Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
James 1:2-8, 12
August 31, 2014
Faith In the Midst of Trials
Help! I need somebody! You could hear those words anywhere. Somebody calling for a doctor to help a family member who just had a heart attack. Or a call to the lifeguard who must save the drowning child. Or call to the supervisor because there was a break in a main pipeline. Help! In 1965, John Lennon wrote the song “Help.” You may be disinclined to like the Beatles, but listen to these famous lyrics. “Help me if you can, I'm feeling down / And I do appreciate you being ‘round / Help me get my feet back on the ground / Won't you please, please help me.” Maybe it is difficult when you first listen to the song because of the catchy tune, but when you listen, you hear his need for someone to simply be around because he can’t handle the problems he is going through. Supposedly, the quick rise to fame made John Lennon feel insecure. Just think about the crazy life that Lennon led to try and fill any void, to appease any sense of insecurity, or to remedy his depression. Remember his lyrics from “Imagine” where he questioned if there really is a heaven or a hell.
Help! Most times, our cry for help isn’t conveyed to the world in a song that tops out in the charts. Sometimes that cry for help isn’t even heard. You probably heard recently in the news that the comedian Robin Williams had suffered from depression and then committed suicide. It caught the world by surprise because this was a man known for happiness. After all, he starred in a movie about a real doctor who would dress up as a clown for his young patients, because sometimes, happiness is the best medicine! Unfortunately, these men, like John Lennon and Robin Williams, didn’t have the comfort that we have as Christians.
But that doesn’t mean life is any easier for us as Christians. In fact, sometimes we look at the world around us and it feels like the world has it better than us. It feels like we suffer through pain so much more. That the death of our loved ones sting so much more. That our relationships struggle more, sometimes because of other troubles. God, what did I do to deserve this? Why am I going through this? Don’t get me wrong, I want to trust God. But, it becomes difficult to remember Him, to even bother praying to Him, because I feel so let down from the past, because He didn’t answer my prayer the way I wanted. I just don’t understand why I have to go through this!
James completely understood what we go through as we face the difficulties of our lives. In his letter, James was writing to Christians who were no doubt going through their own problems. You can tell how important this topic was to James because already in the second sentence of the whole letter, James immediately cuts to the chase. These new Jewish Christians that James was writing to were good on theory, but not good on practice. In the Holman Christian Standard version it says that they doubted God and were indecisive because of their trials.
Literally, it says that they were double minded. One mind believing God, the other mind distrusting God. They want to trust their God, but they also want to trust their instincts. James warns that such a person is unstable in everything they do, not only in their prayers. That person runs in whatever direction the wind takes them, bobbing up and down. The mind takes up a thought or a new fad that tries to soothe the pain, and drops it again. It rises in enthusiasm with another belief, only to let go of it, discouraged and heartbroken. The mind develops no perseverance only to be tossed around by the problems of this life, just like a piece of driftwood on Lake Winnebago in the middle of a storm.
We are all guilty of that double mindedness. We question why God does something. Maybe things get better, we become optimistic only to be thrown back in the dirt. Think of the great apostle Peter that we heard about in our Gospel lesson. This great man of faith, who had the confidence to later speak to thousands of people on Pentecost, was able to experience this metaphor of James in a literal sense. He began to sink like a rock when he took his eyes off of Jesus because of the wind and the waves.
James tells us that if we pray to God, doubting if he can really pull it off, we are practically insulting God. We are treating Him like a mere human who doesn’t really deserve any confidence. In fact, James says that the person praying like that shouldn’t even bother to think that they would receive anything from the Lord. But we are reminded to stop doubting! Happily trust in the God who has loved you to the point of giving up his own Son for you and who invites you to keep asking for his help.
But am I the only one who thought, “James, no offense, but I think you’re crazy?” How can I be joyful, and happy when I’m dealing with my problems? What a crazy way of thinking to consider trials as “joy!” Who honestly likes going through difficult times? Raise your hand. Yeah, that’s what I thought. No one. What makes difficulty so difficult is that even though some people may be going through the same thing, you feel so alone and you can’t escape. People may even tell you to snap out of your bad mood. But how are you supposed to smile when at that moment, it feels like the worst moment in your life? The Psalm writer who wrote Psalm 42 was going through some incredible emotional suffering and pain as he wrote, “My tears have been my food day and night, while all day long people say to me,“Where is your God?” I remember this as I pour out my heart: how I walked with many, leading the festive procession to the house of God, with joyful and thankful shouts. Why am I so depressed? Why this turmoil within me? (HCSV)”
We may say it is crazy to be happy in our sufferings. But in the eyes of faith, it actually makes perfect sense. James doesn’t deny that trials no doubt bring their share of suffering and heartache. But, he reminds us to COUNT it as joy. Christians know that trials are like spiritual discipline that mature us and make us grow as Christians. Sometimes, we need to be patient in our trials. Patience isn’t giving up. Patience is godly courage that confronts difficulties and deals with them. Our faith is like a muscle that gets stronger when it feels resistance and overcomes. James gives to us such an interesting way of looking at our trials: They are good things. Obviously, He isn’t saying to go out and look for trouble. However, if we are able to look beyond the present and see the product God intends to produce through our suffering, we will experience joy. This perspective is impossible for most people. But those who have confidence in God look to Him for strength.
Trouble can be good when it drives us to ask the one person who can actually help us. It is arrogant to think that we are completely self sufficient. God has no hidden motives, unlike those who are two minded. A good degree of wisdom is required to see the good in trials. If we don’t have that wisdom, God wants us to pray to Him so that he can supply us with what we don’t have! It is God’s disposition to give! God’s children don’t have to feel stupid or guilty when they come to God for help. He won’t say, “What did you do with that last gift I gave you?” He won’t remind us of our faults because we really are forgiven in his eyes. He simply gives that wisdom when we ask. As Paul said in 2 Corinthians 12:9,10, “When I’m weak, then I am strong.” What an encouragement to pray!
Honestly, how many times have you heard this before? From little on, you’re taught that if you keep your nose to grindstone, you can bear through your troubles and you’ll become resilient. And we sort of nod our heads yes and move on. Don’t let this become cliché vocabulary to us. Don’t assume that you have everything figured out. When we think that way, we stop trusting in God. We start relying on our instincts. We no longer seek God for further understanding and we stop studying God’s Word. We fail to grasp that God’s Word requires ongoing study so that we might gain more wisdom.
Wisdom does not come down out of the sky. In God’s word, we are made wise because we see the shallowness of the things around us. In God’s word, we get the answers of why things are the way that they are. His Word brings wisdom and gives to us the strength to put our trust in God. God’s word helps us put things into their proper perspectives. That is wisdom that that can make a mere child wiser than the most intelligent person in the world.
Think of God’s word like a compass or even a GPS. When you are out in the woods, everything looks alike. I may be tempted to follow my instincts instead of the compass. But I would only end up walking in circles. I need to stick with the compass! In the midst of our troubles, we might try to rely on our instincts. But you’ll only end up lost. Trust in God’s unchanging grace. It will not fail to lead you to safety in the midst of pain or difficulty.
Christians operate under a different principle. While the world operates under the belief of reward and punishment for what you do, we live in grace. We may be persuaded to go back to that old way of thinking when it comes to our trials. When we go through difficulties, we wonder who is responsible? What did I do to deserve this? Unfortunately, we still are in a world of sin, and still loaded down with a sinful nature. Because of that, we will continue to see the effects of sin. Sometimes, it will cause us to feel weighed down. So, it isn’t always easy to see the grace of God with clarity, especially because Satan and our sinful flesh try hard to make us doubt God’s grace. However, we return to Jesus Christ as being the answer. What comfort we find in knowing that God deals with us always in terms of his love. He corrects us when we turn away from him, but he doesn’t punish us for our sins. Christ has taken on the punishment we deserved, and all our sins have been forgiven.
James reminds his people of the goal that we have at the end of the long drawn out race of our lives. We have the crown of life, earned for us by Christ. We have rest from the wind and waves! We have that comfort from God’s Word that God loves us and when we cry out in agony for help and comfort, he is there. He is there leading us beside quiet waters. And when the waves seem to great for us, God reaches out his hand, picks us up, and reminds us of everything he has done for us. When we deal with our trials, God matures us and encourages us with the fact that there will be a time when we will no longer have to suffer.
As Christians we will feel bogged down with the trials that we carry. But, our lives aren’t hopeless dead ends. When we cry out the same words that John Lennon or even Robin Williams were thinking, Help, I need somebody, we have that answer. We have a God who we can trust, a God who deeply loves us and wants us to have an intimate connection with Him, and a God who provides the help that we need.
Amen. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.