The Paradox of Pain

James 1.2-4 (ESV)

2 Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds,
3 for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.
4 And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.

There is somewhat of a play on words as James shifts from the salutation to the opening subject. He bids them a greeting (Gk. Chairein), a term of rejoicing and gladness. Think of it as a happy hello! From this upbeat greeting, James turns the Christian’s attention to joy (Gk. Charan) in the midst of testing and trials. The defiance is striking – Christians live their lives with joy, defying the circumstances and difficulty that may come with it. At the same time it also a paradox. How can one have joy during difficulty, especially the difficulty of persecution for faith?

The Paradox of Pain (1.2-4)

To his “brothers” both by physical heritage (as Jews) and by spiritual heritage (in Christ) James exhorts that they “count it all joy” when they “meet trials of various kinds.” So here is the first paradox: joy in the midst of pain. Specifically, the pain is in regards to affliction from persecution. Indeed, these are trials both good and bad of “various” sources and kinds. Literally these are “many colored” trials; trials of every shade and hue from living the Christian life. These are tests of one’s faith, as if an experiment were being performed to test the true nature of that faith – is it real, genuine?

Faith Tested. Faith is tested in the crucible of trials. These trials are external of the Christian and are very real. For these first century Jewish Christians, the persecution they endured was real and had scattered them all over the empire. James says to once and for all, starting now, “count it all joy.” This is not some joy mixed with a whole bunch of grief and sorrow because of what is happening; this should be an “unmixed” joy, fully joy and joy only.

These trials come surely. It is ungetaroundable in this life that trials come. And they come suddenly. All of a sudden one may find him/herself surrounded by trials. And they come several. They are “manifold” (ASV) and “divers” (KJV). But they have a purpose: to test the genuineness of the Christian’s faith.

James explains that the testing of one’s faith “produces steadfastness.” And the Christians to whom James is writing “know” this! “Know” here is that experiential knowledge (Gk. Ginosko). In other words, because these Christians have been through the crucible before, they know what this testing can do. In modern vernacular, we might call these trials “teachable moments” – they teach us about perseverance, endurance.

Faith Perfected. A faith that is tested will lead us to a faith which is perfected (or mature). To the Jewish Christian their mind might go to Abraham, the first person of which it is specifically stated that he was “tested” (Gen 22.1). As you proceed through the narrative, you see the resolution and perseverance – nothing would hinder Abraham from doing what God had asked. So firm was his faith, he believed even God could raise his son from the dead (see Heb 11.19). The testing of Abraham and the testing of the Christian share the same Greek root.

And so the paradox deepens: the pain of trials is good! It is good because when faith is tested, perseverance is produced. And when perseverance’s work is “perfected” we can stand “perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” The perfect work of perseverance is the “perfect Christian.” Through these trials, God has worked to test the genuineness of our faith (cf. 1 Peter 1.6-7) and bring about our perfection. Some would say that the perfection here is “maturity.” However, an examination of James’ use of this word in the rest of the epistle (1.17, 25; 3.2) seems to indicate more than just maturity. Every Jew would have caught the connotation here. The sacrificial animals had to be “perfect,” free from disease and blemish and also “complete,” not lacking any part of its body. In addition, every Jewish Christian would have been reminded of the words of Christ in the Sermon on the Mount: “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt 5.48). It is more than maturity.

Faith must have an object. For the Christian, our faith rests in the Lord Jesus Christ. So when trials come, they try our faith in Christ – will we remain faithful to Him? Will we continue to put our confidence in Him? Even in death? James says that if we remain steadfast (even unto death), the perfection of Christ, which is ours in Christ, rests and remains in us. Should we throw in the towel, there is no perfection. When we become faithless, we also become hopeless for only perfection can inherit eternal life in the end. We must learn to keep our faith in Christ through any and every trial test.

One other point: obedience to the commands of God and Christ can produce trials. In Mark 6, Jesus makes his disciples get into boat and begin rowing across the sea. By obeying the Lord, the disciples rowed right into the teeth of a storm. In the same way, Christians will experience trials when we obey the commands of Christ. However, though we row right into the teeth of stormy trial, we must not row with anger in our hearts, but with joy knowing that these trials will make us mature, complete, perfect.

Would-be Followers of Jesus

One of the most tragic lines in all of of Scripture is probably the one uttered by King Agrippa to Paul when he says, “Do you think that is such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?” Someone has made the observation that the word “Christian” only appears in the New Testament 3 times whereas the word disciple is occurs 269 times and the whenever Christian is used is always referring to disicples. Hence, Agrippa might as well have asked, “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a disciple?” Indeed, every person who claims to be a Christian must acknowledge that they are a disciple as well. Someone who claims to have Christianity without discipleship does not know what he is saying; the two are hand in glove. Indeed, at the heart of Christianity is discipleship.

In Luke 9.57-62, we have a couple of other examples of King Agrippa’s attitude. Men who seek to be a part of the kingdom of God without committment to discipleship. Without a committment to discipleship, one cannot have citizenship in the kingdom of God. No there needs to be something deeper to this thing called Christianity. In this short passage we find the basis for discipleship, that is total committment to Christ and his teaching. Someone has said, “A student learns what his teacher knows, but a disciple becomes what his master is.” Yes, that is a fair assessment. We are learners of Jesus as disciples, but we are seeking something more and that is to become like Christ himself.

The Context

We must remember that this passage has a larger context, namely a context that includes v.51 where we read that Jesus “resolutely set out for Jerusalem” (NIV). Hence, when these men say that they are going to follow Jesus or when they are invited to follow Jesus, it is nothing short than a request or invitation to a death to self. For Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem to die. It is a plea to follow Jesus to a cross. It is an invitation to come die with the Master. I wonder did these men fully comprehend the demands such a request requires. I doubt it; not even the disciples understood it. Question: Do we understand it? As disciples, as followers of Jesus, do we understand that we all have a Jerusalem to follow Jesus and a cross to crucify the selfish and evil desires on? Paul tells us the only way to ensure that sin does not reign in our mortal bodies is if we suffer a self-death (Rom 6.11-12). Just as Jesus suffered a death for sin once for all and is now alive to God, we too ought to consider ourselves the same way as disciples: dead to sin, alive to God in Christ Jesus.

The Cost

“Salvation is free; discipleship is costly.” By its very nature, grace is the free gift of God to those who have faith in Christ Jesus. But the life demanded of the saved will cost something, even our very life. As Paul has said elsewhere, “You are not own, you have been bought at a price” (1 Cor 6.19). So while salvation may be the free gift of grace to us and we need but only accept it from God, it did cost something to God, even his own Son. How dare us treat that great and precious sacrifice as something common by living as half-hearted, lukewarm, would-be disciples! It is going us something to live the life demanded of us in light of our salvation. In Luke 9.57ff, we find the cost demanded from some would-be disciples…

As Jesus continues his journey to Jerusalem, three men approach him. The first, it seems, is eager to follow Jesus anywhere. The question is, does he? Does he follow Jesus? Luke (and even the Matthew parallel account) does not make this clear. I think it safe to assume, that along with the other would-be disciples, he left that conversation greatly distressed because the hardship that a follower faced was too great. Jesus says, “The Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” And any disciple of Jesus had better be prepared for this same kind of life. It is not an easy-go to follow Jesus. In fact, do not expect a luxurious life. Hence, men who propogate a “health and wealth” type of gospel fail to recognize that Jesus, in this verse, contradicts that. And yet, Jesus makes the promise elsewhere that though a disciple may not have the biggest and best, God still provides what we need (see Matt 6.25-34).

The second would-be follower struggles with ties to the family: he wants to make sure his father is buried. Question: Was his father dead when this man asks makes this request to Jesus? Maybe. It is possible this man’s father had recently died and he just wants to make arrangements for the body. In which case Jesus is stressing the urgency of discipleship and that nothing must hinder a disciple, not even earthly family ties. However, it probably is closer to the truth that this man’s father was still living at the time he made the request. Why wait for his dad to die? Inheritance! This man wants his cut of daddy’s life savings. But Jesus says, “Let the dead bury their own dead.” Either he means “Let that duty take care of itself” or “Let the spiritually dead bury the physically dead.” The command is still clear: “Go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Do not deny or delay in getting the message out. Allow nothing, be it money, family, etc., stand in your way of what a disciple must be about doing. Question: Did he do it? Or was the price too high? Luke leaves it open, but I think we can conclude he too went away discouraged.

The third man also has some struggles with family ties: he wants to say goodbye to everyone back home. This is not an unreasonable request from this man. In fact, you find a similar request from Elisha when Elijah called him and Elijah allowed it saying, “What have I done to you.” Question: What was Elisha doing when Elijah called him? Was he not plowing a field? And it is as if Jesus picks up that very concept and adapts it to the present situation he faces: unlike Elijah who allowed Elisha to return home to burn his plow and slaughter the oxen and offer them as a burnt sacrifice, the message here is don’t look back. Why? Perhaps Jesus knows the heart of the man and knows that if he does go back home and says goodbye to mom and pops, they may convince him to stay and not enter into service for the King. Truly, family can be the number one killer of the mission spirit within people. And Jesus is saying, don’t go home and risk having the fire in your belly quenched – keep plowing.

It is marginal Christianity, mediocre discipleship that is the biggest threat to the kingdom. If Satan can convince a Christian that they really don’t have to take their Christian life seriously, he has gained a victory. If he can whisper in their ear that good enough really is good enough, he has the upperhand. If he can entice them into would-be discipleship, where hardship and the loss of family ties for the kingdom of God may happen, then the devil has come one step closer to dragging more souls into hell. No, we must strive for total discipleship, total commitment to the cause of Christ so that we may be deemed fit for service in his kingdom. Jesus must take first place in our lives if we are to be the kind of follower he desires, a disciple who looks like his Master.

Mistaken Identity

Since moving to Peoria, Kim and I have been working hard to connect faces and names. For the most part we are doing pretty good – we know most of the people and have either had them in our house or have been in theirs. People loves and we them. However, there are some names and faces that we just cannot make stick. For example, there is a young couple (whom I will leave nameless not because I can’t remember their name but for privacy) which it took several weeks for us to finally get their names to stick. It is just one of those things…

The worst is when you think you have someones name but it is the wrong name and you call them by that name you think you know. Color me embarassed. There is the briefest of awkward moments before I say, “Yeah, so about that thing,” and try my hardest to move on.

This is sort of the thing that was happening in Jesus day with him: people, for one reason or another, we confusing him with all sorts of people – the disciples tell us that people thought Jesus was John the baptist, Elijah, even one of the prophets of old. Some people just could not get it right. So Jesus, in Luke 9.18-27, is going to set the record straight.

Question 1: What about the crowds?

Luke tells us Jesus is in a private place praying. Lots of emphasis on prayer in Luke. Sometime go through and study this great theme and see what it says about Jesus, his life, and prayer. He is praying, his disciples are with him, and he asks them a question: “Who do the crods say I am?” A simple question – I mean everyone knows Jesus; he is the great miracle worker, the healer, the awesome teacher, everyone loves him. But the answer given is not as easy as it should be. Everyone is confused about the character of Jesus. No one is identifying him for who he is, the Messiah, the Anointed one of God, the Son of God. In fact, he is every other great prophet except the prophet he really is.

Question 2: What about the disciples?

Ok. So everyone else has it mixed up, but certainly those men who are around him 24/7, in ministry with him, have seen the miracles…surely they know. Peter speaks up and hits the nail on the head: “The Christ of God.” And for the moment they have it. They know who they are dealing with, the one who was promised and will bring Israel back into prominience. Such great news cannot be kept to oneself , right? Well, Jesus tells them not to tell. The text says he “strictly warned them not to tell this.” And we scratch our heads and say “Why not?” I think the answer is very simple: to avoid further misunderstanding. The crowds have got it wrong thus far, why add this to the mix to further confuse them. At the present time, the crowds could not handle it and (as will be seen later) neither could the disciples. However, there is coming a time when the people will be ready and the apostolic band will give them all they want concerning the Messiah.

Question 3: What about the Son of Man?

So now that the disciples have this truth in hand, what about Jesus? Does he understand all this stuff about the Christ? He does, he knows his mission and seeks to do the will of God. But to the ears of the disciples,it sounds as if Jesus do not know what he is talking about. The Messiah did not come to die, but to lead Israel back to preeminence. Right? Not exactly. In fact, the disciples had it so wrong with their ideas of the Messiah that Peter, in the parallel accounts, takes Jesus aside and rebukes him. “Don’t talk that kind of talk, Jesus.” This results in Peter being equated to Satan (cf. Matt 16.22-23). So to the Jewish, what Jesus speaks in Luke 8.22 is down-right silly. This is not the Messiah they sought. This, though, is the mission of Jesus, the Son of God. He is to die a gruesome death at the hands of Israel’s leaders according to the plan of God.

Question 4: What about us?

In Luke 8.23-27, Jesus lays it out there as far as the identity of a disciple. This is what is called by some “the rugged plain of reality.” Christianity is not for the faint-hearted nor the lightweights. Jesus commands a kind of faithfulness many refused to live (cf. John 6.66). The reason it is so difficult is because of what it entails. Jesus calls for a daily death of self. Daily we put the cross upon back. Daily we walk where divine feet trod. Daily we follow Jesus to Golgotha. Daily we crucify the old self. We deny ourself, just as the Master has taught us to through his example. It is only through the denial and death of self that we can truly find unity with Christ. That’s not Nick talking; that’s not man-made doctrine. That is just what Jesus said. That is what the whole business of saving and losing your life is about. Only Jesus can save your life. If you try to do it yourself, it will slip through your fingers like a handful of sand.

Tell us, O lifesaver. Explain to the Lord, once you have gained the whole world at the cost of your soul, what will you give to get it back. Half the world. All of it! No, you cannot buy back your life once it is lost. When a disciple gives up all for Christ, he enters life that is life more abundant. It is this life that we share with others. For it is not enough to hord unto ourselves this abundant life; we must share it with others and that boldy, lest we be found “ashamed” of Jesus and his words. What a said thing it would be to stand outside the gates of heaven and learn that your were nothing but a coward for Christ.

The disciple who lives a life to God and not unto himself is a member of the King’s house. You are brought of the kingdom of darkness and brought into the kingdom of the Son, Jesus. It was this kingdom that was ushered in by Jesus when he poured forth the Spirit which the Father had given onto the disciples. They proclaimed this kingdom and preached this very same unity with Christ with a death to self (cf. Rom 6). The reason the death to self is so important is because of what it means. The old self is a slave to sin and unrighteousness. But “anyone who has died has been freed from sin.” No longer does death, sin, Satan have mastery or dominion over you. Instead you are a slave to righteousness, seeking the godly and good and denying self all for the blessing of God to rest upon you.