James, the half-brother of Jesus, and leader of the Jerusalem church has one letter preserved in our New Testament, but what a practical, challenging letter. It begins:
“Consider it pure joy, whenever you face trials of many kinds…”
Who writes stuff like that? Who would welcome such a letter? Can you imagine someone saying, “Is that the postman? I do hope there’s a letter from Uncle James?” Yet James has good and exciting reasons for writing like this, reasons why we should welcome such a letter:
“Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know the testing of your faith brings perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” (Js.1:2-4)
Did you get that? Trials bring perseverance and perseverance makes us mature, completes us, so we lack nothing. There is a process here, a work being done in a Christian’s heart and life and it has the purpose of bringing us to Christian maturity.
Paul says something about this maturity in his letter to Christians in Ephesus:
It was [Christ] who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” (Eph.4:11-13)
The ministries of the church exist to prepare and equip us for maturity. Maturity looks like Christ, so Paul talks about us “attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” We were never meant to be a congregation of the sanctimonious, an audience of pew-sitters, a fidget of duty-bound Sunday clock-watchers, a gathering of the guilt-ridden.
The message of the gospel, the good news about Jesus Christ, is that he died for our sins so we could be a fully like him, “not lacking anything,” as James puts it, fully equipped and “prepared for works of service,” writes Paul. That equipping, that maturing, the growth into that state comes the same way every process of development comes, by perseverance in the face of trials and obstacles. So why are we so impatient with each other and with ourselves?
The truth is, we believe imperfectly (see through a glass darkly to quote a great phrase from Paul) and so should expect to experience frustration and disappointment as we learn to see, walk and live properly.
In this process our trust is not in what we know but in who we know. Our faith is not in what we can do but in what he has done. The lamp of our way is not in our own “self-realisation” but our Christ realisation.
We endure to the end, not consistently but determinedly because we know his plan for us. We are not good at this Christian thing all time but we get better at it with the passing of time because he doesn’t give up on us and continues to work in us to bring us to maturity. It doesn’t depend on the strength of our faith but on our faith in his strength.
Of course, in our dealings with others, we are to be discerning but we are also to be forgiving because we are forgiven and know what it cost him and what a work he has done and continues to do in us. As we anticipate Good Friday we might consider how readily he forgives and how grudging we can be in our forgiving.
God’s plan is to bring all who trust in his Son to maturity and if the process we see in others looks a little messy we might remember that we were not promising material when he picked us up and set us on the path of perseverance to Christian maturity either.
I am so thankful today for the forgiveness of God, and for the forgiveness of God’s people, a sign of true maturity in his church.