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Life is hard. Does anyone wish to argue about that? In a recent Sunday School class our teacher asked us to list the areas where we felt God might be testing us. Right off the bat someone mentioned health. Either we struggle or our loved ones struggle with sickness. Then someone mentioned problems on the job. Heads nodded across the room. Then we talked about stress related to our children. When our teacher asked if the challenges ended when our kids were out of the house (our class is mostly in our 50s and early 60s), we all said no. The problems change, but once a parent, always a parent. Then someone mentioned betrayal. The class got solemn when we heard that word because we’ve all had friends who let us down. In some cases, we had a spouse who deserted us. When the teacher mentioned money as a cause of potential problems, he smiled and said some people have the problem of too much money. “I doubt if any of us have that issue,” he said. But money (or the lack thereof) tends to be the number one cause of marital discord.
Someone spoke up to say that God fits the trial to the person so that what happens to me can’t be compared with what happens to you. Our struggles are not all the same because we have a wise Heavenly Father who fits the trial to the person.James would agree with that sentiment. In a sense his whole letter is about how to respond properly when we are under pressure. He has already reminded us that trials are a necessary part of our spiritual growth (James 1:2–4) and that there is a blessing reserved for those who respond rightly (James 1:12) and do not blame God when hard times comes (James 1:13–15). In our text (James 1:16–18) he advances the argument by reminding us that God is good all the time, even during our hardest trials. We can say it this way: God is not on trial during our trials; we are. He uses hard times to put our faith to the test. This passage shows us three things we need to remember if we are going to pass the test with flying colors.
“Don’t be deceived, my beloved brothers” (v. 16). When hard times come, it’s easy to blame God for our problems. Like Adam in the Garden of Eden, we are experts at passing the buck.
It’s not my fault. I didn’t deserve this. You started it. The devil made me do it. I couldn’t control myself. They had it in for me.The whole thing was rigged.I’ve had a string of bad luck. If I were older/younger/richer/smarter/single/married/better educated/better connected, this wouldn’t have happened to me. In the end all our excuses lead us back to God. He is the one with whom we have to do. He made us, he gave us life, and one day we will give an account to him. All our well-oiled excuses will be exposed as lies when we stand in the blinding light of his perfection.So don’t be deceived into thinking you can blame God for the temptations you face. That’s the first thing James wants us to see.
He adds an important truth when he calls his readers “my beloved brothers.” That’s not just a term of affection. As a practical matter, James wouldn’t have known all the Jewish Christians who were scattered in many places (see James 1:1). It’s not as if he’s saying, “I love you guys.” No doubt that was true, but the phrase means much more than that. James is reminding his readers that they were greatly loved by God. They were brothers and sisters in Christ who had experienced the love of God in a deep way. He is really saying, “When you are tempted to give up, remember how much God loves you.” H. B. Charles Jr. says it this way: “The peril of the unredeemed sinner is unbelief. The peril of the redeemed sinner is misbelief.”
We “misbelieve” when we forget what it cost God to save us.We “misbelieve” when we forget the pit from which we were rescued.We “misbelieve” when we accuse God of mistreating us. There really is no cure for “misbelief” except replacing falsehood with the truth. I met a woman who came to Christ from a background of brokenness that included almost every sin you might imagine. When she came to church, she had no trouble believing she was a sinner. In an email to me she enumerated many of her sins, and then she said this:
One night I was driving home in rush hour traffic on the freeway and listening to a Christian radio station. I can’t tell you exactly who was speaking, but someone was talking about the crucifixion and I didn’t know what happened—I started crying and saying something like "Oh Jesus, please forgive me for sinning against you, I am so sorry, after all that you did for me, look what I have done to you—I know who you are now." And the feeling in that car was overwhelming. I didn’t know what was going on them—but I know now. The Holy Spirit swooped down on me, he called me to Jesus and I came. Isn’t that something - the most incredible experience of my life and it happened in a rush hour traffic jam on a cold night in November. I left the house that morning and came back that night a different woman—and I had no clue what was going on.
To quote my favorite song which seems so very appropriate, and which in one sentence certainly sums up what has happened since I came to Christ: "Amazing grace how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me, once I was lost but now I’m found, was blind but now I see.”
She signed her note, “Lingering at the foot of the cross.” That’s exactly where we ought to be all the time. As long as we linger at the cross, contemplating what Jesus did for us, we are not likely to be deceived when hard times come.
“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” (v. 17). The change in subject seems abrupt, but the flow of thought is clear. We must not blame God for our temptations because evil desire leads to sin that leads to death (vv. 13–15). Twice James warns us not to blame God for our problems. When we sin, we have only ourselves to blame.
Verse 17 sets up a contrast. Everything good in this world ultimately comes from God. If it’s good, God made it, he gave it, or he sent it. The familiar words of the Doxology state this very plainly: “Praise God from whom all blessings flow.” I wonder if we really believe that. Not long ago I asked a friend how he was doing. He laughed and said, “I’m upright and taking nourishment.” I laughed with him. But do we realize that “in him (that is, God) we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28)? Do we understand that we are alive right now because God wants us alive? We breathe because he gives us air to breathe and lungs to take it in. If God withdrew his hand of blessing, not one of us would take another breath. We see and hear and move and think and laugh and clap and dream and cry all because of God. I suppose we all know that, but rarely do we think of it. Rarely do we stop to give thanks for the blessing of life itself. But recently we heard the sad news that Vice President Joe Biden’s son Beau died at the age of 46 from brain cancer. Here is one of the most powerful men on earth, and yet his son dies of cancer. The list of the sick and suffering seems to have no end. Death comes to all of us sooner or later.
If you can read my words, you must be alive. If you are alive, it is a gift from God. If God has given you the gift of life, will you not give thanks to him? We ought to ponder Paul’s question in 1 Corinthians 4:7, “What do you have that you did not receive?” Do you boast of your wealth or your fame or your talent or your accomplishments? Do you think you good looks owe only to your DNA? Who gave you your talent, your strength, your creativity, your ingenuity? Who gave you the blessings you take for granted?
James emphasizes this when he says that every good gift “comes down” from the Father of lights. William Shakespeare reminds us that
“The quality of mercy is not strained.It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven.”
These famous lines from The Merchant of Venice are true in every way. Mercy always comes down. It starts with God and moves to man, it begins in heaven and ends on earth. You don’t bargain for mercy because to make a bargain you’ve got to have something to offer, and we have nothing to offer God. Mercy is indeed like the gentle rain that softens the hard soil of the human heart.
We need this because we are sinners worse than we know. Even the best Christian would have no hope of heaven without the shining mercy of God. If God did not forgive and keep on forgiving, if he did not continue to pour out his mercy like the “gentle rain from heaven,” we would be utterly and completely lost.What kind of God do we serve?He’s completely good.He’s constantly good.He’s unchangeably good.
God will never not be good.God could never be less than good.Everything he does is good.
I’m sure you’ve been in churches where they do the call-and-response that goes like this:Preacher: God is good.Congregation: All the time.Preacher: And all the time.Congregation. God is good.When I mentioned this in a sermon, someone told me their church does that in a slightly different way. They say it in five parts, one for each finger on their right hand. It goes like this:
God is good.All the time.In every situation.No matter what.God is good.You should hold up your right hand and say that right now, touching each finger in turn. Once you do it, it will stick in your mind.When I mentioned the basic call-and-response in a written sermon a few years ago, someone in Nigeria wrote back and said that in their churches, after saying “God is good, all the time, and all the time, God is good,” the congregation says in unison, “I am a witness.”
That’s really good because it brings the truth home. It’s one thing to say “God is good” as an abstract statement, almost like a theological cheer for the home team. It’s even better if you think about those other statements, “In every situation” and “No matter what.” But best of all is to make it personal by adding, “I am a witness.”Sometimes it’s hard to say. Even when we think we know what will happen tomorrow, life can turn on a dime. No one knows what a day may bring forth. That’s a solemn fact. Life is not just one thing. It’s good and bad, sickness and health, weeping and rejoicing, life and death, war and peace, all mixed together.That’s why we need a God in whom there is no shadow of turning. He is the still point in our changing world. He is not good today and bad tomorrow. He does not capriciously change his mind and decide to be kind today and harsh tomorrow.We are like that.God is not.When you are tempted to give up, remember the goodness of God.When you feel like giving in to temptation, remember the goodness of God.When you want to resign from life, remember the goodness of God.
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“Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures” (v. 18). As James thinks of the goodness of God, he naturally turns to an illustration his readers would understand. The phrase “brought us forth” translates a Greek word that means “to give birth.” What do we know about this divine birth?
The text says God saved us “of his own will.” Whatever else we can say about our “free will,” let’s be clear on one key point. Salvation doesn’t start with us; it starts with God. I’m reminded of the new convert who rose with great joy in a prayer meeting to share his testimony of how Jesus saved him. Afterwards, an older Christian, thinking to admonish him, said, “My brother, what you shared was wonderful, but you didn’t say anything about your part in salvation.” The new convert replied, “My part in salvation was to run from the Lord as fast as I could. God’s part was to pursue me until he found me and saved me by his grace.” James would agree with that answer. Salvation is of the Lord. We sometimes say, “I found the Lord,” which is perfectly true. But if the Lord didn’t find us first, we would never find him on our own.
Why do we need new life? The answer is simple. We need “new” life because the “old” life we were born with is filled with sin and disobedience. As James has just said in verses 14–15, lust leads to sin and sin leads to death.Warren Wiersbe says it this way:
“By granting us a new birth, God declares that he cannot accept the old birth.... He rejects your first birth (no matter how noble it might have been in the eyes of men), and he announces that you need a second birth” (Be Mature, p. 53).
That’s why Jesus said, “You must be born again” (John 3:7). The new birth is not an option if you wish to go to heaven. Even the best among us need to be born again.It is a gift of God, given by grace and received by faith.
This is why we preach the Word!It is not our words that bring life. I can talk until I’m blue in the face, but my words can never give life. My words are human words. They have all the limitations that go with my flesh. My words may amuse or comfort or anger or embitter. They may instruct or they may challenge. But my words in and of themselves have no power to give life.
But the Word of God is different. Because it comes from God, it has ultimate authority. Because it is true, it is 100% reliable. Hebrews 4:12 reminds us that the Word of God is “alive and active.” It is a sword that lays bare the hidden secrets of the heart. When we preach God’s Word in the power of God’s Spirit, it penetrates every heart, reveals every sin, exposes every excuse, shows us our need, and then leads us to the cross of Christ where we can be forgiven.
The Jewish readers in the first century were familiar with the concept of “firstfruits.” Each year the early part of the harvest was set aside for the Lord as a testimony that the whole harvest belonged to God. To call us “firstfruits” means that we are a sign to the world that a great harvest is underway. God intends to use us to display his grace to the whole world. We are to be “Exhibit A” of what God can do in through fallible, broken people.You might say our job is to be fallible and broken. We’ve got that part nailed.God’s job is to show his grace through people like us. He’s working at that day and night.
That puts our trials in a new perspective. Recently I came across this quote on a friend’s Facebook page: “When it is all finished, you will discover it was never random.” If your life seems random at the moment, you may be sure that it is not all finished. We are never really “finished” in this life because God always has more work to do in us.As we come to the end of this message, let’s wrap up by reminding ourselves of truth we’ve heard before: It’s not about me. It’s about God. It’s not about now. It’s about eternity.
Very often the here-and-now won’t make sense to us. I have no magic formula to give you that will dispel your fears, clear away your confusion, and wipe away your tears. We are reminded over and over that into each life some rain must fall. Sometimes it sprinkles, sometimes it pours, and sometimes the flood waters threaten to overwhelm us. Said another way, if you ever get to the place where all your questions are answered, all your problems are gone, and all your trials have vanished, sit back and relax. You’ve made it to heaven. Between now and then, there are “dangers, toils and snares” ahead of us. No one is exempt from the troubles of this life. But the grace that has taken us this far will safely lead us home to God.Someone going through a hard time posted this on Facebook:
Hope is tough. You can't really halfway hope. Either you hope for something or you don't.
Then came this insight:
Our God is good, and faithful, and gracious, and he loves to show those attributes to us if we pay enough attention to catch them. We have been trying to pay attention to those attributes, to hope more in what is unseen than in what is seen.
What a beautiful way to put it. I’m glad our hope doesn’t depend on the fickle sway of circumstances but on the solid rock called God. That’s what James is talking about in this passage.When hard times come . . .Remember God’s love,Remember God’s goodness, andRemember God’s grace.A good memory of the right things will keep you strong when hard times hit.
Dr. Ray Pritchard serves as president of Keep Believing Ministries. He has ministered extensively overseas in China, Bolivia, Columbia, Paraguay, Belize, Haiti, Nigeria, Switzerland, Russia, India and Nepal. He is a frequent conference speaker and guest on Christian radio and television talk shows. He has written 31 books.