Fire Works! – How Suffering Produces Perseverance And Maturity

How would you feel if at the end of a phone conversation with a friend just before you’re headed out of town on a trip, they said something like this: “I hope you have a really difficult and challenging time out there, and that you face many trials and a healthy dose of opposition.”? You might think you need to find a better friend…

Yet, the Scriptures tell us that hardship and opposition are the very things that produce perseverance in us, which is a desirable quality. In fact, the Creation itself is replete with examples of strength and beauty that result from difficulty and travail. A few examples are in order…

How is it that a fragile, unimpressive lump of coal can become one of the hardest, costliest and most beautiful things on Earth? It wasn’t by holding the coal gently and affirming its “coalness” or promising it its best life now. A lump of coal is transformed into a diamond as a result of enormous geological pressure and intense heat over a protracted period of time. Even then it’s still a diamond “in the rough”. There is much work to be done cutting away all the imperfections and cutting the beautiful facets in the stone so that it brilliantly reflects light. It’s a hard, difficult process!

The butterfly begins its life as a caterpillar. At just the right time it enters what we call the Pupa or Chrysalis Stage, where the caterpillar is wrapped and transformed into a sack. It remains inside that sack for several weeks, and from all outward signs, nothing much is happening. But in fact enormous change is taking place. Special cells that were there all along begin growing rapidly, developing into legs, wings, eyes and antennae.

But at a specific point in time that caterpillar-turned-butterfly must emerge from the cocoon. It is literally a life-and-death struggle. If it doesn’t break free, it will die inside there. And because it is so violent a struggle, it can be disturbing to watch.

What if you were to take pity on the suffering and struggle of that butterfly, and try to help it by making a little slice in the outside of the sack? You might think you were helping, but you’d be wrong. You see, it is in that death-struggle to break out that the blood flow in the veins is forced to the extremities, and that’s the very process by which the butterfly can later fully extend its wings and fly. Intervening in that struggle would short-circuit a necessary process; the poor creature would tumble to the ground, unable to fly, and it would quickly become dinner for a bird or a wasp.

And I suppose it’s worth pointing out that you don’t build your muscles sitting in the Jacuzzi at the health club. You have to lift weights. Physical strength grows through the pain of persevering against resistance.

Once I came across this photograph of a group of Christian motorcyclists, circled up in prayer before heading out on a ride. The caption read: “Prayer is the best armor against all trials.” Now I’m a firm believer in committing every activity to the Lord. I pray before my softball games. I pray when I go on rides with friends. But I don’t think God intends us to avoid all trials. Some of those trials are meant to strengthen and purify us.

This morning let’s spend a little time in the letter of Ya’akov – James, and see what the Holy Spirit-inspired writer had to say about the sanctifying work of suffering. So open your Bible to James chapter 1. Our two related passages this morning are James 1:1-4 and 5:7-11. You might say that these tandem teachings are the “bookends” of his letter, and together form one of its central themes.

Verse 1

James, a bond-servant of God and of the Lord Yeshua the Messiah, to the twelve tribes who are dispersed abroad: Greetings.

There are several men in the New Covenant Scriptures named “James” or in Hebrew Ya’akov. But most scholars and reliable and early traditions of the Church identify this James as the earthly half-brother of Messiah Yeshua, who later went on to become the leader of the Messianic Community in Jerusalem. You may recall that Yeshua’s brothers weren’t exactly quick to get on board with His messianic claims. In John chapter seven they dared Him to make a public announcement to that effect. In that same chapter John tells us that they were not believing in Him.

Clearly, then, something dramatic must have happened for James, a one-time skeptic and disbeliever to now call himself Yeshua’s “bond-servant”! That dramatic something is the Resurrection of Messiah Yeshua from the dead. His conquering of death is what has given us life. And that same power is at work in us, transforming us from within. Notice that James doesn’t cite his earthly relationship to Yeshua. First of all, those prior relationships are, by necessity, changed post-resurrection. Secondly, one of the most noticeable changes that God works in us is humility, where once pride dominated us. So there’s no hint of name-dropping or claim of privilege by means of relationship.

James refers to Yeshua as ‘Lord’. The Greek word is Kurios, and it was used consistently by Greek-speaking Jews to refer to deity. This shows that Ya’akov considered Messiah to be God. The early date of this letter, and its Jewish audience, coupled with the overwhelming biblical evidence for the deity of the Messiah, should put to rest the claim by liberal scholars that the early believers did not believe Yeshua to be deity. They most certainly did.

A book I’ve recommended to a few friends over the years is entitled “The Jewish Gospels” by Daniel Boyarin. Boyarin isn’t a believer – not by a long shot; but he is considered one of the premier Talmudic experts alive today, and in this book he demonstrates that the belief in a divine Messiah was perfectly consistent with First Century, and even pre-First Century Judaism.

James addresses his letter to “the twelve tribes who are dispersed abroad…” You’d have to get very creative to argue around the Jewish identity of the original target audience. The largely Jewish audience is further evidence to the early date of its writing. The large influx of Gentiles into the Faith had only recently begun.

In terms of their being “dispersed abroad”, we should understand this to refer to the fact that Jewish people had long been living in other countries going back to the Assyrian and Babylonian captivities. This is why in Acts 2, at Shavuot/Pentecost we find devout Jewish men gathered in Jerusalem “from every nation under Heaven.” The twelve tribes dispersed abroad is simply a literary device to address Messianic Jews everywhere.

Typically, most First-Century Epistles, after identifying the writer and the intended audience, frequently included greetings and warm and expressive prayer wishes and thanksgivings before getting down to business – the occasion of the letter. Not so the letter of Ya’akov – James. He identifies himself, identifies his recipients, says “Greetings” and then launches right into the purpose for his writing. Let’s continue on and see what it is.

Verses 2-3

Consider it all joy, my brothers, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance.

Without the apodosis – the concluding phrase which resolves this, if all you had here was “Consider it all joy… when you encounter various trials” you might think such a statement ridiculous. And a materialist would think it ridiculous. Without an eternal perspective, why would they ever welcome pain or trouble? To the atheist, isn’t the best possible outcome a life free of pain or want or trouble? But James tells us there is a God-intended process in our adversity, and for a good purpose, with a desirable outcome. It should cause us to rejoice within – particularly if our suffering is a result of our confession of Yeshua. That is when we are walking in the footsteps of the prophets of old, and our reward in Heaven will be great.

Notice that he does not say “if you encounter various trials”. Yeshua assured us, “In this world you will have trouble” (tsuris). But the trials these early Jewish believers faced were much more significant than what most of us in 21st century America have ever had to endure. Men and women were being hunted down for their faith and systematically imprisoned and martyred.

We kvetch (complain) when the microwave breaks down, or the alternator goes out in the car and we consider those trials. But truth be told, in the scope of world history, the ‘trials’ we endure are barely a hiccup. But I believe that’s about to change. The signs of the times tell us that Yeshua’s return is near, and one of those signs is a rapidly growing disdain for Christians and Messianic Jews.

The Greek word for “trials” is peirasmoiH which refers, not really to an isolated event or encounter, but rather to a time period or process of trial. The trials we go through have a beginning point, and usually require some time to fully weather. Water boils at 212° and no less. So if you want a hard boiled egg, you’ll have to wait a few minutes. Different kinds and cuts of meat require different amounts of time before they are adequately cooked. Gold melts at 1,948° and silver at 1,763°. That’s extremely hot! But if you want your gold pure, it has to first reach the melting point so that impurities can rise to the surface and be removed. The point is, it’s a process.

The attitude Ya’akov tells us to have is one of joy. If we are encountering trials – especially those related to our Faith, we should be glad that God considers us worthy of His refining purposes. It is a sign that He sees something there worth cultivating. Trials aren’t meant to produce faith; faith comes, we are told, by hearing the Word of God. Rather, the trials that come our way are meant to stretch our faith, with a view to developing our spiritual stamina. Don’t misunderstand me: God will allow troubles to come into an unbeliever’s life as part of the process of breaking their pride so that they recognize their need of forgiveness and salvation. But remember, this is an ‘in-house’ letter. If unbelievers gain from it, that’s great, but these trials are to be understood as God-intended for His own children.

Our faith is tested to reveal what is and what isn’t there. It isn’t meant to humiliate us, but simply to show us what is lacking. It’s a kind of diagnostic. Eventually we want to be complete – mature in the Lord. Trials have the potential to contribute to that process, producing endurance. But the word here (ὑπομονήν) means much more than just enduring – sweating it out. It’s a picture of breaking through to victory – a sense of glory.

A word of caution is in order here; the testing of your faith will not automatically produce endurance. There is a necessary condition: the right attitude. James urges us to “count it all joy” when we encounter trials; meaning, to respond to adversity with faith – faith that God has a higher purpose for you in the midst of it. But if you consistently respond to trials with grumbling and unbelief, you may end up bitter and cynical, and that would be a shame.

Verse 4

And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.

Again, the exhortation to us is to approach these trials with the right attitude. Don’t give up. Don’t throw in the towel. Ya’akov tells us that if we will come to it with faith, God’s purposes will be accomplished in our lives. Endurance will produce maturity in us. And we’re not alone. We have examples of those great men and women who went before us, who endured so much and remained faithful. Rabbi Paul knew exactly what it meant to endure trials with faith, and to rejoice in the work God was doing in him. In Romans 5 he wrote this:

“We exult in hope of the glory of God. And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance proven character; and proven character hope.”

Again in verse 4, James finishes the thought: so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. The Greek word for perfect is telios, from which we get the word telestial, and has the idea of reaching the goal or highest point at which one was aiming. By the way, the same Greek word is used in Romans 10:4, which is typically translated “For Messiah is the end of the Law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” A better translation would be: “Messiah is the goal of the Law…”

God wants us to grow to maturity. Too often all we care about is how many people we can say made decisions for the Lord. We talk about “believers” but He wants disciples. That moment of commitment to be a follower of Messiah Yeshua was only a beginning. To walk with Him is a lifelong journey of discipleship, and it is one in which we are expected to grow.

Now let’s turn to the last chapter of James’ letter, where he repeats this theme. James chapter 5, beginning at verse 7. But before we read, let me again give some context to his exhortation.

There are fiery condemnations in this letter, and in this chapter. James rails against people who were callously taking financial advantage of the weak, against those who took bribes to pervert justice, and against those who selfishly and foolishly hoarded their wealth despite the needs around them, and the soon return of the Lord. But as we come to the end of his letter, his tone softens considerably as he addresses his fellow Messianic Jews. God’s wrath will fall on the godless and ruthless. Meanwhile, Ya’akov has only words of gentle urging for his brothers.

These early Jewish believers faced discrimination and hostility on every side. Families were divided. Messianic Jews were systematically expelled from synagogues they had attended since childhood. Likely, many of them were fired from their jobs or else denied jobs purely on account of their faith in Yeshua. Others probably had their businesses boycotted. We know that eventually some faced imprisonment and death. But Yaakov reminded them, and now reminds us, that we have a choice about how to think about and respond to the trials that come our way.

James 5:7-8

Therefore be patient, brothers, until the coming of the Lord.

Patience to gracefully endure trials, particularly injustice, is not merely an ideal – it is absolutely possible. And the thing that makes it possible is the iron-clad promise of Messiah Yeshua’s soon return to Earth; when He will destroy all the forces of Satan, and establish righteousness and justice across the face of the planet!

Ya’akov tells us that when we endure patiently the trials we go through, we are seeing them through eyes of faith. Though we do not yet see Yeshua, we have believed in Him, and believe His word. He has gone to prepare a place for us, and He promised to return and take us to be with Himself – forever!

The coming (or what is called The Parousia) of the Lord includes with it the promise of vindication for the just, and condemnation of the unjust. Judgment is the Lord’s; He will repay. But until that day, we are called to be patient. That means we hold firm to the Faith, in spite of the godlessness and cruelty we see around us, and it means we do not respond in kind. We are not to exact revenge. Ya’akov continues:

The farmer waits for the precious produce of the soil, being patient about it, until it gets the early and late rains. You too be patient; strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near.

Waiting patiently for Yeshua’s return is compared to a farmer waiting for the harvest. He has labored honestly and diligently. He longs to see the benefits of his labor. Hopefully YOU have been laboring in God’s field: sharing the Good News whenever and wherever you can. But doesn’t it sometimes feel like the harvest is so far off? Now, the farmer has a good and reasonable basis for being patient; after all, it isn’t the first time he’s done this. It isn’t the first year he’s tilled the ground, then patiently and meticulously planted. And as in years past, the actual harvest is still some time off. But he has a reasonable expectation that he will see it.

Verse 9

Do not complain, brothers, against one another, so that you yourselves may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing right at the door.

This is a reiteration of James’ warning in chapter four, verses 11-12. When we become impatient and frustrated, we are prone to turn on one another. It may be natural, but it’s also wrong, and Ya’akov warns against this. We are not to place ourselves in the seat of judge and jury. Complaining against one another (and it is possible that he has in mind lashon hara – evil speech – tearing down a person’s reputation in the eyes of others) will invite God’s judgment on us. And we are reminded that the Judge is about to appear.

Verses 10-11

As an example, brothers, of suffering and patience, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. We count those blessed who endured.

Ya’akov doesn’t name the prophets, but he doesn’t need to. We know who they are, and we revere their memory. We think of the faithfulness and courage of Daniel and his friends to defy Nebuchadnezzar’s demands. We think of Micaiah, who was not afraid to speak the truth to wicked king Ahab, and was put in prison for it. We think of Jeremiah, who stood up to Israel’s wicked rulers and proclaimed the impending exile to Babylon (not a very popular message!), and who was mistreated, being thrown in a pit and having his written prophecies confiscated and burned.

Just as Israel’s good prophets experienced resentment and hostility in their day, so it is today – those who publicly proclaim the forgiveness of sins in Yeshua’s name experience resentment and hostility. It’s the “sin” part that causes the reaction. If all you ever said was “God loves you, and has a wonderful plan for your life!” they wouldn’t hate you. Heck, you might just get invited onto Oprah! But we are constrained to preach the whole counsel of God, which means we speak of the need for our sins to be forgiven, and that Yeshua, Jesus of Nazareth, is the only One who can atone for us.

You have heard of the endurance of Job and have seen the outcome of the Lord’s dealings, that the Lord is full of compassion and is merciful.

Too often, we only remember the suffering of Job. We forget that his steadfast faith was rewarded. God restored all that had been taken away from him, adding even more to his life at the end! But we need to remember that Adonai was full of compassion and mercy even when He allowed Satan to viciously attack Job and his family. We need to admit that we don’t know the end from the beginning. We are hard-pressed to see what good will come out of the present suffering. That’s why it is authentic faith to say, “I don’t claim to understand this, but I’m trusting in the goodness, wisdom, and mercy of God, and that His purposes are greater than I could know!”

So, my friends, when you feel like you are being tested by fire, remember that fire works. God is refining you precisely because He loves and values you highly.

Consider it all joy, my brothers, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.

Please don’t give up. You are closer to the goal than you realize.