It is amazing to me how many of God’s people have been imprisoned. The apostle Paul was persecuted, beaten, imprisoned, and left for a couple of years awaiting trial. Joseph was trapped in a prison while falsely accused with no appeal and forgotten by the one person who might be able to help him. We are reminded that Jesus was falsely accused, imprisoned and crucified. John, the Baptist, was imprisoned and later beheaded. James was imprisoned and put to death by sword. Peter, was imprisoned, though supernaturally released by an angel. Paul wrote some of his most important letters from a prison cell. We could go on and discuss people like John Bunyan who wrote Pilgrim’s Progress while spending twelve years in prison simply because he was preaching the gospel. The list is long and lengthy and extends even to this hour in countries where believers are being persecuted for their faith and even imprisoned. How do people handle pressures, challenges and trials of this kind? How can a person maintain a right and godly attitude and find hope in seemingly hopeless situations?
There are many people who feel trapped by their current situation in life? I am not speaking of being literally trapped or imprisoned, but feeling imprisoned and trapped by life’s situations, commitments, and responsibilities. Others are trapped in unhealthy bodies, suffering with a debilitating disease, like Job who was not only trapped in a body enduring extreme suffering, while surrounded by friends who were falsely judging him. They were telling him that his sickness was due to the fact that he had sinned against God, which was untrue.
I wonder over the years how many people have told Joni Erickson Tada that God was going to heal her body while she lived as a quadriplegic since her tragic accident at seventeen years old. I wonder how many have told her or thought that if she only had enough faith it would happen. Joni is living out an incredible story of God’s grace in spite of less than desirable circumstances and knows that ultimately God will give her a new body. For all the people who have experienced God’s healing in their body, there are others who have continued to suffer, who have prayed and prayed for God to answer their cry but what they have received instead is God’s grace to sustain them. Questions can arise in their minds: Does God care?
For others they are struggling with financial, psychological, and other life-related limitations. Then there are those who feel trapped in difficult marriages, families, and jobs. The single mom who cannot seem to scrape enough time and resources to keep body and soul together, with the demands of trying to be both parents and provide a meaningful life for herself and her children. Most just forget about themselves or in the worst case scenario, forget about their kids welfare. Some struggle with the little time they have for themselves, with little if any affirmation and encouragement from others. The cry of the hearts of those in distressing times is reflected by the Psalmist who prayed…
I said, ‘Oh, that I had the wings of a dove! I would fly away and be at rest-
I would flee far away and stay in the desert;
I would hurry to my place of shelter, far from the tempest and storm.[i]
So what should we do when we feel trapped, when our circumstances seem to have us hemmed in and we cannot see a way out? It is obvious we are being tested. Paul had a moment in his life where he cried out to God for deliverance from what he describes as a thorn in his flesh…
because of these surpassingly great revelations. Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.
Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me.
But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’[ii]
God’s answer was grace greater than the pressure and challenges he was experiencing. The half-brother of Jesus; wrote a pastoral letter directed toward Jewish believers who were scattered throughout the Mediterranean undergoing incredible difficulty and persecution. James, shares some marvelous words of encouragement and direction for the difficulties they were facing, which can help us in our distressing moments.
James a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes scattered among the nations: Greetings.[iii]
In chapter one we discover two primary areas we often feel trapped and struggle within which James gives some incredible insights to help us overcome both the pressures from both within and outside our souls.
THE FIRST AREA OF INSIGHT WHERE WE FEEL TRAPPED AND STRUGGLE IS IN THE OUTWARD CIRCUMSTANCES OF LIFE.
How do we handle the pressures of life, when life doesn’t seem to be favorable to us? James begins with our attitude, which is simply our way of thinking. We need to win the battle that is being waged in our minds. Often we cannot change the circumstances but we can change our attitude, and that is the difference between living with joy or distress.
Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds,[iv]
A. The Greek word for many kinds of trials is a word describing diverse, complex and intricate problems.
It is interesting that the word for many kinds of trials is also the same word used in 1 Peter 4 where Peter talks about God’s grace.
Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.[v]
That same word ‘various forms’ is the word for ‘many kinds’. What James and Peter discover in the complexity of their trials is that God’s grace is able to sustain them because God’s grace is expressed in a variety of ways. The various aspects of God’s grace sustains us in the various trials that come our way. We see that trials are often complicated and seemingly so beyond us that we wonder what to do. They can seem overwhelming, even to the point where they are beyond our ability to endure them. You are wondering, ‘What do I do?’ ‘How can I cope?’ The Bible is realistic about life. There are times and situations that come into our lives like this. Paul experienced such a moment in his life, even to the point where he despaired even of life itself.
We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the troubles we experienced in the province in Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself.[vi]
We many wonder, why does God allow these things?
Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead.[vii]
The simple answer is that we will stop looking to ourselves and others and begin to rely on God in a way we have never relied on Him before. One of the great temptations that we have in our affluent world filled with modern conveniences is that we don’t realize just how much we truly need God until crisis comes into our lives. These challenges cause us or should cause us to look to God for help. One thing that I have discovered in life is that trials usually come in waves. Here is where we need the prayers of others to help us.
B. The need to be part of a praying community of believers in times of trials.
One expression of God’s grace is the gift of God’s people. So to help us with the variety of trials is the variety of expression of God’s grace usually comes through God’s people. We are not only forced to turn to God, but to God’s praying people. It is not that we are looking to them for the answers, but God answers often through them.
He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us, as you help us by your prayers. Then many will give thanks on our behalf for the gracious favor granted us in answer to the prayers of many.[viii]
Paul is saying that we need the help of God’s praying people. We need the prayers of others. We need to see God’s powerful answers to prayers of deliverance and help in distressing situations.
C. James also challenges our perception of the value of the trials.
We do not appreciate struggle, pain, and reversal. We all want an easier path, but often that is not the path that God leads us along. So when things do not go the way we desire and we are challenged by the trials we are facing, James reminds us to consider it pure joy.
Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds,[ix]
Why are we to consider it pure joy when we have complex problems in our lives? We generally see trials, troubles, and difficulties as enemies to our soul. God uses trials as a tool to develop our soul. God is producing Christ-like character in our lives…
because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance.
Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.[x]
Trials have a God given purpose. They are opportunities to demonstrate our faith in God. Trials reveal the chaff, the unproductive and unfruitful things in our lives. Trials reveal the true nature of our character. Are we just professing faith in God or do we actually possess faith in God? You will find out very quickly when trials come. How many people walk away from God when the going gets tough?
Alex Motyer reminds us:
We say that we believe that God is our Father, but as long as we remain untested on the point our belief falls short of steady conviction. But suppose the day comes-as it does and will- when circumstances seem to mock our creed, when the cruelty of life denies his Fatherliness, his silence calls in question his Almightiness and the sheer, haphazard, meaningless jumble of events challenges the possibility of a Creator’s ordering hand. It is in this way that life’s trials test our faith for genuineness.[xi]
We certainly see this in the book of Job. Job demonstrated a real trust in God in spite of the painful trials in his life. Yet, it is more than just a test of faith, it is a part of our life’s spiritual growth and development.
One reason that God does not always deliver us immediately from every difficulty is that it helps produce certain virtues in our lives: patience, endurance, and perseverance. Faith must be exercised in order to be strengthened and developed. Development often comes through struggle. We don’t like that, but it is a part of growing and maturing as a person, as a believer. How do you develop muscle? By exercising them. How do you develop endurance, patience and perseverance? By having to undergo trial and having to wait patiently for God to work in situations and in other people’s lives. This is an expression of trust. We cannot do anything to make it happen. We have a hard time because our culture is constantly telling us that we can make things happen that we want to have happen, but often what we do is make things worse.
One of my deep concerns about the way movies generally portray relationships is that they are often unrealistic and superficial. One of the primary ways that God shapes character is in families and through the relationships. Gary Thomas’ book ‘Sacred Marriage’ states his premise as the subtitle of the book. He raises the question: What if Marriage was designed not to make us happy, but rather to make us holy?’[xii] That changes the whole understanding of marriage. Love is developing when we learn to accept people for who they are and not what we want them to be.
The strength of a relationship is when we have to go through difficulties together and we learn to work together though life’s challenging moments rather than tearing each other apart. For me to say I love God and be indifferent to people is living in self-deception.
This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not a child of God; nor is anyone who does not love his brother.
So how do we live with difficult people?
1. We need to learn to bring our complaints to God. We need to learn how to lament our situations correctly. Rather than constantly nagging the person or complaining about them to others, we need to pour out our complaints to God and then learn to pray for them, bless them and do good to them. How do you overcome evil? By doing good! This needs to start at home.
2. We need to have an attitude adjustment.
So often we are praying for deliverance, which is not wrong in itself, but what happens if God does not deliver immediately, or He delays an answer for a season, or even more trying does not deliver at all, but reveals a greater grace to handle the difficult and challenging situation?
Here in James 1, he is telling us to consider it pure joy when these complex and difficult trials are in our lives. He challenges with the right attitude and to pray for wisdom.
Warren Wiersbe raises the question:
Why do we need wisdom when we are going through trials? …For this reason: we need wisdom so that we will not waste the opportunities God is giving us to mature. Wisdom helps us understand how to use these circumstances for our good and God’s glory.[xiii]
Aside from being in a dangerous environment where physical abuse is happening, let me point out that God may be using our family trials, our struggles, our sense of being trapped in order to develop qualities of grace in our lives. People who run usually find themselves back at the same place again. They did not learn anything the first time. Those who trust God, pray with other saints, grow in patience, perseverance and endurance; when they come to a similar place in life are able to handle what is happening, because they have learned to trust God; they have matured.
Learning to become content in a less than ideal world is critical. It is something we must learn. It is part of becoming spiritually mature. You may wonder how can I learn to be content in a difficult situation?
I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.
I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living plenty or in want. [What was Paul’s secret.]
I can do everything through him who gives me strength.[xiv]
You may say, but this has to do with finances? That is the context, but let me remind us of what Paul talked about in 2 Corinthians, both with the pressures of life and ministry in chapter one and the thorn in his flesh that he prayed for deliverance for in chapter twelve, be that sickness or persecution. These three areas: financial challenges, medical issues and difficult people generally create some of the biggest trials in our lives. Paul is telling us that God’s grace and strength found in Christ will see us through. We can find contentment in Christ. We need to realize that God is Sovereign. He is in control of the events of our lives. He is our Father and that He is working out all things for our eternal good, though some things may seem painful in the here and now.
THE SECOND AREA Of INSIGHT WHERE WE OFTEN FEEL TRAPPED AND STRUGGLE IS WITH INNER SINFUL DESIRES.
How do we deal with temptations, those inner battles of the soul? James reminds us of a number things regarding temptation.
A. God does not tempt us.
When tempted, no one should say God is tempting me. For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone,[xv]
One of the temptations that come in our lives is to blame God for the enticement to sin when we are tested.
The Old Testament makes clear that God does test his people, in the sense that he brings them into situations where their willingness to obey him is tested. God tested Abraham when he ordered him to sacrifice his son Isaac, he tested Israel by leaving them surrounded by pagan nations, …[xvi]
If we don’t have choices to either obey or disobey it is evident that we are not moral agents with an opportunity to express our love and obedience to God, which is a demonstration of our faith. But God is not enticing us to sin, rather to provide an opportunity to strengthen our moral resolve and do what is right by choosing to obey him. So what is the real issue?
B. We are tempted by our own sinful nature.
What we need to understand is that when we yield to temptation it is because we allow sin to have dominion in our lives. Let me remind us that as believers we also have another nature at work within us: His Divine nature. We have a greater power at work in order not only to resist temptation but to embrace a desire for the things above. James reminds us that what fuels sin is the old sinful nature, which when obeyed brings about alienation in our relationships with others.
but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed.
Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full grown, gives birth to death.[xvii]
The only person we can blame for temptation and sin is ourselves. James is basically using a fishing analogy of being lured and once we take the bait we are dragged away. Though James does not mention Satan’s activities as the tempter, he is trying to make us responsible for our actions.
Desire, in itself, is not sin. It is only when a person, by an act of the will, assents to its enticement that sin results.[xviii]
E. Stanley Jones in one of his devotional books entitled ‘Victorious Living”, speaks of how to redirect the energies of life that Satan tempts us to corrupt for selfish purposes.
The instincts are the driving life-forces. The stream of life energy flowing through us breaks into three instinctive channels: self, sexuality and the group. …There are several possibilities for these instincts: straightforward expression, perversion, repression, suppression (or self-control), and redirection. The Christian way of life dismisses perversion and repression. It makes use of the other three.[xix]
Stanley Jones then gives an example how these powerful drives given as gifts from God can be redirected for good rather than being abused and becoming sinful expressions.
Paul, denied a family life was not unhappy, because he redirected his sexual instinct by being procreative in the higher reaches of life, the mind and the spirit. Wherever he went, he saw the new birth take place. He was a spiritual parent.[xx]
So how will we deal with the sense of futility, of being overwhelmed by the trials that come our way? How will be resist the urge to flee like a dove, to run from the place where God seems to have entrapped us? It begins by being honest with God, to lament, to share our hurt, confusion, disappointments, and a sense of possible injustice or being hurt by others or feelings of betrayal by God. But to live in a place of sorrow and self-pity will not empower us to live a victorious life. We must learn to rely on God and God’s praying people. We must develop a right attitude and win the battle in our minds, by realizing that the thing we think is robbing us of joy is actually a tool, to cause us to find contentment and joy in our relationship with Christ. We must take our God-given energies and redirect them outside ourselves in serving others. Jesus shared this paradox and challenged us to live for Him and His purposes and not for self-centered and selfish purposes.
Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.
For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and the gospel will save it.[xxi]
The trial is not our greatest problem, rather it is our attitude that defines us.
[i] Psalm 55:6-8, The New International Version of the Bible, Zondervan, 2011.
[ii] 2 Corinthians 12:7-9a.
[iii] James 1:1.
[iv] James 1:2.
[v] 1 Peter 4:10.
[vi] 2 Corinthians 1:8.
[vii] 2 Corinthians 1:9.
[viii] 2 Corinthians 1:10-11.
[ix] James 1:2.
[x] James 1:3-4.
[xi] Alex Motyer, The Message of James, The Bible Speaks Today, (Downers Grove, Il: Inter-Varsity Press, 1985), 31.
[xii] Gary Thomas, Sacred Marriage, Zondervan, 2015.
[xiii] Warren Wiersbe, Be Mature, (Wheaton, Il: Victor Press, 1985), 29.
[xiv] Philippians 4:11-13.
[xv] James 1:13.
[xvi] Douglas Moo, James, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, (Grand Rapids, Mi: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1985), 71.
[xvii] James 1:14-15.
[xviii] Douglas Moo, James, 74.
[xix] E. Stanley Jones, Victorious Living, Edited by Dean Merrill, (Minneapolis, Mn: Summerside Press, 2010), 135.
[xx] Ibid, 138.
[xxi] Mark 8:34b-35.