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What to do in tough times

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What to Do in Tough Times

James 1:2–12 LB

Idea from William Crews

On May 22, 1997, at three o’clock in the morning, the doctor came out of the intensive care unit at our local hospital to tell me that our thirty-seven-year-old daughter, Rhonda, had succeeded in doing what she had been trying to do since she was sixteen years of age. Rhonda was beset with severe depression early in her life. And at age sixteen for the first time, she took an overdose of prescription drugs, attempting to take her own life. And in the succeeding twenty-one years, more times than I can count, Rhonda tried over and over and over again to end her life. That morning at three o’clock the doctor came out to tell me that our daughter was dead.

I went into the room where the body of my daughter lay and said good-bye to the little girl who had always been daddy’s girl, the little girl whom I had held in my arms only hours after she was born. But she was gone. Our family was ushered into what was for us a new experience. As a pastor, I had always been with other people in times like that, and often faced the struggle of knowing exactly what to say or what not to say, but our family had never experienced loss like that.

About three weeks later, the Southern Baptist Convention was meeting in Dallas, Texas, and I had been invited by a friend to preach in his church that Sunday morning. When he heard about Rhonda’s death, he called and offered to release me from preaching in his church. I thanked him for his consideration, but I said I would preach again, and it probably would be better if I preached in front of people I did not know. So I agreed to preach that Sunday morning in his church. But as I thought about that, I wondered, What will I preach about this first time since Rhonda’s death?

Then I remembered a sermon I had prepared in a class at Southwestern Seminary, “What to Do in Tough Times.” I had preached that sermon many times across the years, and God had always seemed to use it to benefit the people who heard it. It was something that I knew to be true because it was in Scripture, though I had never actually experienced in my own life. I realized as I thought through that sermon prepared in a seminary classroom that what I had discovered in that text in seminary many, many years before was something God was trying to do in my life at that very moment.

And I shared on Sunday morning with this church that message and how God was helping me with the toughest time that I had ever faced in my life. Some of you even now are facing a tough time. Others of you have, and most of you will. What I share with you comes from Scripture, but it also comes out of my own experience. I believe God wants us to handle tough times His way.

One day many years ago in a time when it wasn’t easy to be a Christian, a pastor stood and spoke to a small group of people on that Lord’s day, and here is what he said:

Dear brothers [and sisters], is your life full of difficulties and temptations? Then be happy, for when the way is rough, your patience has a chance to grow. So let it grow and don’t try to squirm out of your problems. For when your patience is finally in full bloom, then you will be ready for anything, strong in character, full and complete.

If you want to know what God wants you to do, ask him, and he will gladly tell you, for he is always ready to give a bountiful supply of wisdom to all who ask him, and will not resent it. But when you ask him, be sure that you really expect him to tell you, for a doubtful mind will be as unsettled as a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind; and every decision you then make will be uncertain, as you turn first this way and then that. If you don’t ask with faith, don’t expect the Lord to give you any solid answers.

A Christian who doesn’t amount to much in this world should be glad, for he is great in the Lord’s sight. But a rich man should be glad that his riches mean nothing to the Lord, for he will soon be gone, like a flower that has lost its beauty and fades away, withered and—killed by the scorching summer sun. So it is with rich men. They will soon die and leave behind all their busy activities. Happy is the [person] who doesn’t give in and do wrong when he is tempted, for afterwards he will get as his reward the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him (James 1:2–12).

God is doing four things in my life to help me through a tough time.

I. Trials Have a Godly Purpose

First, if I am to get through a tough time, I must agree with God that all trials have a godly purpose in my life.

When I was pastor in Portland, Oregon, our church went through what we preachers would call a time of renewal or a time of revival. It wasn’t a meeting. It wasn’t about a person. It was one of those times when God’s Spirit blows across a congregation, and the kinds of things that God alone can do begin to happen—families put back together and folks being saved whom we had prayed for for many years, and just that wonderful reconciling way in which God’s Spirit moves among His people and does the thing that God alone can do. As that was happening in our church, I began as the pastor to think, How did this happen? What did we do? Maybe if I could discover some secret to this thing, I could write a book and become famous.

So as I began to try to analyze that and discover how all this got started, I discovered that it actually started in my own home, and I had been unaware of it. My wife, Jo Ann, to whom I have been married for forty-six years, was diagnosed about thirty-five years ago with what was called then manic depression. It is called bipolar disorder now. It is a chemical imbalance in the brain that causes excessive mood swings. Persons can be high, or they can be low. Because they are not balanced, it can go back and forth, and you never know exactly where they are going to be. And we discovered in Seattle, Washington, that she was manic-depressive. As a part of the process of dealing with that, someone suggested to her that she read a book.

I went home one day for lunch to our home in Portland, and she said, “I am reading this wonderful book that I think you would enjoy reading.”

I said, “Well, what is it? I like to read books.”

And she said, “It’s a book by Hannah Smith entitled The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life.

“Well,” I said to her rather proudly, “I have that book. In fact, I have had that book for many, many years. In fact, I have a hardback copy of that book.” She had a paperback. I said, “I’ve not found that book to be particularly interesting.” And I did what most men do with their wives’ suggestions: I ignored it. I did not read the book.

I was home for lunch a couple of days later, and she asked, “Have you read that book?” Well, rather indignantly, I said, “You know, you brought that up several days ago, and I told you then and I will tell you again that I have a hardback copy of that book. And I have not found that book to be of any particular interest.” Again, I did what I had done the first time: I did not read the book.

I came home the third time for lunch, and she brought the subject up again. She said, “Have you read that book?”

Well, I didn’t have to do anything about the indignation. It was all over me then. I said, “I’m telling you for the third time. I have a hardback copy of that book. And I have not found that book to be particularly interesting.”

She said, “Sit down! I am going to read it to you.” She began to read the book to me, and it is a great book if you can get past the first chapter. Forget the first chapter; get to the second chapter and move on through it. It was a great book, and out of that book some small groups were formed in our church. In reading that book, this thing that God was doing in our church began to happen.

My wife liked that book except for one chapter. It is entitled “Is God in Everything?” In that chapter, Hannah Smith quotes that little Bible verse that you and I learned in Sunday school that “all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28 KJV). She said that is more than a Bible verse for kids to learn in Sunday school. She said that is literally true. Nothing happens in your life that does not pass through the hands of God. He has His own purpose for allowing it to take place in your life.

My wife had a hard time with that. Her father had been murdered when she was five. Her mother died when she was eight. She had been pushed from family to family, and here now she was suffering from an illness for which there seemed to be no cure. She had a hard time believing God had anything good to bring out of that. But I want to tell you that you will never, ever successfully handle a hard time until you agree with God. You don’t have to understand God. You don’t have to like what He says. But you must agree with God that all trials have a godly purpose in your life.

James said that God is doing two things when He allows us to be tested with a tough time. First, He is trying to teach us patience. That’s not a good word for our day. Our culture is geared for action. We don’t want to wait on anybody or anything. But the word patience means “the ability to stand up under pressure.” God is not trying to see if we will fall. God is trying to help us stand up when tough times come. James said that God is trying to make us stronger, and He is trying to give us the ability to stand up under the pressure by allowing us to be tested. James says that the first thing God is doing is trying to make us stronger, trying to put some muscle in us.

Then he says that if we let patience do what it can do, then we will be perfect or complete. Well, if you have been a Baptist more than a week, you know that isn’t going to happen in this world. We are reminded constantly by our songs and by our sermons that we are sinners; we are saved by grace, but we are sinners nonetheless. So perfection is out of the question in this life.

Well, the word perfect has nothing to do with sinlessness. It is a word that means “to be grown up.” It means to be mature. It means to be more and more like Jesus Christ. And what James is saying is that God allows us to be tested—first, by building up our spiritual muscle, and then by helping us become more and more like Jesus Christ. Agree with God that all trials—not some, not most, but all—have a godly purpose in our lives.

II. Ask for God’s Help

Second, I’m learning to pray and ask for God’s help. James 1:5 says, “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not” (KJV). It’s unfortunate that the verse begins with “if,” because if implies that maybe I have it and maybe I don’t. It probably should be translated “since” you lack wisdom. James is not assuming—and neither is God—that any of us knows how to handle tough times. So since we don’t know how to respond when a tough time comes, James says God will tell us what to do.

By the way, the word wisdom has an Old Testament background. My definition of wisdom is “the ability to see the right way and the wrong way to handle a tough time, and the courage to choose the right way.” James says that since we don’t have that, God will tell us how to get it. What he says is something very simple. He says, “ask.” Is there anybody here who does not know how to ask?

My wife and I had two children, and we tried to teach them many things. We succeeded in a few and did not succeed in others. But there were some things that we did not have to teach our children. One of the things we did not have to teach them was to ask. In their mother’s womb they were kicking around asking and saying, “Give me, give me, give me.” They came into the world with their hands out. Though they could not speak, I knew what they meant. “Give me, give me, give me.” We didn’t teach them that. They came by that naturally.

It’s simple to ask. We all know how to ask. But the issue is: Whom are we going to ask? And James says, “Why don’t you ask God?” Now some of us will eventually get around to that after we have asked everybody else. But James suggests that we start there. Ask God. And he points out some things about God that ought to encourage us to ask God. He says we should ask God first because it is His nature to give. God enjoys giving. He delights to give. It is a godly thing that God does when He gives. God does not have to be begged or pled with to give us answers. God is a giving God. He wants to give us answers. So ask God, the One who gives.

Who does God give to? He gives to all. That’s an interesting word. It’s a word that means God doesn’t look at our faces. God gives to all. How does God give? He gives liberally. That means God gives more than we expect, more than we ask. I have always found that to be true in my experience. I go to God with a little cup, and He fills it to overflowing. God wants to give. God gives liberally. He may hold back in some areas of His nature, but not when He is giving. God gives liberally.

That last phrase is one that I didn’t understand for a long time: “and upbraideth not.” The phrase actually means “no scolding lecture.” If you hear nothing else, hear this: When you ask God for help in facing a tough time, God is not going to give you a scolding lecture and make you feel stupid because you have asked Him for help. The devil may do it, and your friends may do it. But God is not going to make you feel silly and stupid when you ask Him for help.

When I was growing up as a little boy, my father was a truck driver, and my mother did not drive. My dad was gone all the time, driving these big trucks across the country.

My earliest goal that I can remember was to learn how to drive the family car. I didn’t have a lot of goals early in life. I just wanted to drive the family car. I remember my father taking me down to the department of motor vehicles office, and I got my driver’s license before everybody else in my class. I knew how to drive the family car, and I had a license to drive. Well, I lived two blocks from school and across the street from church. That was about the extent of my world, and you don’t really need a car when you live in a world that small.

But I can remember saying to my father on a number of occasions, “Dad, I want to go down to the school, and I’d like to take the car.” It was just two blocks. And my father would launch into this rather passionate explanation of what life was like when he was a boy going to school. You know, he walked five miles to school. The next time he told that story, it was six miles. The school moved every time he told that story. Or I said, “I have a date to go to church, and I want the car.” Well, he would go into a horse-and-buggy routine—the whole thing about what life was like when he was a boy. This was his way of scolding me for asking. He was trying to make me feel silly for asking for the car. It didn’t work, but he tried. God does not do that to us when we ask for help. So learn to pray and ask for God’s help.

III. Have Total Faith in God

The third thing I am learning is this: If I am going to make it through tough times, I must have total faith in God. In verses 6–8 James talks about a double-souled or double-minded person. I’ve decided he’s talking about a spiritually bipolar person, a spiritual manic-depressive. I have lived with manic depression so long that I know what it’s like. You have seen people like that. You will have some in your church. One week they will be higher than a kite, and the next week lower than a snake’s belly. You never know where they are going to be. They are up and down, in and out. You never know exactly where they are.

People like this haven’t found that solid rock of faith upon which to build their lives, a place where they can stand when the storms come. James says we need to find that rock. We must find that rock, and that rock is absolute, total trust and faith in Jesus Christ. We have to find that rock if we are going to make it.

One of my favorite characters in the Bible is Job. You know his story well; it’s the oldest story in Scripture. Job was a man whom heaven could look upon and smile. God could look down and say, “Of all the people on the face of the earth, Job is one who fears God, who has good relationships with his family, with his fellow man.” God was proud of Job. The devil came and accused Job of serving God only because of what he got out of it. By the way, that’s what the devil thinks about us, too. He thinks the only reason we serve God is because of what we get out of God.

So the devil said that if God took away all the things that God had blessed Job with, Job would curse God to His face. God gave Satan permission to take it all away. So Job lost it all. He lost all his money. His children were killed in a storm. He lost everything. Even his wife urged him to curse God and die. His body was wracked with sores that oozed day and night—an incurable disease from which no relief came. All of that happened to Job (see Job 1:1–19). The thing that bothers me the most about Job was his friends. To their credit, they did come, and they sat silently.

That’s what friends can do—sit silently when we are in trouble. I used to think that Job’s friends were a Rotarian, a Kiwanian, and a member of the Chamber of Commerce. But I have since discovered that Job’s friends were theologians. And you really don’t want friends who are theologians when you are in real trouble! The reason is that theologians by their very nature feel compelled to provide answers. Even if they don’t know what the questions are, they are to provide answers. And when they do give answers, their answers are based primarily on their theology. And if their theology is wrong, their answers will be wrong.

And Job’s friends had a bad theology. They said to Job, “If you will just get right with God, just pray more, just do more for God and do what’s right, God will bless you again.” But Job could not accept that counsel. God said in chapter 2 of Job that there was no reason in Job’s life for what was happening to him. Job concluded that his friends were miserable comforters.

Did you ever have friends like that? You know, you feel better after they are gone. I want to tell you from experience that all of Job’s friends are not dead. You just get in trouble, and they will show up. They may not say it, but they will indicate that if you just get right with God, everything will be OK again. Well, Job’s friends left, and Job decided he wanted to write a book. He had something he wanted to say. In fact, he said he would like to do better than that. He would like to find a granite mountain and carve these words in stone, cast them in lead, so that everybody could see them for years to come. God did better than that! He put it here in the book of Job, and it will be here even when the mountains are gone.

Here is what Job said: “I know that my redeemer lives. And I know that one day He is coming back to this earth. And I know that one day I am going to see Him for myself” (see Job 19:25–27). Job said “That’s all I know.” But that is all he needed to know, and that’s all we need to know. We have to have complete and total faith in God.

IV. Keep Your Eyes on the Goal

The fourth thing I am learning is that you have to keep your eyes fixed on the goal that is ahead. In verses 10–12, James begins to talk about rich people and poor people. And you could get lost in that and think that he is advocating poverty or saying there is something wrong with riches. But that’s not it at all. James is reflecting about human nature that causes most of us to live our lives looking at other people. If we are poor, we look at the rich, and we wish we had what they have. If we are rich, we look at the poor, and we feel sorry for them. And James says, “Don’t look around you, but look up.” Look up to Him who stands at the end of the way, ready to give a crown of life to those who endure. Keep looking up.

When I was at Hardin-Simmons University, I was pastor of a little church near Stanford, Texas, called Plainview Baptist Church. It was called that because it was in “plain view.” You could see it for miles and miles.

In that church there was a faithful couple. He worked for the gas company. He was a deacon, Sunday school superintendent, and tither. They were always there when the church doors were open. She taught Sunday school. It was a wonderful family. They had a little eight-year-old girl named Celia, who was their only child. One Saturday night as I was preparing to drive up to the church on Sunday, the phone rang. It was another deacon of the church. He said, “Pastor, Celia died this afternoon. You need to come as quickly as you can.”

We packed up, and we went to that home where we had been on so many happy occasions. We went into the bedroom, and the mother was lying on the bed, and the father was sitting at the head of the bed, and other friends were gathered around. I went over and took their hands, and I prayed to God they would not ask me that question that every pastor hates to hear. But the father asked, “Pastor, why did God let our little girl die?” I didn’t know then, and I don’t know now the answer to that man’s question.

On Wednesday, I conducted my first funeral service for that little eight-year-old girl. I asked God to help me give that family something that would help them, and He reminded me of the story of David and Bathsheba, the child of their adultery. And you remember that David was praying for his son. The news came that his son was dead, and David got up and said, “I know that my son can’t come back to me, but I know that some day I am going to be with him” (see 2 Sam. 12:23). And while it may not be hermeneutically correct, I shared that word with that family that afternoon. We went out to the cemetery and put the little body in the ground, and I went back to school. And I prayed for that family like I had never prayed for a family in all my life because I had no idea what this would do to their faith.

But I didn’t have to wait; the next Sunday they were right back in church, over there on the second row in the first two seats, dark glasses on because the tears were still there. And when I gave the invitation, they came forward. Cecil said he would like to say something. So when the invitation was over, I had the people sit down. And here this precious couple stood. And I stood with them. Here is what he said:

“When our little girl died, our first thought was to turn away from God. But then we thought if we turn away from God, who do we turn to? We are here to say to you that we know our little girl can’t come back to be with us, but some day we are going to be with the Lord and with her. And until then we are going to keep serving Him.” It wasn’t long until the wife died, and she went to be with the Lord and with that little girl. And I hear from that deacon almost every Christmas. He is still serving God.

You ask, “How can he do that?” The same way we can. Just understand that trials have a godly purpose in our lives. Learn to pray and ask for God’s help. Find that rock of faith to stand on. But above everything else, keep looking up—and God will bring you through.

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