Sunday March 19th
We are starting a new series today called “Overcome”, based on the letter of James. It sure is important to be an overcomer, but sometimes it’s really hard, especially when it comes to temptation.
I heard about this lady who was trying hard to overcome her clothes-shopping habit. She had promised her husband that she wouldn’t but any new dresses until she had paid off the credit card from her last shopping binge.
But one day she was trying to sneak a bag into the house past her husband when he spotted her and asked to see what was in the bag.
She sheepishly pulled out the expensive new dress.
“I thought we had agreed – no new dresses until the old ones are paid off” he said.
“I know”, she replied. “I just wanted to try it on, but then it looked so good and I guess Satan tempted me to buy it.”
“Well why didn’t you do what the scripture says and tell Satan to ‘Get thee behind me’” he asked.
“I did that” she said, “but then Satan told me the dress looked even better from the back!”
So let’s see what James has to say about overcoming.
In verse one he starts out with this unique greeting:
James, a bond-servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ,
To the twelve tribes who are dispersed abroad: Greetings.
The first thing we should take notice of here is that James identifies himself as a bondservant of Jesus. A bondservant was like a slave, someone who was owned by a master or a “lord.” This way of describing himself shows some real humility on the part of the James considering that he was the earthly brother of Jesus.
The Apostle Paul confirms this in Galatians 1:19
“But I did not see any other of the apostles except James, the Lord’s brother.”
It was possibly tempting for James to play the “I’m Jesus’ brother” card, but he chose to call himself a servant rather than a sibling.
James’ humility is important, because in this letter he is going to challenge all of us to walk humbly as followers of Jesus, even in the midst of our trials, something that he addresses in verses 2-4
2 Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, 3 knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. 4 And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.
One of the commentaries describes James’ call here this way: “This is a call to understand suffering from the vantage point of confidence in God’s sovereignty.”
In other words, if my trials were simply pointless suffering, then I could never take joy in them. But if I recognize that God is able to USE my trials to increase my faith, and to bring me closer to the “perfect” image of Jesus, then I might be able to rejoice in the midst of circumstances that are not necessarily joyful in the worldly sense.
The Apostle Paul expressed a similar thought in Romans 5:3-5
And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; 4 and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; 5 and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.
How can I tell the difference between pointless suffering that is an attack versus trials that God is using?
An attack from the enemy I need to resist but a God-allowed trial I need to embrace and accept.
That’s what the Serenity Prayer reminds us about:
God, give me grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.
Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.
It’s the need for wisdom that James addresses next:
5 But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him. 6 But he must ask in faith without any doubting, for the one who doubts is like the surf of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind. 7 For that man ought not to expect that he will receive anything from the Lord, 8 being a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.
The bible tells us that to be wise in biblical terms is to know and understand godliness, and to do what is pleasing to God. Hebrews 5:13-14 describes Christian maturity like this: “For everyone who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is an infant.14 But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil.”
God will give us the wisdom that we need, but we have to put that wisdom into practice. If we don’t practice the wisdom we’ve been given, we become double-minded, and it’s unlikely that we will find the answers to our questions. That phrase “a double-minded man” actually means a man who has two souls; similar to what we often refer to as a split personality. That might describe a person who acts one way at church, but an entirely different way at home or on the job.
And speaking of work, James goes on to address people who have very different financial situations, but still should be praising God in whatever circumstances they find themselves:
9 But the brother of humble circumstances is to glory in his high position; 10 and the rich man is to glory in his humiliation, because like flowering grass he will pass away. 11 For the sun rises with a scorching wind and withers the grass; and its flower falls off and the beauty of its appearance is destroyed; so too the rich man in the midst of his pursuits will fade away.
So a poor Christian can rejoice because, even though they don’t have much in terms of earthly riches, they can still possess the true riches of salvation and eternal life. The rich Christian can rejoice in the knowledge that his earthly riches are only temporary, and they will fade away like a flower, but he too has riches that surpass this earthly life – therefore he should use his earthly wealth for God’s kingdom purposes.
James’ perspective on the fleeting nature of wealth and life is reminiscent of scriptures like
“Like a flower he comes forth and withers.
He also flees like a shadow and does not remain.
As for man, his days are like grass;
As a flower of the field, so he flourishes.
When the wind has passed over it, it is no more,
And its place acknowledges it no longer.
Isaiah 40:6-7A voice says, “Call out.”
Then he answered, “What shall I call out?”
All flesh is grass, and all its loveliness is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
When the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
Surely the people are grass.
James then returns to his main theme of the value of enduring through trials and challenges:
12 Blessed is a man who perseveres under trial; for once he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him. 13 Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone. 14 But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust. 15 Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death.
One of the commentaries makes this critical distinction:
“There is an important difference between the concepts “testing” and “temptation.” God tests people, but never tempts them in the sense of enticing them to sin. Jesus, in the wilderness, was tested by God and at the same time He was being tempted by Satan. There is also a difference between temptations that arise from our own sinful inclinations (internal) and those coming from without (external). Jesus was tempted externally but not internally. During the testing of our faith, temptations may come, both internally and externally, but the temptations never have God as their author.
To emphasize this point, James reminds us that only good can come from God:
16 Do not be deceived, my beloved brethren. 17 Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow. 18 In the exercise of His will He brought us forth by the word of truth, so that we would be a kind of first fruits among His creatures.
James goes beyond reminding us that God doesn’t bring bad things into our lives. He calls God the Father of lights. This is similar to what John says in 1 John 1:5
“This is the message we have heard from Him and announce to you, that God is Light, and in Him there is no darkness at all.”
James says that God id the source of all light and the source of every blessing that comes into our lives. And possibly the greatest blessing is that “he brought us forth” as verse 18 says. That expression literally means that God “gave birth to us.” This is what is meant by1 Peter 1:23
“for you have been born again not of seed which is perishable but imperishable, that is, through the living and enduring word of God.”
In the remaining verses in this chapter, James begins to lay out what in life should look like once we have been born-again by the Spirit of God within us.
How should we be different now that we are born-again? Let’s start with controlling our emotions:
19 This you know, my beloved brethren. But everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger; 20 for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God. 21 Therefore, putting aside all filthiness and all that remains of wickedness, in humility receive the word implanted, which is able to save your souls.
We live in a fast-paced society. Everyone wants what the want – NOW! But since the fruit of the Spirit brings forth patience, James tells us that the only thing we should be quick to do is LISTEN. I think that means listening to God and listening to what others have to say. As far as speaking, we can be slower about that, taking the time to be more thoughtful about what we’re going to say, rather than just blurting things out. And when it comes to anger, that’s not going to make us more righteous, so maybe we should slow that down to the point that it simply disappears from our lives, along with things like pride and selfishness.
James tells us that the implanted word is able to save our souls. When it is implanted, it can take root. When it takes root, it can bear fruit. How does the word become implanted within us? Perhaps it occurs when we DO what the word of God says, rather than just hearing it!
22 But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves. 23 For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his natural face in a mirror; 24 for once he has looked at himself and gone away, he has immediately forgotten what kind of person he was. 25 But one who looks intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty, and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer, this man will be blessed in what he does.
The commentary says that “True hearing of the Word must lead to godly action. Scripture is a mirror of the soul’s need for grace. It reveals our true character to us.”
When James encourages us to “look intently” into God’s perfect law he is reflecting the truth of Psalm 19:7-8
“The law of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul;
The testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple.
8 The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart;
The commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes.”
But this is not a form of law that leads to legalism, it is the law of love that leads us to liberty. The law of God found through faith in Jesus actually sets us free. Look at Romans 8:2
“For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.”
In these final two verses of chapter one, James clears up the proper use of the word religion:
26 If anyone thinks himself to be religious, and yet does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this man’s religion is worthless.27 Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
James will spend almost all of chapter 3 focusing on problems related to the tongue, but here he simply says that an inability to control one’s tongue is a dead give-away that you don’t get it, when it comes to the essentials of Christianity.
Sometimes we say that “Christianity isn’t a religion, it’s a relationship”. What we really mean is that our faith goes much deeper that mere religious rituals. We have entered into a living relationship with the God of the universe through faith in Jesus Christ and His death on a cross for the forgiveness of our sins.
James doesn’t say that we have no religion. He simply says that if we are in a true relationship with Jesus, then it will reflect itself in how we treat those who need our help, such as widows, orphans, and others who are in distress.
AND we will keep ourselves “unstained by the world”.
That’s a powerful statement, because living in a worldly manner does leave a “stain” in our lives.
If we bring this all back to the concept of life’s tribulations, there is some real truth to this quote from C.S. Lewis
“God, who foresaw your tribulation, has specially armed you to go through it, not without pain but without stain”
That’s really the key – we can’t always avoid the pain that can be part of life, but we don’t have to be stained by it.
We can be set free from past hurts that try to affect our present lives. That’s essentially what inner healing is all about.
It’s what the Apostle Paul was talking about in Philippians 3:13-14 when he said:
“Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”
God has wonderful, powerful blessings in store for us. Will there be challenges along the way? Most likely yes, but we can learn to count it all as a joyous journey leading us closer and closer to Jesus
Let’s move forward in faith, keeping our eyes on the prize!