Someone handed me a little clipping this past week. A couple of young men from Chicago decided they were tired of the hustle and bustle of city life. So they moved out to West Texas, where they were going to become cotton farmers. They knew they had to get themselves some supplies, so they went to the general store. They asked the manager, "What do we need if we're going to go into the business?"
The manager suggested that they would, of course, need to get some seed, some fertilizer, a plow, and several things like that. So he gathered up all the things and said, "Now there's one other item you're going to need." "What's that?" they asked. "You need to get a mule in order to move your farm machinery," he said. (They didn't know much about mules.)
The fellow also said, "Sirs, I don't have one right now. Maybe I can help locate one for you." They said, "Well, that's all right. We'll just wait until you can come up with one." In the meantime they sat around and continued to visit with the store owner.
They looked out on the porch and noticed that he had a bunch of watermelons there for sale. One of the Chicago boys asked him, "Would you tell us what that big green thing is out there on the porch? We don't have those in Chicago." The store owner, thinking to have a little fun with them, said, "Oh, those—why, I didn't even think of it. Why that's a mule egg. Didn't you know?" One of the young men said, "You don't say! Well, give me one of those mule eggs, and we'll just grow up a mule. And then we'll be ready to farm cotton."
So they loaded the seed, the fertilizer, the plow, and the mule egg in the back of the pickup truck and headed down the road. The pickup hit a bad bump, and when it did, that watermelon fell off onto the road and burst all over the place. One of the boys from Chicago looked in his rearview mirror and saw what had happened. He decided he'd better go back.
By the time he got back to the watermelon, one of those great big West Texas jackrabbits had crawled up in the middle of that watermelon and was eating the center. The boys from Chicago had never seen one of those West Texas jackrabbits either. As he went back there, the one hollered to the other, "Come here! This thing has done hatched, and our mule is right here."
Well, by the time the other one ran up there and looked at it, the rabbit had looked up and seen them and, as rabbits tend to do, got scared and began to run all different directions. Those two fellows, not wanting to lose their investment of the mule egg, began to give chase. The rabbit would dart here and there, and they would reach and grab and do everything they could to get around the rabbit and couldn't do it. Finally they both collapsed back on the ground breathless, gasping for air. The jackrabbit darted off into the fields, never to be seen again.
One of the boys said, "That's a shame. I guess we've lost our mule. We'll never get it back now." The other fellow said, "I don't know if that's all that bad. I don't believe I'd ever want to plow that fast anyhow."
Some of us say we want to live the Christian life. I'm convinced most of us are sincere when we say that. But the fact is, most of us don't want to live it as fast as Jesus wants us to live it. We don't want to be as effective a disciple as God wants us to be. The Book of James tells you what to do, and that the time to do it is now.
Baptisms are declining and fewer people are coming to know Christ from the lost, secular world because, as those people look at the lifestyle of Christians, they cannot detect any discernible difference [between them and us]. Suppose you were a lost person, without Christ. You're living out in the secular world. You have no concept of who Jesus is or what God can do, and somebody comes up to you and says you need Jesus. Your first reaction is: "Do you have Jesus?" "Yes, I do," he might say. "What's he done for you?" you continue. "Well," he might stutter, "I … I go to church every Sunday. Uh, I'm supposed to give part of my money away. Uh, that's about it." Do you think you're going to be excited about having what that Christian has?
So James is a book that challenges our lifestyle. James is a book that is a dynamic declaration of what real discipleship has to be if we're going to follow Jesus. Let's look at the first eight verses of the book of James this morning as we talk about the practice of patience. There'll be four things that I want you to underscore in these eight verses.
Real disciples encounter trials and consider it joy
The first of which is: the encounter with various trials.
If you look at verse 2, James begins with an interesting statement, saying, "Consider it all joy when you fall into diverse temptation, or when you face trials of many kinds." A couple of things to note: The Book of James (and the Bible throughout) tells you that you are going to encounter testings or trials or difficulties. The word does not mean "temptation to sin." It comes from the Greek word peirasmos, and that word has to do with testing, trying something.
In a sense, the Bible is saying that it is the testing of your faith that works patience. The Bible says, "Count it all joy, my brothers, when you encounter these testings or these pullings of God in your life." When the Bible says that you will fall into diverse testings or trials, the picture of the phrase "you will fall" is interesting, because that language literally means that it is an unavoidable situation.
I fear that many of you, perhaps, have gone through life feeling a great sense of guilt, because you're convinced that the reason that you've had that crisis in your life is because you've done something, and God is doing something back to you. You were bad, so God is out to get you. And that's why you had that financial problem last year, or that's why your son or daughter went on drugs. You may feel that difficulty took place because you did something wrong that precipitated the trial. Let me assure you, that is not what the Bible teaches.
The Bible teaches that you were going to fall into these trials regardless of how good you are. There are going to come into your life some circumstances that will try your very soul. The picture here of falling is the picture of a person who is walking quite well and suddenly finds a slick place and trips and falls and hurts himself.
Several of our people were injured on the ice of last month. I have a feeling that not one of them ventured out his doorway and said to his wife, "Honey, I'm going to go get the paper and fall and break my leg while I'm out. Okay?" If you've ever been on slick ice, as I have, it doesn't matter how careful or you are, when you hit that slick spot, it's over before you can do anything but hit the ground.
The Bible says that is the picture of your trials. It is not that there is anything preventative that you can do that will keep you from having a trial. There's no use trying. You're going to encounter some trials.
We all can deal with that. You know what we have a hard time doing? It's the other part of what James says in verse 2: "Count it all joy. Consider it pure joy." When is the last time you considered it all joy when adversity came to your life? Most of us consider it all misery not joy. James is telling us, "When you fall into various trials and circumstances, count it all joy, my brothers." That's hard to do. That goes against every natural instinct and inclination.
I know a pastor in Florida who used to have parties every now and then. He so believed this verse, that when he would face a difficult situation, he would call friends over to his house. He'd say, "I want you to come over to my house for a party." They'd say, "Oh, is it a birthday?" "No," he would say. "Uh, you got a promotion?" they'd continue. "No," he'd say. "What's the situation?" they would finally ask. "Well," he'd say, "I'm going through this incredibly difficult crisis right now, and I'm having a party. We're going to celebrate the difficulty, because I know that this difficulty is going to bring something of special value to my life. I don't know what it is yet, but I want you to come and count it all joy with me."
Have any of you ever thrown a party? I haven't either. To tell you the truth, it's tough to consider it pure joy, because it hurts. Yet it's important to realize that unless we go through some test, we will never know what our faith is made of. The fact is, the main problem in our lives is not our problems. The main problem in our lives is our response to our problems, our attitudes toward our problems. You can't get out of some of the problems you are in. But you can change the way you're dealing with them. You can see the purpose of God in your life is not to get you through life unbruised, unscathed, and without a problem. God's purpose in your life is to get you through life learning how to develop the character of Jesus so that whatever you face, you face it as Christ would face it.
Real disciples have an endurance produced by trials
You don't count it joy because you enjoy the problem. Verse 3 tells us why we count it joy. We see this in the second point of this passage: an endurance produced by trials.
James says, "Knowing that the trying of your faith worketh patience. …" We have to understand that word patience before we go on, because it is not what some of us think it is. To some Christians patience is holding on, clutching, hanging in there, and sweating it out until the unlovely end. I want you to understand that is not a biblical picture of patience. The word patience is a beautiful word in Greek. It's untranslatable into a single English word. It is the word hupomone, and it has to do not so much with the ability to withstand, but the ability to overcome, the ability to endure to the point of victory.
Most Christians I know are what I call " Christians." Let me explain that. Have you ever been on an airplane with someone who has never flown before? They don't know what is ahead, and they're scared out of their wits A few years ago when I took a group of people to Israel, I had on the trip a precious lady who had never been on an airplane before. I noticed when she got on the plane she was nervous. So I said, "Louise, everything is fine. Don't worry; don't panic. Everything is cool. You can sit beside me, and as long as I'm not scared, you don't need to be scared." But I still noticed that as she sat down in her seat, she got that seat belt buckled before she sat down. Then she clutched the armrests as if that plane was going to go upside down. (This is while we were still at the gate.) Her jaw was set, her teeth were clenched, and those fists were so gripped around the armrest that her knuckles had turned white.
I said, "Louise, are you nervous?" She said, "U. Nervous?" I knew she was scared to death. But there wasn't a lot I could do about her. Her attitude was: I am going to grip this thing and hold on. I will get there. It may kill me. God may scrape me off this plane with a putty knife, but I am going to get to Israel.
I know a lot of Christians who say, "I'm going to get to heaven. I'm going to hold on with all I've got. I'm going to be patient if it kills me." That is not the Biblical understanding of patience. The word patience means not hanging on and barely making it. Patience (hupomone, "perseverance") means that God wants to instill in you the ability to be an overcomer, to be a winner at life. James says there is an endurance in your life that is produced only by the testings of the trials that you are going to be facing. And he says, "Know this: You count it joy, because you know that the trying of your faith works perseverance."
When I was about four years old, some of the older kids in the neighborhood were riding bicycles. I wanted to ride a bike so bad. Everybody else rode bikes, and I had to walk. So I begged my dad for a bike, and he got me a used girls bike. (Boy, what an embarrassing way to start! He thought it was easier to learn on that, and he was right.) He bought it from a man he worked with; one his kids had pretty well worn it out. It had those big, old, wide balloon tires on it; it almost stood up by itself it was so wide. It had dents and it wasn't painted nicely. But it was a bike—better than nothing.
I tried to get up on that bike the first time and I took about one good spin on the pedals and crashed and fell. It's not encouraging when the handlebars are up in your jaw somewhere. But I got back up and I tried it again. And I fell again. And I got up again and I fell again. And I got up again and I fell again. This went on for several days. I can't remember exactly how many bushes I ran through, how many times I couldn't remember how to stop and hit the side of the house. But I do remember this: somewhere along the way, that practice brought me to the place where I could ride the bicycle.
I didn't get up on the bicycle the first time and ride the thing. But I got to where I could not only ride it, I didn't even have to concentrate. I didn't have to say, "Okay, hands, steady. This way and that way. Pedals forward. Pedals back, and it will stop." It was instinct. You didn't ride a bike the first time you tried. But you wanted to ride a bike bad enough that you kept trying even though you kept falling. And the day came when you could ride. Probably some of you got where you not only could ride with one hand, but—disgusting as it is—you could ride with no hands, and not even think about it. But you didn't do that the first time.
Why do you believe that in your faith you can fall on your knees and pray a prayer and jump up from that prayer and suddenly all of your spiritual ills are solved? That is not a realistic or honest or even biblical approach to your Christian faith. It is the trying of your faith that works patience.
Don't ever say, "I cannot do what God wants me to do. I cannot tithe. I cannot witness. I cannot forgive. I cannot love." When you say that, you accuse God of being an impotent liar. God says you can. It's not that you cannot; it is that you will not. You can do all things through Christ, who strengthens you. The trying of your faith will work patience. Then James says, "Let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing." That does not mean you are going to be "perfect." That word here means that you may mature, that you may fill out to the ultimate destiny to which God has called you, that you can be a completed person.
Real disciples ask for insight into the trial
The third is this: an enlightenment for the insight into the trial. In verse 5 the Bible says, "If any of you lack wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault; and it will be given him."
The context of this verse (this promise we've claimed from God for so many years) is that in the midst of your trials and tribulations (those adversities that you face), when you don't understand why you're going through them, the Bible says you can ask God why, and God will tell you. God will help you understand them, and God will even tell you what the next step is.
The Bible doesn't say that any man lacks knowledge. Most of us have knowledge. We know what is happening. We see the circumstances. It's not a lack of information; it's a lack of wisdom that causes us problems in our life. The fact is that most of us have sat through Sunday School classes and enough sermons that we have enough biblical knowledge to know what our Christian response ought to be. But we don't have the wisdom to trust God to let it be that.
The Bible says when you lack wisdom, ask God, not some ungodly person who is already dropped out of a spiritual walk. Ask God what to do. The Bible says he is not going to upbraid you. He's not going to belittle you. He is not going to criticize or condemn you for asking. He is going to give you the wisdom. He wants you to know. But understand this about wisdom: wisdom is when you ask God to tell you not only what is happening and why it's happening, but also to tell you what to do next, so that the ultimate result of being like Jesus can be in place.
Most of us say, "God show me what you're going to do next, and I'll tell you if I like it and whether I'll go on." Have you come to the place where you can so trust God that regardless of what he says, you're willing to do it even before he tells you what it is? God says, "I want you to commit that you'll do what I tell you before I tell to do it." Can you trust God that much? The Bible says if you lack wisdom, if you don't understand what is going on, ask God. He'll tell you.
Real disciples ask in faith
But ask in faith. The last thing you see in these verses: an expectation we have by faith. Verse 6: "Let him ask in faith, nothing wavering."
James says a man who wavers, who can't make up his mind, is like a wave in the sea. If you ever have been to the ocean, you know that the wave moves whichever way the pressure pushes it. If the pressure goes this way, that's the way the wave goes. If the pressure goes that way, that's the way the wave goes. A lot of Christians are like that. If the pressure in your life is to trust God, as long as you're at church between eleven and noon, you're faithful to the Lord. When you get outside, you start watching some soap opera that tells you that the problems of your marriage could by solved by getting out, the problems of your life could be solved by killing your spouse or by taking a drug or getting drunk. Then, if that pressure is there, you may lean from that pressure. The Bible says you haven't acted in faith until God is your only option and you'll do whatever he says, you'll trust him to the point of allowing him to be God.
When [our son] John Mark was 4 years old, he was out playing in the back yard and got a splinter in his foot. He came in and held up his foot. He was crying, and he said, "I got a splinter in my foot!" I said "Sit on the couch. Let's look at it." So I looked at it. Then, as he held up his foot and I reached over to pull the splinter out (because I knew it would feel better), he said what every kid says (which I still, to this day, don't understand): "Don't touch it!" I said, "What do you want me to do? Take a picture of it and mount it on the wall? I've got to touch it, Son. I don't levitate splinters out of your foot. There is no choice." "It will hurt," he moaned. I said, "It might, but it won't hurt as long. It will sure feel a lot better when I get the splinter out."
But somehow that wasn't adequate. So Janet held down the top of him while I tried to hold down the bottom of him and pull that splinter out. He was kicking and screaming and jerking in all different directions, and here I was with the tweezers, trying to pull out the splinter. I was afraid that I would jab those tweezers way up into his foot. I wanted to say to him, "Son, don't you trust me? What do you think I'm going to do, cut your foot off? I'm not here to hurt you. I'm here to help you, and if you don't let me help you, it's going to get worse not better. Trust me; I'm your father. I love you. I care about you. I do this only to help you. Be still. Relax."
I think sometimes God in heaven must look down upon us, and we must be like a little child who says, "God, I'm hurt. God help me." God reaches in to help us, and the first thing we do is say, "God, don't touch me! Don't do that God!" God is saying, "But I've got to reach in there and deal with the hurt. It may hurt a little, but I've got to do it." We say, "No, God. Please, nothing like that!" So here we are fighting with God. It is the equivalent of being in surgery when the surgeon has both of his arms up to his elbows in your abdomen, and suddenly you decide that you don't want to be operated on and try to get off the table. How many times in our lives do we find ourselves on the surgery table of the Almighty, where God is trying to work in our lives that miracle of making us like Christ, and when we realize what God's doing, we wake up and say, "God, I don't want you to do this. Let me out of here!"?
It's not that we can't be Christians. The sad fact is most of us don't want to be Christians enough to try our faith to the point of patience and perseverance. What about you? Are you practicing your faith? "I have preacher, but I failed and I just keep messing up." What if you mess up? Try it again. And if you keep messing up, keep trying. One day what once was so difficult, so beyond the possibility of your grasp, will become the practice of patience in your life.