What is a trial?
- A formal process to determine innocence or guilt
- A test to determine the effectiveness of something.(clinical trial of a medicine)
- A test of endurance…on a personal level.
What these three uses of the English word “trials” have in common is they are a kind of test…they are used to get at the truth…to determine what is real.
“Are you really innocent?”
“Does this vaccine really work?”
“Will you keep going when it gets hard?”
Trials are sometimes “pass/fail”…you are innocent or not, the vaccine works or not.
But they can also have an improvement aspect…A court trial (guilty with probation, do better), a vaccine trial (keep working to improve), a personal trial(can grow us, even when, especially when we “fail”)
It is important for us to see trials of all kinds…not just as tests to “fail or pass” but rather as opportunities to determine how we can grow…where we need to pay attention…how we can gain endurance.
We tend to move through life with a “pass/fail” mentality rather than a “grow” mentality.
It is often in failure, more so than success, that we find opportunity to grow…or at least to see where we need to grow.
Remember the model for the “bang”…we train in our resiliency practices…
our strategies are then tested by the “Bang”…trials…
and we put our resilience (such as it is) to practice…
…then we move back into training…making corrections…now with new insight and increased capacity.
When you feel like you have failed in a time of testing…you need not say “My faith is fake and I’m a fraud!”
Imagine Peter, Jesus called him the “rock”…then his courage failed in the time of Jesus’ greatest need.
Peter failed…but it was not over for him…he went on to become a leader in the church…and to grow in courage and faith.
His failed test revealed deficiencies…but failure was surely a key part of his future growth and courage.
In fact, most of us can relate to growing more through failure than success.
So we don’t have to “succeed” in a trial to grow from it…we do have to keep going, “succeed or not.”
**As we talk about trials and endurance…don’t think “Pass/fail”…think “grow”
As a recap from last week: James skipped the normal formalities and went straight to the point…
-Consider it pure joy when you face all kinds of trials
-Because they can give you endurance
-This CAN lead to spiritual maturity
Trials, of course, do not automatically increase faith…but they do test it…what trials do to our faith is dependent on our response to God during them.
James’ concern is that his friends have a real and resilient faith that can not only withstand the pressure of trials but grow because of them.
These trials of many kinds can include everything that can and do test our faith in God.
– financial reversals
You name it, it can test our faith…and that testing…can lead to more maturity, or not.
Again, largely what trials do to our faith is a result of how we respond to them and to God.
One more time…don’t think “pass/fail”…think “grow”
Pass/fail mentality leads to “pride/guilt”…a grow mentality leads to faith and endurance.
Today we look at the next passage in James, where he give the general trials that tests our faith…that is how we respond to the resources or circumstances of our lives.
Having a life of much(plenty) or a life of little…both are tests of faith.
You say, “How can a life of plenty test our faith?”
Biblically it is often a greater challenge to faith to have too much than to have too little.
Think of the rich ruler who walked away from Jesus rather than walking away from his wealth.
Jesus said it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the kingdom.
Of course this is hyperbole…exaggeration to make a dramatic point.
People with a lot of resources can be easily deceived into thinking they do not need God…too much stuff, health, pleasure, power…can be a greater test than too little.
Doing well, prospering…can be a great distraction from reality as it is.
I spoke with a friend yesterday whose cancer has returned…but the cancer has been a key part of him seeing life as it really is…formally it was his health that was the distraction.
Think of the very rich…as they are often living in a sort of ongoing unreality…until, as it always does…reality takes over.
Harvey Weinstein…who just a short time ago was a king and a king(queen) maker in Hollywood.
Meryl Strep infamously said as she received her Oscar, “I’d like to thank God…Harvey…”
Now, he is crippled, blind…in a terrible prison cell…that he will never emerge from, at least in this life.
This man of former enormous power…now has prison dentists pulling his teeth one by one because he cannot get the medical care he was used to.
His wealth…as is often the case…was a great distraction from reality.
The bottom line…every challenge to our faith…tests the quality of that faith…including having little or much.
So, Paul, expressed how he had learned to live in a mature contentment when he wrote…
I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. 13 I can do everything through him who gives me strength.
Again, you might ask, “What secret is there in being content when living in plenty?”
But we all know, if we are paying attention…it is CAN be harder to trust Christ in times of plenty than in times of need.
Paul knew that…but he also gives us hope that finding contentment is possible in this life…in plenty or in want.
The human heart is a “perpetual discontent machine”…Proverbs gets at this reality when it says in Proverbs 27:20…
“Death and Destruction are never satisfied, and neither are the eyes of man.”
The “eyes” of course represent the human heart, always looking for, wanting more.
Like death and the grave are not satisfied not much how they are fed…the human heart is always discontent.
UNLESS…we take decisive steps to change that…or rather, allow Christ to change us.
The revealed secret…is to plug into the strength of Christ…not relying on my own ability.
But if you are familiar with Paul’s life you know that this process of mature contentment, relying on Christ..came a great cost…his faith became mature through trials of many kinds.
Let’s read on in James…
9 The brother in humble circumstances ought to take pride in his high position. 10 But the one who is rich should take pride in his low position, because he 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 man will fade away even while he goes about his business.
Before we try to get to the bottom of what James’ is saying let’s first talk about how “rich” is a relative term.
This is important because at issue here, again, is what’s in our hearts not what’s in our bank accounts.
If you lived in a village somewhere in the world…where wealth is measured in livestock or crops that you could eat or trade…how would your “richness” be compared to someone living in Wichita?
If you dropped a “rich” person from that village in an average home in our city…they went to fridge, turned on the AC, opened up the medicine cabinet…they would think they were in the castle of a king.
I was in the home of some Afgan refugees recently…they are “poor” by Wichita standards and “rich” by the standards of their homeland.
Or think of rich and poor in terms of chronology not geography.
If you were the richest person in the world, in ancient history…say King Solomon…you could purchase anything you wanted at the time.
An average Kansan has access to better health care, access to food from around the world, technology, entertainment, travel…this would exceed the buying capacity of an ancient king…
…what does that tell us about what “rich” is?
It is a relative term.
In the Bible being rich is not in itself an evil…it is the love of money that is the root of all kinds of evil.
You can love money whether you are rich or poor.
You can be free from the love of money, whether you are rich or poor.
Paul told Timothy, that some people, eager for money, have wondered from the faith and have pierced themselves with many griefs.
These people may never have actually become rich…it was their heart(eager to get rich) that was the problem…heart…shaping values…shaping behaviors (leading to untold grief)
So, now, back to James and the high flying poor and the low flying rich.
In terms of the actual physical condition of his first readers, some were in dire financial circumstances because they were religious refugees…displaced by persecution.
They were poor as compared to others around them.
There is debate as to whether James is addressing unchurched, unbelievers as the “rich” or whether they were also believers.
There were rich people among the first century Christians…some supported the ministry of Jesus through their resources….some supported the early church in Acts.
I think the evidence tilts in favor of James’ audience, both poor and rich as being Christians…and his point is about how we are to respond in our hearts to the test of poverty and wealth.
Poverty and wealth are both trials…tests of where our faith is…where it needs to be.
What he is doing in this passage is turning conventional wisdom on its head…by giving true wisdom.
The one in humble circumstances (the person who doesn’t have much) ought to take pride in their “exalted” position.
The rich (the person with a lot of resources) ought to take pride in their “low” position.
So, what do you see here that is “counter-intuitive” and “counter cultural” (then and now)?
Well of course it is the reversal of rich and poor in terms of which one is actually “well off”
For James the poor are in the “high position” and the rich are in the “low position.”
Is he just making stuff up…using words in nonsensical ways?
No, he is using words to instill wisdom in perspective…we will see how in a moment.
The other surprising plot twist here is that poor and rich are encouraged to be “proud”
I thought pride was wrong! “God opposes the proud”
No, it’s not always wrong…usually, but not always.
Self-pride…is wrong because it’s dumb and it makes us dumb.
I mean…we are not smart, strong or wise…not really….God alone is.
There is one kind of pride that is encouraged and is an essential aspect of wisdom.
This is what the Lord says: “Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom or the strong man boast of his strength or the rich man boast of his riches, but let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight,” declares the Lord.
The one legitimate boast is in the Lord…that we know the Lord…who is all wise, strong, and rich.
Rich and poor are to be “proud” of their relationship with God…period.
So, how does this fact relate to “proud poor” and the “proud rich”?
First, we must understand that there is nothing inherently good or bad about being poor or rich.
This many seem obvious, but it’s often not.
Especially when it’s common to cast the rich as “evil”…again, forgetting that the average person in Wichita…is rich in terms of the wider world and how most people live.
There are forms of heretical theology that exalt both poverty and wealth as signs of God’s blessings.
Liberation theology often makes the poor into God’s favored ones just by virtue of their being poor.
However, of course, you can be ungodly and poor…or godly and poor…the poverty part of the equation is not the important thing.
Prosperity theology is the other end of the imbalance spectrum…it teaches that financial prosperity (and often health) are signs of excellent faith and God’s blessings.
In reality, being poor or rich is not remotely the point in Scripture.
What is the point?
The heart of course…it is always “the point”?
Why, because…the heart, Proverbs says…is the well-spring, or source, of everything else.
So, what does it mean for the one in humble circumstances to take pride in their high position?
Is this just trying to make people feel better about terrible circumstances?
No, it is casting vision for seeing life as God sees it.
In the end, who cares if you have lot of stuff…but don’t have eternal life.
Jesus, asked, “What good is it to gain to the world and lose your soul.”
Again, this is not equating poverty with spirituality…but rather the perspective that to have relationship with God, to be rich in faith (as he will describe in the next chapter) is to be truly rich.
So, the poor in Christ…are to take pride in the riches of their relationship with God.
*In the summer of 1978 I went on a trip to an island in the West Indies.
-I went for adventure and encountered God in a way that changed the trajectory of my life.
-A man I worked alongside was extremely poor in terms of possessions…yet he was rich in faith and joy as I had not seen.
-In fact, I lived out this passage…I came to see him as in the high position and myself, though I lacked nothing physically, as in a lower position.
-It set me on a journey to find my riches in Christ…I’m on that journey still.
So the Rich person is to take pride in his low position..meaning to place no confidence in their physical resources…but to realize we are all spiritual beggars.
We brought nothing into the world, we will take nothing with us…only faith in Christ.
So, it’s a dramatic perspective shift…for the poor they are to see their poverty in relationship to their spiritual status as kids of the King.
For the rich, they are to see their riches from the perspective of its real eternal value…it has none.
Like a plant wilting in the harsh summer sun…the rich man will fade away even while he goes about his business.
“Goes about his business” means literally, “way life”…while doing life…life comes to an end.
James uses the language of Is. 40:6
All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field. The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the Lord blows on them.
Surely the people are grass. grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever.”
And Psalm 49:16-17
Do not be overawed when a man grows rich, when the splendor of his house increases;
for he will take nothing with him when he dies, his splendor will not descend with him.
James exhorts both the rich and the poor to look toward their spiritual identity as the measure of their ultimate significance.
To the poor believer, tempted to feel insignificant and powerless because the world judges a person on the basis of money and status…
James says: take pride in your exalted status in the spiritual realm as one seated in the heavenlies with Jesus Christ himself.
To the rich believer, tempted to think too much of himself because the world holds him in high esteem,
James says: take pride not in your money or in your social position—things that are doomed all too soon to fade away forever.
Instead the rich are to identify with Christ who was despised and rejected by the world.
Moo, Douglas J.. The Letter of James (The Pillar New Testament Commentary (PNTC)) (p. 165). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Kindle Edition.
So, James, wisely and creatively gives the two circumstantial tests to faith that everyone will encounter at some level…being (or feeling) poor, being (or feeling) rich.
Either life circumstance can be cause for trusting God or turning away from him.
You might say, “I’m safely in the middle…neither poor nor rich.”
To his point…it’s not how much stuff you have its whether stuff has you.
You can lack stuff and yet stuff have hold of your heart.
You can have stuff and stuff not have hold of your heart.
So perhaps James is presenting “poverty and wealth” as the greatest test for Christians.
The writer of Proverbs gets at this truth when he says:
30: 8,9 “Give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’ Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonor the name of my God.”
The power of money (ability to get what want…security and significance) can be a powerful pull…this pull can lead to compromise on a wholehearted commitment to Christ.
Again the pull of money, the love of money…can be present whether you have it or not.
Now we are back to James’ primary concern…a whole-hearted commitment to Christ.
Look at verse 12…and see how he ties this all together…This week’s passage and last.
12 Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.
The blessed person is the one who endures under trial…including poverty and wealth and everything in between.
Again, it is not the details of the trial that is the point…but the impact of trials on our faith.
They test it.
Christians who stand up to the test will receive the crown of life that God has promised those who love him.
James is not addressing salvation here…as in “If you endure trials, then you will be saved.”
He is addressing final rewards…the outcomes of the life of a believer.
When we think of a crown we think of precious jewels and metals in a headpiece.
But when James was writing, people would have immediately thought of a wreath made of greenery given to victors in athletic contests.
The picture being painted is not of royalty…but of finishing an endurance race…winning that race…a wreath was the equivalent Gold medal.
Trials are not being presented as testing whether we have saving faith…but rather testing the quality of our faith…and enduring faith leads to enduring rewards.
I Cor. 9
24 Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. 25 Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. 26 Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. 27 No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.
Paul was secure in his final destiny…he was speaking of his desire to finish well and to have lasting rewards…he wanted his life to have counted, ultimately.
Some might think that our obedience to Christ should be free of any desire for reward.
But throughout the NT, faithfulness in current circumstances is tied to keeping an eye on eternal rewards.
The thing to keep in mind is that these are NOT the kinds of rewards that someone who does not love Christ would see as valuable.
For Paul, the reward was the glory of God through his faithfulness.
If a person is cultivating a selfish heart…they would certainly be unhappy to discover what heaven’s rewards actually consist of…and what they are to do with them.
In Revelation 4, in symbolic language, John writes of the faithful who upon entering the presence of God lay their crowns before him, saying:
“You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being.”
The application of verse 12 is that the person who endures trials, who lives with a faithfulness born or faith…that person’s life will have counted in eternal ways.
Enduring faith…brings enduring results.
What about the believer who doesn’t endure trials faithfully?
We dealt with this when we were in the letters to Corinth…but just briefly, let’s go back there.
1 Cor. 3:10 By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as an expert builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should be careful how he builds. 11 For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, 13 his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work. 14 If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. 15 If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames
All with the foundational faith in Christ have and cannot lose eternal life.
But what we do in this life, on that foundation of Christ…has implications for the life to come.
That’s not to say that there will be rankings in heaven, after all the whole point is to have a life well lived to lay that life at the foot of Jesus.
If it doesn’t matter much to you, at least if you were honest, whether you have much to lay at his feet or not…that is a point of growth to pay attention to.
It should matter…and as you grow…it will matter.
If it has stopped mattering…pay attention to that fact…that is not the direction of enduring faith.
- If you have trusted Christ you are secure in him…you have to have trusted Christ to be secure.
- Your faith in Christ is going to be tested…not to get you to fail…but to grow your faith (more on the different between testing and temptation next week)
- All of life’s trials serve as opportunity for growth in faith expressed in faithfulness.
- If you “fail” a test…mess up, fess up, move one…think “grow” not “pass/fail”
- As you move on…if need be…do life differently.
-Not as in some major external change…but in a heart change.
*James goal here is to help us see all of life as opportunity for growth in maturity.
So we have to see our lives from the perspective of eternity.
Part of what this will mean, is that we have to stop thinking “pass/fail” and we have to stop looking around and measuring ourselves and others by things that will not last.
When we don’t respond with faith expressed in faithfulness…endurance…admit it, then get back to training.
But when you fail, do not sit and wallow in that failure…it is neither God honoring…nor helpful for you and others.
Have you learned, like Paul, to be content in every situation?
Then are you to consider yourself a failure, or is this to be motivation to continue to train?
Trials are opportunity to train for growth…it’s not an easy perspective to maintain, it is a necessary one if we are to learn to be content in every situation.