(A) Introduction (Read the reference.)

I know from long experience as a schoolteacher that boys and girls do not invariably experience pure joy in testing situations. The majority do not find examinations exhilarating. But it is also true that very few pupils fail to turn up for their final exams. There are always some who find the challenge deeply satisfying. I suspect the pure joy James writes about is akin to the deep satisfaction of taking part rather than the elation of getting a wonderful set of GCSE results. We tend to use the word joy for the emotion that attends ultimate success rather than for the satisfaction of participating in what leads to success. So there is the ephemeral joy of winning the match as against the immense satisfaction of taking part. I suspect that in the New Testament the word joy refers to the immense satisfaction of taking part. Otherwise most Christians are precious short of joy.

(B) Testing - to what end?

James uses three terms to describe the end to which Christians are tested. We face trials of many kinds to become mature - that means perfect or competent for a certain task. We experience many different challenges to end up complete - fully qualified for a given purpose. God examines us so that we are not lacking anything. Our ability is such that we can tackle whatever He gives us to do.

These are the words used of a fully qualified and equipped doctor, dentist, nurse, plumber, carpenter and motor mechanic. They are descriptive of the master craftsmen's ability. They would never be used of the apprentice.

What a huge difference it makes to be in the hands of a master craftsmen rather than an apprentice. I take my old car to a middle-aged motor mechanic. There are few repairs that are beyond him. I have watched him improvise and make do. His work is never botched. When he fixes a fault it stops fixed.

It is God's intention that we develop into good servants of Jesus Christ. He wants us to come to spiritual maturity and be thoroughly equipped for every good work. 2Tim3v17. I wonder if we value the mature Christian worker as much as we should in these days when many succumb to the allure of youth. I have often heard church members say, "What we need is a young, dynamic pastor who will appeal to young people." Some of the most effective and popular teachers in my last school were old, caring and wise! Perhaps it is middle-aged ladies that need a personable and glamorous young pastor!

(C) The process: difficulties to overcome.

We are not going to be fully equipped for any task without having difficulties to overcome. My driving instructor gave me manoeuvres to perform that I found hard at the time. Changing gear is not easy at the first attempt! I still haven't fully mastered backing into a confined space. My tutor in website design set exercises that I struggled to complete. The more I struggled the better I got. I was very pleased with my Creation web page!

A man who decides to build a house from scratch will have numerous problems to solve. If he succeeds he will be better equipped to build his next house.

This is just how it is in Christian service. Peter had many setbacks and disappointments before he was qualified to lead the early church. He had much to learn before he preached his sermon at Pentecost. He wasn't an instant success. My mother had a privileged upbringing. She found being an impoverished pastor's wife in a small, insular Suffolk village very difficult. There is no doubt that the experience did her good!

When difficulties arise we have two choices - to give up or to persevere. The easy option is to give up. Lots of children give up when they are set a hard homework. I can recall being set an excruciatingly demanding mathematics exercise that involved factorising complicated trigonometric expressions. I was the only member of the A-level class that completed it. Everyone else gave up. I wasn't really much good at maths and so this was a rare triumph!

My greatest temptation in Christian service has never been a desire to be influential or renowned but a longing to give up - especially in trying circumstances.

Some Christians see difficulties and problems as a sign that God wants them to change direction. This is rarely the case. That is why James wrote what he did. Trials of many kinds are given so that we might persevere and acquire competence as Christ's servants.

We do learn by experience. Young and idealistic teachers come to the job believing that all they have to do to maintain discipline is to treat children with respect. They make the mistake of being too friendly towards their pupils. Most learn from their mistakes! Their third year in teaching is generally more successful than their first.

20 years ago a newly qualified, youthful man joined our little church as pastor. We greatly benefited from his ministry. I do not think he made many mistakes considering it was his first pastorate. However, he would admit to making some. His experience with us prepared him for the task of pastoring a much larger and more demanding church.

If we persist in trying circumstances it becomes a habit and part of our character. We become persistent. I have many weaknesses - I wouldn't like to admit to some of them - but I am persistent. My friend Tommy Bamber who is often very uncomplimentary about my character admitted recently that I was persistent. I even exhibit this trait when we are bird watching. I will keep searching and searching for a bird when he, the enthusiast, has given up. It is a valuable quality. It enabled me to care for my father in the terminal stages of Parkinson's disease in spite of my short temper and it has helped me to remain secretary of my church through many discouragements and disappointments.

God is not over protective of his children. There is a tendency today for parents to be over protective of their offspring. It was very different when I was a boy. No-one stopped us playing dangerous games. Parents were hardly involved in school at all. We learned to fend for ourselves, to take responsibility and be resilient. Foresters have discovered that it doesn't pay to give seedlings too much protection from the elements. Little trees need to be buffeted by the wind; it stimulates root development!

(D) Trials of many kinds test our faith.

James does not encourage Christians to welcome trials that test their wisdom, resourcefulness, ingenuity or character. It can be quite easy to enjoy challenges of this kind. A civil engineer might jump at the chance to build a bridge where the geology poses all sorts of problems. It provides him with an opportunity to show his worth. My friend Margaret who lives out in the wilds of North Suffolk needed to move her central heating tank. She got together a work party who stood contemplating the task with long faces. It was going to be a beast of a job. The atmosphere changed dramatically with the arrival of John. He radiated enthusiasm. Here was a practical problem to test his ingenuity.

It is highly significant that James writes about the testing of our faith. That is the hardest testing to bear.

One night the newly qualified young vet, James Herriot was called out to a horse with severe sinus problems. The only way to relieve the horse's distress was to operate. It was a difficult operation. One mistake and the horse would be ruined for life. James Herriot had been instructed in the necessary surgical procedures. He had watched his old professor perform the operation. Now his faith in his teacher was being put to the test. He had to carry out the operation himself.

As I cared for my invalid father and his condition worsened my faith was tested. I knew that Paul had written: And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it. 1Cor10v13. I began to wonder how much worse my father would get and whether I would be able to cope. Was I going to be tempted beyond what I could bear. I needed faith to carry on. (See eulogy of my father.) I made mistakes caring for my father but in this instance my faith did pass the test. The experience equipped me for ministry to the elderly.

(E) Realism and the pure joy.

I think it is possible to experience great satisfaction in the process of having our expertise or ability put to the test. In my youth, as an opening batsman, I was frequently able to deal with everything the opposition bowlers hurled at me. They tried speed, swing and spin all to no avail. I loved the challenge.

I do not believe it is possible to be joyful while our faith is being tested. Abraham could not have been happy as he made his way up the mountain to sacrifice his son Isaac. Moses was probably not at his chirpiest by the shores of the Red Sea with Pharaoh's army closing in. Paul commenced his ministry in Corinth after several bruising encounters with Jewish opponents in Galatia and Macedonia in fear and trembling. Jesus was deeply troubled in the Garden of Gethsemane when his faith in the Father was tested.

It is possible to be glad in retrospect that our faith has been tested, our character improved and our ability to serve Jesus enhanced. James Herriot rejoiced after he had successfully completed the operation on the sinuses of the sick horse. I was deeply grateful to God for allowing me to nurse my father until he died.

God actually shows faith in us whenever he puts us to the test. We see this in the story of Job. God had such faith in his servant Job that he allowed Satan to bring one calamity after another into Job's life. It is possible to look back over a life of many trials and to be glad that God has such faith in us.

My fellow elder Edward used to be a representative for a firm supplying farmers with fertiliser, sprays and seeds. He told me once that whenever his employers had a difficult customer they would choose him to pay a visit. They had faith in him. Now Edward did not rejoice before making a call on the awkward farmer. Sometimes he felt sick with apprehension. Looking back on his career in retirement he can take the utmost satisfaction in the faith his employers had in him.

Paul, as he reflected on a ministry of many, many trials, had the joyful knowledge that Jesus confidence in him was not misplaced. He wrote to Timothy: I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day - and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing. 2Tim3v7and8.

It should be a source of satisfaction to have been brought to maturity. James Herriot had to apply the knowledge that his teachers gave him in varied, testing circumstances to become a fully competent vet. Forty years wandering in the wilderness with the Israelites honed Moses' leadership skills. So, God fashions our lives through trials of many kinds until we are better suited to his purpose. There is pure joy in that.

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