"Times of Testing: Joy or Jeopardy?"
James 1:2-15 Sept.27, 2009
CHAMPING AT THE BIT FOR A CHALLENGE
Today's reading from James' letter suggests there's a big difference between 'testing' and 'tempting' - testing is good, but tempting is bad. Yet testing usually involves difficulty. How can testing be a GOOD thing?
Each year at Thresher's there's a tractor-pull. Owners hitch up their antique tractors to a sled-like affair which has skids on the front and wheels on the back. As this sled is pulled ahead, a mechanism driven by the wheels winches a heavy weight forward so gradually more and more weight is shifted from the wheels onto the skids. Eventually the load being dragged becomes so heavy the tractor stalls or gets stuck; that distance becomes its record. It's a 'con-test' to see which vehicles of the same class can pull the same load the farthest. You can imagine each tractor-owner pulling up to the starting line, eager to see "what the ol' girl will do".
Sometimes my dad helped out in the antique machinery display at the Mitchell Fair. In later years his job was looking after the Baker Fan. This was an axle sporting four huge square fins which did nothing else but stir the air; the faster it went, the more horsepower it took to make it turn. The Baker Fan was a safe, standardized, controlled environment to test how much horsepower a tractor could put out through a belt attached to the pulley on the fan.
Such methods don't only supply an abstract fact as to how many feet you could pull or RPMs you could turn. Hitching up to a load helps diagnose if there's something not quite right with an engine - timing not quite right, leaky valves, improper mixture, etc. You'd rather find that out in a safe way that wasn't critical rather than, say, when you were pulling a heavy wagon of grain halfway up a barn bank only to find you lacked the necessary 'oomph'.
My father-in-law could supply another example on a different type of machinery. When he was a constable in the Strathroy Police, he would routinely take the cruiser out to a back road around town, and 'open her up' to blow the carbon out of the engine. Not that he was a 'speed demon' - his job was to STOP speeders - but he wanted his vehicle to be in top condition, able to perform fully if some emergency such as tracking a thief called for it.
From horsepower to horses - picture a batch of thoroughbreds at the starting gate before a race. Do you think they'd be excited at the con-test ahead of them? They're eager to get on with it! Or heavy draft-horses in a pulling competition could be 'champing at the bit', hardly able to wait to be hitched up and test their strength.
Imagine you were a mighty Sawyer Massey steam engine at the Thresher's show. What if every day you only got a chance to drive slowly around the grounds at the 4:00 parade? What a waste of ability! A tractor would look forward to the challenge of a load, rather than a lame parade - tooting or no tooting. The testing is what gives assurance the tractor, or horse, or cruiser can actually perform when under load.
So in the life of faith: what a waste if believers never had opportunity to be tested. We would rust out and never develop our full capacity. James writes, "Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds..." (2) New Living Translation puts it, "When troubles come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy." Like those draft horses waiting in harness, we can be eager, joyful at the opportunity, champing at the bit for the chance to honour our Lord.
JOY IN TESTING: FAITH'S DOCUMENTATION
Whenever we face trials, literally 'fall into' or find ourselves surrounded by troubles that test us, James says we can count it 'pure joy' - nothing but joy (NLT). He's not talking about evil's temptation here - that comes down in v13. Why can we rejoice at testing? Vv3-4 provide the answer: "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." The testing of your faith; v12 talks about someone who has 'stood the test'. In both places the Greek word is dokimion, the 'genuine element' or 'proof' of faith, 'becoming approved'. After the tractor has 'gone the distance' with the load at the pull, its ability is documented, certified, proven. "Proof" in liquor is a gauge of the actual amount of alcohol. In making maple syrup, large producers use a refractometer to assure themselves the sugar content has reached a standard level. So it's the hardships we encounter as Christians that prove or demonstrate we truly believe; in enduring or persevering through the stress, we discover faith is real, we are assured of God's presence helping us not buckle. "When your endurance is fully developed," James says, "you will be mature and complete, not lacking anything."
God's not being nasty when He hitches up to our next challenge. He has confidence in us and is providing us with an opportunity to develop our spiritual muscles, rely more closely on Him, and grow in maturity. Without anything to endure or persevere against, we would be pretty wimpy Christians! The Lord is glorified, and the reality of our relationship with Him and trust in Him is verified to the watching world when He arranges for us to be tested. His goal is our growth, discovering yet more of His goodness.
Paul in Romans 5(3f) describes the goal of testing in slightly different terms: "Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope."
Today we take the standardization of our money for granted. But it wasn't always so. Donald Barnhouse explains, "In the ancient world there was no banking system as we know it today, and no paper money. All money was made from metal, heated until liquid, poured into moulds and allowed to cool. When the coins were cooled, it was necessary to smooth off the uneven edges. The coins were comparatively soft and of course many people shaved them closely. In one century, more than eighty laws were passed in Athens, to stop the practice of shaving down the coins then in circulation. But some money changers were men of integrity, who would accept no counterfeit money. They were men of honour who put only genuine full weighted money into circulation. Such men were called 'dokimos' or 'approved'." So testing is the means God uses to show to other people and principalities that our faith is real, tested, 'dokimos' and proven, the 'genuine article'.
James lists another benefit of testing in v12: "Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him." Here the focus is not on a crown as such, but the eternal life which is the prize or reward for trusting the Lord in our earthly years. Other passages in the New Testament refer to it as a crown of glory, of righteousness, a crown that lasts forever (1Pet 5:4; 2Tim 4:8; 1Cor 9:25). So there are benefits beyond just maturity value.
John Bunyan, who was imprisoned so many years in the Bedford jail and authored Pilgrim's Progress at that time, wrote: "Temptations, when we first meet them, are as the lion that roared upon Samson; but if we overcome them, the next time we see them we shall find a nest of honey within them." That's God's objective in the testing process - maturing and completing us to be able to handle challenges and find joy in overcoming.
In vv9-11 James mentions a particular type of testing that's very relevant to our world these days, given the economic downturn: the testing of poverty and wealth. V9, "The brother in humble circumstances [literally, who is 'lowly' or poor] ought to take pride [literally, boast] in his high position." Eh? Come again? How can poverty be a 'high position'? A large part of James' intended audience would be the Christian Jews who fled Jerusalem and Judea in the persecution that arose following the stoning of Stephen (Acts 8:1ff). With people like Saul after you, out to destroy the church and dragging people off to prison, they probably didn't have occasion to sell their property, instead just taking with them whatever they could in a couple of suitcases (or equivalent). So you can imagine those dispersed Christian Jews who received James' letter relating very much to his mention of 'humble circumstances' - having escaped from persecution with barely the clothes on their back. Yet their material poverty accentuated the spiritual riches in Christ that could never be taken away from them. They are forgiven, redeemed, adopted as God's sons and daughters, justified, sanctified, transformed, co-heirs with Christ, blessed by God "in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ" (Eph 1:3). Having little on earth made them treasure even more their non-material blessings in Jesus.
However v10 suggests worldly riches, at the other end of the spectrum, are also a test. "The one who is rich should take price in his low position" - how's that? In what way does wealth bring one 'low'? Not in this life, maybe - but when this life ends and eternity begins, you lose it all, you go naked to the grave as you came from the womb; all your accumulated stuff "goes back in the box." In the light of eternity, wealthy folk have the most to lose - not to mention risking the trap of "many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction" (1Tim 6:10). James goes on to describe the rich person's fate using imagery from nature: "...he will pass away like a wild flower.For the sun rises with scorching heat and withers the plant; its blossom falls and its beauty is destroyed. In the same way, the rich man will fade away even while he goes about his business." (10f)
On our daily walk, Yvonne and I pass a hayfield. The farmer takes the usual 3 cuts a year of hay; so one day when we're walking by there's a nice tall crop of alfalfa, the next day it's gone! We could hardly predict on a given day a month in advance whether there would be plants there or not. James is saying life is just that uncertain; the wealthy wither and disappear even as they scurry about preoccupied with their pursuits.
The Greek word for "low-ness" here means literally to level, to reduce to a plain: picture a grader blade going along and scraping off the high parts of a road. So, death suddenly takes away the trinkets that mortals so often boast about. That's a sober reminder to all of us to rejoice in tested faith that makes us rich before God, not fickle funds.
JEOPARDY OF TEMPTATION: SIN'S SABOTAGE
Testing a draft horse by hitching it up to a load can be a good thing, positive; but tempting the same horse by offering an apple injected with poison would be a bad thing. While the same Greek root is used in verses 2 and 13, there is a vast difference in the context: earlier, the good sense "testing" demonstrates the validity and genuineness of belief. But later, the sense of "tempting" threatens to sabotage faith. God allows both in His sovereignty, designs the former for our growth, but is not the immediate source of the latter, which is rooted in evil and has the aim of our destruction. St.Ambrose said, "The Devil tempts that he may ruin; God tempts that He may crown."
V13, "When tempted, no one should say, 'God is tempting me.' For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone..." Since God is absolutely good and holy, there's nothing about evil that would attract or tempt Him. Yet we humans may try to blame God for temptations, as if to make God responsible for our sin rather than us. The Life Application Bible lists these classic excuses for evil thoughts and wrong actions: "It's the other person's fault [remember Adam blaming Eve!]; I couldn't help it; everybody's doing it [a popular one since the 70s]; it was just a mistake; nobody's perfect; the devil made me do it [as if he could without your co-operation!]; I was pressured into it; I didn't know it was wrong; God is tempting me [that's not God's style]." Rather than accept responsibility, we'll blame anyone else we can.
Vv14-15 describe the real origin and progression of temptation and sin - induced in us by some combination of the world, the flesh, or the devil. "Each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed." The subsequent phrases describe temptation's development and destructive outcome.
First, there's the HANKERING: the 'evil desire', the lust, or appetite, some area of life we've hemmed in from experiencing satisfaction in God.
Then there's the HOOK: some incident provides the opportunity for us to be 'dragged away and enticed'. The language here is that of lures used in hunting and fishing - a decoy; looks attractive but is ultimately deadly. Reminds me of some of those deep-sea fishes that have a pretty little light dangling on an extension from their head: draws other little fish to the light, then, SNAP - they're eaten by this huge ugly mouth. Sin's lure can look pretty appealing at first, but somehow it never delivers quite what you expect. But it's too late: the hook has grabbed hold, you're caught. V15, "after desire has conceived" - literally, seized, taken hold, caught the victim.
Next comes the HATCHING: "after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin..." The language has shifted from the hunt of the forest and lake to the hunt of the red-light district. Once we have yielded to evil, it progressively leads us deeper into dissatisfaction and demanding; so sin gains increasing power over us, drawing us into addiction and disruption of healthy patterns.
Finally there's the HARM: "And sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death." John Regier in his counselling emphasizes John 10:10, the thief comes to steal, kill, and destroy; Satan uses ground given through initial small sins to bind people progressively in shame, guilt, depression, despair, and finally suicidal thoughts - because he's out to destroy us. Think of Biblical examples: Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit, resulting in the curse and our return to dust; Cain not mastering the sin crouching at the door through his inferior offering, resulting in the murder of Abel; David yielding to lust over beautiful bathing Bathsheba, culminating in the coldly premeditated murder of her husband Uriah (Gen 2:19, 4:5ff; 2Sam 11). Sin may start small, but without repentance, it takes over.
The Psalmist wrote, "He who is pregnant with evil and conceives trouble gives birth to disillusionment." (Ps 7:14) Paul wrote, "the wages of sin is death": it inevitably gets its payback (Rom 6:23).
Recently in the disappointing economic climate, some North Americans have yielded to the hankering for easy money, and been duped into various Ponzi schemes. Even the two sons of David Mainse of 100 Huntley Street fell victim to the fraudulent claims of Gordon Driver, who has been accused in a California court of running a $16 million Ponzi scheme. While no ministry monies were diverted, the Mainses did refer some relatives and friends to the supposed investment opportunity, which promised returns of up to 5% per week. They have cooperated with investigators, and their own names have been cleared of wrongdoing, but the Crossroads board has pulled them from the show for the time being. Temptation had its damaging effect. Reynold Mainse says, "We didn't investigate our friend, and it turned out what he was telling us was not true. It hurt us and it hurt our families."
How should we face temptation? Like Jesus in the wilderness, camp on God's promises and commands in Scripture. Refrain from sin by re-framing the wrong desire in light of heaven's perspective. God provides a way of escape so we can bear up under the test (2Cor 10:13). As Paul urged Timothy, "Flee the evil desires of youth, and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, along with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart." (2Ti 2:22) Swap that harmful hankering for the better goal of heaven's irreplaceables.
Remember God is watching; His Holy Spirit is at hand to strengthen and encourage you. As Francois Fenelon observed, "To realize God's presence is the one sovereign remedy against temptation."
HANGING ON BY A THREAD
"Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial..." (12) In the thirteenth century, there was a disagreement between Scottish leaders about which of them should be king. England's King Edward I stepped in and took the honour for himself, stripping Scotland of its crown, its royal regalia, and even the sacred Stone of Scone on which the kings of Scotland had always been crowned. The latter he placed in Westminster Abbey in London.
The outraged Scots secretly crowned Robert Bruce their king, but they seemed no match for the English army. Scottish troops were scattered, living in the mountains, surviving on eels and salmon and deer, and under constant attack from their enemy. Robert Bruce himself was wounded, and his capture seemed imminent. The English had even captured one of his bloodhounds and were using it to search for him.
After madly careening through the Scottish woods, exhausted, frightened, and bleeding, Bruce suddenly came to a stream. Plunging in, he waded alongside the bank until hoisting himself onto the limb of a tree. There he stayed, and the dog lost the scent.
Bruce spent the following winter hidden away in a hovel in the mountains, keeping himself alive on a bag of old potatoes. One cold, gray afternoon, he felt almost hopeless, spirits badly draining. But he noticed a spider trying to weave a web in the corner of the window. The spider was having a hard time of it, because the wind kept blowing away the threads. Time after time, the spider gave another effort until finally the thread held.
"I might be that spider," said Bruce. "I, too, have failed. Like those threads, my lines have been broken and blown away. But you have shown me that there is always one more time--a time for one more attempt and, with persistence, a winning one!"
Bruce left the hovel to gather his scattered troops, and by spring he had an army that was tougher than ever. Battle after battle raged until their lines finally held and they drove the English out of Scotland.
Perseverance won the Scots their earthly crown back. James says when believers persevere and stand the test, we will receive the 'crown of life' God has promised to those who love Him. Let's pray.