1. Disillusionment With Religion
We live in a day and age in which people are very disillusioned with religion. I am not talking so much about the Christopher Hitchens/Dawkins/Harris down with religion neo-atheist books that seem to be what everyone is reading these days. No I am talking more so about people in the church. People who look around at the other others in the pews each Sunday and say. “is this all there is?”, “is this what Jesus died for?” People like Sarah Cunningham – a pastors kid who wrote “Dear Church”. She cites research done by various organizations which paint a picture of disillusionment among those under forty – particularly young adults – who believe in Jesus and long for a spiritual life, but are fed up or hurt by the church. This is also the thesis of another recent book whose title says it all, “They Like jesus, but not the church”
What are some reasons for disillusionment?
a. Power and Politicking: Whereas the church is supposed to function as a family, we often act more like Parliament Hill.
b. Marketing: we are surrounded by advertising everyday – you can’t get away from it - and then we come to church and are confronted with more marketing of programs, needs, prayers, and movements.
c. Programs: while the kingdom of God is organic and relational, it seems our churches are more excited about what programs they are running and numbers rather than connecting.
d. Property and Affluence: Whereas I read in the gospels that Jesus cut across social barriers and in the book of Acts how the New Testament church radically cared for each others needs, so much of today’s Western church is concerned with the bottom line, and making sure our property is well kept up.
e. Tradition: Whereas the spirit moved through the book of Acts with power as the people prayed, sometimes our churches seem more like monuments constructed to recognize what God did in the far past rather than what he is doing today.
2. Paths of Disillusionment: When facing disillusionment people often respond in a couple of different ways
a. Get Out: Exodus. Chuck your faith – maybe try and keep a personal spirituality but do it on your own so you can create it in your own image so it won’t disappoint you.
b. Tear Down: Rebuild the church from scratch. Again, this tends to be in our own image, reflecting our own values. Sometimes I feel this way about new Church movements – radical new forms that crop up for a while, but soon fade away, often not lasting more than a generation before becoming as traditional as the churches whom they tore down.
c. Reclaim: a third way. This is the approach I see in the Book of James. Instead of getting out or tearing down religious structures, I see James as redefining what true religion is in such a compelling way that a church that routinely and honestly wrestled with the contents of this letter would find themselves leaving behind their hollow shell of religion for a life-giving and community changing faith.
3. Reclaiming True Religion: Book of James
It’s important to know a little about the background of this letter. James 1:1-18 James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion: Greetings. While there is some debate about the identity of this James, the most reasonable conclusion is that the book was written by James, brother of Jesus and early leader of the influential Jerusalem church – the first church of the book of Acts. Notice to whom James addresses his letter – to the twelve tribes of the dispersion. By identifying them as the twelve tribes these are probably Jewish Christians and also note that they are in the dispersion – they have been scattered. Likely, James is writing to former members of his church in Jerusalem, about whom it is recorded in Acts 8:1-2: And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. Most commentators of the scriptures believe that James, their pastor, wrote to his scattered flock, encouraging them in the midst of their trial. These Jewish Christians, driven away from the Temple and banned from their synagogues, these worshippers who had had most of their religious practices and forms stripped from them, needed to be recalibrated as to what is the nature of true religion. Is true religion concerned with synagogues and tithes? Is true religion about power and programs? Is it about tradition and politics? Is it about all this stuff that we feel that we need to have?
4. True Religion: In this series from the Book of James, I hope that we can reclaim a little of what True Religion is, particularly as we are approaching Christmas, one of the most religious times of the year. As we progress through the book, we will find:
a. True Religion Perseveres
b. True Religion Works For the Good of Others
c. True Religion Tames the Heart
d. True Religion Depends on God’s Provision
e. True Religion Heals Hearts and Bodies
I hope that as we go through this season that you will be reading through the book of James with me – often, don’t settle for once – but beware, it’s a convicting book.
5. True Religion Perseveres
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 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 ways.
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 pursuits.
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 tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. 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 firstfruits of his creatures.
If you are familiar at all with the theological controversies surrounding the book of James (we will touch on it next week) James kind of gets a bad rap when it comes to this whole faith thing. People think he’s some sort of legalist or that he misunderstands the gospel, or is even anti-faith. He’s not. Just look at this chapter once again and ask yourself, “what kind of faith does it take to face the difficulties of life, the pain and the sorrows, and find joy within the struggle?” Lip-service to a set of religious beliefs doesn’t cut it. Knowing core doctrines of the faith won’t do. True religion requires true faith. In these situations, true faith boils down to two key questions. Do you know God? and Do you trust God? We’ll get back to these two questions in a bit.
Consider it all Joy: “Count it all joy” – “Impossible,” some say. “How can you expect me to be happy when my world is falling apart.” Wait a minute – who said anything about happiness?
1) Not Happiness: Happiness is circumstantial. I am happy when I eat pizza. I am happy when I get my tax return back. I am happy when all things are well and right in the world. But that’s not joy. Joy is an attitude of faith. Joy is a measured response to circumstances that steps back, takes an objective look at the situation and says, there is good in this.” Happiness is a slave to the emotions of the present, whereas Joy is a trust in the outcomes of the future. .
2) Not a Plastered Smile: Some of us here “count it all joy” and think that it means we must repress our emotions – hide them. Put on a smiling face and deny that trials are a part of our lives as Christians. Like those hideous Old Navy Mannequins on TV. So when people ask you in church how are you or if you have any prayer needs, you just buckle up, smile and say, no I’m fine – your not fine. Life hurts and there is no way you all come to church every Sunday and it’s all fine.
3) A Reasoned Mindset:
a. An act of the will: “to consider” is an act of the will. You cannot make yourself happy – in fact if you are happy and you start really thinking about why you are so happy – that’s a good way to no longer feel happy. Joy however comes from a response of the will toward a situation that as we shall see is a reasonable response. What this means is that joy is a spiritual discipline to be trained in – a part of renewing your mind by the word and the spirit.
b. An informed application: Joy is circumstances reflected on in light of truth – “for you know” James says, “that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.” Joy comes from understanding that God uses all of these things for our growth and maturity. Steadfastness = trials + trust/time. You already know this – now apply it to your situation.
c. You Cannot have True Religion Without a True Faith: The testing of our faith develops perseverance that you may be perfect and complete lacking nothing. This does not mean perfection. So what does it mean? Remember why we are doing this series – So that we may as Colossians 1:28 says: so that we may present every man mature in Christ – the same word! So we started out this study a year ago in the hopes that we would become rooted together in Christ and grow up in him to maturity, and now we find that a crucial component of that maturing process is brought about by persevering through difficult times – be they outward trials or inward temptations. You cannot grow in a vacuum, but God uses these trials to test you so you can grow. In the book of James this is important because You Cannot have True Religion Without a True Faith, and you cannot be confident in the sincerity of you faith unless it is tried and you have persevered. We avoid trials and insulate ourselves we cannot grow. It is like those parents who try to keep their kids from getting sick so they disinfect everything and wipe everything down and never let their kids play outside, and their kids immune systems break down.
God’s Guidance Through Trials: Now it is not all that helpful for you if I simply say to you, hey, this is a good thing because all of your trials build character. The difficult thing in trials is that we feel alone and don’t know what to do. Now you might feel alone and may feel that you don’t know what to do, but the truth is that God is there with you and does offer to steer you through your trials. That is there is not only hope at the end of your trial (someday I’ll see how I grew through this) but also hope within your trial (God’s presence and guidance). If you lack wisdom ask God. Specifically, this wisdom is the wisdom that is able to discern the nature of trials and meet them victoriously. See its all fine and good to hear the message today and check mark a box in your mind that says: consider it joy in trials, check. Its all fine and good for you to know this today when the sun is shining and the clouds are only a speck on the horizon. But when you are in those trials and all is dark – that’s when you need the wisdom to discern the reality behind those trial in order to persevere. In those times – pray – you will find it easier to pray in those times than others because you will be desperate – but continue to pray – “Let him ask God” is a continual tense – do not give up. But you say, I have prayed and this trial is too hard. I have prayed and my heart has been hurt. I have prayed and healing hasn’t come. Don’t give up. Back to prayer. If you no longer have words to pray the Psalms – Own a psalm and pray it “God is my refuge and my strength a very present help in trouble” – “surround me with your favor as with a shield.” Go back again and again.
But don’t doubt. James is pretty tough hear on doubters. But what does he mean here? It is important to distinguish between different forms of doubt, a positive one and a negative one. These are very different and have nothing to do with one another.
Weak faith: This is the man who says, “I do believe, help my unbelief.” This is a person who has committed his life to Jesus but struggles in apprehending the fullness of God’s glory. We all doubt in this way, because none of us have had our faith turned yet to sight. We see through a glass dimly, but then we shall see face-to-face. Weak faith is what trials are intended to strengthen! So don’t be ashamed or discouraged if you find yourself in trials and your faith is weak.
Doublemindedness: This is the doubting that James decries. The idea is double-minded allegiance. For example, your words may say one thing – “O Jesus I am ready to do anything to follow you” but the attitude of your heart says, “so long as you get me out of this trouble and then I’ll go back to being my old master again, thank you.” Later in James, he speaks of a person who asks wrongly of God for things so that they may spend whatever God gives them on their own passions, and therefore they do not receive.
Above all, prayer must be sincere. Yes your faith may be weak, if you come to God for wisdom, are you ready to do whatever he tells you to do?
So here is our first picture of what true religion is – it is a faith that perseveres through trials. Its not about having a building to worship in or programs, its about holding on when all that stuff is stripped from you. It is not having all your stuff together in your life but working through you stuff in faith, exalting in our poverty because we know we are rich in him. Its not coming to church every Sunday with a plastered smile on your faith, its encouraging one another through our trials so that when we haves stood the test we will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him. It is worshiping a God who is not a tyrant, but a Father – the Father of lights who delights giving good gifts to his children, who will carry us by his word, so that we will someday be preeminent. That’s true faith. That’s true religion. That’s a powerful testimony – when people see perseverance, they do not get disillusioned.