Choosing the Right Gift
During my undergrad years at Cal State Hayward I read about an experiment to determine if rats would seek out new places of safety when faced with danger. It involved random low-level shocks to the cage and a random "shock free" zone. After a while, instead of seeking a place that was free from the shocks the rats simply absorbed them and seemed to realize they were unavoidable.
James is writing to a group of people who have become tempted simply to absorb the seemingly inevitable tests and trials. Last week we discovered how those who face such shocks are to do so with joy rather than bitterness and to seek God's wisdom rather that the world's answers to life. James tells us that as we do this we discover we have become mature and complete, ready to be God's person in all situations.
Today we're continuing this discussion with some subtle changes. By its context James starts to use the word trial in the sense of temptation or facing moral questions and issues. What's more we aren't called on just to endure hardships with Joy but to resist the temptations and the one who brings them. In verse 12 the idea of the word is that of testing or "time of testing" with no moral implications. It is a carryover from the idea in vv. 1-11. In the first half of James moves from the trials to the completeness and wholeness or maturity which is ours in Christ. In verses 12-18 James moves the other way. He starts with our being blessed and receiving the "crown of life" and moves on to the issue of facing the temptations that will come.
Among God's gifts to us is the "crown of life". The idea is that of the laurel wreathes worn by victorious generals returning from battle. It is a sign that we have become complete and not lacking anything as James wrote in verse 4. But it isn't automatic. It is given to the one who perseveres. This is not a passive concept. It's not about holding one's ground, digging in or the phrase that came out of the first Gulf War, "hunkering down". To persevere is active. It involves our recognition of what is going on spiritually in us and taking the steps necessary to grow in that faith.
God gives us gifts. As mentioned, those who follow Jesus Christ are given the crown of life. Verse 18 describes our future completeness and wholeness in terms of becoming first fruits of God's creation. This is a Jewish term for the best which was offered to God as a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. In short, we become those set apart to be God's people and to enjoy God forever.
Between now and then comes the testing and temptation. So how do we deal with them? Here are some things to keep in mind. First of all the times of testing and temptation WILL come. James writes, "When tempted" not "if tempted". And he uses fishing language as he describes us being baited and lured away toward our own desires.
God doesn't tempt. God has nothing in Him that would cause him to bait us or trick us. His desire is to see us become complete and to that end we will encounter trials or tests that are meant to cause our faith to blossom and grow.
Usually we are tempted to something we want to do. I have never been tempted to take Sunday off and run a marathon. Most husbands have never been tempted to love sacrificially their wives. Temptation tends to be self-focused, selfish and impulsive. The group Casting Crowns has taken an old Sunday school song for children and breathed new life into it. "Be careful little eyes what you see
it's the second glance that ties your hands as darkness pulls the strings" *
Testing is often something that is hard to do. When we realize we're being tested is when we hear ourselves saying, "I could never do that Lord... I'm the person... I don't have the gifts... etc." God's testing is also other oriented. It takes seriously our Lord's command to love one another and to love one's neighbor. It understands the difficulty of loving our enemies.
Being tempted focuses our attention on our weakness. This is Satan's favorite ploy. His goal is to use that weakness to make us weaker. He wants to remind us that we can't do anything for God because we've got this great big failure tattooed on our forehead.
God's testing however exposes our weaknesses as well. God uses our weaknesses as evidence of His power, love, might and love. God does heal weaknesses and restores lives. Temptation leads to slavery but testing leads to spiritual maturity and freedom. It takes us to a place where we can stand for Jesus, not perfect, but in a perfect loving God.
Let me remind you of a 50-Day Spiritual Adventure we did back in 2003. There was an acronym for facing temptation that was based on the word FLEE. You'll find it spelled out in your bulletin.
Feel the danger, one of the most dangerous aspects of diabetes is the loss of feeling in parts of the body. They can become injured and infected without the person knowing it. Take time to recognize what is going on. Some of us become so accustomed to sin we don't notice and we care less. If you're in that camp your prayer needs to be, "Lord make me alive to Your Spirit once more so I will want what You want."
Leave the Area, this is the "Duh!" point. If you don't want to do drugs don't hang around people that do or the places you buy them. If you are tempted to gossip go get away from those who have the latest news. It sounds easy but it's not. So often these places have become a habit to us that we feel comfortable when we're there. Run from them and you'll find it much easier to face the temptations.
Experience God's Pleasure, this means take joy in doing what is right. I can't tell you how many times I sensed a problem and left the area only to feel that I got cheated out of a good time. Yep that sounds stupid but I'll bet most of you have done the same thing. Rather than get down on yourself for getting in that predicament in the first place realize that our Lord is proud of us when we resist temptation.
Remember the story of Job. God asks Satan, "Have you considered my person Job?" That wasn't a challenge to Satan it was a statement of God's acceptance of Job's life being lived for Him.
Establish Protections, these will differ depending on what the temptation is that we face. I always found it refreshing that when scandals hit the well known preachers there is old Billy Graham just plugging away with never a hint of a problem. Would you like to know his secret? He never travels alone. If his wife couldn't accompany him someone else on the staff was with him. He never entered a hotel room first or by himself. Someone else went in with him or first. This made it impossible for someone to claim they were waiting for him.
He established protections and my general sense is that if Billy Graham felt he needed to do such things so do I. You may need to call up some people to ask you the hard questions. You may need to sign up with an online service that sends the websites you browse to a friend who will jump on your case. You may have to set up a way to extract yourself from dangerous situations at work with a co-worker who sucks into their gossip and lies.
In all of this remember that it isn't God who tempts us it is ourselves and that temptation, allowed to run its course leads directly to death. The alternative however is to face the trials we discover with Joy and a certain trust in God and we'll discover the power to stand firm and be crowned as God's person. Amen.
*"Slow Fade" by Casting Crowns