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Sunday, August 29, 2021

Nothing but Joy?

A Sermon based upon James 1:1-8

Charles J. Tomlin, BA, MDiv; DMin;

August 29th, 2021, Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership 

Series: The Book of James, 1/12


James 1:1–11 (NRSV): James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, 

To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion:  Greetings. 

2 My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; 4 and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing. 

5 If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you. 6 But ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind; 7, 8 for the doubter, being double-minded and unstable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord. 


Our high school photographer was an outspoken atheist.  Once he passed by a Christian Club meeting and shouted out insults.  For some reason he just didn’t like Christians, but for him the problem was more academic than personal.  I worked with him on the school newspaper staff. Even though he knew I was a Christian, he never said anything derogatory to me.  He even came to the hospital to visit me after my car accident.  He also brought me a pizza.  I’ll never forget that act of kindness.

Only a few years ago, when Facebook was created, I befriended several of my fellow High School classmates and he was one of them.  Today, he works on staff in a Psychiatric Hospital in New Orleans.   Often he makes political comments on Facebook and recently he posted his continued disdain for religion.  He posted: ‘If someone were to randomly cut and paste together various texts from the world’s religions, your own assemblage would make more sense than the originals.’   I responded that it would be the same with science, art, politics or most anything human from the past.  Religious documents, like most all historical documents are particular, specific and never random.  If you do not try to understand what was intended for the original hearers, you miss what they were trying to say.   That’s why in colleges and universities study music, art, and history.   

         What my school friend was right about is that any religious writing, the Bible too, does not make sense if you take it out of its context.  That’s why in 1 Peter, there is a warning that Scripture can be used for your own ‘private interpretation’.  It’s only when you look at the bigger picture and try to understand it’s context; what was happening when the Scripture was written that enables us to rightly divide the truth of what we may still need to hear today.  

These opening words from James are certainly a good example of words that need interpretation.    Why in the world would anyone ‘count it nothing but joy’ when they ‘suffered different trials’?   It sounds, at least on the surface of things, completely insane and sadistic to find ‘joy’ in pain and suffering.  Why would James start his letter with such a strange statement like this? 



         One thing particularly important to understand about the book of James is that James is not a deep, theological treatise.   While James is certainly a Christian writing, it rarely mentions “Jesus”.   Also, ‘God’ is referenced mostly for practical reasons— and there is nothing more practical or earthy than human suffering and pain.  

Perhaps the constant possibility of facing trials and tribulations in life is why James doesn’t begin his writing with philosophical theories about suffering, but simply admits what we know all to well.   Some time we will all ‘suffer’ troubles and trials.  Someday we will all have to face the inevitable which can also be the unthinkable.  The question of pain is not ‘if’, but ‘when’; or in James’ case: ‘Whenever’.

         This ‘whenever’ came for Frank Tupper back in 1983 when his wife Betty Jean, fought a courageous, but losing battle with breast cancer.  This ‘whenever’ reoccurred again, when Tupper himself suffered a fall in his home and spent the last years of his life as a quadriplegic, confined to a wheelchair.   What makes Tupper’s story unique, is that Frank Tupper was also Baptist professor, Dr. Frank Tupper, having been one of the most respected Baptist theologians in the United States.  Tupper not only taught at Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, but ended his career at Wake Forest Divinity School, in Winston-Salem.   

        It was from the experience of his wife’s on intense struggle with cancer that Dr. Tupper came to write a book on God and suffering, entitled ‘Scandalous Providence.’  Tupper calls God’s providential care ‘scandalous because being a Christian and loved by God doesn’t prevent pain and suffering.  Also, God’s providential care is scandalous because, he admits, there is no final philosophical or theological answer to ‘why’ good people suffer.  What we can know, however, is that a loving God does care for us, and that we are not alone.  In Christ, God suffers with us.   Even though life might seem to be ‘scandalous’ in particular moment, or it might appear that God isn’t answering our prayers, we can be sure, Tupper learned, that ‘God is doing all that God can’ under the circumstances of our physical and temporary lives.

         I don’t know about you, but ‘answers’, even thoughtful, good ones like this, are never enough to help me get through the painful and difficult unknowns of life.  Yes, its certainly comforting to trust that ‘God is doing all that God can do’ but sometimes we just have to keep moving forward and looking forward too, without having any kind of answer at all.  

         That’s what Nicolas Woltersdorf had to do when he faced the tragedy of losing his only 25 year-old son Eric in a mountain climbing accident in Germany.  Even as philosophy professor, he wrote that in that terrible, heartbreaking moment he wasn’t the least bit interested in trying to answer the problem of pain and suffering, nor was he angry at God. No, in that most particular moment of overwhelming grief and tears he discovered how much he felt joined with all those who have to face such unimaginable and unanswerable hurt and grief.  

        The book of James speaks from this universal experience of suffering.   James says that our trials may be varied or different, but this experience is something we have in common with everyone.   James deals with this reality not from the angle of being a theologian or philosopher, but he writes as a believer, a Christian, or as he says, ‘a servant of God’ and ‘the Lord Jesus Christ’ who is  a ‘brother’ living among the ‘Dispersion’ (1:1).   This dispersion refers to the people of God (Jews and Christians) who were forced to move away from their physical and spiritual home.   In facing this situation himself, James is speaking not philosophically or in theory, but as one who is suffering too.




What James observes first hand is that even very negative, difficult, and painful events—-even though they neither planned nor positive, the ‘silver-lining’ is that they may still have positive results our lives.  Trials can develop character and maturity.  Again, this isn’t a philosophical observation.  He not saying this always happens this way for everyone or that this is what trials are about, but he merely observed what often happens to people of faith when we keep our faith when facing troubles and trials.  When trials are taken as tests rather than punishments, they can have very positive results in one’s life.

There are many ways we might want to argue with James, since we know this isn’t always true.   Sometimes people get worse rather than better.  Sometimes people are broken completely, and never recover from great suffering.   James isn’t making a philosophical rule.  He doesn’t address exceptions.   James is simply speaking from his own experiences.   This is how he speaks of ‘trials’ as being ‘nothing but joy’.  He’s not talking about finding ‘joy’ in a particular trial, but he’s speaking about the joy of faith that is often proven only through suffering and hardship.   

Again,  we must understand this ‘joy’ James means isn’t random or general, but James sees what he observes particularly in his world, among his people, and in his own life too.  He understands that even in great struggle, like the apostle Paul also observed, God works for the ‘good’ of those who love God and know that they are called to God’s purpose.  The purpose is not the pain itself, but the purpose is found in God who works even through the pain, and most often too, not without the pain.   As my High School Football coach used to say to the football team, when they were grumbling about workouts: ‘No pain, No gain!’  It’s the ‘gain’ through the pain, not the pain all by itself, that James is talking about.

James names this ‘gain’ as the development of character; endurance, maturity, and fulfillment.   ‘Life is difficult,  psychiatrist Scott Peck began his  popular book on emotional and spiritual growth.  He went on to show case after case, that by positively dealing with the challenges have specific opportunities to grow, emotionally, physically, and also spiritually.  

One day, I was looking at the Facebook page of one of my wife’s relatives.  Her cousin’s son and wife posted their process of building their new house on 7 acres of land in Indian Trail, N.C.  The house is modeled after Teresa’s parents farmhouse, but it is a much larger, modernized version.  Teresa’s cousin’s son is a Pharmacist.   He and his wife actually built this house mostly by themselves, during their off hours from work.  It was a long, slow, arduous process.  In one post, they are putting up tiles on the wall.  The wife comically comments, ‘and we managed not to kill each other doing it.’  

Her comment was insightful, but also so true isn’t it?  When we accept challenges in life, and work through them, literally, like they did, we not only accomplish things, we also grow through those challenges and accomplishments.  Sometimes, those challenges can be long, difficult, painful, but if we keep the faith, keep our focus on the final outcome like that couple did, we can look back and see not only what we did, but how we have also ‘grown’ and ‘matured’ through everything we went through.

This is similar to what James is saying about finding ‘joy’ through the trials and hurts of life.   We can ‘count them nothing but joy’, not because they don’t hurt, or weren’t difficult.  We ‘consider them joy’ because after we go through them, we can now look back and not only see how we’ve come through them, but we also can see who we’ve become that we probably would have never become, had we not had these challenging, even difficult and painful experiences.

While I don’t think James is thinking philosophically about the big picture of ‘why’ God allows suffering, I do think he comes close to what many philosophers have reflected upon; namely, that even though we can’t fully understand why human’s suffer, it’s impossible to think of who we might be, without having challenges or the having to face pain, suffering and trials in our lives?  Evidence shows that the easier we have it, not only the ‘softer’ we become, but we also tend to become ‘spoiled’ brats.



Reflecting upon the hope for something positive coming out of trials and tribulations, James finally turns to our human need for wisdom and integrity too, especially when difficult times come.  

When we speak of wisdom, we all know there’s a big difference between having knowledge about something and gaining wisdom through something.   What James means by wisdom isn’t just that wisdom come through experience.  It might, but it doesn’t always. Becoming wise about life or in life, and through life’s struggles, certainly isn’t automatic.   You don’t just go through hardships and gain maturity or wisdom.    

No, when troubles come, even though we haven’t chosen this trial or trouble, we still have a choice to make.   As one pastor in Texas once put it, when troubles come, we can either ‘get bitter, or better’.   That catchy phrase is an over simplification of situations that aren’t always simple, but it still makes a valid point.   When troubles come, even though we haven’t caused it, we still have a very important choice to make.   We have to decide whether we will face the problem with faith, or only as another cold, fact of life.  We have to decide whether we will grow and mature through this, or whether doesn’t matter at all.   We decide whether we gain wisdom through this, or whether this just another loss in life.  The choice is either, faith, hope, and love, or its doubt, despair, and discouragement.   In the hurts, pains, tribulations and problems we all face, we all have mental, emotional, and spiritual choices that we still must make.  As James says, trials are tests that we all must take in life.

Over 200 years ago, there was a young boy who lived in England who was very sick and puny. They didn't have the kinds of medicines back then that we have today.  So, all of his life he remained in that condition and never became a strong person physically at all.  When he was young, he would look out the window of his house and watch other children playing in the field. He would get sad as he watched them -- at times, even crying -- because he wanted to be out there with them, but he couldn't. That made him feel sorry for himself.  He was jealous and envious of others.

When he got older, he decided that he would go into the ministry -- be a pastor of a congregation, and spend his life serving Christ in that way.

But, again, his health failed, and he was just too frail to carry on his pastoral duties. He became deeply depressed.

"Why can't I be like other people", he cried out.

 "They've got their health and I don't. They can do things with their lives and I can't. 

They are out there making a difference and I'm just sitting here unable to make any difference at all. 

Why can't I be like them?"

But then one day, someone talked with this young man and helped him see that his life had its own purpose apart from that of anyone else. He began to realize that he would get nowhere so long as he compared himself with everyone else... he had his own life to live, apart from that of anyone else. And ... what mattered was that he live his own life fully and completely and to the very best of his ability. When he did that, his life really began to take off. 

You see, that man was none other than Issac Watts, one of the greatest hymn writers of all time. The one who wrote, "Joy to the World", and "O God Our Help in Ages Past." But it didn't happen for him until he quit looking around, comparing himself with others, and committed himself to living his own unique life.

The wisdom we need to pass the test of life is to trust ourselves to this God who can work ‘good’ in our lives, no matter what we are going through.    How do we gain the wisdom to do this?   Well, as James puts it,  ‘If any of you lack wisdom, ask...,   Again, we don’t grow into maturity and wisdom just because we go through trials, but we grow into maturity and wisdom because we are connected with God.  The wisdom that gets us through is a particular kind of wisdom that only trust in God can give to us.   Again, gaining this wisdom from God isn’t the problem—God gives this wisdom both ‘generously’ and ‘ungrudgingly’.   No, the real problem is us being willing to ‘ask’.   As James says later, ‘You have not because you don’t ask.’ (4:2).

Now, we must not take James as making a ‘science’ out of prayer.   This isn’t science, it’s faith.   This is why James says we must ‘ask in faith, never doubting’ (1:6).  He’s not pointing to a form of spiritual straining that gets us what we need, but he’s painting a picture of a genuine relationship of trusting in God, even when life falls apart.   The believer gains ‘wisdom’ from God not because of a certain formula in HOW we ask, spiritual or otherwise, but the believer gains maturity and wisdom because of WHO we are in God’s love and grace: We are a people faithfully connected with a God who is generous and gracious in giving us the strength of faith we need.  And what we need most is the wisdom to know that God is with us and for us, and not against us.  

When we continue to live prayerfully, faithfully, trusting God for what God gives that nothing in life can, we may never gain everything we want in life, but we our life will still end in the plus column, and we will gain what we need the most; to become the person God has created us and called us to be.  To ask for that, to gain that, now, that’s finding the source of life’s deepest joy, and wisdom too.    Amen.

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