I Peter 1:3-9 (Call to Worship) Luke 19:41-44; James 1:1-4

Talk about a guy down on his luck, experiencing a little pain and suffering as he’s lost in the desert . . . desperately needing a drink . . . of anything. He comes upon another man riding a camel. He asked the man if he had something to drink. The man on the camel said “No, but I have a nice selection of ties. Would you like to buy one?”

“Are you crazy? I need something to drink, not a tie!”

So the man on the camel rode on, and the walking man continued his slow and very thirsty trek for several days. Finally, he came upon a cantina. He gratefully approached the doorman and said, “I’m so glad I made it! Can I come in and get some water?”

The doorman frowned at him and said, “Not without a tie.”

As we attempt to come to grips with pain and suffering, we really have two main issues that boil to the surface:

  1. the cause of our pain and suffering, (which we have already talked about) and
  2. our response to it.

These two issues are often intertwined, in that folks tend to expend a lot of energy trying to pinpoint the cause before deciding how they are going to respond. And that’s why I spent some time last week dealing with causality.

But the real issue for Christians should not be . . . “Is God responsible?” but rather, “Now that this pain and suffering has occurred . . . how am I going to respond to it?”

So, how should we respond to this job loss, this divorce, this broken relationship, this illness, this death of a loved one?

Does the Bible have anything to say about it? Hang on to your hats, because you are not going to like the answer.

Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles of any kind come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing” (James 1:2-4).

As we begin with James, it is important to realize that when he says, ‘consider it (that is pain and suffering) an opportunity for great joy,’ he is not implying that we should act happy about pain and tragedy when in truth we feel like crying. Such thinking makes a mockery of who God created us to be, and it smacks too much of Christian phoniness. Even Jesus cried tears of sadness at tragedy as today’s gospel reading illustrates.

James says that we can rejoice in the sense that in the midst of pain and suffering, we are provided an opportunity for growth. “For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow” (vs. 3).

By the way, notice he says, ‘When your faith is tested.’ It’s not a matter of ‘if’ but ‘when.’ No matter what precautions we take, no matter how hard we have worked to be healthy, wealthy, wise and comfortable with friends and family, and successful with our career; something will inevitably ruin it.

‘For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow.’

Biologists have long recognized this concept, which we’ll call the adversity principle, at work in the world of plants and animals. As strange as it seems, habitual well-being is not advantageous to a species. An existence without challenge takes its toll on virtually every living thing. Contrast a tree planted in a rainforest where it only has to extend its root system a few feet below the surface and therefore is poorly anchored and can be toppled by a minor windstorm with a mesquite tree growing in an arid land that must send its roots down 30 feet and not even a gale can blow it over.

Similarly, as we embrace tough times as an opportunity to trust God rather than throwing in our Christian towel, we are better able to face future winds of adversity that will surely blow.

In his book, A View From The Zoo, Gary Richmond, zookeeper at the Los Angles Zoo, describes the birth of a giraffe: The first things to emerge are the baby giraffe’s front hooves and head. A few minutes later, the newborn calf falls eight to ten feet to the ground. Within seconds, he rolls to an upright position with his legs tucked under his body. The mother giraffe lowers her head long enough to take a quick look. Then she positions herself directly over her calf. She waits for about a minute, and then she does the most unreasonable thing. She swings her long, pendulous leg outward and kicks her baby, so that it is sent sprawling head over heels. When it doesn’t get up, the process is repeated. The struggle to rise is momentous. As the baby calf grows tired, the mother kicks it again to stimulate its efforts. Finally, the calf stands for the first time on its wobbly legs. Then, the mother giraffe does the most remarkable thing. She kicks it off its feet again. Why? She wants it to remember how it got up. In the wild, baby giraffes must be able to get up and walk as quickly as possible, as 50% of all baby giraffes fall prey to lions and hyenas. So although the baby doesn’t realize it, the mother’s behavior is really a means to prepare her calf with the realities of a hazardous existence. 1

Have you ever felt like. . . enough is enough already… I get it, God? A loved one died, a job lost, a friend has cancer, how much of this can we take? According to James, our faith is being tested. And sometimes when we just stand up after one trial, another may knock us down again. God allows the trials to help us remember how it was that we got up, urging us always to walk with Him, in His shadow, and under His care, just like the baby giraffe.

In this sense then, James says, “Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles of any kind come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow.” (vs. 2-3).

When we view our troubles as an opportunity to trust God regardless, that remarkable verse – Romans 8:28, begins to work itself out.

“And we know that God works everything together for the good of those who love God and are called according to His purpose for them.”

In other words, if we’ll cooperate with God, viewing our troubles as an opportunity rather than an inconvenience, we’ll be in a better position to see God bring good from a bad situation.

“The city of Enterprise, Alabama, provides a wonderful illustration of this principle. Initially, cotton was at the heart of this community’s prosperity. But by 1915, the progress and prosperity of Enterprise were both threatened by an invading force that that was literally eating the little town alive. The boll weevil had made its way from Texas into the cotton crops of Coffee County and 60% of Enterprise’s cotton production was destroyed. Rather than throw in the towel by moving to another location, the residents of that small town pulled together and turned to peanuts which are unsusceptible to the boll weevil. By 1917, their County produced and harvested more peanuts than any other county in the nation. From the town’s own website: “In gratitude for the lessons taught, we erected the world’s only monument to an agricultural pest, the Boll Weevil.” The base of the monument is inscribed: “In profound appreciation of the boll weevil and what it has done as the herald of prosperity, this monument was erected by the citizens of Enterprise, Alabama.” 2

The Boll Weevil Monument is a symbol of man’s willingness and ability to adjust to adversity. The enterprising town of Enterprise learned a lesson of truly biblical proportion: “count it all joy when you encounter various kinds of trials” (James 1:2). They allowed the testing of their town to produce endurance and, in this case, a bumper crop of peanuts! What a great example of how disappointment is often the gateway to a greater experience of grace and how God works all things together for good.

Now here’s the thing with God’s good.

We want it right now . . . instant gratification; but God’s schedule doesn’t always jive with ours. Sometimes God reveals His good rather quickly.

A shipwrecked man managed to reach an uninhabited island. To protect himself against the elements he built a little hut from which he constantly scanned the horizon for an approaching ship. Returning one evening after a search for food, he was shocked and dismayed to find his hut enveloped in flames. But early the next morning he awoke to find a ship anchored off the island. When the captain stepped ashore, he explained, “We saw your smoke signal and came to rescue you.”

Some folks are privileged to see and even experience God’s working out His goodness in the midst of suffering and pain. But oftentimes, God works His good in His own good time, and sometimes, because as Isaiah says “His ways are higher than our ways,” we may not have the eyes to see His good.

In his book, Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering, in the chapter on trusting God . . . Pastor Tim Keller writes:

Imagine you have been an avid follower of Jesus. You’ve seen His power to heal and do miracles. You’ve heard the unsurpassed wisdom of His speech and the quality of His character. You are thrilled by the prospect of His leadership. More and more people are flocking to hear Him. There’s no one like Him. You imagine He will bring about a golden age for Israel if everyone listens to Him and follows His lead.

But then, there you are at the cross with the few disciples who have the stomach to watch. And you hear people, say, “I’ve had it with this God. How could he abandon the best man we have ever seen? I don’t see how God could bring any good out of this?” What would you say? You would likely agree. And yet you are standing there looking at the greatest, most brilliant thing God could ever do for the human race. On the cross, both justice and love are being satisfied . . . evil, sin and death are being defeated, you are looking at an absolute beauty, but because you cannot fit it into your own limited understanding, you are in danger of walking away from God. Don’t do it. do what Jesus did. Trust God. 3

In 1990, Georgene Johnson of Cleveland was a bit depressed after turning 42.

She decided that she wanted to be in better shape for the second half of her life. So, Georgene began exercising, then jogging, then running. She decided that what she really needed was a goal on which to focus, so she entered herself in a 10K race and began training. The day of the race she was pumped, ready to go and she arrived early. Before she knew it, the horn sounded for the runners to line up, and Georgene followed the pack to the starting line, and they were off! Four miles into the race, with no turnaround in sight, Georgene asked a fellow runner when they could expect to start heading back. “He just kind of looked at me strangely like, ‘Are you for real?'”
It was then that she realized she was not in the 10K race at all. She was in the Cleveland Marathon. Both races shared the same starting line, but the 10K was set to start 15 minutes after the marathon. So she just kept running, and twenty-six miles later, she crossed the finish line. Her previous longest race was just 8 miles. When she was asked what went through her mind as she realized her mistake, she replied, “This is not the race I trained for, this is not the race I entered. But for better or worse, this is the race that I am in.” 4

I don’t know what kind of race you’re running right now. But I do know you might be thinking it’s not the race you signed up for, it’s not the race you really intended entering . . . but it is the race you’re in. And at this point, you will have to decide like Georgene Johnson had to decide what kind of race you are going to run.

The Bible invites us to “run our race with perseverance by keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus the author and perfector of our faith, who for the joy set before Him, endured the cross. By responding to our troubles with unshakable trust even by being grateful for the opportunity for our endurance to develop. For the good Lord is available to provide comfort today, a more sure and confident faith tomorrow, not to mention the heavenly rewards reserved for that day in which those in Christ will be taken home forever.

In this sense then, James encourages us to:

Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles of any kind come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing” (James 1:2-4).

1 www.illustrationexchange.com

2 ibid.

3 Timothy Keller, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, (New York: Penguin Books, 2013) pgs. 268-269.

4 www.illustrationexchange.com