This is a sermon I preached recently, as the first in our sermon series about racial justice. The reading was James 1:1-11 and 22-25.

Trials

In our reading in James 1, he begins by talking about trials. He says:

“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.”

And this is a sentiment we do see a couple of times in the Bible. That the hard things we go through bring about some good thing in our lives. In Romans, Paul tells us that:

“we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.”

These are the kind of statement that I think we usually only really understand when we look back at a situation. If you think about the trials that you have faced in your life, you may well be able to reflect and identify how those trials have produced good things in your life. How they’ve taught you something, or made you a better person or, as James 1 says, produced perseverance. And sometimes we can’t really see what the benefit of that trial was. But we can hopefully trust God that he worked for our good during that situation.

For me, when my baby was first born there was a period when she was poorly and needed to be in the NICU. At the same time I was still very poorly – attached to all kinds of medication and couldn’t go with her or be with her. And that was certainly a trial, but there was no real conclusion. She was fine for all her tests and came back which was obviously a real answer to prayer, and I very gradually did get better and was able to come home. But it was really hard in the moment, and I don’t really know what the purpose was, or the lesson it taught me. Personally, I choose to trust that God was working for my good during that time, and maybe there was some change to my character or my abilities that I just cannot recognise in myself.

Martin Luther King Jr.

Throughout Lent, we are exploring the book of James, but especially focusing on what they teach us about issues of race and racism. Martin Luther King Jr. is of course a very well-known figure within the fight for racial equality and justice. But he is also an incredible example of someone who has gone through trials that most of us couldn’t imagine – and really lived out what James is telling us about considering these joy. In an article written in 1960 Martin Luther King Jr. wrote:

Due to my involvement in the struggle for the freedom of my people, I have known very few quiet days in the last few years. I have been arrested five times and put in Alabama jails. My home has been bombed twice. A day seldom passes that my family and I are not the recipients of threats of death. I have been the victim of a near fatal stabbing. So in a real sense I have been battered by the storms of persecution.

My personal trials have also taught me the value of unmerited suffering. As my sufferings mounted I soon realized that there were two ways that I could respond to my situation: either to react with bitterness or seek to transform the suffering into a creative force. I decided to follow the latter course. Recognizing the necessity for suffering I have tried to make of it a virtue. If only to save myself from bitterness, I have attempted to see my personal ordeals as an opportunity to transform myself and heal the people involved in the tragic situation which now obtains. I have lived these last few years with the conviction that unearned suffering is redemptive.

The suffering and agonizing moments through which I have passed over the last few years have also drawn me closer to God. More than ever before I am convinced of the reality of a personal God.

“Suffering and Faith”

It is a powerful testimony, and it shouldn’t be underestimated how hard it can be to see the good in such awful circumstances. Obviously, King’s experiences are quite extreme – they are certainly very different to the trials that I talked about for example. That doesn’t mean that our trials are not hard, or not as important. Or that God can’t work in them in exactly the same way. But it is a good reminder that there are lots of trials that we cannot understand, because we have not experienced them. I cannot understand what it is like to have my home bombed, and to receive death threats. And I don’t understand what it is like to be met with racism by those around me – because that is not a trial I have experienced.

Wisdom

And this is where we need to turn back to our reading and continue to look at what James has to say. We read in James 1:5:

“If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.”

James 1:5

I always think this is such a reassuring verse, but one that so many people – myself included – seem to forget. God offers us wisdom – all we have to do is ask. God doesn’t expect us to just know everything, understand everything. We need his help, his wisdom.

This is important, both for the trials that we ourselves face: when we need wisdom to make a difficult decision, or just don’t know what our next steps should be. But wisdom is also incredibly needed for how we meet other people in the trials they are facing. How we support people, how we comfort them, how we fight alongside them. Especially when someone is facing a trial that we do not fully understand, such as issues of racism and injustice, we absolutely need God’s wisdom.

Taking action

But James also had another important point for us to look at, that was featured in our reading. James 1:22-25 say:

“Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.”

James 1:22-25

When we are facing trials, or someone we know is facing trials, we want wisdom. As we’ve mentioned, we can, and we should, ask God for that wisdom. One of the ways that he provides us with wisdom in the Bible. It’s why we read it and preach on it and study it for ourselves. And it really is full to the brim of wisdom. But are we always very good at listening to that wisdom? And living out the wisdom that we are given? For many of us, that can be the much harder part.

Sometimes the wisdom we receive is hard. Sometimes it demands a lot from us. Maybe sometimes it just isn’t what we want to hear. And this can be where we see a real test of how much we trust God. Do we truly believe in the wisdom he provides? Do we trust that he cares for us and knows what is best for us? If we do, and if we put this wisdom into practice – we will be blessed in what we do.

Racial equality

So, how does this relate to issues of race and racial equality? Well the Bible has plenty to tell us about justice. In the book of Isaiah, we are told to seek justice, defend the oppressed, stand up for what is right. God himself is called a God of justice. We are told not to show partiality or favouritism.

But how much do we actually live out these instructions? How often do we stand up for what is right when we see racism on social media, or amongst our friends or strangers? Do we defend the oppressed, when we hear their stories of mistreatment and prejudice? Or do we doubt them, question them and come up with excuses for what happened to them? Do we seek after justice for those who have experienced racism? Or just say ‘it’s complicated’, or ‘I’m not racist so it’s fine’?

If we are not standing up for what is right, we are picking and choosing the scripture that we feel is important. We are disregarding the wisdom that God generously provides to us. And we are just like the one who looks at his face in the mirror then immediately forgets it.

Anita Asante

Anita Asante is a footballer, she’s played for Arsenal, Chelsea, Aston Villa and the England team. And she shared about her experiences:

When you’re young you don’t always understand the subtleties of language used around you relating to the way you perform, or what you do and say. It’s only when you get older, you start to reflect and think ‘that wasn’t cool’.
I have had players from different parts of the world, who come from a different historical cultural upbringing and haven’t understood the negative connotations of the language they use, or the referencing to other communities or music, saying a certain word from a song around people from my community. There’s a lack of recognition that it might make me feel uncomfortable because I am the only one in that space and being the only one in that space makes it difficult to challenge some of these situations. You really want some allies around you to say ‘maybe you should check yourself, maybe you should rethink singing that word on the bus or the locker room’ – it’s a small thing but it has a deep impact.

Racism in Football: Our Stories, BBC Sport

So, as we go out this week – let us seek wisdom and joy in the trials that we are facing. And recognise the trials that other people are enduring around us. Let us seek wisdom as James 1 directs us, for how we could support them. How we could be that ally who stands up alongside them and calls out racism. And let us also be strong enough, and trust in God’s wisdom enough to live out those teachings that we find in his word. As Anita said, it may seem like just a small thing, but it has a deep impact.

So let’s pray:

Dear God, thank you that you use the trials that we face in this world to grow us and strengthen us, even if we cannot see it. We bring before you all those who are experiencing racism, and who feel it’s effects in todays society. Give us the wisdom and the courage we need to stand up for what is right, and to ensure all people are treated with dignity and respect. Amen.

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