The epistle of James is generally considered to be one of the earliest writings of the New Testament. Penned by one of the Lord’s step-brothers and addressed to Jewish believers in the Diaspora, it is a handbook on practical discipleship; a ‘how to’ manual for followers of Jesus who are going through tough times.
James opens his account by admonishing his fellow believers to “count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience” (James 1:2-3). The phrase ‘fall into’ indicates that these are not trials of our choosing; James is clearly referring to the challenging and difficult circumstances that are part and parcel of the tapestry of life.
One of James’ contemporaries, and a fellow member of the triumvirate leadership of the Jerusalem church, Peter, addressed the believers in a similar vein:
“Beloved, do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you; but rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ’s sufferings, that when His glory is revealed, you may also be glad with exceeding joy” (1 Peter 4.12-13)
Ironically, many modern believers react precisely this way when things go wrong – they think it ‘strange’ and declare it ‘unacceptable’, due perhaps to a skewed theology that promotes ‘glory’ without ‘suffering’. However, it is important to remember that we are living in an imperfect world that is embroiled in an intense spiritual battle. And as anyone who has lived in a war zone will testify, there is always a degree of collateral damage, regardless of which side you are on.
Thanks to our theological programming, we have a propensity to blame the devil when things go wrong or when we’re going through tough times. “It’s a spiritual attack!” we say. “The enemy’s trying to destroy us!” we say. It doesn’t seem to enter our minds that God may be orchestrating the situation in order to get our attention!
When we fall into various trials our first response should be to submit to God, rather than trying to ‘bind’ this, or ‘pull down’ that, or ‘cast out’ something else. James advised his readers:
God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble. Therefore submit to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Lament and mourn and weep! Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He will lift you up. (James 4.6-10)
In times of trial, when things aren’t going according to plan, our first port of call should always be the Lord – to make sure we are in right standing with him in thought, word and deed. To submit to God is to humble ourselves before him and pray like King David, “Search me, O God, and know my heart … see if there is any wicked way in me” (Psalm 139:23-24). Or, to put it another way, “Is there something in me that is causing or at least contributing to this situation?”
My goodness, what a question! Fancy taking responsibility for our own mess! But the truth is that the path in (to our own heart) is also the path out (of our predicament). The devil may be attacking us, but there may also be something we are doing that has lowered our defences and given him an opportunity to gain an advantage over us. For example, the apostle Paul warned the church not to withhold forgiveness from a repentant offender “lest Satan should take advantage of us, for we are not ignorant of his devices” (2 Cor. 2:10-11).
Submitting to God is resisting the devil
It behoves us to understand that submission to God — bowing before him in thought, word and deed — is in itself, a bulwark against the devil. A case in point is the story of King Jehoshaphat in 2 Chronicles chapter 20. When the people of Moab, Ammon, and Syria launched an unprovoked attack against Judah, King Jehoshaphat’s first response was to seek the Lord and proclaim a nationwide fast. People came up to Jerusalem from every corner of the country to ask help from the Lord. And it was in this environment of spiritual submission that the word of the Lord came forth:
Do not be afraid nor dismayed because of this great multitude, for the battle is not yours, but God’s … You will not need to fight in this battle. Position yourselves, stand still and see the salvation of the Lord, who is with you, O Judah and Jerusalem! Do not fear or be dismayed; tomorrow go out against them, for the Lord is with you. (2 Chron. 20.15-17)
Following this declaration, Jehoshaphat bowed his head with his face to the ground, and all Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem bowed before the Lord, worshipping the Lord. This was indeed, a sacrament — an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace, or an external demonstration of an internal attitude of heart. And out of this surrendered state, a procession of victory emerged:
And when he had consulted with the people, he appointed those who should sing to the Lord, and who should praise the beauty of holiness, as they went out before the army and were saying: “Praise the Lord, for His mercy endures forever.” Now when they began to sing and to praise, the Lord set ambushes against the people of Ammon, Moab, and Mount Seir, who had come against Judah; and they were defeated. (2 Chron. 20.21-22)
During the heady days of the Charismatic Renewal, this passage was often used as a proof text for the power of praise and worship. I can remember preachers saying, “There you are; if you will just praise the Lord, he will drive the enemy out from before you!” Whilst there is some truth in this, I have come to understand that the message of 2 Chronicles 20 is not about the power of praise and worship per se, but rather, about the importance of submitting to God. For in the final analysis, praise and worship is an expression of submission and devotion to One who is greater than ourselves.
In actual fact, the battle only becomes the Lord’s when we submit to him and refrain from fighting in our own strength and wisdom! The apostle Paul alluded to this in his letter to the Romans: “Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord.” (Rom. 12.19). Helen Barrett Montgomery puts it this way: “Never revenge yourself, but leave the field clear for God’s wrath.” J. B. Phillips says, “Never take vengeance into your own hands; stand back and let God punish if he will.”
A modern case of submission and deliverance
With Western Europe in a state of capitulation, and the British Expeditionary Force trapped in a pincer movement around the port of Dunkirk by the advancing German army, the stammering and reluctant King of England, George VI, called for a National Day of Prayer on May 24th, 1940. In a stirring radio broadcast he urged the people of the United Kingdom to turn to God in a spirit of repentance and plead for Divine intervention. In response, millions of people flocked to churches in the British Isles and throughout the Commonwealth on Sunday, May 26th, to pray for deliverance. The King himself attended Westminster Abbey along with Prime Minister Winston Churchill and members of the War Cabinet. Extraordinary scenes unfolded as people queued for hours to get into Westminster Abbey, prompting one newspaper to observe, “Nothing like it has ever happened before.”
(See Video Clip attached)
The events of the next ten days were nothing short of miraculous. For some inexplicable reason the German armoured columns were halted only ten miles from Dunkirk at the very point when conventional military wisdom suggested that they should have advanced on the helpless British forces. A violent storm broke over Flanders, grounding the Luftwaffe squadrons that had been bombing the port facilities and strafing the soldiers on the beach, and allowing the remnants of British and French companies to escape on foot to the coast. And in the aftermath of the storm, a great calm descended on the English Channel, the like of which hadn’t been seen for a generation, allowing a vast armada of little ships, big ships, warships, and pleasure cruisers to sail back and forth in a monumental rescue mission to save over 335,000 men.
Addressing the House of Commons on June 4th, Winston Churchill admitted that just a week earlier, he had feared that it would be his hard lot to announce ‘the greatest military disaster in Britain’s long history’. He and others had expected 20,000 or 30,000 men, at best, to have been rescued from the shores of France. The rest would likely have ‘perished upon the field’, or have been ‘led into an ignominious and starving captivity’.
However, “Suddenly the scene has cleared, the crash and thunder has for the moment — but only for the moment — died away. A miracle of deliverance, achieved by valour, by perseverance, by perfect discipline, by faultless service, by resource, by skill, by unconquerable fidelity, is manifest to us all. The enemy was hurled back to the retreating British and French troops. He was so roughly handled that he did not hurry their departure seriously. The Royal Air Force engaged the main strength of the German Air Force, and inflicted upon them losses of at least four to one; and the Navy, using nearly 1,000 ships of all kinds, carried over 335,000 men, French and British, out of the jaws of death and shame, to their native land and to the tasks which lie immediately ahead.”
On Sunday, June 9th, services of National Thanksgiving were held in churches throughout Great Britain. A common theme was Psalm 124, which seemed to eloquently articulate the experience of the nation:
“If it had not been the Lord who was on our side,” let Israel now say — “If it had not been the Lord who was on our side, when men rose up against us, then they would have swallowed us alive, when their wrath was kindled against us; then the waters would have overwhelmed us, the stream would have gone over our soul; then the swollen waters would have gone over our soul.”
Blessed be the Lord, who has not given us as prey to their teeth. Our soul has escaped as a bird from the snare of the fowlers; the snare is broken, and we have escaped. Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.
The equation that the apostle James proposes is both simple and profound: submission = resistance = deliverance. Submission to God, whether as an individual or a nation, constitutes our greatest defence against a marauding enemy. Indeed, it is in the place of spiritual surrender that the seeds of deliverance are sown!