The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
January 22, 2017
A Baptist church in the Nigerian city of Jos finds itself on Africa’s fault line between the Muslim north and the Christian south. Three years ago, Muslim extremists attacked the church and burnt it to the ground, along with the home of its pastor, Sunday Gomna.
The first time the congregation gathered again for worship, the people had to assemble in a little mud-wall community center a kilometer from where their sanctuary lay in ashes. Pastor Gomna stood up and proclaimed gratitude to God. He said, “First, I am grateful that no one in my church killed anyone.” He said that, because he’d seen how angry and set on payback some Christians were, and had visited person after person to urge them to answer evil with goodness. As a result, his people not only abandoned their plans to exact vengeance, but watched over their Muslim neighbors to protect them. So Pastor Gomna thanked God his people had killed no one.
“Second,” he said, “I am grateful that Muslims did not burn my church.” Having seen the destruction with their own eyes, his people stared at him in bewilderment. He explained, “Inasmuch as no church member died during this crisis, they did not burn our church, but only our building. We can build ourselves a new sanctuary, but we could never bring back to life a dead member. So I am grateful that they didn’t burn my church.”
Pastor Gomna continued, “Third, I am grateful that they burned my house as well. If they had burned your house and not my house, how would I have known how to serve you as pastor? However, because they burned everything I had, I know what some of you have experienced, and now I can better support and help you. So I’m grateful they burned my house too.”
Many of us would love to develop the Christian character we see in Pastor Gomna. More importantly, God would love to see it. His goal is that we become “mature and complete”, to use the language of James here. The English word “mature” in verse four translates the Greek word teleios, which is used to describe something that has been fully developed for the end it is meant to serve – that is, perfectly fitted to fulfill its purpose. Thus, a grape is teleios when it has ripened just so for the making of wine, and an Olympian is teleios when he has realized his athletic potential and mastered his sport. The English word “complete” here translates the Greek word holoklēros, which is used to describe something that has wholly become the one thing it is meant to be – that is, utterly pure or 100% its essential nature. Thus, refined silver is holoklēros when it is unalloyed and free of other components, and a soldier is holoklēros when she has been finished off by training and fully prepared for battle in every respect.
In the same way, Christians become “mature and complete” when they realize their potential as those who have been born a second time and given a new heart, and fully come into their own as those wholly and consistently submitted to God.
That is God’s goal for us. But it is a long, hard run to that goal line. So what help does God give us to get there? According to today’s scripture, God puts us through “trials” and the “testing” of our faith. For that develops in us endurance, and endurance develops in us character.
God sends us challenges, not that they might conquer us, but that our struggle against them might build us up and enable us to conquer the challenges. As a young bird tests its wings and so develops the strength to fly or a saxophonist tests her chops on difficult pieces of music and so expands her artistic capacity, God takes us through challenges to make us “mature and complete”.
To make our trials and tests of good effect, we must, however, practice “endurance”, or hypomonē in the Greek, meaning steadfast perseverance and uncompromised constancy of commitment. To have endurance is to keep on keeping on, in the stubborn faith that such tenacity grows our character.
The question then is whether we can trust God when He is hard on us, maintain hope when God uses what He hates (and we hate) in order to accomplish what He loves (and we love too in the end).
Let me invite you to engage in a thought exercise. Imagine you existed in some from before you were born. You were given a script for your entire life, were handed an eraser and told you could edit out whatever you wished. You read that in grade school you will lag behind in academic development and struggle in learning to read, which will make you the brunt of cruel jokes from other kids. In high school, you will gain a great circle of friends, but one of your closest friends will die of cancer and it will emotionally devastate you. You will get into a top-flight college; but while there you will lose a leg in a freak dormitory accident. Following that, you will go through a difficult depression. A few years later, you’ll get a great job, and then lose it in an economic downtown.
You’ll get married, but your spouse will cheat on you, break your heart and abandon you and the kids.
Wouldn’t you be tempted to erase the painful things? But would that be good for you? Might it not deprive you of motivation to grow into the best version of yourself? Might not the touch times put you in touch with your need for God? Might not a stricken heart give you a tender heart towards others who suffer? Would not a life spared of adversity leave you too contentedly complacent to push on to become “mature and complete”?
Maybe figuring out what all we need to become all we want to be is beyond our ability — especially since we almost always underestimate what hard cases we are and thus how much hardship is necessary for our growth. So we would be wise to leave such determinations up to God – and just trust Him to know what is best for us.
If we value character development as much as God does, and are willing to endure the adversity we don’t want in order to gain the character we do want, we just might, as James puts it, “consider it nothing but joy” when life hits us hard. We will not bemoan the hardness but exult in it – like the weightlifter who’d say, “Pain is the feeling of weakness leaving the body”, like the Apostle Paul who said he gloried in his suffering, or like Joni Eareckson Tada who says she thanks God for becoming a quadriplegic.
We will buy into this only if we buy into God’s agenda of making us “mature and whole”, only if we want more than just to get through life but to get stronger and better. It is a long, hard run to the goal line; and it’s worth the price if reaching that goal line is, for us, a reward that more than justifies that steep price. Let us pray.