By Pastor Glenn Pease
Imagine the testing of the body in such a sport as football. To be on your feet and seconds later brought to the ground hard and fast. Then to get up and do it again, and again, and again, but constantly moving forward. All of that falling is not what wins the game, but whether or not you win depends a great deal on how you fall. In fact, it has been pointed out that when the coaches begin to train their teams the first lesson they teach is not how to make a touchdown, but how to fall. For days they learn to fall limp and to roll so as not to be injured. There is nothing good about a fall. It is only a hindrance to reaching the goal, but if you don't learn how to fall successfully it is not likely you will ever get a chance to reach the goal. All the training is not to cross the goal line, but to survive until you get there.
What is true in football is likewise true in life in general. If we hope to make life a successful experience, and reach some worthy goals, the first thing we need to learn is how to fall. Life is always filled with obstacles to overcome. Scripture says, "Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward." And, "Man that is born of a woman is a few days, and full of troubles," says the book of Job. The Bible from Genesis to Revelation gives a realistic picture of life, and that picture looks more like a washboard than a slide. We must face the facts of Scripture and history and realize that the future holds trials, troubles, and for some even tragedy. This realism in the Bible, however, is combined with an optimism because it reveals to us the way to triumph through our trials.
The Bible is very practical and one of the books most noted for being practical is the book of James. It was written by James, not the Apostle, but James the brother of our Lord. It was written by a man who grew up with Jesus in the same family, and who knew his teachings very well. There are more references to the Sermon on the Mount in James than in all the other Epistles put together. It also has the distinction of being one of the first books of the New Testament to be written. It was written about 45A.D.; less than 20 years after the death of Jesus. The very first lesson that James teaches, like that of the football coach, is the lesson on how to fall, or if we were to give it a title we might call it, The Secret Of Successful Suffering. In these first few verses James tells us of three requirements necessary for the successful suffering of trials. The first is-
I. A POSITIVE RESPONSE OF THE WILL TO TRIALS. verse 2.
The difference between tragedy and triumph is all in how you count your trials. James says by an act of the will count it all joy when tried. Don't let circumstances take you captive and control your life, but compel them to yield the fruit of joy by a choice of the will. The Christian is never to be under the circumstances, always on top of them. Faith does not change what life brings to you, but it is to change what you bring to life. Every trial calls for a choice that involves the will. It is not what happens that determines a person attitude, but how they chose to count what happens. One man can get a flat on the way to work and count it a blast from the hand of fate, and be upset all day because he lost an hour of work. Another can have the same experience and count it as the providential protection of God that may have saved his life, and he rejoices all day in thanksgiving to God. The difference between the scowling crab and a smiling Christian is all in how you count your trials. The scowler counts them a jinx; the smiler counts them a joy.
The Bible has a high view of man's will power, especially after he has been delivered from being dominated by the forces of evil. For James to say, count it all joy, it is assumed that if they will so choose they have the will power to do so, and only if they do can they be successful in their suffering. James can urge them, warn them, and counsel them, but only they can make the choice, but they can if they will.
When those two planes crashed in mid air some years ago killing all aboard there were three men who watched it on the radar screen. They saw the two planes on a collision course and they shouted and shouted until they saw them hit. One of them became violently ill, the second passed out, and the third had a nervous breakdown and was institutionalized. They saw the danger but did not have control of the plane, and so all their efforts were in vain. So it is in our experiences of falling into trials. James can shout, count it all joy; preachers down through history can shout it; your friends can shout it, but then all they can do is stand and watch you go down unless your will responds in a positive manner and counts it all joy. In other words, your will is the pilot in your life. If it gives up all is lost, but if it refuses to be defeated you can never fail. Your plans may fail, and the plane may go down, but the positive will, even then, land you safely with the parachute of joy. As long as the will responds positively there is no such thing as defeat.
When Dr. Maxwell from Prairie Bible Institute was in the Twin Cities, he told the story of the first man to bring a plane out of a tail spin. His name was Stinson, I believe. He was flying one day doing some fancy tricks when suddenly he went into a tail spin. No one had ever come out of a tail spin before. He tried everything he could think of. He pushed and pulled, turned and twisted, and nothing happened. It looked hopeless and time was short as he plunged toward the earth. He finally decided to give it everything and get it over, and to his amazement, as he gave it the gas he pulled out of the tail spin. He wondered, could it be he discovered the way to come out of a tail spin? The only way to know was to try again, so he climbed up high and purposely went into another tail spin, and came out of it by the same method. By an act of the will he turned a trial that had always brought tragedy into triumph.
Scripture tells us that God works in all things for good to those who love Him and are called according to His purpose, but nothing works for good to those who will not count it good. If we refuse to consider a thing good even when it is, it will not be good for us. Like the woman who always complained about so many bad potatoes in her field. One year almost all of them were good, and then she complained because she had no bad ones to feed the pigs. Even blessings are not good to the person with a negative will, but to the person with a positive will even trials can bring joy. But James makes it clear that this positive response of the will to trials must be based on the second requirement which is-
II. A POSITIVE RECOGNITION OF THE WORTH OF TRIALS. verses 3 and 4.
The Scriptures tell us that no chastening for the present seems to be joyous. James does not expect us to be joyful because we are suffering, or even while we are suffering, though that is not impossible, but the joy comes in reflection and by our recognizing how even trials can help us attain the spiritual goals of our life. If we allow them, they can teach us patience, which is an essential virtue in becoming all that God wants us to be. The joy we can have in trials is in recognizing that Christlike character is our goal, and if trials can help us to be more like Him, then we can rejoice and suffer successfully.
Virtues grow out of the possibility of vices. Who has ever been brave who did not have a chance to be a coward? How can one have courage who has never faced danger? Who can know what patience is who has never been tried by impatience? Trials are opportunities to develop virtues. It is not the trial that brings joy, but the knowledge that the trial can teach us things that are never learned by a life of ease. Nobody would ever bother to watch football if there were no obstacles to overcome. Take away the opposition and the game loses all meaning.
A young Italian working in an American stone quarry had both eyes blinded, and he lost one arm by careless handling of dynamite by others. He was helpless and the future looked dark, but a woman who lived near the hospital where he was, and who knew Italian, had compassion on him, and she helped him get into a school for the blind. He was grateful for the fact that someone cared, and he became an eager student. He went on to become one of the most popular teachers in that school. If he had never had his tragic experience he likely would have remained an illiterate the rest of his life. The loss of his sight lead to him seeing more than he ever did before. He once said, "The day of my accident was the birthday of my mind." He counted his trial all joy.
Archidimus in Thucydides, the famous Greek historian, said, "We should remember that man differs little from man except that he turns out best who is trained in the sharpest school." Henry Howard has pointed out that this is true in nature as well. The Australian black-butt is a tree that grows in rich soil where there is a great deal of rain, and they grow so close together they are sheltered from the wind and storm. It becomes huge in its life of luxury and ease, and it grows to a height of 300 feet, but in its sheltered life it develops no toughness of fiber, and, therefore, is practically worthless for any purpose where endurance is required.
In contrast with this tree is the English oak which battles the storms from its birth until it is strong and mature. It grows slow but solid. The Australian-butt will rot under ground in 6 months, but English oak is used in England for underground wooden pipes, and after 300 years they were dug up and found to be as good as when they were laid. The proof that it is the trials endured that gives it the strength is that if the English oak is planted in Australia with its less vigorous climate, it grows twice as fast and is much feebler. Therefore, even nature teaches that trials are of great worth in producing quality.
Who can find a greater quality of music than that of Handel's Messiah? It did not come out of a life of ease, but one of great trial. In his biography we read, "His health and his fortune had reached the lowest ebb. His right side had become paralyzed, and his money was all gone. His creditors seized him and threatened him with imprisonment. For a brief time he was tempted to give up the fight, but then he rebounded again to compose the greatest of his inspirations, the epic Messiah." If all had been going great for him, he may never have created his greatest work.
The greatest trial in all of history led to the greatest triumph in all of history. When Jesus in the agony of Gethsemane recognized the worth of what He was to suffer for, responded with His will saying, "Not my will but thine be done." He counted it all joy to go to the cross. Scripture says, "Who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross." Never has there been such successful suffering, and James urges us to follow that same pattern that Jesus followed by making a positive response of the will to trials, based on a positive recognition of the worth of trials. The particular value which James stresses is patience, which we will not deal with now, for now we want to look at the third requirement which is-
III. A POSITIVE REQUEST FOR WISDOM IN TRIALS. verses 5-8.
In a sense, we are ending with the beginning. We are covering last that which comes first. Just as the response of the will is based on our recognition of the worth of trials, so our recognition of the worth of trials is based on our request for wisdom to be able to see it. In other words, learning how to triumph in trials, and to suffer successfully, begins with prayer for the wisdom needed to guide our will to the proper choices. Success in anything for the Christian comes down to the simple phrase, "Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness."
Like the football player, we do not wait until the tackler is upon us before we learn how to fall. We learn this before the trial comes. A Japanese proverb says, "Dig the well before you are thirsty." Another says, "Shingle the roof before the storm." The football player prepares through practice; the Christian prepares through prayer. James is saying, if you don't have the will power to count it all joy when trials come; if you are not convinced that trials can be of great value, then you lack the wisdom which only God can give. Therefore, you had better make a positive request for such wisdom, for without it you can never suffer successfully.
Notice, he does not say we are to ask to be delivered from trials, but ask for the wisdom necessary to make them work for good in your life. Alexander Maclaren said that the lack of wisdom is the chief defect in the average Christian. It comes only by persevering in prayer. Paul was constantly praying for the Christians of his day that they might have the wisdom of God. In Col. 1:9 we read, "We do not cease to pray for you that you might be filled with the knowledge of His will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding." We have not because we ask not James says. Here is a clear statement that to ask for wisdom is always in the will of God, and God delights to grant it. James himself was known to be a man of prayer, and that explains his practical wisdom. Tradition says he has knees like a camel because he spent so much time on them.
Donald M. Baillie relates of how in the 17th century the Westminister Assembly met to draw up a Protestant Confession of Faith. At that assembly was Dr. John Selden, one of the greatest scholars of the day, but who was a defender of the Erastian heresy. He gave such a brilliant argument for the heresy that the good Presbyterians there were at a loss as how to defend the truth. Then, unexpectedly,
George Gillespie, a young Scotsman, rose in the meeting and spoke against the heresy in an amazingly effective way which swept away years of labor on the part of Dr. Selden. When his speech was over his friends got a hold of the notebook that had lain in front of him hoping to find the outline of his argument, but on the page they found nothing but a single sentence penciled over and over again as he sat there waiting to speak. There were just three Latin words, "Da lucem, Domine," which means "Give light, O Lord." He lacked wisdom but he asked of God.
Wisdom includes knowledge, but is more, for it is the ability to use knowledge to arrive at the best ends by the best means. Wisdom directs the use of knowledge. Many people have the knowledge of how to drive a car, but they lack the wisdom which is necessary to drive it properly. When a drunken man wants to drive a car, it is not knowledge he lacks, but wisdom. Wisdom is the capacity to use knowledge effectively for good purposes. Everyone suffers, but only the wise makes a success of it, for only the wise recognize that trials can be of profit if they are wisely used.
Disraeli said, "The fool wonders but the wise man asks." But notice that our asking must be positive. It must be in faith without doubt. God is ever ready to grant the request for wisdom, but He cannot answer the prayer of the double minded. This is one who is not sure he wants God's will, and so he would not be able to receive the wisdom of God anyway. He is like Augustine who in his early prayers before he came all out for Christ use to pray, "O God, make me pure, but not now." He was double minded. He wanted to follow two paths at the same time. Jesus said you cannot serve two masters, for you will love the one and hate the other. The double minded man literally does not have a prayer. God refuses to grant any request from such a person. They are like people who are "Trying to serve the Lord in such a way as not to offend the devil." They think they can be a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and get by with it. God demands a simple and single minded faith.
The lesson on how to suffer successfully involves the whole of one's spiritual life and relationship to God. In learning this lesson we will learn that which is necessary to be a complete and entire Christian. We will learn to fall in such a way that we are brought closer to our goal of Christ likeness for having fallen. We will do this by a positive response of the will to trials; by a positive recognition of the worth of trials, and by a positive request for wisdom in our trial. The most important thing to remember is that we must be asking God for wisdom if we are going to suffer successfully.