Theme: Proof of Your Approval
1. Trials are not pointless
2. Prayer is not worthless
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus, our Lord. The portion of His Word to share with you today, and apply to our hearts, comes from James 1:2-12:
James 1:2-12 My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, 3 knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. 4 But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing. 5 If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him. 6 But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for he who doubts is like a wave of the sea driven and tossed by the wind. 7 For let not that man suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; 8 he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways. 9 Let the lowly brother glory in his exaltation, 10 but the rich in his humiliation, because as a flower of the field he will pass away. 11 For no sooner has the sun risen with a burning heat than it withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beautiful appearance perishes. So the rich man also will fade away in his pursuits. 12 Blessed is the man who endures temptation; for when he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him.
This week was a big one in our household. For starters, Micah learned how to tie his shoes. Any parent who has been through this before knows what a highlight it is. It’s not easy, I can remember when I learned. I had to keep on reminding Micah that it wasn’t an impossible task. I kept having to remind Micah that anything worth having is worth the work. It was also a big week for Gretchen, who has been taking several nursing classes for continuing education in the past weeks. This week she finished and could renew her license. It didn’t take quite as much encouragement as Micah to keep her on point, but it was difficult nonetheless. She needed to work to earn that title of Registered Nurse and more week was needed to keep it.
Anything worth having is worth working for. We know that to be true by experience in life. Think of other accomplishments like: getting your driver’s license, graduating high school or college, or getting through a piano recital. Life is filled with those types of tests. It might seem nice to have a life without tests and work but actually having it that way wouldn’t be all that fulfilling. We reflect on work and tests this Labor Day weekend, as we remember the blessing of work. Work, and even tests, were part of God’s original, perfect creation. And in a fallen world where people seek every advantage over others, even through fraudulent, greedy, and corrupt means, tests are needed more than ever. In a way, it’s how we separate the good from the bad.
But, when we think of work or tests our good Lutheran consciences cringe a bit. Let’s be careful about making too much of work. How can it be true that anything worth having in life is worth working for? Even as said that to Micah I was taken back a bit in my mind. Is it really true? I know what experience has taught me but should I really say it? If salvation is free in Christ, should we really be talking about work?
If you’ve ever felt this way before, do not be alarmed. It’s precisely this element of our faith that James addresses in today’s text. In addition to emphasizing salvation by works, there lies an equally dangerous pit on the other end of the spectrum that would minimize the importance of works or the reason God tests us in our faith. If our reliance upon grace and faith alone in Christ has caused a misunderstanding of the testing of our faith, we should reexamine our beliefs. If we expect life to be straightforward, even our faith, because we have freely received it without effort from God we should think again. Faith is a path of constant testing, both to keep us strong but also to give us proof that we are approved.
It doesn’t take James long to get to the point in this letter. He greets the Christians in verse one and then bam, right away in verse 2 he starts talking about trials. The word for “fall into” in verse 2 literally means to run head-on into something, to have it strike you in the face without time to react. Doesn’t that fit perfectly with many of the trials we face in life? So often, they are unexpected. Life seems normal. Time seems to slow for a moment, and then another trial smacks us in the face.
Surprising as trials often are, James’ first thought is that they are not pointless. He explains what God plans through trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. 4 But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing. Peter stated a similar thing in his first letter, In this (salvation) you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while, if need be, you have been grieved by various trials, 7 that the genuineness of your faith, being much more precious than gold that perishes, though it is tested by fire, may be found to praise, honor, and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ, 8 whom having not seen you love. (1 Peter 1: 6-8)
God has a plan for your life in all trials. This simple truth is so important to continuing in the faith. What we suffer through in this life is not a product of blind chaos – there is always a purpose and always a plan. Sometimes that plan can be part of God disciplining us for a certain sin. Sometimes He may be sharpening our minds for something coming down the road. Sometimes He wants to increase our empathy for others. Sometimes He has a lesson for us to learn. No matter what the specific reason is, nothing happens outside of God’s bigger plan of salvation.
God’s singular goal for our lives is to bless us. As James says at the end of verse 4, that we would “lack nothing.” That sounds good, doesn’t it, but it often comes in unexpected ways. God can bless our lives by taking something away. Sometimes, when we lose a treasured possession or even a loved one, it can re-focus our perspective on heaven, and away from this sinful world. That’s a blessing. Sometimes, when we’re punished for a sin or we receive difficulty because of the circumstance we created, humility can lead us back to the cross for forgiveness. That’s a blessing. Sometimes, when we cry out in anguish because there’s nothing we can do, the only path forward is to trust in the power of our Savior. That’s a blessing. In every trial, a rich blessing is waiting at the other end. James urges us to remember that. God wants to you have no lack of blessings. Just as David wrote in Psalm 23, our expectation should be to have our “cup run over” with God’s goodness.
How interesting, though, that immediately after laying out this goal, James proceeds to write, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God...” Right after declaring that God’s hope is for us to lack nothing, James picks us by telling us what to do when we lack. Hence, the ironic life of the Christian faith. We know and trust what God wants for us, we believe it, but we so often don’t have it. Our hope is that we have a God who is indeed able to supply everything we need, but we also know that our sins and transgressions will get in the way. So, James must address both perspectives, both the truth of what God promises and the reality of our situation as ones who have fallen from holiness.
But, even in this setting God does not leave us to fend for ourselves in the world. He throws us a lifeline, a direct line of communication with Him, the power of prayer. The connection is unmistakable, the path to a truly carefree life is through communication with our heavenly Father.
Diving into the nature of prayer gives us insight into its power. “Ask” in our text is not only a command, it means a type of request that reaches the point of demanding something. Here’s a picture to give you an idea about the tenacity of the word. It’s the same one used to describe how the mob “asked” Pilate to crucify Jesus. This is not a timid request where a person says the words but doesn’t anticipate a result. This word is not used for a person who is willing to back down quickly. This is bold call, used by someone who knows without doubt that they deserve to have what they are asking for.
This is the kind of confidence we should have before God; it’s what He commands of us. This is how we should pray. James says, let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for he who doubts is like a wave of the sea driven and tossed by the wind. Paul said similarly to the Ephesians, that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, 15 but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ. There is no room for doubt in our faith. This is the truth. Yet, just as James wrote when it comes to lacking nothing, truth doesn’t always become reality in our lives; at least not immediately. So often we do doubt in our faith.
In moments of doubt, James would again point us back to our confidence. The source of your confidence has a lot to say about whether or not you will doubt. James describes the Christian’s confidence this way, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach. This statement tells a lot more than just that God wants to bless us. It is a look into the nature of God. He is defining Himself for us. We are taught to pray to God, but not just any God. He is the God who “gives liberally and without reproach.”
The word used in our text for “gives” is a participle. In the Greek this means an action that keeps on going. Pair this with “liberally” which means out of abundance or generously and we see that we have a God who is continually giving generously to us. But, don’t forget about the end of the verse, either. Reproach is an attitude that looks down on others. How easy it is to reproach others when we give them something. We know it’s right to give so we do, but we do it with a bad attitude. We give with reproach when we say things like, They didn’t work hard enough so they need help. They didn’t do things right, so they need help. They were lazy so they need help. This is an especially dangerous sin because we feel justified in our reproach because we’re giving.
How amazing then, that God gives without reproach. He’s the One being in the entire universe who would have just cause to look down on others and He chooses not to. He keeps on giving generously without disparaging those who receive His blessings. This is the nature of our God and this is why prayer is not worthless. The human reaction is to think that the value of prayer is based on its length, or the beauty or properness of its words, but none of that matters in the end. Prayer is valuable because it goes to our powerful God, and His nature is such that He delights in blessing us even when we don’t deserve it.
A prayer that trusts in the nature of God is powerful in the face of trials. A prayer that trusts is a prayer made in faith, as James writes. What more powerful example of the goodness of God than the image of His own Son bearing the reproach of our sins on the cross? His death is the greatest example of trust in the face of trial because He submitted Himself to the Father’s will as recorded in the Word.
That’s what gives us approval. That is what allows us to demand that God bless us as He has promised, to pray in the manner of expectation that we deserved what we are asking for. Not because of our works, but because of Christ’s. It’s absolutely true that anything worth having is worth working for. Jesus Christ did the work.
God asks us to mirror the same trust our Savior showed on Calvary by coming to Him in prayer. The beauty of our lives is that Christ did all the work for us. The same one who daily blesses us is the one who unlocked those blessings for us. Amen.
The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.