Ian Barclay wrote that in 1588 terrible storms lashed across the Orkney Isles. A Christian fisherman wrote that as he saw his home, his boat, and his fishing equipment destroyed by it, he almost gave up his faith. How could it happen when he has stood right there praying for protection? Where was God and what was he doing?!
That picture is so real and true to me as I look back over the last few years and it doesn’t seem to get easier. But rather than turn away that’s why I need the Lord and this word from the Book of James today. To help me navigate a way forward.
One of my Granddaughter’s favourite books says it all really. So many of the lessons we need to know about life are there in what we to teach our kids and she loves the book called, We’re Going On A Bear Hunt.
They set out on an adventure. That’s the reality of life, but it’s scary and hard at times. Long grass, deep river, mud, a dark forest, into a deep cave. Every time, I read it Poppy says:
We can’t go over it
We can’t go under it
We’ve got to go through it …
We’re all going through something right now. Other people we’re praying for and helping around the world are going through even worse. And we will see again today that the Bible doesn’t gloss over that or try to avoid it because YES we all have to go through things that we’d rather go round. The older I get, the more I realise it.
(Read James 1:1)
James is Jesus’ half-brother, younger brother, fathered by Joseph. He didn’t believe in Jesus’ claims to be God, to be the Messiah. He joined with the rest of the family to try to stop him from saying those things. Thought he was crazy. “You’re just our brother, come back home.”
When did he become a believer? Not at the cross. AFTER the resurrection. When Jesus appeared to him alive again. Paul says after Jesus appeared to over 500 people at once—then he appeared to James his brother, after stepping out of his grave.
James became one of the most prominent leaders of the early church in Jerusalem, known as James the Just.
This letter must have been written very early, because he died as a martyr there in about 65 AD. Enemies threw him from the top of the Temple when he wouldn’t renounce his faith that Jesus is alive, but the fall didn’t kill him. They beat him with clubs as he was dying—and forgiving them with the same words his older brother used, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.”
He’s writing here to God’s scattered people. It’s happening again in our day, just in a different way. We are being scattered. But we don’t have to be shattered by that experience. What looks like it could pull us apart can pull us together and even closer to God, if we press into him together wherever and however we have to meet right now.
If I was going to try to summarise this whole passage in one sentence it would go like this: Bad things will happen, but never doubt that God is still Good.
We’ll see James talks about those bad things as trials and tests, and what they do. The first thing is that they PROVE your faith.
(Read James 1:2-4)
Tests Prove Faith
Notice he says “Trials of many kinds” will come. It’s not a maybe. People say, “I’m really having my faith tested right now.” Trials test your faith. To see if it’s real or not.
Think back to school. What are the worst kinds of test? The ones you’re not ready for. When the French teacher says “Okay, vocab test.” And you’re like, “Merde!” because it’s the only word you remember.
But if I’m ready for the tests, if I know it’s coming. It’s different. It’s still tough, but it helps to be prepared. That’s what God’s trying to do as he speaks to us through James here. Live ready for testing times.
Notice it’s plural. I can’t say after one test, “Oh great, that’s all over with, now I can go back to the easy life.” No, he says the tests are (literally) of many varieties. Sickness. Losing a job, or someone we love. Like we just did this week here at Ivy. We have had to say farewell to too many people that way this year already.
We hear the bad news.
Oh no. Can’t get over it, can’t go round it. Got to go through it. So the question is not whether you’ll go through, but HOW?
The worst tests at school for me were always in math! But James uses a math word here when he says, “Consider” or “Count” it pure joy.
Add it to the plus column, not the minus.
Not because of what I feel, but because of what I know. I know the test I undergo now produces something in the future if I overcome. But the word for knowledge here is not head knowledge. It’s knowledge from experience , not something you read about. You go through something—to get this. What?
Literally the word means staying under – and not cracking, not running away. While I do that, it’s producing spiritual strength, tenacious faith. Muscles grow under the weight. Astronauts muscles don’t grow in space they atrophy because there’s no gravity, no resistance. But James says the testing, the pressure we are under produces perseverance and if we let it do its work—that leads to maturity.
Isn’t that true? Looking back—growing pains. How have you matured in your life? We learn to walk by falling, failing, stumbling, scraping—and going again. it’s true physically, relationally—wouldn’t it be so spiritually too? I learn by thinking I’m right and finding out I was wrong. So if we persevere under pressure the trials prove your faith.
(Read James 1:5-8)
Tests also Make It Personal
The Orkney fisherman who raged against God as he watched his little boat being destroyed in the storm didn’t know the same storm was also destroying a third of what was called the “Invincible Spanish Armada,” saving our island from invasion. I can think I know what’s happening from my perspective and blame God—or I can ask him for wisdom.
Even in the storms of life I don’t want to be double-minded. I sometimes have my doubts, but I don’t want my doubts to have me—or I’ll be wobbling all over. Unstable in all my ways. This way, that way. No way.
For instance, this week when I was called to my friend Dave’s bedside in the hospital. How do I pray? I start out praying for that great miracle? If it was me who had a heart attack in my fifties like him now, if I was lying there that’s what I’d want you to pray for me!
So I’m asking the Lord, for my friend—“Please, full healing …”
Then hours later, he dies. What now? Should I even pray for resurrection? I read about people like Smith Wigglesworth and my faith seems so small now. I get a text in from some great prayer warriors, people who sound so confident, like nobody who has faith should ever get sick, and any Christian who’s sick should never die.
But they do die.
And that’s not the worst thing. The apostle Paul said “It’s better by far!” No, the worst thing is to live, and die, without Jesus Christ.
Anyone who knew Dave at all would know that he was always saying to us, “Heaven’s going to be great!”
So how should I pray? For comfort—for God’s presence?
I don’t always know what to pray for. Do you? It’s hard to know. But this passage helps because it tells me what I can always pray for. With total clear conviction. Knowing I will get it, 100% guaranteed. God will give it. What’s the prayer?
“LORD I need WISDOM!”
Father, please give me wisdom for this. I lack wisdom. I’m a little child here. I don’t know what’s going on or what to do. I don’t even know what you’re doing. Please, give me the wisdom I lack. Please Lord.
I get praying like that and I’m not passive but I’m not demanding my way either. As if I know what’s best. I’m saying, “Lord … I believe—help my unbelief. This is not good. But you are. And there’s a part of me that just does not get this! I don’t know what you’re doing. Give me wisdom.”
27 ships in the Spanish Armada were shipwrecked off the West Coast of Ireland because of the storms. 5000 of the bedraggled and starving Spaniards navy were killed. But some French mercenaries were allowed to live and stayed in Ireland. My dad did some research years ago which he didn’t find flattering. They mingled with the locals. The origin of our family is that many of their illegitimate children were collectively named by the region of northern France they came from. The De-la-neys.
The storm that sank the fisherman’s boat, is the reason I’m here today.
Praying for wisdom may not get me what I want, but what I need. In the tests I find I need wisdom for what I’m not capable of understanding. I can’t run the universe—I can’t even work my own little life out!
And that’s a good thing because what breaks my heart, can also break my pride.
(Read James 1:9-11)
Tests Break My Pride
This passage has helped me so much in this awful week and reading through the Book of James has helped me too when I’ve remembered, my life and your life is short.
He’s going to say we’re like a vapour. We get fooled that this is what’s real and therefore all that matters. Then a breeze blows it all away.
So many things we strive for, or compare ourselves against, wither and fade away. They don’t matter at all. Like Dave used to always say, “It’s all about relationships.” That’s our real legacy in life.
Stephen Covey in the original Seven Habits of Highly Effective People had an exercise to do. “What would you want people to say about you when you die?” They changed it now to your 80th birthday, because people got upset about the idea they might die, which is interesting because last time I checked there is no might about it. The mortality rate remains at 100% whether or not there’s a virus around. None of us are getting out of here alive.
What would I want my friends to say about me? My colleagues? My family? My wife?
I read what people are saying about my friend Dave this week and I won’t be able to read them out here because I’d just be a mess. But there’s no mention of the car he drove, or the house he lived in. It’s all about relationships.
When I was reading messages from friends into his ear in ICU, as his brother was playing messages from the family, from his kids, it was his integrity, the way he loved people so well. His generosity with everything. How he encouraged everyone and believed in us, helped us believe in ourselves and believe in God.
What an amazing husband and wonderful friend. How he modelled being all about Jesus and living for what will last forever. How many times he’d smile and say to us, “Isn’t Jesus great? Isn’t heaven going to be great?” Because he lived every day with an eye on what will never fade away—knowing it’s only through the tests, we gain the treasure.
My second favourite book after the Bible is Pilgrim’s Progress, the full title of which is, The Pilgrims Progress From This World, To That Which Is To Come.
The tenth chapter of his journey is how they get to the Celestial City (to heaven), after all the fights and failures, the temptations and difficulties, the lions they passed, the Giants to fight, the dungeon of Despair to escape from; Christian and his friend Hopeful have to cross a river to get there. Two golden guides appear, to ask questions of—but there was no bridge over the river.
And the river was very deep … The pilgrims began to despair in their mind, and looked this way and that, but no way could be found by them by which they might escape the river. They asked the men if the waters were all of a depth. They said, “No - you shall find it deeper or shallower as you believe in the King.”
Then they stepped into the water, and entering, Christian began to sink, and crying out to his good friend Hopeful, he said, “I am sinking in deep waters; the billows go over my head; all his waves go over me.”
Then said the other, “Be of good cheer, my brother: My feet are on the bottom, it is well.”
Then Christian said, “Ah! My friend, the sorrows of death have surrounded me, I fear I shall not see the land that flows with milk and honey.” And a great darkness and horror fell upon Christian, so he could not see before him. But in his heart came fears that he should die in that river, and never obtain entrance in at the gate.
Hopeful struggled to keep his brother's head above water; sometimes he would go under, and then after a while rise up again half dead. Hopeful tried to comfort him, saying, “Brother, I see the gate, and men standing by to receive us … these troubles and distresses that you go through in these waters, are no sign that God has forsaken you; but are sent to test you, to see whether you will call to mind those times in the past when you have received his goodness, in your distresses.”
Then I saw in my dream, that Hopeful added these words, “Be of good cheer, Jesus Christ makes you whole.”
And with that, Christian broke out with a loud voice, “Oh, I see him again; and he tells me, "When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you" (Isa. 43:2). Then they both took courage, and found ground to stand upon, and then the rest of the river was but shallow. And so they got over.
Remember the test is not an end in itself. The final verses James writes tell us that tests are not an end in themselves—they prepare you for a reward at the other end.
In this life you have to pass the test, then you graduate to another level. You get to drive the car. You get the grades, the job. Because of the lessons you learned and mistakes you made and the tests you passed. Can’t go under it, can’t get round it—gotta go through it.
But God’s tests all get us treasure, because he does not want to crush me, he wants to crown me.
Ever played chess?
A pawn, not a very important piece on the board. It could get taken out time after time. Can’t do fancy sideways moves. Not very powerful. Sacrificed if necessary. Can’t prance about like the Knight. Just moves forward, in service of the king. One or two moves at a time. Forward. Forward. It can’t move back.
But what happens when that pawn gets to the other side of the board? What do you say?
It’s called Promotion. It’s been through battles, but kept going forward. Now it cannot remain a pawn. It can’t become the king. But it can become a knight, or a rook, a bishop or usually a Queen. The Bride of the king.
Crown me. Why do I go through what I go through? How can I consider it pure joy?
Because the tests and trials of this short life, prepare my crown for the next that will last forever.
(Read James 1:12)
Tests Prepare My Crown
Here’s how the Pilgrims Progress ends. And Dave’s Progress. And all those you’ve loved over the years who are loved in the Lord and may this be how your progress and mine ends too.
Now, while they were drawing towards the gate, a company of the heavenly host came out to meet them and gave a great shout, saying, "Blessed are they that are called to the marriage-feast of the Lamb." And also came several of the King's trumpeters, clothed in white, who made even the heavens echo with their sound as they saluted Christian and Hopeful with ten thousand welcomes.
Then they surrounded them on every side as if to guard them, continually sounding notes on high. And they walked on together with a joyful sound to let Christian and his brother know how welcome they were as they came up to the gate which had written over it, in letters of gold, "BLESSED ARE THEY THAT DO HIS COMMANDMENTS, THAT THEY MAY HAVE RIGHT TO EAT FROM THE TREE OF LIFE, AND ENTER INTO THE CITY."
Then the King commanded the gate to open, "That the righteous may enter in."
And behold, as they entered, they were transfigured; and had raiment put on that shone like gold. They were met with crowns which were given to them as the city rang out with joy, and it was said unto them, "ENTER INTO THE JOY OF YOUR LORD."
I heard the men themselves sing out with a loud voice, "BLESSING, AND HONOUR, AND GLORY, AND POWER, BE TO HIM THAT SITS UPON THE THRONE, AND UNTO THE LAMB, FOR EVER AND EVER."
And the city shone like the sun, as the streets were paved with gold; and in them walked many with crowns on their heads, and palms in their hands, and instruments to sing praises, joining the angels who cried out to one another continually, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord.”
And after that they shut up the gates; and I wished myself among them.
Anthony Delaney is a Leader at Ivy Church in Manchester. He is also the leader for New Thing and the LAUNCH conference. He is an author and hosts the television show “Transforming Life.”