Friday, February 20, 2015

Staying Power

James is speaking to me. Over and over. He is rather insistent that way.

Other biblical writers take a more roundabout path, craft a message that isn't too in your face. But James is not like that. He is so straightforward, it's hard to take sometimes. And for two weeks, I've not gotten past his first eighteen verses.

Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles of any kind come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing.”

Heck, I can barely get past that.

Troubles are an opportunity for great joy. I know, in retrospect, that this is true. I didn't usually know when troubles were actually in my way. It's kind of difficult to see the joy when the trouble is filling your entire windshield and blocking the view of anything else. But I know, deeply, that these verses are true. I know that the steadfastness (the word the ESV uses for endurance) I feel in my faith is a result of the extreme pains of the past, and I feel nothing but grateful for that. But the knowing when pain suddenly pierces your side – that is far more difficult. Only falling back on my history with God, and on his words, will remind me.

If you need wisdom, ask our generous God, and he will give it to you. He will not rebuke you for asking. But when you ask him, be sure that your faith is in God alone. Do not waver, for a person with divided loyalty is as unsettled as a wave of the sea that is blown and tossed by the wind. Such people should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Their loyalty is divided between God and the world, and they are unstable in everything they do.”

I know when people read this, they think, “But I can never ask without doubt. Isn't that beyond human ability? Besides, God doesn't always give us what we ask for, so how can we not doubt we will get it?” 

I believe that's a misreading. James isn't implying we will receive what we ask for. He has no stock in the name it and claim it gospel. His point is not that we never doubt the outcome but that we never doubt God. The faith should be in the One we are praying to, not in the thing we want. 

Do we doubt God himself, his goodness, his power, or his love? Do we pray to him but hedge our bets, putting real trust in something else in case God doesn't come through? Can we joyfully say when we pray, “Your will be done. If I never see any result, if I live in trials from this day forward, I will trust in you”? Like Job, in other words, can we mean, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him”?

That's the faith James is talking about. And “God, I'm stamping your name on what I want, and I know you'll deliver” is an anemic substitute for that kind of faith.

Plus, let's not forget he's encouraging us to ask for wisdom, not a grab bag of stuff. Specifically, wisdom to endure trials and know how to mine the joy from them and leave the junk. I can only imagine what American Christianity would look like if more of us asked for wisdom first before asking for anything else. It might be a good Lenten discipline right now.

Believers who are poor have something to boast about, for God has honored them. And those who are rich should boast that God has humbled them. They will fade away like a little flower in the field. The hot sun rises and the grass withers; the little flower droops and falls, and its beauty fades away. In the same way, the rich will fade away with all of their achievements. God blesses those who patiently endure testing and temptation. Afterward they will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him. And remember, when you are being tempted, do not say, 'God is tempting me.' God is never tempted to do wrong, and he never tempts anyone else. Temptation comes from our own desires, which entice us and drag us away. These desires give birth to sinful actions. And when sin is allowed to grow, it gives birth to death.”

We're talking priorities here. Going through trials with faith and endurance, rather than impatience and blaming, creates in us the kind of maturity God seeks. The kind that shines like a light for others going through pain. So it makes sense he would follow up those lessons with a reminder that, in this tiny slice of eternity, our relative abundance of possessions or security doesn't matter at all. What matters is how we react to the circumstances of our lives. Choose joy and faith, or choose complaint and striving? Either way, the moments of our lives fade quickly. So why spend them chasing after what will splinter and dissolve even faster?

I don't know what that is for you. Maybe it's a new house, but you'r sacrificing time with those eternal beings known as your family to get there. Maybe it's a job promotion, but you're living and breathing in dissatisfaction every time you get passed over. Maybe it's notice and appreciation for something you've done, but you're letting bitterness and resentment keep you from tangible love for the offending person (who probably doesn't even know you're waiting).

I don't know. I just know, from experience, that chasing what I don't have ruins all chances of living in gratitude for what I do.  [tweet this]. If I'm tempted to disbelieve, doubt, and chase, it isn't God tempting me. It's me wanting what God is not offering. That is such a waste, considering what he does offer.

"So don't be misled, my dear brothers and sisters. Whatever is good and perfect is a gift coming down to us from God our Father, who created all the lights in the heavens. He never changes or casts a shifting shadow. He chose to give birth to us by giving us his true word. And we, out of all creation, became his prized possession." 

Is it good? Then it's from God. Does it feel good, look good, or sound good? It may be from God. Then again, it may not. Good doesn't always feel good. Sometimes, it feels an awful lot like pain. Sometimes, good appears as great hurt that peels away at our selfishness and pride and exposes the raw, vulnerable flesh of repentance and surrender.  [tweet this]. And that, my friends, is very, very good. You can trust that kind of good, because it doesn't depend on circumstances or feelings. It depends on the character of God, which never changes.

Our feelings go in and out like the tide. His core being remains like the sun, the center around which we must orbit. Maybe that's why James uses such a beautiful, evocative name for him – the Father of Lights.

I feel deeply ashamed, when confronted with brothers and sisters who are losing their lives rather than doubt their Father. Sisters who watch their children murdered; brothers who see their wives and daughters sold into slavery. Because they are people who chose not to doubt their Father.

Meanwhile, I live in a culture where we desert churches because we don't like the choices they make for a building project or an outreach ministry, or we just wanted to be noticed and appreciated and don't think we were. I live in a world where Christians expect God to come through for them because they've prayed a prayer and thought positively, so that job, relationship, bank account should be safe and secure. And when it isn't? Oh, we are driven and tossed by the wind of doubt and disbelief.

We have no concept of steadfastness.

I have no concept of it.

Lord, give us steadfastness. Give us wisdom. Give us perspective on what is real trouble and what is our selfish response to temporary discomfort, offense, or inconvenience. Make us a people of lights that rely on the Father of Lights so that others will know – you are good. You are totally, unflinchingly, everlastingly, good. 

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