go about their business. (NIV)
When you hear the next motivational talk on how to get rich quick, remember, “naked I came into this world and naked I will leave it.” The world loves to parade the wealthy and entice you to follow them. But this parade of the wealthy will be here today and gone tomorrow. Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft, died on Monday. He had a total worth $20.3 billion. He donated $95 million in the last year. In the same way, the rich will fade away even while they go about their business. So consider it pure joy when you struggle to make ends meet.
I can’t tell how many have told me that it is when they had so little and were still generous that God grew their faith. Wealth pass away but what won’t pass away is your crown of life. James 1:12:
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. (NIV)
James Bond was wrong: “diamonds are not forever”; but the crown of life is. It is waiting for those who endure the test.
So what makes people fail to consider their suffering pure joy? They blame God for trying to trip them up in the trial. In the original language of the Bible, the word for ‘testing’ and the word for ‘tempting’ are the same word. James 1:13:
When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone (NIV)
God will test your faith but he will never tempt you from your faith. The aim of a test is for you to pass it. The aim of temptation is for you to fail it. Satan wants to break you while God wants to make you.
I was playing French cricket with my daughter Maddy when she was about seven years old. We were taking turns batting. She said to me, “Dad when I bat, I want you to drop the ball. When you bat, you try to help me catch the ball.” I said, “Yes darling, that is why I’m like God and you are like Satan.”
Satan wants you to fail the test and curse God. God wants you to pass the test and become like Jesus. But if you think God has a dark side, you will think that God has given you more than you can bear. You tell yourself, “I know me better than God, and he has gone too far.” Rather than us blaming God, the problem is within us. James 1:14-15:
But each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death. (NIV)
The heart of the problem is the problem of the sinful heart. It begins with our own evil desires—evil desires that never leave us. Once you admit that the problem is with you and not God, you will not waste your time blaming everyone including God. You will get on with confessing your sin and counting every trial pure joy. Otherwise like a fish on a hook you are dragged away and before you know it you resent God. Sin is conceived and then gives birth to death.
You know the story. You receive some criticism. You are wounded in some way. It generates some hurt. That is ok. But then you avoid the person. You then think the worst of them. You refuse to forgive. You wont let it go. It starts to lead to resentment. The resentment leads to grumbling, then to gossiping. All this is because you refused to consider it pure joy. You were ignoring the hard fact that God was using their sin to make you more like Jesus. Again we come back to the character of God, James 1:16-17:
Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers and sisters. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. (NIV)
God is your dad and he doesn’t change. The stars may vary slightly but God never will. God is always committed to your good. The hardest place to trust his goodness is in the middle of suffering. God doesn’t change. He doesn’t wake up one morning and say, “I’m in a bad mood. Who will I push her over the edge? God is not one day testing, another day tempting. Rather, every good and perfect gift comes from him. One of those gifts is the suffering in your life. That is why we love him. James 1:18:
He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of first fruits of all he created. (NIV)
God did not give birth to sin, but he did give birth to you. The word of truth is the good news of our Lord Jesus. The Lord who knew suffering first hand took on our sin and with it even more suffering that we may be saved. And not just saved but God wants us transformed from immature to mature, as we spearhead the new creation while living in the old. Trials are not an option for the Christian life. They are a necessity.
Don’t pray to God that you wont have them: pray to God that when they come you would rejoice and be thankful that God is shaping you into his son.
I heard a preacher say how he would pray that God would keep his children from suffering and pain and rejection. But then he said after reading James: “I want my children to go through just enough suffering to be mature. I want them to have just enough loneliness that they would cry out to God. I want them to have just enough rejection to desire the acceptance of God. I want them to have just enough sorrow that they may seek out the joy of the Lord. I want them have just enough pain to appreciate their health. I want them to miss out enough times so that they would be thankful for what they have.
You can’t become mature without experiencing suffering. Suffering is our friend.
You are a generous giver of every good gift. What we need more than anything is wisdom. We want wisdom to rejoice when suffering comes. Help us to understand that these trials are your way for making us mature, so that we might receive the crown of life.
In Jesus’ powerful name, Amen.