God’s Last-Chance Workouts

Scripture:  James 1:2-6

(Preached at FBC Nitro 1/22/2012 – morning worship)

A television program that has taken the country by storm for the last few years has been “The Biggest Loser.”  Every season several extremely overweight, sedentary individuals of all ages begin the process of losing weight, getting into shape and transforming their lives.  They are given very vigorous exercise routines, taught how to eat properly, and coached through every step of their journey by a skilled trainer.  Each week there is a public weigh-in, and the person with the lowest level of weight loss is in danger of being voted off the program by the other participants.  The goal is to remain on the program until the end of the season and to have lost the most weight.  That person will be the “Biggest Loser.”  He/she will win a substantial cash reward.  The most challenging part of each week for the players is not the weigh-in itself, but the “last-chance” workout that precedes it.  It is called the “last chance” workout because it is their last chance to exercise before they step on the scales.  Last-chance workouts are brutal.  Sweat pours, muscles ache, as each person labors towards total exhaustion.  Their trainer allows them to suffer and push them towards the goal that needs to be reached.  At the end of the season’s journey all the hard work shows as the people are radically different than they were when they started.  They are healthier, they are stronger, and other people take notice of the tremendous change that has taken place in them at the hands of a firm yet caring trainer.  Suffering occurs, but the results it produces are well worth the price.

In our spiritual lives today we have a similar situation.  Our God allows us to go through intense trials that are intended to strengthen our faith and to change us into the people He would have us to be.  Hebrews 12:11 says, “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”  Our passage for this morning in James speaks of the trials we encounter, and what they produce in us as we go through them.  These trials are not easy experiences – they are hard, they are gut-wrenching, they are painful.  Yet when we reach the other side of them, we will see how God has used them to refine us into more of the godly men and women we really yearn to be.  Our trials can be seen as God’s last-chance workouts, given to prepare us for a better life that will bring glory to Him and greater fulfillment to us.  There are at least three things these trials produce in us.

First of all, God’s last chance workouts produce joy.  Contestants on the biggest loser program often have a deep sense of contentment, because they know that despite their hardship they are moving towards a worthy goal.  Verse 2 says, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you face trials of many kinds…”  This comment on the surface seems a little ridiculous to us.  I should count it all joy when I am going through a tough time, when I am suffering, when I feel like I am falling apart inside?  There is a huge difference however, between happiness and joy.  No, we won’t we be happy when we go through a tough time, we when are hurting or when we are shaken.  As followers of Jesus we can and should be joyful.  Happiness is based on circumstances, joy isn’t.  I could say, “I’ve been freezing today – it has been so cold.  But now I’m in my warm house with a hot bowl of soup and cornbread.  I’m very happy.”  Now if you turn down the heat a bit and take away my hot soup and my cornbread, I won’t be happy.  Happiness is in the moment.  Joy is different – joy is a supernatural delight.  Joy doesn’t come from our flesh, it comes from God.  On our own, we don’t have the capacity to be joyful.  We only have the ability to be joyful as we are in relationship with Jesus Christ.  The deeper our relationship with Jesus goes, the deeper our joy becomes.  When James says, “Count it all joy” he means, “Get God’s heart about this situation.  See it from His perspective.”  One preacher has said that joy is a “supernatural delight in the person, purposes and people of God.”  Joy in Jesus is far greater and far more intense than any happiness we can experience.  Joy in His purposes comes from understanding that there is something bigger than me happening in my life – there is something far beyond me.  I am just one piece of a far bigger masterpiece of what God is designing, even though I may not see that picture clearly right now.  Joy in His people is found in just being together.  When we open our lives to one another and we physically meet together, what we experience is unlike anything else.  James says, “Count it all joy, my brothers…”

There is a strong sense of unity here, of togetherness.  He is writing in a context of flesh-and-blood relationships.  His words are not just abstract ideas expressed to others in writing.  We find joy in being together in the same physical location, interacting with one another.

One of the great dangers of the digital age in which we live is becoming increasingly isolated from one another behind text messages, Twitter and Facebook.  Those things are not bad in themselves – we should use them as a means of communication.  When our fellowship however, becomes more electronic than it is up-close and personal, then we deprive ourselves of a great source of joy.  What results is really no fellowship at all.  We may say, “Well, I won’t go to a Bible study group tonight – I’ll just go to a computer forum online where we can chat about the Bible.”  “I really need the sleep this Sunday morning, so I’ll just get up later and watch a video feed of a church service.  It will take the place of being there.”  The greatest joy is found in being together in the same physical location.  That’s the way God has created us.  How many of us have seen in an email or a text message a virtual hug?  One way to express it is the word “hug” with several parentheses on each side.  Does a virtual hug really do much to encourage you?  How does it rate compared to an actual hug?  It doesn’t rate, because it isn’t a hug.  Joy is found in physically being in the same place with brothers and sisters in Christ.

Now before we go to the next point, we need to look carefully at the word translated “count.” Other versions translate it as “consider.”  “Count it all joy…”  Consider the trial, count the trial, measure the trial, and see that it is part of God’s purpose and plan.  The reason we are on this earth is to live for the glory of God.  It isn’t about our comfort or convenience, it is about God’s glory and His kingdom advancing in the lives of others.  The reason why God allows Christians to get cancer, for Christian parents to have prodigals, and for Christian businessmen to go bankrupt is that He might be glorified in the way we respond.  God desires for there to be a stark contrast between the way the world handles hardship and the way we handle hardship.  When we experience hardship, we can count it all joy, because in the end God’s purpose will prevail.  So the way to respond to trials is to count it joy….

We don’t respond to trials by filling our faces with food to dull the pain.
We don’t respond to trials by filling our minds with entertainment to forget about the pain.
We don’t respond to trials by filling our hearts with anger to avenge our pain.
We don’t respond to trials by filling our bodies with alcohol or drugs to escape the pain.

We respond to trials by counting them, by considering them against the backdrop of God’s purpose.  This trial is your opportunity, it is your moment to shine brightly for God.  It is a gift for you to use for God’s glory.  You can choose to be thankful for what God has given you and rejoice, or grumble about what God has taken from you and complain.  God’s last-chance workouts produce joy.

Then God’s last-chance workouts produce toughness.  With the Biggest Loser contestants, there is a change mentally before there is ever much of a visible change physically.  That change is becoming tough.  A decision is made that their situation in life, that the condition of their bodies, will not get the best of them – they will prevail.  Verses 2-3 of our passage say, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.”  Steadfastness is a key word.  The Greek word is hupomone.  It is two words that have been joined together, the word meaning remain and the word meaning under.  So it means to remain under.  As we go through trials, God gives us the ability to remain under them until His time for them is complete.  God produces in us steadfastness, persistence, faithfulness, stick-to-itiveness.  Every good thing that God gives you in life comes through the funnel of remaining under.  If you cut-and-run every time you experience difficulty, you will never grow spiritually and you will never experience God’s purpose fulfilled in your life.   Stay put, keep going, don’t give up, and experience what God has for you in the midst of this fiery trial, whatever that trial may be.

A survey was done of 100 people, asking them what they want to do in the midst of hardship other than remaining under it and being steadfast.  The number one response was to complain.  “Be steadfast?  Fine, I’ll be steadfast.  But I’m certainly not going to keep my mouth shut about it.  You’re going to hear just how much I don’t like it!”  Complaining and steadfastness don’t work well together.  The number two response was to lash out or to take it out on the people around us.  We are suffering, so we make our spouses, our parents, our kids or our friends suffer with us.  “If I am going to be miserable, then you are going to be miserable too!”  That kind of attitude isn’t steadfastness.  Number three was to bail.  “I didn’t sign up for this, this isn’t why I became a Christian.  This was not part of deal when I got married.  This was not in my contract when I took this job.  This situation should not be a part of being a parent.  This church just has too many hypocrites – it needs more holy and humble people like me.  I’ve had it – I’m outta here!”  Another response is to fold.  “I’ve had it, I quit.  I can’t fight any more.  I just can’t handle it”  “Here I am God, just steamroll over me, take me out of the game”  We may not hit the road, but we hit the mat and we won’t get up.

Listen to what 1 Peter 5:6 says, “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you,”  Stick to it, keep standing in the storm, keep going through the hardship.  Why?  Because the nail that doesn’t remain under the hammer will never be driven to the goal.  Because the diamond that doesn’t remain under the chisel will never become the precious gem.  Because the gold that doesn’t remain in the fire will never be refined and purified.  Because the Christian who doesn’t remain under the hand of God will never see the purpose the trial could have accomplished.  Job 23:12 tells us, “…he knows the way that I take; when he has tried me, I shall come out as gold.”

It’s tough to stay in the same place when the pressure is on and show steadfastness.  Spouses leave their marriages and are shocked to find that the second or third marriage has problems too.   Students leave school only to learn that life beyond school is much rougher.  Church members leave churches only to learn that the next congregation has its own set of frustrating issues that get under their skin as well.  God will give you the steadfastness you need to remain under whatever challenge you face.  Trust him to do so.  God’s last-chance workouts produce toughness.

Then, God’s last chance workouts produce transformation.  Slowly but surely, the contestants who began the show as one person finish the series as a different person.  The before and after pictures are only an outward indication of the transformation that has occurred.  God accomplishes a far greater transformation with us.  Verse 4 of our passage tells us,

“And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”  As we stay submitted to Jesus and follow Him, we will change, we will be transformed.  We do not have to work at it, we do not have to turn over a new leaf, we only need to follow Jesus each day, obey Him each day, and the transform is His to effect.

Paul says in Philippians 2:13, “for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”   The real challenge for us is not quitting, not rebelling, or not becoming bitter during the hard times.  When life is pressing hard on us, when God is allowing us to experience a brutal workout, we are filled with questions and even doubts.  It is then that the next two verses are so important.  Verse 5 of our passage tells us, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.”  Sometimes this verse is removed from its context, so we think that if we have a big exam of some sort, then we can just ask God for wisdom for the right answers and don’t doubt, then He will give us the answers

“God, I didn’t have time to study, but You’ve said that if I just ask for wisdom and don’t doubt, then You will tell me what I need to know.”  These two verses are in the context of experiencing trials.  When you are going through hardship and you are having a difficult time with questions wondering why you should continue serving the Lord, ask and He will give you answers.  He is not likely to tell you why it happened, but He will tell you why you need to keep following Him

He will teach you lessons in the midst of what you are experiencing.  He will enlighten your mind and change your perspective for the better.  In other words, if we ask, “What do You want to teach me from this experience Lord?  What can I learn from it?”  “What’s next on Your agenda for me in becoming a better man or woman of God?  I know there are things to learn in this midst of this hardship – teach me.”  Those questions God answers, and answers quickly and abundantly.  The key however, is making sure you really want to know when you ask God.

If we say, “God I want to learn what You have to teach, as long as I don’t have to stay with my spouse, as long as I don’t have to keep putting up with my boss, as long as I hold on to this one habit or possession that is really important to me…”If we come to God asking with conditions, then we won’t learn anything at all.  We have to come to Him in faith, trusting what He says, regardless of what He says.  Verse 6 tells us, “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.”

So how will you respond when you are the middle of what seems to be God’s last-chance workout in your life?  Will you experience the joy, the toughness, and the transformation that He has to provide?  You will be better, His kingdom will better, and everyone around You will benefit and be inspired.  The choice is yours today.

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