February 24, 2017

Wednesdays with James: Lesson Five

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Blessings on people who are persecuted because of God’s way! The kingdom of heaven belongs to you. Blessings on you, when people slander you and persecute you, and say all kinds of wicked things about you falsely because of me! Celebrate and rejoice: there’s a great reward for you in heaven. That’s how they persecuted the prophets who went before you.

• Matthew 5:10-12, KNT

• • •

Wednesdays with James
Lesson Five: Eschatological Joy and Growth through Suffering (aka Life)

We are taking an adaptation of Peter Davids’s outline as our “big picture” of the Epistle of James.

Outline of James

Today we’ll start to look at the text itself, which begins after the epistolary introduction of verse 1. Our focus today will be on James 1:2-4 (we’ll cover bigger chunks in future lessons). We are using N.T. Wright’s New Testament text, The Kingdom New Testament: A Contemporary Translation.

My dear family, when you find yourselves tumbling into various trials and tribulations, learn to look at it with complete joy, because you know that, when your faith is put to the test, what comes out is patience. What’s more, you must let patience have its complete effect, so that you may be complete and whole, not falling short in anything.

As per Peter Davids, this paragraph introduces the first of James’s three major themes: the genuineness of faith will be tested.

In writing this, James suggests that the Jewish believers who read his words should take a particular perspective when it comes to facing all kinds of tests, trials, and difficulties in life. The specific troubles they are dealing with will be introduced soon, in verses 9-11, but before focusing in to their exact circumstances, he reminds them of good news that Jesus himself taught (Matt. 5:10-12, see above). When Jesus uttered similar words, he encouraged his listeners to look back, to see themselves as part of a long line of God’s people who had endured suffering, people God had rewarded and honored. James, on the other hand, encourages his readers to look forward, to see themselves as part of the blessed community of the last days who, like their Savior, would emerge from suffering to receive the glorious kingdom of God.

When James says, “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials,” he is urging them to pursue a particular kind of joy. Peter Davids calls it “eschatological joy,” the joy “of those expecting the intervention of God in the end of the age.” He is not encouraging them to seek out trouble, nor is he saying they should gloss over it with a patina of smiles and clichés. Suffering is real, painful, and not something anyone should want. But James (like Paul and Peter in their epistles) sees “an ultimate eschatological benefit in the suffering.”

Wisdom teaching throughout all the world, all religions, and all philosophies has spoken to the question of human suffering, and by and large has encouraged people to embrace it and allow it to make us stronger, better people. Here James follows this same pattern, with an eschatological twist because of the new reality created by Jesus. He is not so much exploring “why” suffering occurs but rather how a wise person — in particular a follower of the suffering and exalted Savior — will view it in the long term. In the final analysis, he affirms, no ultimate harm will befall the believer, who will emerge in the end “complete and whole, not falling short in anything.”

But James also speaks to the process and formation that suffering may bring along the way. One who learns to take a long view of suffering can develop patience or endurance. We see this in all manner of examples around us in the world: athletes who put themselves through tortuous training to make themselves better in competition, soldiers who drill tirelessly and are exposed to extreme conditions to toughen them for battle, business entrepreneurs who sacrifice normal lives in the short term to build better futures, ordinary folks who deny themselves instant gratification in all manner of things to pursue deeper pleasures and greater prosperity.

I’m convinced that 90% of our “discipleship” or “Christian growth” programs are well-intentioned but ultimately getting it wrong. They rely primarily upon conveying certain information and urging certain behaviors. All well and good, but it seems clear to me that there is only one real way to “grow” as a Christian (by which I mean become a mature and loving human being), and that is by actually going through life, with its many trials of prosperity and adversity and everything in between.

We grow by living, and that means we grow through suffering. We become mature by gaining experience and perspective, and though books (including the Bible) can help us conceptualize some of what that means, experience and perspective must be worked into us. Maturity can’t be taught, only developed. The “patience” James commends is the outworking of real life processes in real life settings with real life choices and adaptations. God does not give us patience, he works it into us through life experience. Virtue is not the result of education in the narrow sense of academic achievement but in the broad sense of letting life and our responses to it (the arena in which God works) form us.

This is the life God is in. He is leading us to the age to come, in which all will be made new. But until then, we who follow Jesus can (and must) participate in the daily process, anticipate the end result, and learn to practice the patience of hope.

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Wednesdays with James
Previous Studies

Comments

  1. Christiane says:

    “help one another through prayer, forgiveness, and rescue”

    something REALLY hopeful here . . . . reminds me of St. Ambrose:
    “”“For he who endeavours to amend the faults of human weakness ought to bear this very weakness on his own shoulders, let it weigh upon himself, not cast it off.
    For we read that the Shepherd in the Gospel (Luke 15:5) carried the weary sheep, and did not cast it off.”

    Yeah, there is something in that word ‘rescue’ that evokes what Christianity is all about on a cosmic level . . .

  2. Getting smacked around by life relieves us of a certain smug certainty about things which creates an unseen force field between us and those we are called to serve. That is reason enough to rejoice in our sufferings.

    • Christiane says:

      GREAT insight, ChrisS

      I think this principle works when applied to churches, too

      “the Church is the Church only when it exists for others, not dominating but helping and serving.”
      (Dietrich Bonhoeffer)

    • Robert F says:

      Yet I’ve known people who have been made harder and more insensitive to the needs of others by being smacked around by life, and others who suffering made smug (or smugger) by making them believe they were special, better than others, in their ability to endure despite suffering. There’s nothing automatic in the outcome to how we’re shaped by suffering; it can go in different directions.

      • Robert F says:

        For instance, I work with someone whom I’ve heard say on numerous occasions, “I’ve suffered a lot, but I thank God for making me a strong woman, not like so-and-so, who can’t handle it.” I hear this as a variant on the Pharisees self-justifying prayer, when he thanked God for not being like those other sinners. Suffering it, and the perception that one has handled it well, can make one proud.

        • I might then qualify what I said with, ‘by and large’. James speaks of “various trials.” That may be physical suffering, the loss of loved ones, financial ruin and so forth. It may also be personal disgrace and loss of good standing. Enough of those things, by and large, has the effect of quieting our bluster rather than causing us to brag. Certainly there are exceptions. In the case of your associate perhaps the loss of standing, personal disgrace, has not helped her along just yet. That diminution, almost without exception, tends to make us step out of the front pew and look for one further back.

      • “The same boiling water that softens the carrot, hardens the egg.” – C. S. Lewis

        • These contradictory views represent how wisdom teaching works. It does not present “absolute truth.” It presents the observations of the wise. But there is always more than one perspective to consider. This prompts thinking and discussion, debate, and argument. There is no one “biblical teaching” about trials and suffering.

        • Rick Ro. says:

          Great analogy!! Thanks for sharing Lewis’ insight!

  3. This speaks to me particularly at the moment as, here in the UK, we deal with the aftermath of the referendum vote on the EU. I’ve been feeling so dejected about the future of my country and yet this passage has given me hope that, without having to accept that these historic events are A Good Thing (although I recognise that others believe they are), through these tumultuous times I may be led to a new and more real understanding of the needs of the poor, the displaced and the unheard. As I (and many of my family, friends and colleagues) consider adopting alternative citizenships or following relatives overseas, perhaps I have important lessons to learn about my place in this world and how I am called to serve. Thank you for giving a message of hope this morning.

  4. Robert F says:

    I don’t know how to embrace suffering; suffering does know how to embrace me. My personal experience is not that suffering integrates,strengthens and makes me wiser and more virtuous, but that it tears me into pieces and makes me numb and speechless. If some positive transformation is being worked in me by God through suffering, it’s beyond my ken, happening in a way that I don’t perceive; that’s what I strive to hope, but I feel no certainty of it.

    • And yet we all benefit from the thoughtful, mature contributions you make each day, Robert. Perhaps “growth” is not as visible or tangible to us as it might be to others.

    • As an analogy: when you work out, you are literally tearing your muscles, and afterwards you are completely spent and feel weak and tired. However, ultimately your muscles will regenerate and in the end you will be even stronger. It’s not a process that we can visibly see, and for most of us, we don’t even perceive any noticeable change in the immediate future, but gradually over time it will have an impact (which is why we persist). I don’t understand the biology of how it all happens, but I do have faith in the overall process. When I’m running the last stretch of a run, I’m filled with soreness and exhaustion, but I often stare at the finish line and keep telling myself that this is only temporary, and the pain I’m feeling will soon subside and I will feel better and healthier afterwards. I know this may come across as abstract, pie in the sky kind of encouragement, but it’s nice to have a tangible picture of the process, and it really does help me through various challenges in life. It gives me reason to hope that God is in fact shaping me somehow (or perhaps He is using me to shape others, as Chaplain Mike pointed out).

    • Rick Ro. says:

      It’s difficult to find joy in the trials. It’s only human NOT to find joy in the trials. The body and mind tend to AVOID pain and suffering as it generally leads to…well, pain and suffering. It’s counter-intuitive.

      And Robert, as you say, if some transformative work is being done through it, it must be in a manner I don’t see. I’ve felt as numb and speechless as you have, usually at OTHER PEOPLE’S pain and suffering. If God’s so keen on winning people into the Kingdom, He sometimes has a funny way of going about it.

      But I think that’s the power of free will and of the world. I’m not sure how much of the pain and suffering out there is from God; more, it’s the world being the way it is and human-kind being the way it is. So I view this text as “The world sucks, people suck; see if you can be different. Show joy through it. It’ll help your walk with Me, and it’ll help you in the long run.”

  5. Robert F says:

    Crushed into the road,
    a lifeless finch, feathers still
    flutter in the air.

    • Robert F says:

      Crushed into the road,
      a lifeless finch, feathers still
      flying in the air.

      • an obscure cave
        formed by forces strong enough
        to cut and gut solid rock
        feels itself a sad, misshapen place
        yet there the meek find shelter

      • Robert F says:

        Crushed into the road,
        a lifeless finch — but feathers
        still fly in the air.

    • Robert, your two versions are similar and yet to me much different. I much prefer the second. The first gives me a picture of violent death with the added indignity of passing traffic continuing to disturb the body with blasts of air. I usually am more saddened passing roadkill than by hearing news of human tragedy. The second has the bird, momentarily traumatized and then puzzled by the sudden lightness of body and increase of surrounding light and color, but continuing to fly on and upwards instinctively returning to Creator, which I think is indeed what happens.

  6. Ronald Avra says:

    This study of James is one of the best parts of my week.

  7. Rick Ro. says:

    –> “As per Peter Davids, this paragraph introduces the first of James’s three major themes: the genuineness of faith will be tested.”

    One of the best sermons I’ve heard was called “What’s your theology at midnight?” The pastor preached out of Acts 16, specifically when Paul and Silas were in prison, and said, “It’s easy to believe and praise God when things are going great, at noon when you’ve just had lunch and the day is alive. Everyone’s theology is solid when things are going well. What I want to know is what’s your theology at midnight?”

    He shared the text from Acts 16:25…”And at midnight Paul and Silas prayed, and sang praises unto God: and the prisoners heard them.”

    This is AFTER Paul and Silas, who were doing God’s will by preaching in Philippi, were arrested, beaten, thrown in prison and shackled! Their theology at midnight, in the midst of their pain and suffering – pain and suffering that came about IN THE MIDST OF PREACHING THE WORD AND SERVING THE LORD – was to pray and sing praises to God.

    Good role models, I think, to the idea of “consider it pure joy when you face trials and tribulations.”

  8. Dana Ames says:

    I agree with Rick at 11:40 above.

    When I read today’s lesson, I thought of teaching that tells people that God is not to be found in the suffering, but in the overcoming. But what if there is no overcoming, either in the short term or the long term? What if Jesus is found in the very depths of suffering? What if the Cross was his Enthronement, his Glory? We should, indeed, do what we can to alleviate suffering – but that’s not the be-all and end-all of life, or else Jesus would not have gone to the Cross. Even sincere prosperity teachers are selling a bill of goods to people who need wiser and deeper teaching – not only here, but in places like Africa, where prosperity teaching has become more and more dominant.

    But this line of teaching, even without the expectation of financial blessing, is also a subtext of so much of Evangelicalism. We are not generally encouraged to embrace our weakness and suffering, and find Christ, the ultimate source of redemption, therein. All the testimonies are about overcoming… The lack of encouragement toward patience and increasing depth of trusting loyalty (pistis/faith – not an intellectual belief) was much more disconcerting to me than the suffering. In this view, there was no meaning to be found in enduring the suffering of one sort or another that, because we live in a not-yet-fully-redeemed world, comes to all.

    Today is the Feast of Sts Peter and Paul in the Orthodox Church; tomorrow we remember all of the 12 apostles. All but one were put to death for their trusting loyalty to Christ; they all endured many different trials and remained faithful (not perfect). God isn’t interested in how we deal with trials and suffering so HE can see how faithful we are; they help US see how faithful we are, and to get a sense of which direction to go – which type of exercise to undertake, as Danielle above – for our trusting loyalty to Jesus to be increased, or at least not be diminished.

    Dana

    • Dana Ames says:

      Sorry, David H on the exercise reference.

      D.

    • Rick Ro. says:

      –>”But what if there is no overcoming, either in the short term or the long term? What if Jesus is found in the very depths of suffering?”

      Bingo.

      A few days into my recent spiritual desert wandering I stumbled across the Cross, the thing totally lacking in my previous desert journey. Stumbling upon it so soon made me realize how much my idea of Christ has changed over the years. It’s not about salvation – though yes, that’s important – it’s more about the reality of what He did. It’s the idea that HE suffered, just as we do, and that suffering wasn’t removed just because He was the Son of God.

      It was also as if Jesus was saying, “Look, you’re spiritual desert will go on for as long as it goes on, and though you might not feel God’s presence or my presence for a while yet, just remember the Cross. It’s done and finished. You’re okay.”

      • Rick Ro. says:

        “…YOUR spiritual desert…”

        Oh…and this cross thing I found at the early stages of my desert walk…a reason for joy, I’d say, even in the midst of the trial.

    • Dana Ames says:

      This is the theology I was seeking:

      http://www.saintaidan.ca/2011/06/ministry-of-suffering.html

      by Fr Andrew Applegate, St Aidan Orthodox Church, Cranbrook, BC..

      The heart of it:

      “Through the Incarnation, God entered the world to do away will all illness and ultimately, end all suffering: ‘He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.’ (Rev. 21:4)

      “God’s ultimate purpose, then, is the end of chronic suffering, including death itself. But how does He achieve that goal? He enters into suffering, fills it with Himself. He makes suffering itself the medium in which freedom is to be found.

      “In other words, according to the Gospel, chronic pain and illness and weakness are not a detour from real life; they are the very path leading to Real Life, which is nothing less than an encounter with the living God whose very purpose is to dwell with His people: “Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them.” (Rev. 21:3)

      “…It’s one thing for a person to talk about the death and resurrection of Christ; it’s another thing for him or her to live the Cross in the form of MS or cancer, while demonstrating Jesus’ resurrection in his or her ongoing love for neighbour.

      “I would therefore urge those of us who are ‘healthy’ to be patient with those who suffer chronically. Don’t expect them to participate in obvious expressions of faith, because the fact is, they don’t really need to. They are living the spiritual life more fully and really than we are, and if they even learn to endure their condition without bitterness, they will have achieved a far higher goal than we ever could.

      “For those who endure chronic suffering, I would say: this is your ministry. Your victory in the smallest of things—getting out of bed, being gentle with a loved one in the midst of the pain—can and will change the lives of those around you more powerfully than the most talented of writers or preachers or missionaries….”

      No Wretched Urgency, no demand for a testimony that must somehow defend God, no denial of or attempt to escape from what befalls us all – only the love and comfort of Jesus, poured out on us via the Incarnation and the Cross. Cool water in the desert!

      Dana

      • Very compatible with James — testing works patience.

        A far cry from the “overcoming” bluster.

      • Christiane says:

        Hi DANA AMES,
        I appreciate that you included the Incarnation together with the Cross. You might want to read this quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the great Lutheran martyr:

        “” We now know that we have been taken up and borne in the humanity of Jesus, and therefore that new nature we now enjoy means that we too must bear the sins and sorrows of others. The incarnate lord makes his followers the brothers and sisters of all humanity. The “philanthropy” of God (Titus 3:4) revealed in the Incarnation is the ground of Christian love towrd all on earth that bear the name of human. The form of Christ incarnate makes the Church into the body of Christ. All the sorrows of humanity falls upon that form, and only through that form can they be borne. The earthly form of Christ is the form that died on the cross. The image of God is the image of Christ crucified. It is to this image that the life of the disciples must be conformed: in other words, they must be conformed to his death (Phil. 3:10; Rom. 6:4). The Christian life is a life of crucifixion.”

        (Dietrich Bonhoeffer)

        I understand this was written shortly before his execution. The accounts of his execution give report that he seemed unafraid and at peace . . . the execution itself was barbaric . . . hanging, with very thin piano wire.
        God have mercy on us all.

        • Dana Ames says:

          Sounds like Bonhoeffer had internalized quite deeply a great deal of the meaning of the Incarnation. It gets such short shrift in much Protestant thought: the only reason the Second Person of the Trinity became human was so he would be able to die. It’s so, so much more. Thanks for the quote, Christiane.

          Holy Confessor Dietrich, pray to God for us.

          Dana

  9. Both James and this study do a nice job of realizing that the acceptance of a miserable situation when life brings it your way can be beneficial. But there is a fine line that some cross in seeking suffering as a good, and this strikes me as sick. Paul talked about being able to abound as well as be abased. Jesus was not adverse to parties and celebrations. I doubt if James did much partying, but I don’t think he would have approved of Flagellants either.

    • Rick Ro. says:

      –> “Jesus was not adverse to parties and celebrations.”

      So true. In fact, almost the opposite. I’ve been leading my Sunday school class through the gospel of Luke and I’ve marveled at how celebratory Jesus is at times. We just read the three parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the prodigal son. Check it out. Rejoicing and celebration are the consistent themes.

      –> “I doubt if James did much partying…”

      Who knows. Maybe this one epistle doesn’t represent his true nature and spirit. Or maybe he was more of a rejoicer and partyer than we think. Maybe “find it pure joy when you face trials” gets at his true nature. “Celebrate and rejoice in things, people!”