Three months. That’s how long we’ve been living in a pandemic, subject to near daily changes to our personal lives. In the first few weeks, every day brought loss and disappointment. As schools, businesses, travel, entertainment, and nearly every aspect of our society ground to a halt, we saw our calendars empty, our houses fill, and our anxieties rise.
Then, things started improving. States and cities began easing stay-at-home restrictions. We could go to restaurants again, get haircuts, check out library books. It meant more change, but it was change for the better. At least that’s what we thought. Now, as case and death counts from COVID-19 rise again, we’re bracing ourselves for more change, different change, change we can’t even predict.
Over the past three months, we’ve had so much change so quickly. And isn’t that the way unwelcome change often comes? It sneaks up on us, surprises us, knocks us down. It’s a phone call, a knock on the door, a bad decision, a crushing wind, metal on metal, or lead to flesh. In an instant, everything changes.
At least that’s what it seems like. But really, the things we call “change” are actually just the beginning, just the front door of transformation. The real change, how we respond to all that swirls around us, takes time.
In the book of James, we see the author wrestling through this paradox of instantaneous change that slowly transforms our lives. Both of these things are true: “You do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away,” and you must “consider it all joy when you encounter trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance” because some things will last far longer than you want them too.
I think of my own cancer diagnosis that shook deeply the foundations of my life. It happened quickly. I thought it was just a stomach ache, and suddenly I was fighting for my life. I remember the exact moment the doctor told me it was cancer. I hid my head under the standard-issue blanket of my hospital bed. I thought I was overcome. Everything had changed.
Yet 13 years later I can attest that the moment I first heard the word cancer was just the beginning of a harder, longer journey of change than I could ever have imagined. My life is still transformed by that diagnosis, not just as a memory that helped shape my character and strengthen my faith, but as an ongoing reality of tests and scans and doctors appointments, of scars and late-stage side effects and even anxiety. That sudden change has been painfully slow to produce its results in my life.
When it comes to cultural or societal changes, the pace slows even further, almost to the point that those most affected feel no change is happening at all. Many of the recent rallies and protests in our country over systemic racism have given voice to the anguish of change that has happened much too slowly. Over and over again, the rush of activism and denouncement of injustice after sudden, tragic, and unnecessary deaths of black men and women give the impression that things are changing. However, I’m hearing from black authors and athletes, business leaders and preachers, that so much is the same as it’s always been. The real change, the necessary change, is happening much too slowly.
So what do we do when change comes to us at a sloth’s pace? Though waiting is never easy, in our personal lives or in our larger culture, James provides some guidance.
First, in James 1:2, he calls us to “consider it all joy when you encounter various trials.” Not for the personal suffering or the systemic injustice itself. Not for the cheating spouse or the generational poverty. Not for the bankruptcy or the healthcare disparities. There’s nothing inherently joyful about any of these things. But James tells us that we can find joy in the changes these trials are bringing about in us. Namely, endurance and maturity.
Also, notice James doesn’t call us to feel joy in the midst of suffering, or to pretend like we’re happy about what’s going on in our lives or in the culture around us. This counsel doesn’t minimize the pain and suffering we’re experiencing. In fact, James is writing this letter “to the twelve tribes who are dispersed abroad,” Jewish converts to Christianity who’ve been forced to scatter throughout the known world by persecution.
Sometimes, the work required in our lives after a sudden change is simply to clean up and take inventory. To begin the treatment, to bury the dead, to board up the windows, to bandage the wounds. The work that comes next is usually the harder work: to allow the change to transform us in love. To use our wounds to serve and bless others, to stand against injustice and partiality, to sow seeds of humility and peace rather than quarreling and conflicts.According to the IVP New Testament Commentary, knowing this important fact about James’ audience changes the whole tone of the book: “By addressing them as ones scattered among the nations, he is telling them at once: ‘I know you are persecuted; I know you face various trials; I know you are suffering.’ All that James will have to say to his readers is said with this knowledge of their life setting. All that he will have to say to his readers is applicable even in their life setting of suffering.”
If there is any joy to be found in the life of suffering, find it here: God is at work in your life in the midst of it.
Second, seek wisdom. When sudden change strikes, it’s not always obvious how we should respond. And it’s tempting to react according to our emotions alone. But James says a better way is to ask for wisdom from God, “who gives to all generously and without reproach” (1:5).
James goes on to say that when we ask for wisdom we must do so “in faith and without any doubting.” This seems like a heavy burden to pile on to those who already are suffering and struggling with what to do next. But what James seems to be saying is that we can have confidence in God’s wisdom to lead us forward, and God stands ready to help us: he “gives to all generously and without reproach.” On the other hand, if we ask for God’s wisdom without really believing in Him, what are we really asking for?
Later in the book, James paints a picture of the person who asks for and receives God’s wisdom:
“Who among you is wise and understanding? Let him show by his good behavior his deeds in the gentleness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart, do not be arrogant and so lie against the truth. This wisdom is not that which comes down from above, but is earthly, natural, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every evil thing. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without hypocrisy. And the seed whose fruit is righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.” (James 3:13-18)
Finally, James says we have to act. We may not always know how things are going to end up, but by faith and through wisdom we eventually have to do something. Otherwise, the transformation that began with a bang will eventually fizzle out. But wait, you may be saying, in Philippians Pauls says that “He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus” (1:6). The work God began in us is faith, and James says that faith without works is dead. The “works” here will look different in every situation. In 2:15-17, James gives the example of telling a needy brother or sister to “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” without giving them what they need. The work of faith, rather, is to supply the need.
Sometimes, the work required in our lives after a sudden change is simply to clean up and take inventory. To begin the treatment, to bury the dead, to board up the windows, to bandage the wounds. The work that comes next is usually the harder work: to allow the change to transform us in love (2:8). To use our wounds to serve and bless others (1:26-27), to stand against injustice and partiality (2:1-7), to sow seeds of humility (4:6) and peace (3:17-18) rather than quarreling and conflicts (4:1-4).
I’m still not used to all the changes coming our way these past few months, even with summer here and the chance to get together with a few family members and friends. Experts seem to predict a rough fall and winter, too, and I know that things might change again and again, each time seemingly in an instant. But I also value the real change that’s taking place below the surface, a change that ultimately leads me to Jesus.
“Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial; for once he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love him” (James 1:12).