Experiencing Trials

by Sinclair Ferguson on January 28, 2005


January 28, 2005
— 6:30 p.m.

James 1

“Experiencing Trials”

Dr. Sinclair Ferguson

Please open your Bibles to the Epistles of James, and as
you turn there, let me express my appreciation of Dr. Duncan’s welcome, and say
to you, some of you who are old enough probably to remember the last time I was
at this Rally last century sometime, that it’s a tremendous privilege to be
invited back. To be invited once to anything is special; to be invited back,
even though it be at such a distance that most of those who were here have
forgotten who I was, so that now my sermons are being given away free…that’s
about the most disconcerting introduction I’ve ever had in a Presbyterian

But it is…I hope it’s as thrilling for you as it
is for those who organized this evening to be men together, or boys together
again, singing the praises of our great Savior, Jesus Christ.

Now, God’s word in the opening chapter of the letter
of James, and we’re going to read the first section:

“James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus
Christ, to the twelve tribes in the dispersion, greetings.

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

“If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously
to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith
with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is
driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will
receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his

“Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, and the rich in his
humiliation, because like a flower of the grass he will pass away. For the sun
rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its
beauty perishes. So also will the rich man fade away in the midst of his

“Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial; for when he
has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to
those who love Him. Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by
God’; for God cannot be tempted with evil, and He Himself temps no one. But
each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. And then
desire when it has conceived, gives birth to sin; and sin when it is fully grown
brings forth death. Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. Every good gift
and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights,
with whom there is no variation, or shadow due to change. Of His own will He
brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of first fruits
of His creatures.” [While there is some division of opinion as to where we
should demarcate a transition here, some scholars suggest that this section ends
tellingly with the words, “Know this, my beloved brothers.”]

Our Father, as we turn together to place our
minds and our hearts and wills, our affections and emotions, the whole of our
being, under the authority of Your word, listening to the voice of Jesus Christ,
needing the illumination of Your Holy Spirit, we pray that You would come upon
us as a gathering of men, and bow us down under the grace and goodness of Your
word; that we may engage in dialogue of soul with You this evening, and dialogue
of praise to You, as we wait to hear what Christ the Lord has to say to us. And
this we pray for His great name’s sake. Amen.

I have chosen as the theme of our two studies
this evening, as you will have seen from the program, the title Experiencing
and Overcoming Sin.
And there are several reasons for
doing this, some of which are obvious to us: that we are all men who, from time
to time, know what it is to experience trials, and indeed, to come to understand
that in many different ways the whole of the Christian life is a trial in which
we are being tested for the next stage of our growth in Christian grace and
suffering, that we either all face or know others to whom we must minister
(sometimes the more difficult task), who are facing suffering.

But there is another reason, partly personal to
myself, but extrapolating to you from my personal experience. The other reason
is this: that facing trials and overcoming sin are two areas of the Christian
life that most of us recognize we are not experts in fulfilling. And we need
the word of God; we need the teaching of the sacred Scriptures to help us to be
‘steadfast’ to use the expression of James, men whose characters have been so
transformed by the truth of the gospel and the way in which we have responded to
the providences of God that, as James hints to us here, instead of crumbling
under both trial and temptation, we are actually strengthened through both, and
become the kind of men to whom even the ungodly can look with awe and recognize
that something supernatural has happened in this person, so to transform his
life into the likeness of Jesus Christ.

And it’s obvious in this wonderful letter of James,
which I rather suspect is one of the earliest, if not actually the earliest,
part of the New Testament to be written, that as he sees those perhaps whom he
once pastored in Jerusalem and in the surrounding villages who have come to
faith in Jesus Christ dispersed through the persecution of the early days of the
Christian church, and now far from him, it’s a very telling thing that the
burden on his heart is a burden first of all that they may grow to maturity
through the experiences of difficulty into which God has been leading them; and
indeed, it’s apparent from the very thing that he says here in verse 4 that he
is looking for maturity of character that will stand the fiery trials of life,
and at the end, as he says, receive the crowning of the life of grace at the
hands of the Lord Jesus Christ.

We’re going to look this evening at two separate
parts of the New Testament not obviously related, but as we do so we shall see
how this theme of facing trials and overcoming temptation runs like a thin red
line, like a symphonic motif, through these passages to help us better grasp the
gospel and to grow in the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.
And in this
passage, rather obviously, James addresses the question of how you respond to
trials, and how you deal with temptation…how you respond to trials, how you
and I deal with temptation.

He speaks first of all, you notice in verse 2,
about trials.
“We all,” he says, “my brothers, we all meet trials of various
kinds…”–trials of different hues, multi-colored trials. If we were to spend
time examining this letter, we would get all kinds of different clues as to the
specifics of the trials that these Christians were going through. But James is
less interested in the specifics of the trials than this principle in general
that Christians experience trials of different sorts, trials of different kinds
of power that come to them in different seasons of life, that come in different
shades and hues and forums–in this letter, trials of deprivation, trials of
persecution, trials of personal affliction.

And James, who, from one point of view, seems to be
the most rigorous author in the New Testament, astonishingly opens his letter by
saying, “Brethren, count it all joy when you meet these various kinds of
trials….” In other words, he is saying the gospel has not fully wrought
maturity into me until I am able to see the trials of life as a source of joy in
my Christian experience. Not, obviously, that he is encouraging us to be
masochists who take pleasure in pain; but he is encouraging us so to see the
economy of God in the trials of life through which we go that in the midst of
those trials, rather than crumble or become lugubrious, we actually rejoice: not
rejoice only when they are over, able now to arise and to praise God because
they are past, but actually to joy in God, and in His grace and in His sovereign
purpose at the very moment we are going through the trials. Any individual, you
might say, is able to rejoice because trials are over, but it takes supernatural
transformation to have joy in the midst of trials. And it is, he says, possible
for the Christian believer to have joy in the midst of trials only when the
Christian believer comes to understand what those trials are going to produce in
his life.

And so, he says, “Count it all joy, brothers…that
the testing of your faith through these trials may produce in you perseverance,
or steadfastness.” I suppose the simplest way to grasp what he is talking about
here is to picture one of those amazing Olympic weightlifters picking up those
bars with such enormous weights on them that the very bar itself bends as they
pick it up, snatching it up above their heads and holding it there, as their
whole body quivers under the pressure…and standing firm, whatever the weight
is placed upon their lives.

Now, that is exactly the language that James uses
here. It’s the ability to take the strain, take the pressure, and to stand firm
in a godly way. And the fascinating thing that James is underlining for us is
that that, like the weightlifter, can be produced in us only by lifting weights.
There is no other way in the divine economy to build that kind of
steadfastness and perseverance into my life without pressure, without trials,
without afflictions; there is no other way to strengthen the muscular kind of
our Christianity than to test it to the full
. And so James is saying to
these Christians who, presumably, are beginning to discover affliction that is
causing them pain, that they need to see the strategic function of suffering,
and trial and affliction, and persecution and deprivation in the Christian life
without it there is no true greatness in Christian living. Without it, the world
will not see the difference in Christian believers, because the great difference
that he is concerned about in the last analysis is this: that the evidence of my
Christian character is more likely to be seen in my reactions than in my

I am in control ordinarily of my actions, and can
manipulate them; but it’s my reactions to the unexpected, to the trial, to the
difficulty, to the affliction, to the deprivation…it’s the reaction that
demonstrates what is really there in my soul. James is marvelously wanting to
encourage these Christians in such a way that that kind of steadfastness will be
produced in them.

Ligon Duncan mentioned a moment ago The Shorter
. If you knew me well, you would know that probably the story
above all American stories I love is the story that B. B. Warfield tells about
The Shorter Catechism, describing a situation in the Midwest, I think, in
the days of nineteenth century war, days of enormous confusion. In some Midwest
town filled with rioting, and a man walking down the street of such singular
possession in the midst of the confusion that people were actually turning round
and staring at him; and a stranger in town watching him walk down the street as
people were drawn to him as to a magnet; and the man, remembering how his mother
had told him never to stare at strangers, is ready for the moment when the man
will pass him by so that he can keep staring ahead. But instead, he finds
himself drawn like a magnet to stare at this man, and as he turns round and
stares at him, he realizes the man has stopped and turned round and is staring
at him, and is now coming up to him; and pressing him in the chest, says to him,
“What is the chief end of man?” And somewhat relieved, because he had
re-memorized The Shorter Catechism, he said, “Why, it is to glorify God
and enjoy Him forever.” And the stranger said to him, “You know, I knew you must
be a Shorter Catechism boy by your looks.” And the man said, “You know,
that’s exactly what I was thinking about you!”

That’s a deep reality, you know…or at least, it
used to be: that you could be recognized as a Christian by the way you responded
to crisis. And this is what James is looking for. At the end of the day, he is
not concerned openly with the actions of these Christians in the sense of their
pragmatic ‘get up and go’; he is interested in seeing the gospel produce what
our society cries out to see: that is, lives that are radically different, and
shine in the midst of dark and difficult circumstances.

And of course, the great question that he
addresses then is, “What do I need if I’m going to be that kind of man, who is
able to face difficulties and dark circumstances in this way?”
And it’s very
interesting to see how, as James works his way through this, James is a man who
is obviously saturated in the teaching of the Old Testament, and sometimes a
little like places in the Book of Proverbs–it’s difficult to see what’s going on
in his mind that connects one statement with the other. I want us to try and
see how he answers their and our question, “How can this steadfastness, this
perseverance, be produced in me? What do I need?”

And, you notice, he mentions three things. The
first is this, in verses 5-7: I need wisdom that comes from a God who gives
I need wisdom that comes from a God who gives generously. I
need the kind of wisdom about which the psalmist speaks in Psalm 119, that God
gave him wisdom from His word that made him wiser than his enemies, and better
instructed than his teachers. And you remember how, right in the middle of that
psalm, he gives a marvelous illustration of how that wisdom works when he says,
“I now see it was good for me that I was afflicted, that I might no longer go
astray.” When he sees that God has used the trials of his life like a great
warning sign in his way, and then has used the trials of his life to begin to
mold and shape his life and purify his life, as though it had been cast into a
furnace to be cleansed, and to come forth as pure gold…and that’s the kind of
wisdom, he says, God gives–and never reluctantly.

You see why this is such an important thing to
grasp. When life is confused, and confusing, and days are dark, that God, who
gives you wisdom
… you begin to see that He has a gracious purpose in all
that He is doing, is a God who gives that wisdom generously. I am more and more
convinced that the greatest lie the devil injects into the hearts of God’s
people is that our God is ungenerous to us. And we’re like disciples in the boat
coming to Him and saying, ‘Look at what’s happening! Don’t You care that we are
perishing?’ And of course, that was the very reason the Savior was in the boat:
because He cared they were perishing. A generous God, who gives wisdom.

And you see, we never, as James goes on to
demonstrate to us, actually…we never make real progress in our Christian life
unless we get through this barrier to the point where our souls are being bathed
in this great principle of God’s revelation in creation and in redemption: ‘I
am a generous Father and a gracious God. I give Myself to you; I demonstrate My
love for you; I have a passion for you.’

The man in the street, of course, believes that’s
the kind of God he believes in. He believes in a generous God…and he’s lying
through his teeth when he tells you that…but he would not live with such
despite to this God if he believed He was an infinitely generous God.

But you, you profess to believe in a
generous God. Do you and I really believe in the overwhelming generosity of
God? Then, you see, we begin to see the difficulties and trials of life in their
proper frame, and the picture changes. You know, you have a picture and you
take it along to a master framer, and you say, ‘Is there anything you can do
with this picture?’ And he tells you there’s nothing wrong with the picture;
the problem is with the frame. And once he has done his masterly work, you take
it home and the family say[s], ‘What did he do to the picture?’ And you say,
‘He did nothing to the picture. It’s the new way it’s framed that makes it seem
to marvelously different.’ So in the life of the Christian believer.

James is saying, ‘If you’re ever going to grow in
this kind of endurance, have this kind of stickability in the face of
difficulties, what you need to know, what you need to frame all the experiences
of your life with, is an absolute conviction based on the promise of God that He
is a generous God, and that He will give you the wisdom that you need to be able
to understand the purposes that He has in your life. And He’s doing something
through you. He’s investing in you. And so he says, ‘We need wisdom, and God
gives it generously.’

And then you notice, as he goes on, he says we
not only need wisdom from a God who gives generously, but we need
single-mindedness to trust in God unreservedly.
“Let him ask in faith…”
[verse 6] “…with no doubting. For the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea
that is driven and tossed by the wind. That person must not suppose he will
receive anything from the Lord, because he is a double-souled man, unstable in
all his ways.” I think perhaps the background in James’ thinking here (and I
myself think that this James is James, the brother of our Lord) is the very
teaching that the Lord Jesus gave in the parable of the sower and the soils and
the seed; when he speaks about the way the word of God is planted into the soil
and begins to grow, but there is an instability in the soil. There are two
things happening in the soil, and the cares about this world and the desire for
other things chokes the life out of the planting of the word of God, and it
comes to absolutely nothing. The man who is double-minded wants to hold onto
Christ and hold onto himself. That man will make shipwreck of his soul. That’s
what James is saying. And so, here is one of the great paradoxes of life: that
every taste of suffering and difficulty, darkness and perplexity the Christian
goes through is a summons from the Lord Jesus Christ to say to us, let
everything else go
and hold onto Me.

And that is such a life-long reality: that the whole
of the Christian life is going to be full of tests of various kinds, as we
discover we believe we have given ourselves unreservedly to the Lord Jesus
Christ, and more and more He exposes to us the pockets of resistance in our
hearts to unquestioned allegiance to His generous and sovereign will and
purposes. So we need not only wisdom from a God who gives
generously, we need single-mindedness to trust God unreservedly.

But then, there’s a third thing we need, and that
is a focus on those things that will last eternally.
And that’s what he
means in verses 9-11 when he says “…let the lowly brother boast in his
exaltation, and the rich man in his humiliation.” When did you last see a rich
man boasting in his humiliation? What’s he speaking about? He’s speaking about
the way in which the gospel takes the poor man out of his poverty to discover
the riches in Jesus Christ, and the same gospel takes the rich man out of his
riches to find all of his riches exclusively in Jesus Christ.

You know, I think the last time I was here at this
Men’s Rally, there were a couple of pastors my own age, I think, from
Czechoslovakia here. And you only needed to see the cut of their suits to know
that they were poor men, but in their presence I scarcely felt worthy to tie
their shoelaces, because they were rich in what lasts eternally. And our great
problem in living the Christian life, dear brothers, is that so many of us are
rich in this world, but impoverished in the riches that really last.

More and more, it seems to me that although we do it
in a multitude of different ways, there is only one thing really worth living
for, and that is what lasts eternally. And there is only one way really worth
living, and that is to inject into everything I do, however mundane it may seem
to be, a consecration to Jesus Christ that cries out from my heart, “O my God
and Savior, enable me to do this in such a way that something will emerge from
it that lasts for eternity.”

And when you see your life in that context the thing
that really makes you astonished is that you suffer so little; that you
experience so little deprivation. The thing that perhaps ought to make us
tremble is that God would leave us to our ‘this-worldliness’, and leave us to
amassing things that will perish with ourselves, as James so straightly says:
“The sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; it’s flower falls
and its beauty perishes.” So also will the rich man simply fade away in the
midst of his pursuits. Here is the rich man building his empire, and in the
light of the solidity of eternity it all simply disappears like a withering
flower that fades away in the midst of his enterprises.

You know, when we have come through times of
difficulty–and most of us in this room will be able to pinpoint, may even have
thoughts in our minds as these words are used, of the specific difficulties
through which we have gone. Are you more stable and less worldly as a result?
Or less stable and more worldly?

You see, the test that James is speaking about is
not only the test that comes while we’re being tested; the test is the response
that we make, having been tested; whether we have allowed the heavenly Father to
take hold of our clenched fists, tightly holding on to our own lives, and pry
them open as He does, until all that we hold onto in our hands to stabilize us
and give us security…. Are they, then, those things that will stabilize us and
give us security for all eternity, until they lay bare in our hands and we see
that in which we have been trusting? And we say to Him, ‘Father, take it from
me! I wish to depend upon it no more!’ And it is as we thus grow that real
Christian character is produced in our lives, and we grow to maturity.

I think in this connection of a girl I knew in
Philadelphia, who attended the church I attended. Her name was Alison. She was
born in 1971, and developed cancerous growths behind her eyes, and had a life of
struggle that ended, humanly speaking, prematurely. She became a Christian when
she was 17. The tumors grew; she had aggressive therapy; the tumors returned.
One eye had been removed in her childhood. The other eye was then removed
because she faced either total blindness or death. When no more treatment was
possible, here’s what she wrote: she said,

“I wouldn’t part with everything that has come out in these last five
years for anything. I wouldn’t trade it. I could choose to be grumpy about the
cancer, which I do many days, but I can’t ignore all the blessings that have
come through it.

“I don’t want to
mislead anyone and have myself raised as a model of Christian faith. I often
struggle in my relationship with God, and gripped with fears of dying. I have
wept before God, pleaded with Him, demanded healing from Him; cursed Him, and
tried to bargain with Him. Yet even in my darkest moments when the words of
Scripture fell dead on a numb and unbelieving heart, some deep calling within,
some solid thing assured me that my Father would pull me back to faith.

“I’ve suffered through many bleak periods in which I’ve felt like a mere
dishrag in the hands of God, to be discarded after use; or worse, the butt of
some horrid cosmic joke. But God has all along hemmed me in on every side.

“If I say, ‘Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around
me,’ even the darkness will not be dark to You. The night will shine like the
day, for darkness is as light to You.””

“God has remained faithful. I did not understand what God was doing, and
I don’t claim fully to now; but I did know that what was happening was under His
control. And what becomes ever clearer to me is that, far from punishing me, He
has blessed me. And whenever God does call me home [which He did, shortly
afterwards], I want people to understand that my life was not too short–not for
the rich blessings in my life.”

What a thing to be able to write in your twenties,
facing, reacting to the ultimate crisis.

It’s men the gospel produces. And men are
measured in the eyes of God and His grace not so much by their actions, but by
what is expressed in their reactions
. And that is why James points us
ultimately to the great encouragements that we need to bathe our souls in this
evening, especially those who are going through trials: Verse 12 — “Blessed is
the man who remains steadfast under trial; for when he has stood the test, he
will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love Him.”

“…Which God has promised to those who love
Him”…this is a wonderful passage, my brothers; exhorting us to boast in our
humiliation, because God generously gives us the wisdom we need to understand
His purposes. And so we’re encouraged to “count it all joy when we meet trials
of various kinds”, because of what we know…because of what we know.

I wonder if you do know these things. I wonder
if you’re applying them to the circumstances of your life. I wonder if your
family, your children, see this kind of maturity and steadfastness.
In many
ways, it is just as important (and sometimes more important) than what you say
to them.

I’ve never forgotten, as a student reading the words
of that strange Danish philosopher/theologian Soren Kierkegaard, when he says in
his journals that the worst thing in the world for a young man to have is not a
free-thinker as a father–an atheist, or a communist, or a libertarian, or
somebody to the far left, as a father. Some of us think that’s the worst
possible thing a young man could have as a father, and we bless ourselves we are
not that kind of father to our children. But listen to what Kierkegaard says.
Kierkegaard says the worst possible thing for a young man to have as a
father is a man who professes strict Christian orthodoxy and whose very life
breathes the fact that he is not really submitted to the heavenly Father; that
he does not really in a whole-souled way, but only in a double-minded way, trust
in Jesus Christ; who, when he faces difficulties and trials, collapses rather
than stands.

And so, what is at stake in the teaching of James is
not simply my life as I live this life within community of the church, or as I
live this life within community of the world, and my witness to the world. It
matters most particularly that I live my life where I am most naked– before my
family, before my children–and they see whether the gospel has produced this
kind of maturity.

Oh, it must have been really something to have James
as your pastor, don’t you think? But you see, they have probably seen it in
him, and so they could take it from him. Take it from him, my brothers, who is,
as I suspect, the brother of our Lord Jesus Christ; and take it from Christ, who
is your elder brother.

Our heavenly Father, how large your word is, and
how searching at times to the depths of our souls; how rigorous and vigorous it
is. But as we taste it and are even encouraged by it as You put us down,
humbling us in order to lift us up, exalting us, we thank You for the passion
You show us through Your word: that You want us entirely and without reservation
absolutely for Yourself, and You want to make us real and true men of God, men
like Jesus Christ. And we pray as we are blessed and strengthened together, and
as we are encouraged in our worship together, and as we sit under Your word this
evening together, that You would change us by Your truth and make us different
men. And this we pray for Jesus Christ our Savior’s sake. Amen.

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