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Pack Up Your Troubles
Sermons on How to Trust God
By Maxie Dunnam
Abingdon PressCopyright © 1993 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
Count it all joy ... when you meet various trials, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. (James 1:2-4 RSV)
Count It All Joy
After a greeting, the Epistle begins with a shout: "Count it all joy!" No hesitation here. No fumbling to get to the point. No tiptoeing around the thorny issue.
And what is the first thorny issue James addresses? Suffering, trials, troubles—all those flies in the ointment, all those thorns in the flesh—all those knockdowns in life—all that being pushed back to the goal line and having to start again. That's where James begins, and he shouts, "Count it all joy!"
Now I can feel you thinking, and maybe saying beneath your breath, "And you call this a how-to book!" To call this an epistle of practical Christianity sounds rather naive. "Count it all joy!" sounds more like a Cloud-9 approach, not a down-to-earth grappling with reality.
Well, at least James gets our attention right off. Anyone who grabs our attention, shoulders and shakes us, looks us straight in the eye, and, with a steady voice, hones in, "Count it all joy!" deserves our hearing. So let's listen to him.
Maybe we will hear best, and appropriate most, if we begin at the end of the verses of our text—the last part of verse 4: "That you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing."
That appeals, doesn't it? I mean, isn't that what everybody who wants something from us is offering us—everything? And don't we want it all?
One of my favorite columnists, Russell Baker of The New York Times, began a column with these thoughts:
It's all right to want it all. We have advertisements in praise of wanting it all. "Why settle for less?" they ask.... We have television commercials in which people who have it all torment people who don't have it all by making them feel rotten about not having it all.... They display their fantastic dental caps, their stunning physiques, their incredible automobiles, their beautiful lodges and oceans and mountains and cities, their ineffably tasty beer, burgers, wine, pizza. "It doesn't get any better than this," they say. Which is another way of saying, "We've got it all."
Accompanying the column is a cartoon of a fellow carrying a placard which reads, "Instant gratification isn't fast enough.
"That's an easy trap to fall into, isn't it? We are tempted to want it all, and to want it now.
James demands that we rethink the whole matter of having it all. He suggests we are to be "perfect and complete, lacking in nothing."
But there is a strange twist for our jaded minds and our overindulged appetites. James connects being perfect and complete with suffering. How can that be? "Count it all joy," he says. "Count it all joy when you meet with trials"—and then he closes that admonition by saying, "That you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing."
So, what are the lessons here?
The first is elementary, but we tend to forget it. Growth is not easy. Now, that sounds simplistic, doesn't it? How often have you heard it?
This is true of any kind of growth. It isn't easy. It is especially true of Christian growth. That's the reason we have so few truly saintly people. And that's the reason we should be slow to judge the faith and commitment of others. So much of our growth, and so much of the way we express our faith, is dependent upon the kind of people we are—and all of us are different.
There is a story of two Generals during the Civil War. The pressures of battle were intense. One General noticed that the other was visibly afraid.
"Sir," he said, "if I were as frightened as you are, I'd be ashamed to call myself a General in our nation's army."
"Sir," the other man replied, "if you were as frightened as I am, you would have fled the field of battle by now."
None of us knows another person's struggles. We sometimes think we do. But more often than not, what we perceive is far from reality.
It's almost impossible to know what's going on in the depths of a person's life. Our congregation is deliberately seeking to be a place of hospitality for recovering persons, folks who know themselves to be addicted to alcohol or other drugs. Sharing with these people has enabled me to feel, at least to a degree, their struggle with control, their low self-esteem, their dependency. Yet, I know I can't begin to plumb the depth of their struggle.
"When you are suffering, it doesn't help to compare yourself to others."
If you followed me around for a few days, you might be surprised by some of my reactions to people, or my feelings of disappointment. If you are not involved with people day in and day out, you may not understand that my reactions and responses are a result of my struggle with pretension, or self-righteousness. I have problems with people who say one thing and mean and do another.
So we need to be careful about judging others. We never know what may be going on inside, driving them to their actions and attitudes. If we are not willing to be patient with people and stick with them until they are free to share their inner struggle with us, we can at least not add to their burden by judging them.
Growth is not easy, and so much of our growth, so much of the way we express our faith, is dependent upon the kind of people we are—and each of us is different.
And that suggests a second truth. When you are suffering, it doesn't help to compare yourself to others.
More than two hundred years ago, a young boy who lived in England was very sick and puny. They didn't have the kinds of medicines back then that we have today. They weren't blessed with the medical technology we know. So he remained in that condition all his life, and never became a physically strong person at all.
When he was young, he would look out the window of his house and watch other children playing in the field. He would become sad as he watched them—at times, even crying— because he wanted to be out there with them, but he couldn't. That made him feel sorry for himself, and jealous and envious of others.
When he was older, he decided that he would go into the ministry, be a pastor of a congregation, and spend his life serving Christ in that way.
But again his health failed, and he was just too frail to carry on his pastoral duties. He became deeply depressed.
"Why can't I be like other people?" he cried out. "They have their health and I don't. They can do things with their lives and I can't. They are out there making a difference, and I'm just sitting here unable to make any difference at all. Why can't I be like them?"
But then one day someone talked with this young man and helped him to see that his life had its own purpose, apart from that of anyone else. He began to realize that he would get nowhere as long as he compared himself with everyone else.
He began to affirm the fact that he had his own life to live, apart from that of anyone else. What mattered was that he live his own life fully and completely, and to the very best of his ability. When he started to do that, he began to change; his life really began to take off.
That man was Isaac Watts, one of the greatest hymn writers of all time. He wrote "Joy to the World" and "O God, Our Help in Ages Past." His life had no direction, no impelling energy, no creativity, until he stopped looking around, comparing himself with others, and committed himself to living his own unique life.
So, if we are to learn how to "count it all joy," and move through our suffering and trials to be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing, we need to know that it doesn't help to compare ourselves with others.
"Pain by itself is evil. It doesn't teach us anything."
That pushes us back to a specific word suggested in our text: Suffering can be wasted, or it can produce steadfastness in our faith. That's what James says in verse 3: "For you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness."
But pay careful attention to the completion of his thought in verse 4: "For you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness, and let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing."
You see, suffering may produce steadfastness and faith, and we still will be incomplete. We still may lack joy. Pain by itself is evil. It doesn't teach us anything. It may discipline us to be strong and not complain. It may turn us into cynics. We may be tough and steadfast in our suffering, always keeping a stiff upper lip, but that's a long way from what James is talking about— "Count it all joy ... that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing."
Philip Yancey, in Disappointment with God, gives us a clue for allowing our steadfast faith in suffering to work its full effect in our life. He tells us about Douglas, who "seemed righteous, in the sense of Job," and who, like Job, suffered terrible afflictions he did not deserve.
Douglas had given up a lucrative career to start an urban ministry. His wife developed breast cancer, had a breast removed, and was struggling with the debilitating side effects of chemotherapy. In the midst of this crisis, a drunken driver hit their car and Douglas sustained a severe brain injury. He suffered terrible headaches and double vision. He could no longer work full-time to support his wife and daughter. He had loved to read, but now struggled to get through a page or two. If anyone had a right to be angry with God, Douglas did.
Philip Yancey expected Douglas to express disappointment with God, but instead, Douglas said that he had learned "not to confuse God with life":
I feel free to curse the unfairness of life and to vent all my grief and anger. But I believe God feels the same way about that accident—grieved and angry. I don't blame him for what happened.... I have learned to see beyond the physical reality of this world to the spiritual reality. We tend to think, "Life should be fair because God is fair." But God is not life. And if I confuse God with the physical reality of life—by expecting constant good health, for example—then I set myself up for a crashing disappointment.... We can learn to trust God despite all the unfairness of life. Isn't that really the main point of Job? (pp. 183-84)
Douglas challenged Yancey to "go home and read again the story of Jesus. Was life fair to him? For me, the Cross demolished for all time the basic assumption that life will be fair."
Do you see the difference? It's very clear. We can waste our suffering, or we can allow it to produce trust in God, steadfastness in faith. And we can allow that steadfastness in faith to perfect and complete us—leaving us "lacking in nothing."
So the shout of James is real. "Count it all joy!" And we can do that—if we know that growth is not easy—if we will realize that when we are suffering, it doesn't help us to compare ourselves to others. And, if we will not waste our suffering but allow it to produce steadfastness in faith, that is what will bring us to completion, lacking in nothing.
That's a rather good lesson in practical Christianity, isn't it?CHAPTER 2
If any of you is tacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you. But ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind; for the doubter, being double-minded and unstable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord. (James 1:5-8 NRSV)
Don't Mess with Mr. In-between
Colin Higgins' novel Harold and Maude is fascinatingly different, but warmly convincing. It's the story of two persons who not only affirm each other's existence, but cherish the mutual meanings they share. A young man in his twenties and an enchanting woman in her seventies become real friends. Maude cares for Harold, not because he is useful or ornamental—he is neither. And not because of anything he does or has, but just because he is himself. Harold is thus better able, when he is with Maude, to understand himself and to verbalize his many problems.
One of those problems is an obsession with repeatedly faking his self-destruction. Convincingly, dramatically, and in the most gruesome ways, he has faked suicide again and again. In the presence of Maude, he is able both to understand and to verbalize how he got to this point.
His mother, as far as he was concerned, never had time for him. He felt, quite literally, that she had no regard, much less affection, for him. Then one day something happened. He tells Maude about it in these words:
"When I got [home], my mother was giving a party, so I crept up the back stairs to my room. Then there was a ring at the front door. It was the police. I leaned over the banister and heard them tell my mother that I had died in an accident at school. I couldn't see her face, but she looked at the people around her and began to stagger."
Speaking very slowly and softly, Harold continued, tears welling in his eyes.
"She put one hand to her forehead. With the other she reached out, as if groping for support. Two men rushed to her side, and then—with a long, slow sigh—she collapsed in their arms."
Harold stopped for a long pause.
"I decided then," he said solemnly, "I enjoyed being dead."
Maude said nothing for a moment. Then she spoke quietly.
"Yes, I understand. A lot of people enjoy playing dead, but they're not dead, really. They're just backing away from life. They're players, but they think life is a practice game and they'll save themselves for later. So they sit on the bench, and the only championship they'll ever see goes on before them. The clock ticks away the quarters. At any moment they can join in."
Maude is right, and that's what James is talking about in our scripture lesson. The captivating image in the text is that of "the double-minded," the doubters. In the language of Maude, such folks are not dead, though they seek to relate to life as though they were. They are not dead, but they back away from life. They treat daily living as a practice game, saving themselves for what they think is the real thing, which will come later.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves. We need to look at the entire lesson, though we will center on this image of being double-minded.
I suggested in the introduction that this Epistle may have begun as a sermon, or sermons. I believe it was more than one sermon. There is too much here. For sure, the letter is not integrated in a structural sense. It is as though the writer is responding out of impulse and emotion, rather than establishing a logical train of thought.
In verses 2, 3, and 4, James talked about suffering and how we are to be joyful in suffering. Now in verse 5, he talks about wisdom. In talking about wisdom, he is talking about being God-centered and single-minded.
We can see wisdom, even feel wisdom, better than we can define it. When you describe a person as wise, you know what you mean, but you would be hard-put to define what it is that makes that person wise. We know when we have acted wisely. We feel it, even though we may not be able to give reasons for our action.
When pressed, most of us would agree that wisdom is not philosophical speculation or intellectual knowledge. It is more practical than that. Wisdom is about life, about living rightly. In The Communicator's Commentary, Paul Cedars says,
There is a quality of the wisdom of men which comes primarily from the experiences of life. For example, a person shows wisdom when he or she does not touch a hot stove. Most of us have gained that little bit of wisdom through the painful experience of touching a hot stove at some time in our lives and gaining the desire never to do it again. That is the process of gaining earthly wisdom. Of course, the longer we live, the more "hot stove" experiences we encounter; older people are usually wiser people. James is inviting us, however, to employ a quality of wisdom that far exceeds the earthly kind of wisdom, (vol. 11, p. 27)
Such wisdom has to do with guidance, with living life in the way God designed it to be lived. It has to do with knowing who we are as God's children and acting in that fashion.
Norman Neaves, pastor of Church of the Servant in Oklahoma City, tells about Dr. Hendrik Kramer, a missionary in Indonesia for some twenty-three years. Nearly fifty years ago, when he returned home to Holland, the Nazis were overrunning his country and arresting Jews who lived there. They were also arresting many Christians who had resisted Hitler's maneuvers in their homeland.
Excerpted from Pack Up Your Troubles by Maxie Dunnam. Copyright © 1993 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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