June 8, 2015 Gene Schlesinger

“Not Quite My Tempo” Or, How God Isn’t Like the Dude from Whiplash

By Gene Schlesinger.

This Sunday we began preaching through the New Testament letter of James, which begins with the instruction: “My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials/temptations[1] of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1.2-4).

In my sermon I explained three wrong ways to approach trials/temptations in our lives (avoiding them, giving in to them, and being “right,” but with out love or compassion), and two ways to approach them rightly: considering it joy, because of our love for God and for people, and prayer because “If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you” (James 1.5). I concluded with a challenge to prioritize the practice of prayer, particularly the Book of Common Prayer’s offices of Morning and Evening Prayer, and the Prayer of Examen.  (See our Daily Rhythms page to learn more)

But there’s one more thing I want us to see about our trials/temptations, and this is important. The opening of James tells us that our trials/temptations will produce endurance, and that endurance will mature us. This is a wonderful thing about trials/temptations. Unfortunately, this has also led us to have some pretty twisted understandings of what God is like.

Put most crudely, we view the trials/temptations and sufferings of our life as something that God sends our way in order to grow and mature us. There’s no growth without suffering, and though the process is painful you can’t argue with the results. The problem is that this makes God out to be morally reprehensible.

Last year in the movie, Whiplash,[2] J. K. Simmons earned every bit of his Oscar portraying a results-driven jazz conductor, who is willing to put his musicians through all manner of suffering [don’t watch the clip if you have a sensitivity to bad language] in order to bring out their potential for greatness. He gets results, but there’s something deeply wrong with someone who’s willing to torture people in order to get those results. You’re not supposed to sympathize with him.

Often times we think of God as a sympathetic version of the J. K. Simmons character from Whiplash. Thankfully, James tells us that God is not like that. “No one, when tempted/tried, should say, ‘I am being tempted/tried by God’; for God cannot be tempted/tried by evil and he himself tempts/tried no one. But one is tempted/tried by one’s own desire.”

In other words, though it’s true that we grow through our trials/temptations, and though it’s true that God uses them to make us more like his Son, our Savior, Jesus, it is not true that God sends trials and sufferings our way in order to grow us, because God is not the sort of monster that J. K. Simmons plays in the movie.

How this works is a mystery, and I don’t claim to be able to resolve it. But what I can say is this: God’s purpose for his children is to conform them to the image of his Son, and he would have done this even if sin had never entered the world. Because of sin, this process is sometimes painful, but no amount of sin or suffering or trial is able to change God’s purpose for us.

And so, even in the midst of our sinful world and our sinful selves, God continues his work of bringing us to himself through his Son. Sometimes it will hurt, but the suffering is not the point. The point is our being made like Jesus.

So as you pray for the wisdom needed to consider life’s inevitable trials/temptations as joy, give thanks that God will bring you through these to make you like Jesus, and give thanks that the trials are not his idea, but that he won’t let that stand in his way.

 

[1] In our English translations, the words “trials” and “temptations” translate the same Greek word. 

[2] Not to be confused with this other Whiplash

 

Listen to Gene’s sermon here.