Tag Archives: Faith

Scripture on Sunday – Proverbs 3:5-6

TRUST-acrobatsProverbs 3:5-6
Trust in the Lord with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him and he will make your paths straight.

This is one of what I sometimes call, a “golden text.” It is the kind of biblical text that gets written up on greeting cards, sown into tapestries, found in a promise box, and, once upon a time, would be the “daily text” published in the newspaper. All this is to say is that it can easily become cliched, though this is undeserved.

For generations and for centuries, Proverbs 3:5-6 has been a favourite for many believers. Simple in word and structure, the threefold command is followed by a single promise. It captures the hope that God is truly present and at work, involved and engaged in our lives, even when God’s presence and activity are not visible to us.

The text calls the believer out beyond themselves, to live toward another. The Christian life, in this sense, is “ec-centric,” whereby the believer lives toward a centre external to themselves. It is to be God-centred rather than self-centred, to lean the weight of our confidence on God rather than on oneself. All this is to say is that this text is more easily cited than obeyed!

The three commands are perhaps better understood as practices than simply commands. That is, trustdo not lean, and acknowledge describe an ongoing and habitual orientation on the part of the believer, rather than a once-off or occasional behaviour. Further, there is nothing passive about the activity envisaged here. To trust in the Lord is to entrust oneself to the Lord – all one is and does and has and hopes for. It signifies relinquishing self-sufficiency and self-help, and consciously, deliberately, putting our lives into the hands of God, looking for God, hoping in God, relying on God and resting in God.

The apostle Paul echoes this sentiment with his exhortation: “in everything with prayer and supplication, let your requests be made known to God” (Philippians 4:6). So, too, does the apostle Peter: “Cast all your cares upon him, for he cares for you.” Such trust, however, is hard won, difficult at the best of times, and near impossible unless we are reduced to trust through desperate circumstances. Yet trust can be learned; trust can be practised, by acknowledging God in word and prayer, turning to God in praise and petition, seeking God humbly for wisdom, direction, strength, listening for God’s voice in Scripture and through others, and standing firm even when circumstances threaten to undo us.

So many stories in Scripture reinforce this text in narrative form, and often negatively. Asa turned to human alliances, and then to physicians, instead of seeking the Lord (2 Chronicles 16). Ahaz also turned to human alliances and was rebuked by the prophet: “If you will not believe, you surely shall not last” (Isaiah 7:1-9). Naaman, on the other hand, obeyed the apparently ridiculous instruction from the prophet, and was healed (2 Kings 5). Jehoshaphat and all his people turned to the Lord in trust and prayer in 2 Chronicles 20 and were heard and rescued. Mary said, “Be it unto me, according to your Word (Luke 1: 38). Peter said, “Master, we worked hard all night and caught nothing, but I will do as you say and let down the nets” (Luke 5:5).

Before, however, we imagine that this is a “magic wand” kind of text that promises a life of easy-believism, unending triumph, security and blessing, we must remember that it is a proverb, a generic statement of the way things generally go. It is not an absolute promise of God for every imaginable circumstance as some mistakenly hope. We do not have God in our pocket, but God remains ever and always the free and sovereign God whose ways are not our ways. Hebrews 11, therefore, reminds God’s people that

Others were tortured, not accepting release, so that they might obtain a better resurrection; and others experienced mockings and scourgings, yes, also chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were tempted, they were put to death with the sword; they went about in sheepskins, in goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated – those of whom the world was not worthy… (vv. 35-38a)

Trust in God extends beyond the horizon of our existence, beyond the boundaries of earthly life. It reaches “beyond the veil” to where Christ sits at the right hand of God. To trust in the Lord is to trust him with the entirety of our person and irrespectively of what transpires. It is to believe that “faithful is he who promised; he will also do it” (1 Thessalonians 5:24). 

Scripture on Sunday – Galatians 5:13-14

LoveYourNeighborasYourselfGalatians 5:13-14
For you were called to freedom brothers and sisters; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”

The Christian life is a great paradox. On the one hand, Paul has just announced in clarion tones, “For freedom Christ has set us free!” (Galatians 5:1). On the other hand, he also calls us voluntarily to lay down our freedom and become servants of one another. No one, perhaps, has stated this paradox more succinctly than Luther in his great little treatise The Freedom of the Christian (1520):

The Christian is the most free lord of all, subject to none;          
The Christian is most dutiful servant of all, subject to all.

In the argument of Galatians, the believer is freed from the law, having died to the law in Christ. To be freed from the law, however, does not now mean that one is lawless; the Christian is not free from the righteousness of the law, but from keeping the law as an attempt to obtain that righteousness.

For too many Christians, however, Paul’s call to freedom has been understood in terms of a western concept of libertarian freedom, the freedom of the isolated and autonomous individual, the one who is freed from all other claims and restraints, free to be and do whatsoever one may wish. Nothing could be further from Paul’s mind in this passage. Here, Paul envisages a people who are so free, they are free even from themselves and their own freedom. They are so free, they are free to become servants (slaves!) of another. It is, of course, one thing to become a servant of God, but another and far more drastic thing to become a servant of my brother and sister.

Thus, the freedom of the Christian is not merely freedom from, but also and more importantly, freedom for. It is not so much freedom to do as we would, but freedom to do as we might and as we should. Not freedom that grants total autonomy and self-sufficiency, and thus isolation and the self as the centre of all value, but freedom even from the rule of the self so that we are free to give ourselves to others and to God. Not a freedom, that is, which makes us a prisoner of ourselves and of our own lust for power and control, and thus a false freedom in which we become slaves to the hidden power of the flesh. Instead, the believer is called to be truly free and fully human through self-giving love that pours itself into relationship and community.

Paul’s vision, then, is of a strange and paradoxical freedom. The Christian is freed from the pressure to earn and merit God’s favour and acceptance. Thus she is also freed from the demand for religious performance, as though by her great and costly religious sacrifice she could impress God and find inclusion amongst his people. Already she is a child of God through faith in Jesus Christ. Already she is accepted. Already God has sent the Spirit of his Son into her heart that she might cry out, “Abba! Father!” Already she is loved and accepted and valued as a precious daughter of the Father. She is freed to follow the way Paul has already set forth earlier in Galatians:

The life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me (2:20).

Through faith in Jesus Christ the believer is set free from having to establish their own righteousness before God, and so also set free from the need to achieve, succeed and impress in order to establish their own worth and value. No longer need they engage in forms of manipulation that builds on fear of exclusion. No longer need they use people to bolster their own sense of esteem or worth. Being freed from the need to use people, the Christian is freed to love them instead, to give themselves for them, and to serve them as Christ did and does.

But why would and should one love others? The Christian is united to Christ and nourished in his love by the Spirit, so that his love begins to take shape in their lives—by the Spirit. The Spirit shapes them into Christlikeness, bringing forth his fruit in their lives, with the result that they shall love. This is the new creation that religious performance can never produce. This is faith coming to expression in love (Galatians 5:5-6, 22). Being set free from the performance anxiety that makes him a slave to fear and causes him to control and manipulate others, the believer is freed to love.

And who should one love? One’s neighbour, for in loving one’s neighbour the whole law is fulfilled. The believer is called to love neighbours near and distant. In a sense, all who inhabit the global village are in some sense one’s neighbour. But it is particularly the person one encounters in their daily life, and the person who is in close proximity whether one would usually encounter or avoid them—remember Jesus’ story of the good Samaritan. And especially, those in the household of faith. All these we are called to love—not just in some theoretical way, but by offering concrete service to them.

Paul’s vision of freedom encapsulates a profound vision of what it means to be truly human, as well as a profound spirituality of faith and love, of faith coming to expression in love.

Scripture on Sunday – Mark 10:51

BlindBartimaeusMark 10:51
And answering, Jesus said, “What do you want me to do for you?”

Aside from all the literary and symbolic significance of this little story within Mark’s overarching narrative, this is a wonderful miracle story, as well as an amazing statement from the lips of Jesus.

Bartimaeus was a hopeless case: blind, poverty-stricken, socially isolated. But he had obviously heard of Jesus and cried out for mercy, ignoring and resisting all attempts to silence him. He pushed through the crowd and gained the ear of Jesus who called for him and asked this amazing question: What do you want me to do for you? After healing him, Jesus said, “Go your way; your faith has made you well.”

In fact, it was God’s power operative in and through Jesus that made him well. But Jesus said it was his faith that made him well. His faith.

This verse, like many others in the gospel of Mark, is a great challenge and a great encouragement. For Mark, faith is the fruit of hopelessness and desperation, a turning to Jesus as to one’s only hope. Yet faith has a potential far beyond what we could ever imagine: Fear not! Believe only!

What is the character of Bartimaeus’ faith, at least as it is presented to us in this story? By far the most important feature is the object of his faith: Jesus. We could, however, speak also of his single-minded focus and determination, and his persistence. The nature of his faith is also indicated in his action once healed. Whereas Jesus told him to “go his way,” Bartimaeus “followed him on the way.” He chose Jesus’ way rather than his own way. Jesus was “on the way” to Jerusalem, to Calvary, and to death; and Bartimaeus followed. Some people want faith in the same way they want a tool: to get a particular job done and then put the tool away. Bartimaeus’ faith drew him into a life of following Jesus in the way of the cross.

For me, the astonishing feature of the story is Jesus’ incredible question: What do you want me to do for you? Is this question only for Bartimaeus? Might it also be for those who cry out to Jesus in their need and determine in their hearts to “follow him on the way”? Nevertheless the question is too big for me: what could I possibly ask? And yet, Jesus asked it as a simple question and Bartimaeus gave him a simple and very specific answer.

What do you want me to do for you?
How might you answer?

Scripture on Sunday – James 1:22

Saint_James_the_JustJames 1:22
But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.

James continues his instruction from the previous verse where he exhorted his listeners to “receive with meekness the implanted word.” Not only is his community to open themselves up to the word of God, but they are to be careful to “do” the word.

This is an idea with a long history in the Jewish tradition. When Israel came out of Egypt they were thirsty in the wilderness after days without water. When they came to the spring of Marah, they could not drink the water because it was bitter. In desperation Moses cried out to the Lord who showed him a log or a tree which Moses threw into the spring with the result that “the water became sweet” (Exodus 15:22-25a).

There the Lord made for them a statute and a rule, and there he tested them, saying, “If you will diligently listen to the voice of the Lord your God, and do that which is right in his eyes, and give ear to his commandments and keep all his statutes, I will put none of the diseases on you that I put on the Egyptians, for I am the Lord, your healer” (vv. 25b-26).

In this story the Lord uses the Israelites’ thirst and experience at Marah as an object lesson that they should listen to and obey God’s voice. The following statement has a doubled emphasis on listening and doing, giving ear and keeping all the Lord’s commandments, together with the promise that such faithfulness will result in divine blessing. This pattern of doing God’s words is repeated in the covenant ceremony in Exodus 19:4-8 and 24:1-8, and in the descriptions of covenant blessings and curses in Deuteronomy 28:1-2, 15 (see also: Deuteronomy 29:29; 31:12; Joshua 1:7-8; 23:6; 2 Kings 17:34, 37; cf. Romans 2:13: “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.”). Scot McKnight (147-148) suggests that since Torah and “do” (‘asah) appear together so often in the Hebrew Bible, we ought to see in James’ instruction a distinctively Christian form of Torah observance.

More directly, the call to do the word echoes Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 7:21-27 and Luke 6:46-49 (see also Luke 11:27-28; John 8:31-32). Jesus’ parable of the builder distinguishes between those who simply hear his words without doing them, and those who hear and do his words. The difference between the builders is only finally observed when the storm arises and the one who has done what Jesus says stands firm.

Thus James instructs his community to “Be doers of the word and not merely hearers” (Ginesthe de poiētai logou kai mē monon akroatai). Although most English versions translate the particle de as “but,” it may be better to read it as “and,” thus emphasising the continuation of thought of this verse with what James has just said in verse 21 about receiving the word. The imperative ginesthe may be understood in the sense of “become” doers or “continue being” doers of the word. If James’ exhortation in verses 19-21 is directed to a divided community riven with strife and malice, it may be better to read the first sense. Poiētai usually means to make, construct or compose something, but here is likely a Semitism based in the tradition of “doing the Law” (so Vlachos, 58).

What, precisely, does it mean to “do the word”? Initially it simply means to enact it, apply it and obey what it says. This is more easily understood when a direct command is in view. Much of Scripture, however, does not take the form of command, and so a broader interpretation of “do” is appropriate. The community of God’s people is to inculcate the vision and ethos of Scripture, obey the specific commands of Scripture, embody the values of Scripture, and take its place in the ongoing narrative of Scripture.

It may be, however, that James has an even sharper perspective. Verse 18 indicates that the community has been brought forth by the “word of truth,” that is, the gospel, and it may be that James intends that his hearers be doers of this word specifically. Davids suggests that it was a simple transition in the early church from thinking in terms of “doing the Law” to “doing the Word,” especially when Jesus’ teaching was understood as a new kind of law. Thus for Davids, James is calling the community to obey the gospel, which primarily has to do with Jesus’ ethical teaching (96; cf. Matthew 7:24 “the one who hears these words of mine”).

Those who merely hear the word without doing it “deceive themselves” (paralogizomenoi heautous): their faith is not authentic, but pretense, or at least, as yet immature and not fully formed. Such people may believe they are Christians, and so part of the eschatological community of God’s people, but in James’ view, they are mistaken, or more strongly, self-deceived. They are presuming on God. That the self-deception has to do with eschatological salvation seems likely given the call to repentance in verse 21. They have not actually received the saving word or carried repentance through to its conclusion. They are like Jesus’ builder who builds on the sand and so whose house collapses when the storm of judgement is unleashed. For James, this teaching must be taken with utmost seriousness: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21).

In this text, then, we have a foreshadowing of the theme that James will develop more fully in 2:14-26, that is, faith without works is dead. James has already acknowledged that his listeners have been “born again” through the gospel, but also allows no place for complacence or presumption. True faith is active, issuing in a life of persevering obedience to the will of God, resulting in the realisation of “the crown of life which God has promised to those who love him” (v. 12).

Scripture on Sunday – James 1:12 (#2)

Saint_James_the_JustAs we noted in our previous discussion, this verse trades on the concept of God’s promise and its future fulfilment. Christian hope rests on the reality of this promise, and if it be anything less than a sure and steadfast divine commitment, Christian hope, endurance and faithfulness loses its sure foundation. In the face of trials and temptations, Christians cling to their hope on the basis of their trust in the divine promise. The concept of God’s promise is common in the New Testament. The author of Hebrews exhorts his audience to faithful endurance on the basis of God’s promise (6:10-15; 8:6; 10:23; 11:11). In Galatians 3 Paul refers to God’s promise nine times and traces it to the promise given to Abraham. In 2 Corinthians 1:20 Paul assures his readers that all the promises of God find their Yes in Jesus Christ. Behind this emphasis on the divine promise stands a firm conviction in the utter faithfulness of God who will fulfil the promises he has made. In one sense the fulfilment of the promise is wholly dependent upon this faithfulness, and so in hope and trust, we cling to the promise and wait expectantly for God’s act of fulfilment. In another sense, however, the promise is conditional, and it is this aspect that we find developed in James.

One of the aspects of James’ theology that becomes apparent in this verse is a sense of conditionality with respect to the believer’s reception of the divine promise. James does not so much pronounce the blessing as identify what the blessing is (the crown of life) and stipulate the grounds on which it is received (standing firm in trials, loving God). Although James does not use the language of “reward” in this text, the idea is present. Those who fulfil the conditions stipulated will receive the promised blessing. Some might find the idea of “reward” too close to the concept of merit, and so antithetical to genuine Christian faith and spirituality. Luther famously referred to James as less than apostolic, and to his letter as “an epistle of straw” as compared to those other New Testament works which set forth Christ and salvation more clearly (Luther’s Works, 35:362; cf. 395-397). Yet the New Testament often calls believers to consider the blessing which awaits them, and so be encouraged in faithful endurance.

For James, faith and salvation are not the fruit of a simple profession of faith which does not come to expression in the lived experience of the believer. Genuine faith is active and enduring. Faith, in this context at least, consists in faithfulness, and there is no possibility of a separation between faith and praxis, the two belonging together as two aspects of the one reality. This connection between fidelity and blessing was typical of early Christian thinking, according to Scot McKnight, who notes that “James 1:12 is more like Jesus and 2 John and Revelation than like Paul” (111), although Paul also can speak of “faith which works through love” (Galatians 5:6), and of the “work of faith” (1 Thessalonians 1:3). Nevertheless, Paul’s more consistent theme is to speak of faith as distinct from works (Romans 3:21-31), or even over against works (cf. Galatians 3:7-14). As a result, some commentators, pastors and Christians seek ways to bring James’ message into alignment with that of Paul. It is an error, however, to assimilate James too quickly to Paul, for such an approach limits and flattens the diverse New Testament witness. It is a far better approach to allow James’ distinctive contribution to stand in all its stern power. James and Paul sing from the same page but sound different notes, James’ harmony complementing Paul’s melody. A better musical analogy would suggest the two authors represent two songs on a single album, each distinct yet part of a larger whole, each contributing in their own voice and style to the overall project. Christian witness, spirituality and life require both voices to sound, both songs to be heard, both compositions to be accepted on their own terms. We will have occasion to discuss the relation between James and Paul at greater length in chapter two. Suffice it here to say that James’ intent is to insist upon the nature of faith as active and enduring, and to insist also that eschatological validation of one’s faith will be predicated upon the kind of life which demonstrated the genuine nature of that faith.

To say all this, however, is not to suggest that James’ spirituality is one of works undertaken in order to earn merit, achieve salvation, and so gain the promised reward. The final phrase of James’ exhortation is crucial: “which [God] has promised to those who love him.” Love for God is the motivation by which we stand firm under trial, refusing to buckle in the face of pressure, stress and affliction. Love for God undergirds the enduring faith which James has portrayed so steadfastly thus far. Those who persevere under trial and stand firm against temptation do so because they love him. By shifting his emphasis to the believer’s love for God, James clearly indicates that the work of faith over the course of one’s life is an expression of this deeper inner motive. Our faithfulness springs from this love which finds its root in his initiating love for us, grounded in the promise of this ever and always generous God, and the gift of salvation by which he has brought us forth (cf. vv. 5, 18). Our faithfulness toward God is but the echo of his greater, prior and all-encompassing faithfulness toward us. But faithfulness it must be.

What does it mean to love God? In broader biblical perspective we see that love for God involves keeping his commandments (John 14:15). It means to keep his word in our hearts (Deuteronomy 6:4-6). In this context, however, it might best be understood in terms of loyalty to God and to God’s will in the face of pressure to compromise and capitulate. It means to look to God, to hope in God, to approach God in prayer, and to trust in God. It means to rejoice in God and find our boasting, joy and life in him. The Christian life is neither a cynical quest for reward nor a fearful avoidance of hell. It is not simply a stoic endurance of affliction or a herculean withstanding of temptation. It is a life of joy rather than gritted teeth, of hope rather than fear, of faith rather than despair, of generosity rather than selfishness, and supremely, of love.

A Sermon for Sunday: James 1:2-8

Saint_James_the_JustSorry for the inordinate length of this post. Having spent a number of weeks on the exegesis of this passage, I wanted to prepare a sermon based on the passage, moving from exegesis to exposition. I have not preached the sermon, and it would change somewhat according to the audience and context, and as story, illustration and application are added and focused. It could be shortened if time was limited, or extended to two sermons to allow for more extensive exposition of the supporting texts and ideas. I have tried to avoid moralising and to use the passage to preach the gospel, though with faithfulness to James’ idiom. Let me know if you think it works.

*****

“FAITH UNDER FIRE”

A common experience is misconception: we read the data wrongly and get the wrong impression; we have false hopes and unrealistic expectations. Perhaps we think we will get married and live happily ever after: never the slightest spat; this one person will delight me, nurture me, inspire me—til death do us part! Maybe we start a new job or join a new church with high hopes that soon come crashing down. We go to a reputation restaurant and leave disappointed. We think the Dockers will win the Grand Final…

Many believers tend to have misconceptions and unrealistic expectations about the Christian life. Sometimes, having experienced something of the good and gracious God, having received answers to prayer, and the blessings of Christian acceptance and fellowship, having been taught about the victory we have in Christ, some believers may gain the impression that the Christian life is one of continual blessing and endless triumph, praise, thanksgiving and victory. If only that were true! Generally it does not take too long to be disabused of these misconceptions because, simply speaking—you’ve seen the bumper stickers: “stuff” happens.

From the very first words of his letter, James wants to set us straight, but also give us a fresh perspective concerning the nature of Christian life.

     Read the Text: James 1:2-8

James’ words are almost incomprehensible: rejoice when the tough times come! I like J.B. Phillips’ rendition of this verse: When all kinds of trials and temptations crowd into your lives, my friends, don’t resent them as intruders, but welcome them as friends! What was James thinking? Welcome trouble? Invite it in like a long-lost friend? Rejoice in trials? The worse it gets the better we like it? At least he is not telling us to go looking for trouble! He doesn’t have to, because you know as well as I do that trouble comes, “ready or not.” Troubles and trials come to everybody. Is there anyone here who has not faced some kind of test even this week? For some, the trials may have been a minor inconvenience or a momentary frustration. For others, the trials are far more serious, perhaps even a matter of life and death, of major stress or life-change. For others still, the whole course of their life is a continual trial and hardship: unrelenting pain, physical or emotional; the grief of loved ones gone and never returning, of dreams which can never be fulfilled, of reversals from which it seems there is no return.

Alana’s story: measles in infancy...

How can those who suffer in these ways ever make sense of James’ advice? Actually, it’s more than advice: it’s a command. Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind. How can we possibly obey so counter-intuitive a command? Where’s the joy in trials? How can we rejoice when life threatens, hurts and disappoints?

It is evident that James wants to reframe our understanding of life and its many and various trials. He wants God’s people to have new wisdom, godly wisdom, and a new perspective so that when the trials come, they may view them with new eyes, so that they may even become productive rather than destructive. What is James wants us to know?

1. Trials come, but they have a special meaning for Christians

Everyone faces all kinds of trials, and Christians are not exempt (1 Cor. 10:13). Trials arise simply on account of life in a fallen and broken world. These are the conditions of existence faced by all and sundry. Other trials emerge because of human sinfulness and foolishness—our own and that of others. Christians will face all kinds of trials because of these features of life, just as everyone else will. You don’t have to go looking for trouble…

But Christians also face trials specifically on account of their faith. Trials arise because we are Christians: persecution, the suffering which arises because we refuse to participate in the sinfulness of the world, the difficulties which may arise because we have chosen to do the good. We may be forced to wonder if it is really worth being Christian at all. But our faith is also tested even in the normal trials of life: we may wonder where is God when it hurts? Does God care, or have we been forsaken? Is God even real, or have we mistakenly believed in God? Would it not be easier if we simply gave up our belief? It is for this reason that James refers to trials as tests of our faith. No matter how practical an issue we face, in the end what is being tested, tried, probed, pressured and put to question, is our faith.

“These things are sent to try us…” Yes—and No. Another common misconception amongst Christians especially, is that God sends these trials for the purpose of perfecting us, maturing us, or teaching us some lesson. To say this, I believe, is to confuse purpose and effect. God may bring a positive effect out of our trials, but this is not to say that God purposed the trial for this effect. I want to affirm that God is sovereign over all things, that there is not one moment nor one millimetre of this world which is not subject to his vision and power. But to say this is not to suggest that God is the only actor in this world and in our lives. Indeed, James holds a vision of reality similar to other New Testament writers, and to that of his brother, Jesus.

See Ephesians 6:10-13; 1 Thessalonians 3:1-5; 1 Peter 5:8-9; Luke 22:21-32
The apostles Paul and Peter, and the Lord Jesus each warn us of the spiritual context in which the believer’s faith is tested. There is a spiritual enemy whose attack is directed against our faith. These tests do not come to build our faith, but to destroy it.

Why? Because our faith is precious (2 Peter 1:1), a precious gift by which we have been brought into a living relation to God and made heir of all his promises (Romans 5:1-2). Without faith it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6), and indeed Jesus wondered whether, at his return, he would find faith on the earth (Luke 18:8). Thus, he gave the great assurance to Peter—and so also to us—that he prays for us that our faith would not fail (Luke 22:32; cf. Romans 8:34; Hebrews 7:25), for it is by faith that we overcome the world (1 John 5:4) and inherit eternal life (John 3:16; Hebrews 6:12). Indeed, we are preserved by the power of God through faith, and our faith will result in praise, glory and honour to God at the coming of Christ (1 Peter 1:5-6). How precious is our faith! No wonder the enemy of our souls directs his attack against this most precious gift of God.

Given what is at stake, James goes on to teach us how to stand in the midst of trial.

2. Rejoice in Hope

And so we are back where we began. James’ first instruction is that we rejoice in the face of testing and trials. We do not rejoice for the test—which intends our hurt—but in the midst of the test, trusting that God can provide a way of escape and deliverance (1 Corinthians 10:13; Psalm 34:19), and that regardless of what happens, our very lives and our every hope are in his hands. Many passages of Scripture instruct us to rejoice in God even in the midst of testing (e.g. Psalm 27:5-6; 50:23; Jonah 2:9; Matthew 5:11-12). We rejoice in God’s saving grace and promise. We rejoice in the hope which is laid up for us in heaven beyond the vicissitudes of this life.

It is only possible to have such joy, even in the midst of suffering, if we know these ways of God. Because you know, says James. Not only are we to know and believe the hope which awaits us beyond this life, the hope of eternal life and blessing and grace in Christ, but we are also to know that as we stand fast in the midst of the trial, as we persevere and endure, as we exercise the very faith that is under attack, and hold fast to it trusting God, then the trial intended to destroy our faith actually serves to strengthen it! Indeed, the trying of our faith develops patience, endurance and perseverance.

Hypomonē – replacing and strengthening the pillars under Garrett Road bridge. When faith is threatened and begins to sag or weaken, endurance is the strength that helps us stand and withstand. Instead of buckling and collapsing under the pressure, our faith is supported and strengthened.

3. Stand Fast Together

But, says James, adding a second command, let perseverance finish its work. In other words, we must stand fast until the end, as Jesus also taught, the one who endures to the end shall be saved (Matthew 10:23; 24:13). How could we ever do this? Only together, only in the company and with the encouragement of our brothers and sisters in Christ. James has addressed these commands not primarily to individuals, but to the community of the church, his brothers and sisters in the faith. We need one another more than we realise, and over the course of our lives together, we will have many opportunities to give and receive encouragement and care, and help one another stand firm in our faith. Those who are strong are to help bear the burden of the weak for tomorrow we may be the weak in need of their strength (see Romans 15:1-2).

But there is also something more at work here. We are to let perseverance have its perfect work so that [we] may be perfect—mature and complete—not lacking anything. For James, this is the way to maturity, to wholeness, to perfection. God is able to bring good out of that which was intended for evil! He is able to make all things—even the attacks designed to overcome us—work together for good, so that we might be conformed to the image of his Son Jesus (Romans 8:28-29). That you may be perfect!—what vision and confidence James has for his suffering people! James views Christian maturity in terms of mature and virtuous character, and this character is formed and refined as we stand fast together, encouraging and supporting each other, that we might grow, more and more, into the very image of Christ. This is what we were made for—to become a people of character, a truly human community!

4. Pray—and stay—in faith

James finishes his exhortation with two further commands and a very solemn warning. The two commands are let him ask of God and, let him ask in faith. In every trial we need the kind of wisdom that we have already been receiving from James. But we also need the particular wisdom required for the particular circumstances in which we find ourselves, so that we can respond wisely and appropriately. And so James commands any who lack wisdom to ask God for it, and he encourages us that it will be given to us.

But while we may lack wisdom, we must not lack faith! Again we are alerted to the importance of faith in the Christian’s relation with God. Of the various virtues mentioned in this passage—faith, joy, perseverance, wisdom, mature character—faith is singled out as preeminent. We have already mentioned that without faith it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6). Without faith it is also impossible to receive the answers to our prayers. Let not that [doubt-filled] person think that they shall receive anything from the Lord.

Over against the steady trustingness of faith stands the unstable, wavering nature of doubt. To some extent we all doubt sometimes. To doubt is to stand wavering between two options, non-committal and undecided. However, Martin Luther has helpfully suggested that although we cannot stop the birds from flying over our heads, we can stop them from building a nest in our hair! Doubtful thoughts will come into our minds and when they do we must let perseverance finish its work! We can stand together and help one another to trust in God. This kind of doubt is normal and not what James assails in this text.

What James assails is the doubt which has become entrenched in a person’s life to such an extent that it now characterises them: they are a doubter. James graphically portrays this person in terms of the restless, ceaseless, shifting movement of the stormy sea, tossed and thrown hither and thither, driven this way and that: in other words, this person is precisely the opposite of the settled strength and confidence of those who have let perseverance finish its work. They are a double-minded, two-souled, unstable, indecisive, uncommitted kind of person. They cannot, will not and do not commit themselves unreservedly to God. They cannot, will not and do not entrust themselves to his promise and his care alone. They cannot, will not and do not depend rest their hope fully upon God. Let not that person expect to receive anything from the Lord—anything!

A great secret to answered prayer is to pray in faith and then to stay in faith. Nowhere in Scripture is this more clearly taught than in Jesus’ words in Mark 11:22-25, where Jesus teaches that when we pray we must “believe that you have received it, and you shall have it.” The believer believes the answer has been given when they pray, and before they ever actually receive the answer. They must believe first and then “you shall have it.” I once heard an elderly preacher with a whole life of experience say, “Between every prayer and its answer there is a wilderness, and what you do in that wilderness determines whether or not the prayer will be answered.” What was he saying? Pray in faith and then stay in faith. Continue to trust. Let perseverance finish its work!

How can we possibly have such unwavering faith? Here pastor James provides another piece of practical Christian wisdom: keep your eyes firmly fixed on the good and gracious God, rather than on yourself! Instead of worrying about whether or not our faith is sufficient, turn away from yourself and look solely toward the good and gracious God. In verse five James magnifies the generosity of the good and gracious God, who gives generously to all without finding fault. The Greek text is even stronger: God gives with single-minded generosity. Over against the double-minded person stands the single-minded God! God is single-minded in his grace and generosity toward us, and calls us to be single-minded in faith and trust toward him. He is the good and gracious God, the generous-hearted God who has promised to accompany us through every moment of this life, to hear and answer our prayers, and to bring us safely into his heavenly kingdom! This is the good and gracious God who holds our entire existence—past, present and future—in the palm of his hands; the God who will never leave or forsake us.

Trust in this good and gracious God!
Stand fast in the good and gracious God!
Rejoice in the good and gracious God … that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing!

Scripture on Sundays – James 1:6

Saint_James_the_JustJames 1:6
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.

The “let him ask of God” in verse 5 is echoed and extended by the “let him ask in faith” of verse 6. Again James uses a link-word to tie two verses together, this time aiteitō (ask). Just as he used the imperative to instruct those who lack wisdom to ask God for it, now he uses the imperative to instruct those who do ask for wisdom, to ask for it in faith. One indeed may lack wisdom but one must not lack faith. Faith, in this context, is single-minded trust in the giving God. James’ logic is simple: if God is so generous and single-minded in his giving, the believer is likewise to be single-minded toward God.

We recall that the believer’s faith is already under threat, being tested and tried (v. 3). Pressure mounts to destroy their faith—their single-minded trust in God. Faith, it seems, governs the relationship the believer has with God. Faith is the characteristic of this relationship seen from the believer’s side. From God’s side the characteristic of this relationship is better understood in terms of grace, of God’s generous and freely given gift. James hints, as we have seen, at this in verse 5. In verses 17-18 he underlines the primacy and centrality of God’s generous gift. At present, however, his focus is on the believer’s appropriate response to God’s generous promise.

Faith is not simply a belief although belief is an important aspect of faith. Faith is not simply agreement with or assent to a doctrinal position, although such knowledge is also an important aspect of faith. Faith includes but is not limited to knowledge or belief. In his Truth Aflame, Larry Hart (420) shows the relation between these three qualities of Christian faith. He notes that since at least the Reformation, theologians have understood saving faith in terms of notitia, that is, the body of knowledge that makes up the truth claim of the gospel, and assensus which refers to the belief one has when they have heard the Christian message and become persuaded of its truthfulness. These two responses, however, are not yet faith in full flower. Simply knowing and believing are not sufficient in themselves but must come to completion in fiducia which is the trust and existential commitment by which we entrust ourselves to God on the basis of his promise which we have heard and which we have acknowledged and believed as true. Faith is a single-minded, existential dependence on God, a watching, waiting and expectant dependence in which the whole being of the believer is oriented and turned toward God in confident and assured hope. Faith is not simply an intellectual commitment, but a relational response and devoted commitment to the God who has awakened our hearts and opened our eyes to his reality, presence and grace.

This is faith as James conceives it here, where he contrasts faith with doubt (diakrinomenos). The two phrases “in faith” and “without any doubting” express the same point from different angles. What is positively expressed in the former expression is negatively expressed in the latter.

Matthew’s gospel provides a dramatic illustration of the kind of doubt James has in mind here, in the story of Peter walking on the sea (Matthew 14:22-33). Peter is already participating in the miracle, walking on the water with Jesus and toward Jesus, and on the basis of Jesus’ word to him, “Come.” But verse 30 indicates that Peter began to give his attention to the wind and waves rather than to Jesus, and as he did so, he began to sink. In the midst of his doubt he cried out to Jesus and was saved. Nevertheless Jesus’ question highlights the temptation we continually face: ” O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”

To doubt is to engage in dispute with oneself, to waver between two options, to be “double-minded” (James 1:8) rather than single-minded. Doubt anxiously looks in multiple directions rather than steadfastly watching toward God. James goes on to provide a vivid picture of the one who doubts, likening that person to a wave or the surf of the sea, “driven by the wind” (anemizomenō) and “tossed” (rhipizomenō). Both of these participles are present-passive, indicating that the doubter is continuously  bobbing about, as Vlachos images, like a cork in a stormy ocean (27). This image conveys restlessness, a person acted upon by other forces, ever in motion but without genuine purpose. As such, the picture is virtually the opposite of the solidity, steadfastness and resolute endurance portrayed in verse 4.

Scripture on Sundays – James 1:3

Saint_James_the_JustJames 1:3
Knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance (NASB)

In this verse, James provides the first rationale for his command in verse two. Believers are to “consider it all joy” when they fall into various trials because they know (ginōskontes hoti) something: that the trial of their faith produces endurance. James assumes this knowledge on the part of his listeners, as though it constitutes a common stock of knowledge generally available. The word James uses to refer to the testing (to dokimion) of their faith is rare in the Greek, appearing elsewhere only in Psalm 12:6, Proverbs 27:21 (Septuagint), and in 1 Peter 1:7. The Old Testament references provide useful imagery for understanding the nature of trials. As a furnace is used to refine and purify silver, so the tests faced by James’ hearers serve also to  “refine” and “purify” them. The imagery of the furnace captures the unpleasant and potentially destructive force and nature of the testing, while the result of the process is seen as valuable and desirable and so as the grounds for rejoicing.

What is being tested is their faith. According to Vlachos, the trial is intended to refine and strengthen a faith that already exists rather than to test whether faith is present or not (18). This idea seems to align with Peter’s use of the same language in 1 Peter 1:6-7 where he speaks of the suffering believers’ faith being proved or shown to be genuine (dokimion). Indeed, many commentators suggest that the purpose of the test is the purification and maturity of the believer (e.g. McKnight, 69, and Moo, 61). In this view, God is the refiner who places his people into the furnace in order to remove the impurities from their lives and so present them as mature.

Nevertheless it is important here to distinguish between purpose and effect when interpreting these verses. It is at least possible that in James’ mind the purpose of the tests is to destroy the faith of God’s people. This is a quite common mindset in the New Testament, and sees the origin of the tests in the more sinister agency of Satan, the “accuser of the brethren” (Revelation 12:10), rather than in the more benevolent attentions of God. Perhaps more directly relevant to this passage is Paul’s concern in 1 Thessalonians 3:5 that “the tempter” (ho peirazōv) might have rendered his missionary labour amongst the Thessalonians vain by the persecutions they endured, or Jesus’ words to Peter in Luke 22:31-32: “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan has demanded to sift you like wheat; but I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail.” In both cases the blowtorch is applied to the believers’ faith with the intent of destroying it, and in both cases there is the theoretical possibility at least, that their faith might actually be lost. Other texts might also be adduced. Jesus warns that “Satan comes immediately” to take away the Word whenever it is sown (Mark 4:15; cf. 2 Corinthians 11:3). The pattern is seen in his own temptations following his experience of the Spirit at his baptism (Luke 4:1-13). The apostle Peter speaks of “your adversary the devil” who prowls around like a roaring lion seeking those whom he may devour. Nor are Peter’s readers unique in this respect: all believers are subject to this common suffering and must likewise stand firm in faith, resisting the devil (1 Peter 5:8-9; cf. James 4:7-8). The classic texts of Ephesians 6:10-18 and Revelation 12:7-17 situate these tests within the broader drama of cosmic spiritual warfare and an apocalyptic worldview.

To read James according to this view is to think of the tests as a threat to faith. As such, they do not have a divinely intended purpose, nor are they “sent by God to teach us or perfect us” as is commonly said in Christian circles. Rather, as specific tactics in an ongoing war against the people of God, they intend not to build or develop faith but to destroy it. Their purpose is not to teach us but to tempt us, not to lead the believer towards maturation but capitulation, so that they lose faith in God and let go of the hope that faith inspires.

It may be that many modern readers react against the apocalyptic character of this worldview and prefer to understand sin and evil in more human or institutional terms, rather than in terms of an evil spiritual personality. In fact, it is possible that James’ central point is retained, even if the apocalyptic background is stripped from the passage. It is possible that the trials arise as an aspect of the church’s location “between the times,” in this period in which the kingdom of God has found entry into the world and is growing in the world but is not yet fully realised in the world. The way of the kingdom is antithetical to the way of the world and results in pressure being brought to bear upon the lives of those who choose this new way. It may be that the tests arise simply as part of the conditions of life, the normal pressures and stresses of existence which challenge the idea of God’s existence or God’s care. The very real afflictions, pressure and suffering experienced by Christians may cause them to despair of God’s goodness or power or both.

James notes that the testing of their faith produces endurance (katergazetai hypomonē). Katergazetai simply means “to produce,” although the erg-root in the verb is related to “work” and so anticipates ergon (“work”) in verse four. The verb is in the present tense, indicating a process or progression culminating in endurance. Hypomonē literally has the sense of “remaining under,” and so bearing up in the midst of difficult or challenging circumstances. It refers not to passive acceptance or resignation in the face of these circumstances, but is an active, strong and positive resistance of them. Hypomonē, therefore, characterises those who hold themselves steady in the midst of pressure. In the early Christian community it was a trait highly valued, for only those who had it would truly endure to the end (cf. Matthew 10:22; 24:13). It is used in the epistles, and especially in the book of Revelation, to encourage the embattled church to stand firm, even to the point of death. It is often paired with faith, the two virtues working together to ensure the believer inherits the eschatological promise (e.g. Hebrews 10:35-36 (cf. 6:12); Revelation 13:10).

James is obviously confident that his listeners’ trials are in fact producing endurance, but is it necessarily so? Assuming the interpretation of the verse given above, this outcome is not fait accompli, but in fact dependent upon the believer’s response to their trials. This helps explain James’ appeal in these verses: it is as they live in accordance with what they know, as they count it all joy in the midst of their trials, that the testing of their faith produces endurance. In verses 2-3, then, James calls on the church to rejoice in the midst of their suffering, knowing that their trials will produce this highly valued virtue. The trial which is intended to destroy their faith will in fact strengthen and confirm it if they will stand fast. Indeed, by standing fast in the midst of the trial, more endurance will develop, and they will grow stronger and have more capacity for steadfastness in future trials.