Reality Living in a “Reality TV” World:
Survivor: Persevering When Times are Tough
Jeff Jones, Senior Pastor
August 20/22, 2004
Video intro of reality shows
Incredible, isn’t it? All these Reality Shows. I wouldn’t have guessed it. Do you know that there are now ______ reality shows on the air? Here’s a quick list: Outback Jack, Last Comic Standing, Amish in the City, Growing up Gotti, Newlyweds, SuperNanny, Average Joe, Trailer Park Boys. There are new ones coming out, too. TBS is starting a new reality show later this year called “The Real Gilligan’s Island,” where they cast for the same kind of people as the show but really maroon them on an island. I’m kind of looking forward to that one. MTV is starting a new one, too. You may be familiar with the MTV show The Osbournes (show picture), about the aging and mentally compromised rock and roll star and his family dynamics. Well, there is a brand new reality show coming out about a pastor family called “The McPhersons” (show picture). Man, is that one going to be good!
These reality shows come in all shapes and sizes, some fairly innocent and others anything but innocent—but they all are popular because they are an escape from reality. We get to watch someone else’s reality, which means we get to escape our own. We watch other people face challenges, or get fired, or not get a rose.
But then the show is over, and for us it is back to reality. How do we face our own very real lives successfully? This week we are beginning a new series on the book of James called, “Reality Living in a Reality TV World.” It is a look at how the Christian faith impacts our every day lives.
James is an incredible book of the Bible, probably the most practical. One of out every two verses in James is a command. Other books in the Bible have lots of theological concepts or stories, but not James. He is a bottom-line, type A kind of guy, and if you are a similar personality then you are really going to like this book, too. James is also an ADD kind of guy, often jumping from one topic to the next without necessarily a logical connection. Paul is very ordered in his letters; James jumps around.
So, let’s get into this book by looking at the first verse: 1James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes scattered among the nations: Greetings.
We learn a lot from these few words. First we learn about the author, James, who describes himself as a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ. That itself is significant because James was not always a believer and had an atypical relationship with Jesus. James was one of Jesus’ brothers. He grew up with Jesus. Imagine that. And the amazing thing to me about that reality is that James never name-drops. He never even throws in that he is Jesus’ brother anywhere in the book. He doesn’t name drop. I would. You know, “Consider it all, joy, brethren…and just so you know, I am the brother of Jesus.” He never says, “Yeah, back when Jesus and I were growing up, one time he looked at me and said, ‘James, you are one smooth dude.’” None of that. Amazing.
And James was not always a believer in Jesus’ divinity either. John 7 lets us know that his brothers early in his ministry did not believe in him. But after witnessing the resurrection, all that changed and James became the leader of the Jerusalem church, where Christianity began. He would be martyred fairly early on in the early church’s life, but he was a key leader in the early days of the church. And he writes the book to the twelve tribes scattered. What is that all about? Well, the twelve tribes refer to Jewish believers, which is how the church started. The people that James were writing to were Jewish Christians who had been in Jerusalem but were now scattered all over the place because of persecution against Christians in Jerusalem. It was that persecution that got Stephen stoned to death, and that forced many Christians to run for their lives. So, these people were in a very tough spot. They were homeless, afraid, mostly unemployed, poor, and living as refugees. And their only crime was choosing to believe in Jesus. Because of their Christianity, these new believers were now in dire straits. So, James, their pastor in Jerusalem, writes this letter to all who were scattered, and it is no big surprise that the first thing he talks about is how to handle difficulty. The people to whom James was writing just had their lives turned upside down. Imagine being one of them, forced out of your homes and jobs and running around Texas for your life. How were they to handle that?
How to handle suffering and disappointment and difficulty is obviously great for us to know, too…because we too will face or are facing such times in our lives, when our world caves in and our lives are turned upside down. Perhaps it is a health issue, or the death of a loved one, or we face unemployment…the kind of trials that James will talk about in chapter one aren’t just the smaller inconveniences of life…in-grown toe nails and that kind of thing. He is talking about long-term, long haul trials…difficulties that linger for long enough that we wonder if we are going to make it.
A friend of mine here at Fellowship is a psychologist who helps people with chronic pain…the kind that just doesn’t go away in due time or with a pill. James is talking about chronic trials…those that last a while. I talked once to one lady who said that she was married to a chronic pain, and I said, “Now, Christy, that’s not very nice.” Sometimes in our lives it isn’t just one trial but a pile of trials, one after another, that hits us, too. Kind of like being dunked in the pool again and again and again and again trying to catch our breath. Maybe you have experienced or are experiencing that. Whether chronic difficulty or a series of difficulty, the big question that the book of James answers today, how do we persevere?
It’s kind of like the difference between this Stretch Armstrong and this Gingerbread man. Remember when Stretch Armstrongs came out?
I can remember as a kid putting the Stretch Armstrongs to the test. We’d tie his limbs on things and then try to pull him apart. Or one of us would take his hand and another his feet, and we’d pull as hard as we could. He’s amazing what he can withstand. Some people are like that when it comes to difficulties in life. They are like Stretch Armstrong. Life stretches them with trials and they are so resilient. They seem to take it in stride.
Others though are more like this Gingerbread man. It doesn’t take too much pressure to crack them. A little bit of stress, and they crumble.
The question today is, “how can we be resilient and stretchy and not weak and crumbly?” the Greek word in James one is upomone, which means staying power, or perseverance or resiliency. How do we get that? Because life will guarantee its share of difficulty. If you aren’t facing something now, you will in the near future. So, let’s look at James 1 and then in James 5 to see how we can handle what life throws at us.
1) A Strange Perspective
The first thing we need to become more like Stretch Armstrong in our faith is a strange perspective. You have to admit, Stretch is cool but he is a little strange…walking around in a Speedo and everything. But if we are going to have staying power, then we have to develop a strange perspective—meaning not normal or natural. Here’s what James says:
“Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds…” Now, that’s a strange perspective. When you encounter troubles and difficulties, consider it pure joy? You’ve got to be nuts! A child being sick, a job loss, losing a spouse, and we are supposed to have joy?
Now, James isn’t denying that bad stuff is bad stuff and therefore hard and something to grieve. He is pointing though to a bigger picture perspective. Bad stuff is bad stuff, but God brings good things out of bad stuff in our lives. Our most difficult times can be the most significant and purposeful times of our lives. That’s what he says next: …because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. 4Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.
What James is saying is that the only way we really toughen up and grow spiritually is through difficulty. It doesn’t mean that the difficulty is fun, but it does mean that it can be purposeful. I don’t know about you, but when I look back on my life the greatest thing God has used to grow me are difficult things. God allows us to go through such times in part for our maturity.
I’ve mentioned a couple of times these past weeks about my oldest son Collin starting middle school. He’s at Murphy Middle School in the Plano school system, which is a great school—but still it is a public junior high school. I remember some of the things that happened to me in junior high. I remember when I was in 6th grade and I did something that made the meanest 8th grader in school mad at me. Mark Andrioni was his name, and still when I hear his name its like this scary organ music goes off in my head. He was one mean guy, and one Halloween night in our neighborhood I did something sticking up for someone else that really made him angry. He saw me that next morning at school and in front of a group of people told me that he was going to kill me that afternoon. I pretty much believed him. All day long, people were staring at me and pointing me out in the hallways. I don’t remember what they said, but probably things like, “Nice knowing you, bud,” or “I guess tomorrow we’ll be studying you in history class.” And I didn’t get any support from the few 8th graders I was friends with either…all I got out of them were sentiments like, “Tough break, making Mark Andrioni mad. I’m glad I’m not you.” I tried to avoid him all day, but I knew I couldn’t avoid him forever. When I walked home that day only one friend was brave enough to walk with me through this underpass, a tunnel under this main street in front of the school. Sure enough, Mark and three of his 8th grade friends were there. They held me and Mark said some mean things and then punched me in the stomach. Then they ran away. It hurt, but I didn’t die. I didn’t enjoy it, but it didn’t kill me. The most significant bummer about that particular day was it was my birthday. I had made him mad Halloween night, and the day after Halloween is my birthday. Actually I never told my parents about it, and they get these tapes. So, dad if you want to track down Mark Andrioni and beat him up for me, I won’t mind… Now, I’m sure in some way that experience shaped my character and I wouldn’t be the wonderful person I am today if Mark Andrioni hadn’t punched me in the stomach. Instead of being a pastor, I would probably be in prison or maybe a drug dealer right now—who knows.
But knowing things like that that happen in junior high, as a dad I want to protect Collin. I want to walk through the halls and stop anybody who would ever make fun of him, hurt his feelings, or punch him in the stomach. But that’s obviously the worst thing I can do. He needs to grow up. And my job is not to be an over-protective parent.
God is not an over-protective parent. He doesn’t cause all the difficulties we face, but he does allow us to face them…in part because it is the only way we will grow to maturity. And if maturity was really our goal—if we really wanted to be like Christ more than anything else in our lives, then we’d almost hope for difficulty. Or when it came, we would have an element of joy, knowing that it is in those times where our faith grows. We will have a strange perspective, seeing trials as an opportunity to seize, not a problem to escape from.
That was one big surprise when I spent a few months with persecuted believers in Romania when it was still a communist country. These believers suffered. I remember one outspoken Christian, a single lady named Jenny, who was so full of joy. But she went through a horrible time. She worked as an engineer, but they decided to start paying her the rung of wages in Romania because of her Christianity. They also moved her into this tiny apartment in a run down apartment building full of prostitutes. All through the night, drunken men would try to get in her door to get to her. Yet, she had so much joy…and when you asked her about her difficulties, she seemed so honored that she could suffer for Christ. She would talk about how it was those things that caused her to understand Jesus better and grow up in her faith.
That’s the strange perspective James is talking about. I’m not saying we should think that bad things are good things…but that we realize that God brings good things out of bad times. Whatever you are facing or will face is not fun I know, but it is what will grow you.
Although we must say that just because we go through difficulties does not mean that we will necessarily grow. We may not. It all depends on our response, which brings me to the next resiliency factor in our lives:
2) A Right Response
Before we look and see what response James points us to, let’s consider several responses we can have and often to have to difficulties and trials in our lives. One possible response is ESCAPE. We try to get away from it. There are various ways we can escape. We can try to deny our hurt…and live in a fantasy land. In fact, that can even sound spiritual. People ask how we are doing, and we say, “Oh, God is so good. I’m just wonderful. This difficulty can’t get me down. It’s onward and upwards for Christ!” But inside we are really disillusioned and dying. We can also find escape through alcohol, prescription or non-prescription drugs, going on spending sprees, or just becoming as busy as we can. There are lots of ways to escape—but the road of escape is not a response that leads to maturity.
Another response we can have is bitterness and anger.
The response that James points us to is FAITH. Here’s what he says, 5If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. 6But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. 7That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; 8he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does.
What is the response? To pray for wisdom, which sounds strange doesn’t it? Like James is having another ADD moment, and he is switching to a new topic—but he isn’t. What he is saying is this…when we face trials, our first response should be to pray for wisdom.
Now that is not normal, at least not for me. When I face difficulties and trials, I might pray soon, especially if it is a significant thing—but I don’t pray for wisdom in the trial, I pray for deliverance from the trial. I pray for God to make the difficulty to go away…to give me the job, to heal my loved ones, to solve my financial problem by giving me money. And there is nothing at all wrong with those prayers, and there are lots of examples where godly people in the Bible prayed for deliverance. But it is a matter of perspective. He is saying that as much as we pray for deliverance from the trial, we need to pray at least as much for wisdom in the trial. Otherwise, it might not work toward our maturity.
In difficulty, we need God’s wisdom…but for what? Well, when we face difficulties of the James one magnitude, we tend to have some big questions, troubling questions. Why is this happening? Is God fair? What is this supposed to mean? What am I supposed to get out of this? How do I face this well? How can I find God in the middle of this mess? Why can’t this just go away? In difficulty, we need a lot of help to know how to God on and how to possibly make sense out of things that happen that don’t make sense.
Just days ago, I spent time praying with a wonderful lady in our church who was dying of Cancer. She faced the disease with such grace and faith. And she was lying in intensive care, and it is hard to make sense of all that. Why did that happen? Why couldn’t God just heal her? How can everybody deal with this well? I spent a good bit of time praying out loud with her because she couldn’t talk—but we prayed for wisdom, for her, for her husband and family. And we did so with confidence knowing that this was a promise. And I believe God did give wisdom. She went to be with the Lord the next day, and we don’t know all the answers. But we do choose to trust the God who does.
And going to God with our questions and with our pain and with request for wisdom and perspective to know how to handle it is what faith looks like in difficulty. It’s like the song we sang earlier: Blessed Be Your Name…a great song:
That’s faith, and it is that kind of faith that God responds to. Like we just read, when we pray we are to pray without wavering, without doubting—we are to pray with faith that God will answer. And God responds to our faith. We are to pray with confidence.
And sometimes that is hard to do when trials are there, because our faith often gets shaken. James says that God responds to that prayer when we do so with confidence, without wavering. But when things are tough I tend to waver. I think that’s why we need to pray with and for others, to buoy each others faith. And I don’t know how many times I’ve prayed like the guy talking to Jesus, “I believe, but help my unbelief.” Meaning, underneath it all I do believe, but on the surface I’m struggling and I need your help.” Jesus responded to that guy’s prayer then and he will respond to us, too.
What keeps some people stable in difficulty with a Stretch Armstrong kind of resiliency is not that they know all the answers as to why this is happening…but they trust the God who does, and they go to him for the wisdom they need to make it one more day. And some of you are right there. You have no idea why your life is the way it is right now, or perhaps has been for some time. But the response that leads to maturity is faith…faith that looks to God not just for deliverance from the difficulty but for wisdom in the difficulty.
In addition to a right response, people who persevere and become more mature in difficulty are people who also choose what I’m calling:
3) An informed tenacity
People with stretch Armstrong resiliency just keep on keeping on, even when they haven’t seen light at the end of the tunnel. And there is a reason for that. They know something. They know the truth in James 5:7-11:
7Be patient, then, brothers, until the Lord's coming. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop and how patient he is for the autumn and spring rains. 8You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord's coming is near. 9Don't grumble against each other, brothers, or you will be judged. The Judge is standing at the door!
10Brothers, as an example of patience in the face of suffering, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. 11As you know, we consider blessed those who have persevered. You have heard of Job's perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy.
What is the truth that keeps spiritually resilient people hanging on? It is the truth that life works in cycles, that we should keep on keeping on in difficulty because the difficulty will not last forever. He points to Job who suffered, and suffered a long time. Most people would have given up, but he didn’t. And eventually, God did bring relief by his mercy. James also uses the illustration of a farmer. Farmers have to be patient. It’s like little kids who grow stuff in a cup full of dirt, they expect to see growth right away. Adult farmers are similar. They want to see change right away, but that’s not the way it works. It works in cycles…cycles of planting and growth and harvesting.
When we are in the middle of a difficult situation, it often feels like it will last forever. We can hardly remember what it was like before.
Christy and I lived in Minnesota about two hours north of Minneapolis for a year. Now, whenever you say the words “North of” in proximity to Minneapolis, you know you are in trouble. We grew up in Alabama, then moved to Texas, then we decided to go to Northern Minnesota. I don’t know if you know this or not, but it is cold up there! Really cold. We moved there in the winter on a record cold day…the high that day was -21. That’s was the best it got, -21! I can remember driving around and seeing nothing but flat ground and snow, it was like being on the moon or some other planet. I was driving from one town to another and called Bruce Miller on my cell phone and said, “Bruce, “I’ve been abducted by aliens. I’m not on earth any more.” For us, winter in Minnesota was an adventure and it was fun, for a while…but then the season went on and on and on and on…we were ready for a change. We were ready for summer. By the beginning to middle of May that year the snow had melted off, and then on Memorial Day it snowed again. There was like a foot of snow on the ground on Memorial Day. That just about killed us! We were ready for green grass and warm days and swimming in the lakes…but instead we got a foot of snow! Now eventually summer did come, all two days of it. But it came.
And that’s the way life works. God tends to guide our lives in seasons. James says that if nothing else one day Jesus will come back and make everything right. One day our suffering will be turned around. But most of the time we don’t have to wait that long. The good news and perhaps bad news about the cycles of life is that typically the current situation we are in is not going to last forever. That’s bad news if things are going really great. That means that a difficulty or disappointment might be around the corner. But enjoy it while you have it. But that’s good news for people who are facing difficulty. You may need to be reminded that what you are facing is not going to last forever. Though it may last a long time, chances are before you see Jesus your situation will improve and you’ll see brighter days again. The winter snows will melt and you will see green grass and feel warm sunshine again around the corner.
Knowing that truth should help us in times of difficulty to hang in there, to be patient and display an informed tenacity.
So, what’s the difference between Stretch Armstrong and the Gingerbread man? How do we find the resiliency we need to grow in our trials and persevere? Think of the difficulty you are facing right now…and if you can’t think of one, then enjoy it…just store up this information for what is right around the corner. Get the difficulty in your mind, and let’s put it through our three points today.
- A Strange Perspective: Ask God to give you his perspective, to somehow find a sense of joy even in the middle of the pain and grief and anxiety that you are feeling (and right to feel)…that it is only through such times that growth really happens.
- A Right Response: Pray for wisdom, to know what you are supposed to get out of this, to understand some of what God might be doing, and know how to persevere through the trial. It’s okay to pray for deliverance, but right now pray for wisdom.
- A Patient Tenacity: Realize that your difficulty will not last forever. Worst case scenario it will last until Jesus comes back or you go see him. But likely things will get better before then. Be encouraged by the cycles of life and know that spring and summer will return. It won’t likely be winter forever.
Let’s take that trial to God right now, and ask for his help…ask for him to strengthen us to give us Stretch Armstrong resiliency to face the difficulties that inevitably come.