The book of James was one of the earliest written books of the New Testament. James was a respected leader of the church in Jerusalem who dealt with some of the most practical issues of everyday life. Some have referred to James as the Proverbs of the New Testament. While the issues in James are common challenges, the advice James offers is uncommon wisdom.
Now, everybody faces problems. In James’ day, the problem the church was facing was persecution for their faith in Christ. So, straight out of the gate, James tackles this problem head on. Does he tell these early believers that God will comfort them in their problems? No! Does he offer encouraging words to those facing the fear of death? Nope! Does he speak words of affirmation, hope, or peace? Not one word! James offers three words of advice to those facing problems:
1. GAIN PERSPECTIVE
Whether big or small, every one of us have problems that fight to take center stage in our lives. The truth about problems is that we often add a problem to our problems. As if the cake wasn’t big enough already, we finish it off with a layer of problematic icing called “problematic perspective.” Perspective makes all the difference in how we view and respond to problems. In fact, without the right perspective, we live with a terminal case of nearsighted with our problems.
Consider the college girl who wrote a letter to her mom during her first semester of school. In an attempt to help her mom gain perspective, she wrote:
Since I have been away at college, one full semester, I think it’s time I bring you up to date as to what is going on. Shortly after I arrived at college, I got bored with dormitory life and stole fifty dollars from my roommate’s purse. With the money, I rented a motorcycle, which I crashed into a telephone pole a few blocks from the dorm.
I broke my leg in the accident, but I was rescued by the young doctor who lives upstairs in the apartment house on the corner. He took me in, set my leg, nursed me back to health, and thanks to him, I’m up and around again.
We wanted to let you know that we’re going to be married as soon as possible. Unfortunately, we’re having some trouble with the blood test—they’re not sure what the disease is, but it keeps showing up in the test. We hope to get that worked out quickly so that we’ll be married before the baby arrives. Shortly thereafter we will be home to live with you and Dad. And I just know you will learn to love the baby as much as you love me, even though the baby’s dad is a different religion and wants us to convert. Please understand, the only reason we’re coming back home to stay is that my husband-to-be got tossed out of medical school because he was too busy taking care of me to complete his work.
Really, Mom, I didn’t steal any money or rent a motorcycle or hit a telephone pole or break my leg. I didn’t meet a young doctor. There’s no disease and I’m not expecting a baby. And I won’t be coming home to live with you and Dad either. However, I am getting a D in algebra and an F in geology, and I wanted you to accept these grades in their proper perspective!
Perspective changes everything. The attitude with which we view our problems often determines the outcome. James understood this truth when he wrote:
Consider it a sheer gift, friends, when tests and challenges come at you from all sides. You know that under pressure, your faith-life is forced into the open and shows its true colors. So don’t try to get out of anything prematurely. Let it do its work so you become mature and well-developed, not deficient in any way. (James 1:2-4 – The Message)
I don’t know about you, but James’ advice on how to view problems is not my natural response to the problems I face. I don’t see my problems as a sheer gift. But James understood this reality about problems: problems work for us, not against us. In fact, James helps us see that the problems we face in life do two things:
- They REVEAL our Character – “…You know that under pressure, your faith-life is forced into the open and shows its true colors.”
- They REFINE our Character – “…So don’t try to get out of anything prematurely. Let it do its work so you become mature and well-developed, not deficient in any way.”
Interestingly, James revisits the importance of perspective a few verses later:
When down-and-outers get a break, cheer! And when the arrogant rich are brought down to size, cheer! Prosperity is as short-lived as a wildflower, so don’t ever count on it. You know that as soon as the sun rises, pouring down its scorching heat, the flower withers. Its petals wilt and, before you know it, that beautiful face is a barren stem. Well, that’s a picture of the “prosperous life.” At the very moment everyone is looking on in admiration, it fades away to nothing. (James 1:9-11, The Message)
Why would James bring up the issue of being rich or poor in the middle of this passage? Perhaps it’s because he knew that our human tendency is to let our lack of, or our abundance of, material possessions shape our perspective on our problems.
- When we LACK material possessions we say, “If I had _______________ then I could _________________.”
- When we HAVE material possessions we say, “Since I have ___________ then I will ___________________.”
In both cases, whether rich or poor, we put our trust in material possessions to solve our problems. But James puts financial resources in perspective in this passage by challenging us to see our problems from a spiritual perspective rather than a financial perspective. What’s the Difference? A financial perspective says, “How can I buy my way out of this problem?” But a spiritual perspective says, “How can I grow my way through this problem?”
In his book, In a Pit with a Lion on a Snowy Day, Mark Batterson shares the story of Nazi concentration camp survivor Corrie Ten Boom. After surviving the camps, Corrie Ten Boom spoke to audiences about her horrific experiences. As she would speak, she was always looking down…but not at her notes. She was working on a piece of needlepoint.
After sharing about the pain and anger of her experience, Corrie would hold up the needlepoint for her audience to see. First, she showed them the back of the needlepoint, a jumbled mess of threads, and said, “This is how we see our lives.” Then she would show the audience the design on the other side and conclude with these words: “This is how God views your life, and someday we will have the privilege of viewing it from His point of view.”
Corrie could have questioned why she had to suffer in Nazi concentration camps. It didn’t make sense. It was unfair. But instead, she gained perspective that enabled her to grow into a person that she otherwise would never have become.
Years later a movie was made about Corrie ten Boom’s life called, The Hiding Place. And when that movie was released, a young 5 year old boy named Mark Batterson watched that movie and then gave his life to Christ. Batterson said, “I’m the beneficiary of Corrie ten Boom’s unanswerable questions and unexplainable experiences.”
James’ second piece of advice on how to handle problems is to pray.
If you don’t know what you’re doing, pray to the Father. He loves to help. You’ll get his help, and won’t be condescended to when you ask for it. Ask boldly, believingly, without a second thought. People who “worry their prayers” are like wind-whipped waves. Don’t think you’re going to get anything from the Master that way, adrift at sea, keeping all your options open. (James 1:5-8 – The Message)
Why would James say to Pray? Because prayer does two things. First, prayer turns our problems into opportunities. Mark Batterson observes, “Prayer puts you into a proactive posture. In fact, the Aramaic word for prayer, slotha, means ‘to set a trap.’ Prayer helps us catch the opportunities God throws our way” (p. 136). When we face our problems with prayer, God pulls out of the problem an opportunity for personal growth and development. Prayer mines the gold of opportunity out of the dark shadows of our problems.
Second, prayer refocuses our loyalties. Why is this important? Because when we get under pressure, our loyalties are tested. One version of this passage says, that when we pray and doubt, we are like a “double-minded” person unstable in all that we do. The word “double-minded” literally means to have two sets of loyalties–on one hand we rely on God while on the other we rely on human wisdom.
So, if our response to our problems is to pray, what are we praying for? We’re praying for the strength and the wisdom to not waste the opportunity. Every problem is an opportunity for growth and maturity, and therefore our prayers must focus on the strength and wisdom we need from God to not waste the opportunity to grow and mature. Andy Stanley captured this idea when he said,
“If God answered all of our prayers, our character would suffer. For in most cases, our prayers center around the removal of the very circumstances He is using to conform us to His image.”
The final advice James gives when we face problems is to persevere.
Anyone who meets a testing challenge head-on and manages to stick it out is mighty fortunate. For such persons loyally in love with God, the reward is life and more life. (James 1:12, The Message)
In 1941, Winston Churchill was invited to speak at his former school. When he walked to the podium to give his commencement speech, his words were simple and clear:
“This is the lesson: never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never—in nothing, great or small, large or pretty—never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.”
I don’t know what problem you’re facing today. Perhaps your perspective is right. Perhaps you’re praying more than ever as you face your mountain. If that’s you, James’ finally piece of advice is, “Don’t quit. Never, never, never, never give in.”
So what is the outcome of facing our problems with perspective, prayer, and perseverance? James says it’s the “crown of life.” What is the crown of life? It literally means “the crown which consists of life.” Our lives become what God desires as we navigate our problems with the wisdom offered by James.
Question: How does James’ advice help you face your problems?