Why God’s People Suffer
Why God’s People Suffer
Text: James 1:2-18
We are troubled. We are troubled by trouble. We wonder why we, of all people, should be troubled. And sometimes, we set up to debate: If God is good, why is there evil in the world? If God is good, why do people suffer? More specifically, why do good people suffer? More specifically still, why do God’s people suffer?
We read the Bible promises about God blessing his people. And there is a whole movement in Christianity that claims that God wants to bless his people with prosperity, good health, happiness and long life. These “health and wealth” preachers find and use to their advantage a lot of Scripture. And we want to believe them. After all, the Bible says ... Because of their false teaching, which ignores much of the Bible, many Christians have come to the conclusion that Christians aren’t supposed to suffer. If we had faith, we wouldn’t be suffering. If we had sufficient faith, we would not know illness, cancer, or tragic early death. Good Christians don’t get cancer, don’t get ALS, don’t get Alzheimer’s, don’t have “special needs” babies. And we wonder what we did wrong that such things happen to us. We ask the disciples’ question, “Master, who sinned that this man was born blind?” (John 9:2). We are led, then, to doubt our faith, and then to doubt God.
Skeptics argue that maybe God isn’t good. A good God, they say, would not allow suffering. And when some great tragedy strikes, they ask, “Where is God?” If God is good, why does he not do something to prevent such horrors. Skeptics may also respond that God is not powerful, at least, not powerful enough to prevent evil. And they set up a false argument that either God is not good or God is not powerful. We debate the righteousness of God in the presence of evil – we call it theodicy (the goodness of God).
Theodicy is actually a distraction based on some false premises. Among them are the idea that there is actually a dichotomy between God’s goodness and God’s power. Secondly, theodicy ignores the role of humanity and free will in the perpetuation of evil. We convince ourselves that we are doing a great good and that our ends justify the means. We end up doing great evil, and I suspect that none of the great villains of history set out to do evil – they convinced themselves, or they were convinced that such actions were necessary to achieve the good of society. There are probably other false premises, but one of the greatest is the idea that God’s will is to make us happy. Nowhere in the Bible are we told that God’s will is to make us happy. Jesus didn’t die to make us fatter caterpillars. He died to transform us. The writer to Hebrews affirms that Jesus died to make us holy (Hebrews 13:12). We are told that God’s will is our repentance, our obedience, our love for others, our salvation, and our holiness. God’s desire for us is order - God is not a God of disorder but of peace, Paul wrote (1 Corinthians 14:33). Not regimentation, but orderliness, everything in our life in it’s right place at the right time.
What that means for us is that there must be another reason for suffering than merely to detract from our happiness.
Let’s begin with James himself, however. James, the brother of John, was killed by Herod Agrippa I early (Acts 12:2), within a couple years of Pentecost. The other disciple James, the son of Alphaeus, is named only the listings of disciples in the gospels and Acts (Matthew 10:3; Mark 3:18; Luke 6:15; Acts 1:13). He was apparently the brother of Matthew, who is referred to as Levi son of Alphaeus in Mark 2, but has no real role in the story. There is a reference to James the younger in Mark 15:40 – it was his mother Mary, also the mother of Joseph, who witnessed the death of Christ. In Mark 6, Jesus was criticized in his hometown by people who knew his family – “Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon?” (Mark 6:3).
That would mean that we have three men named James in our New Testament accounts: James the son of Zebedee and brother of John; James the son of Alphaeus and brother of Matthew; and James the son of Mary and brother of Joseph and Jesus. This last was known as James the Younger or James the Less. Only the latter, following the death of the first, would have had the status to address himself merely as “James”, anticipating that everyone would know who he was. That doesn’t actually settle the authorship issue, however, since James is the English substitution for the Hebrew name Jacob, a very common name in Israel at the time. However, the earliest traditions attribute this letter to James the brother of Jesus. And that fits what is known of the Jerusalem church and the respect given him (Acts 21:18) as an elder in the church.
James began his letter to the twelve tribes scatters among the nations, a reference to the Church, with a discussion of why God’s people, in particular, are suffering. But he tells us that we ought to rejoice when we suffer. We ought to consider it a privilege, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance, and that perseverance produces maturity and completion, using a word that means to be sound, unblemished, blameless, or whole. “Testing” will produce in us a whole, sound, complete and mature faith. James suggests that we look beyond the immediate to the desired outcome, which may not be obvious to us in the midst of the storm.
Again, context is vital. We’ve all heard these verses about wisdom used in many situations, but James is writing specifically about suffering. If any of you lack wisdom, you should ask God ... Your question about why you suffer, why you face this particular trial, thus become matters of prayer, seeking answers and understanding from God rather than from human philosophies. He calls us to unwavering faith, a settled trust in the wisdom and goodness of God. We cannot doubt that God knows what he’s doing – when we begin to doubt, we are like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. God doesn’t have to explain himself to us. He doesn’t owe us that, but James suggests that God will eventually reveal his purpose behind our suffering.
Suffering is the great equalizer. For some it lifts and strengthens; for others it destroys. All of this, this paragraph about the humble and the rich, I remind you, is in the context of suffering.
Those who are in humble circumstances are wealthy in this – Many years ago, I received notice of a lawsuit filed naming me as a defendant. I looked at it and thought, Well, let them try. I have nothing they can take. My lack of resources set me free from worry. The lawsuit eventually went away, but I was not bothered by it. Those with money had a lot to lose. They were worried. But James would warn them not to worry about it, because wealth is like the grass-flowers anyway and comes and goes just as quickly, just as easily.
Blessed is the man who perseveres. This is a standard format for a blessing, the same Jesus used in what we call The Beatitudes, the blessings. But the word comes from a gift bestowed by a ruler as a favor. In our case, it is a favor bestowed by God himself – the blessing of having persevered under trial is a crown of life (remember Paul’s words to Timothy about being ready to receive the crown of righteousness (2 Timothy 4:8)) promised to those who love the Lord (Paul’s words to Timothy, all those who love the Lord’s appearing). Those who persevere under trial will receive the King’s gift.
But here we are faced with a challenge. James used different forms of the same word that we have translated “trial”, “test”, and “temptation”. In one sentence it is positive, a test. In the next, it is negative, a temptation. What’s the difference if it’s the same word? The context translates it for us. God sends us tests and trials to strengthen us. God fully expects us to succeed, and stands with us, strengthening us in those hard times.
Temptation, on the other hand, does not come from God. God does not tempt us with evil, because it’s against his nature. And not all hardships, not all trials come from evil. Not everything bad that happens to us is evil. Evil requires a moral nature, just as does righteousness. Floods, winds and earthquakes may be bad, may have tragic consequences, but they are not evil. Temptations come to discourage us, in the expectation that we will fall. Satan expects us to fail, to give in, to give up. He taunts us with our weakness. We are flesh, and our appetites, good and normal and God-given, are perverted: hunger becomes gluttony; attraction becomes lust, and we are trapped and dragged down by their weight. Temptation comes in the hope that we will give in and sin. Temptation itself is not sin – we sin when we give in to it.
So we come to the last part of the section: Don’t be deceived ... every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father ... who does not change ... What good and perfect gifts is James talking about? What good and perfect gifts does the Father desire to give us? Stick to the context – James is talking about the gifts that come out of our trials, and links us back to the beginning: the testing of your faith produces perseverance, ultimately making you a mature and complete person in Christ. That you don’t lack anything that you need, or anything that God wants you to have. Do you notice that it’s still not about your happiness, but about your shalom?
The point is that you should be a whole person, with your life in the proper order, with your relationships in the proper order. God wants you to be in a right relationship with your family, and with your neighbor. That’s why so many of the laws, and so much of Jesus’ teaching, has to do with how we get along with people. That’s why the second great command is Love your neighbor and Jesus “new command” is Love one another (John 13:34-35). Six of the Ten Commandments have to do with human relationships, because God’s desire is shalom among people.
God wants you in a right relationship with his creation. Have you thought what it might mean to be in a right relationship with creation? That you should find your place in the created order and fit where God planned for you to fit?
God wants you to be in a right relationship with your self. Our own lives are often disordered and chaotic, and sometimes trials serve to drive us to get our own lives on track. We learn what is important and what is mere decoration? We learn, often through suffering and pain, what are the proper priorities of our lives? In other words, suffering helps us to order our lives and to learn to be at peace within ourselves. Often our lives are chaotic and confused because we have not figured out where things go in our own lives. We confuse desire and pleasure with good and right. We confuse the soothing flattery of false friends with the hard truth of those who really care. We often create our own suffering because of the chaos of our desires and emotions. C.S. Lewis said that pain is God’s megaphone. When he is able to get our attention, often through suffering, he works to being order to our confusion. What is mental illness other than emotional and personal chaos? It is disorder. Let’s not diminish mental illness into some simplistic thing, but at root it is disorder and chaos. God’s desire for you is health, wholeness, order and peace within yourself. It is not achieved through prayer, laying on of hands, miracle water, magical thinking or medication, but by surrender to the orderliness of God, to the “construction” process of God working in you.
And God wants you in a right relationship with Him. The first law, Jesus said, is Love the Lord your God with all ... Put Him first. Listen to his voice. And if you don’t know his voice, it is the voice of the Prodigal Father of Jesus’ parable in Luke 15, the voice of wooing, inviting, welcome home, and celebration. It is not the voice of the angry, abusive father your may have grown up with. It is not a slap but a caress; not a curse but a compliment. Holy means to belong to God, nothing more or less. And God, as demonstrated by Jesus on the cross, desires nothing more than a right relationship with you. It is often true that suffering blots out the noise and chaos of the world and draws us to the sheltering, healing, calming arms a father who whispers into the storm, “Peace, be still.”It’s so difficult when you are in pain, and nearly impossible in the moment of great tragedy, to see how any good can come, or even how there could be a reason for it. James was writing to Christians who were in the moment, so to speak, and could not see past the pain. But, James says that God is working your suffering to make you whole, to bring shalom to your world. There is a higher purpose that we can see, and it is a place of trust for us. It is a place of darkness where we still believe in light. We persevere in hope, believing that a wise and loving God is at work in us.