How to Suffer, Part Two (James 1:9-18)
Big Idea: Don’t blame God when you suffer. Instead, remember who you are in Jesus, and remember his purposes for you.
St. John Ambulance offers a CPR course in Toronto, which you should really take if you haven’t already done so. The ad for their course says, “Ensure you know what to do.” Nobody wants to perform CPR. We all hope that it will be a skill that we learn that we never have to use. Nobody wants to be in that position. But we also know that we may need it one day, and that the time to prepare is now, not when we’re in the middle of the crisis.
In the same way, James offers us a course that we really should take if we haven’t already done so. It’s called “How to Suffer.” We could almost subtitle it, “Ensure you know what to do.” Nobody wants to suffer. We hope that we’ll never need to apply the lessons we learn from the book of James. But we also know that we will need it one day, and the time to prepare is now, now when we’re in the middle of our suffering.
Unlike CPR, it’s guaranteed that we will need this training. Everyone here will suffer. In fact, everyone here has already suffered, and some of you are going through a period of suffering right now. If you’re not, don’t worry, because suffering is coming your way. It’s inevitable. To be human in this broken world means that suffering is simply part of life. Nobody gets off this planet without suffering. It’s inevitable. So we need to learn how to deal with it. The best time to prepare is when we’re not suffering, but it’s never too late to learn.
Last week, if you were here, we began to look at the book of James. Right off the bat, James helps us learn about suffering. He told us that when we suffer, consider how to find joy by remembering the benefits, and remembering God’s help.
But he’s not done yet. In today’s passage, he continues to teach us about suffering. And today he’s going to give us one thing to not to, and three things to do instead.
So let’s learn from James how to suffer. Let’s begin with one thing not to do.
When Suffering, Don’t Blame God
This is one of the greatest temptations we face when we’re suffering. We look for someone to blame, and many times we end up blaming God. We’ve probably all done it. But James tells us to avoid this mistake. Look at what he says in verse 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.”
To understand what James is saying, we need to understand two different terms that he uses. One is trials. It’s what James has been talking about so far in this passage. A trial is some hardship that we face, or some form of suffering in our lives.
But there’s another term that James uses is in this passage. He refers to temptation. Trials and temptations are not the same thing, but trials often lead to temptation. Many times when we go through suffering, we see that trail as a temptation: as an occasion to begin to doubt God’s goodness and care for us. Trials aren’t the same thing as temptations, but they can lead to the temptation to begin to blame God.
So James warns us of this danger. And he gives us this rock-solid truth that we need to cling to when we’re tempted: God isn’t the source of our temptation. Sometimes we tend to think that God is throwing obstacles in our way, just waiting for us to fail. What a distorted picture of God. James assures us that it’s never God’s intent to tempt us so that we will fail. God may allow us to go through trials. He may even allow us to be tempted. But he’s not the source of that temptation. God, after all, can’t be tempted, so why would he ever be interested in tempting us? His purpose for us is not that we would fail, but that we would grow through it. We can turn to God when we’re tempted, knowing that he didn’t cause it.
If God isn’t the source of temptation, what is the source then? James leaves no room for misunderstanding:
But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. (James 1:14-15)
What’s the source of temptation? Ourselves! In particular, our own desires. The word that he uses for desire gives us such a rich insight into the nature of sin. The word means something that we desire too much. You could say that it means “over-desire.” As Tim Keller says, “The main problem our heart has is not so much desires for bad things, but our over-desires for good things.” Our longings — not just for bad things, but also for good things — can entice us away from God. It’s like a fishing lure, as one person explains. There’s nothing wrong with a largemouth bass liking the shiny object it sees, but it can lead to tragic consequences.
That’s what the Devil does to us. He knows what we want in our fallenness. He drops things down in front of us and, because what we want is so often selfish or short-term or greedy or prideful, we’re enticed and we’re dragged away. We’re snookered. We take the bait. We’re dragged away because of what we are. (D.A. Carson)
To change the image, James says, these desires — these lures — can lead us to sin, and sin grows and leads us to death. This is where things go wrong when we suffer. Our own longings for comfort, for escape, for explanation, can lead us into temptation, and if we give into temptation, it can draw us away from God and lead us ultimately to decisions that are damaging to us, or even decisions that can even be deadly.
The alternative, when we suffer, is to count on God’s goodness. James says:
Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures. (James 1:16-18)
Here’s what we know and can count on, even in the middle of suffering: God is good. God’s heart toward us is generous. He loves to shower us with good gifts. In fact, every good thing you have in your life is because God is good. Never doubt God’s goodness, especially when you’re suffering.
You know, there are a lot of things that change. The weather changes. The length of days changes. Right now we’re in the middle of winters, and the days are short. We’re in a period of greater darkness. This will change. The circumstances will change. A lot of things change, but some things will never change. For instance, the North Star will not change. No matter where you are, if you can find the North Star in the sky you can navigate by it, because it will always be in the same place.
James says that as we go through life, a lot of things will change. Our circumstances will change. The people around us will change. Almost everything will change. But one thing will never change: God’s goodness toward us. We can navigate our lives by it. His is stable. He is good. He never has bad days.
The ultimate proof, according to James, is that he’s saved us. He could have condemned us. He had every reason to. Instead, he sent his Son to save us so that we could be spiritually reborn. If you want the ultimate evidence of God’s goodness, look to the cross. There’s no greater proof of his goodness than this.
So when you’re going through a hard time, never allow it to push you away from God. God is not tempting you. God is good. Don’t allow the trial to become a temptation that entices you. Don’t blame God. God is good, and he is generous and the author of all that’s good in our lives.
This is what not to do when we suffer. It’s so important. But it’s not the only point that James has.
When Suffering, Do This Instead
When we suffer, James gives us two things we should do instead of blaming God. Each of these is practical. Each of is essential when we go through a period of suffering. James gives us two things to remember when we suffer:
Remember who you are in Jesus
First, remember who you are. Read verses 9 to 11:
Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, and the rich in his humiliation, because like a flower of the grass he will pass away. 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. (James 1:9-11)
There’s a lot in these verses, and at first it doesn’t look that comforting. If you’re lowly, boast in your exaltation. I think James is talking to two different kinds of Christians here. Some within the church are rich. Some are poor. James has the same underlying message for both of them: don’t base your identity on your circumstances. If you’re poor, that isn’t the truest thing about you. If you’re rich, that’s not even the truest thing about you.
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—but, paradoxically, in your humble status as a person who identifies with one who was “despised and rejected” by the world. The point of the passage is, then, that Christians must always evaluate themselves by spiritual and not material standards. (Douglas Moo)
The truest and most important thing about you has nothing to do with your success or your suffering. The truest and most important thing about you can’t be taken away. It’s that, if you are in Jesus Christ, God is for you. You are his child. If things are going well, don’t get your identity from your success but from your status as his child. If things aren’t going well, don’t get your identity from your suffering, but from the fact that God has promised he will never leave or forsake you. When you suffer — even when you aren’t suffering — remember who you are in Jesus. That is the most important thing about you.
It sounds so easy, doesn’t it? But it only happens when we take our eyes off our circumstances and fix them on God. The most important thing about us isn’t our immediate circumstance, because that will change soon enough whether your circumstance is good or bad. The most important thing is something that will never change if you have trusted Jesus: that you are his, and that he is for you forever.
Remember his purposes for you
Second, remember his purpose. Look at 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. (James 1:12)
Last week we looked at one of the reasons that we should consider it joy when we experience trials. The reason: that suffering produces maturity in our lives. When we learn to stand up under trial, something happens to us. Our character changes. God goes to work in us and we become completely different people than we were before. God is more committed to our character, the saying goes, than he is to our comfort.
But here James gives us another benefit of suffering. After we’ve suffered, we’ll receive the ultimate reward: the crown of life. He’s saying the same thing that Paul said in another place: “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18). When we respond to trails with perseverance, we will be blessed. God’s purpose for us is that we will stand up under the trial, and that we will receive the reward that’s been promised to us.
If you woke up today, and I said that I wanted you to run through mud and willingly be electrically shocked, and to endure all kinds of crazy hardships, you’d look at me like I was crazy. But then if I told you that, if you ran through the mud and over the obstacles and through the live electrical wires, that you’d reach the end of the course and receive a medal for completing the Tough Mudder, you might think about it. All of a sudden the mud and the electrical shocks would have a purpose.
If you knew you had to go through life, through all the nasty things that life is going to throw at you, for no reason at all other than stuff happens, you’d have to wonder at the purpose of it all. But if you knew that at the end of the race you’d reach the finish line, and you’d receive the prize for running the race well, it would change everything. Your suffering would have purpose.
I began today by saying that James is giving us an important lesson. Like CPR, we hope we’ll never need it. But the reality is that we will. Because we’re going to suffer, we need to learn how to suffer well.
So how should we suffer? Don’t blame God when you suffer. Instead, remember who you are in Jesus, and remember his purposes for you. We can’t avoid suffering, but we can learn to suffer with our eyes fixed on Jesus as we remember God’s goodness, that he is for us through Jesus, and that a crown of life awaits all of those who trust Jesus and persevere through suffering. May we all learn to suffer in this way.