No one goes cross-country skiing because they think it will be relaxing and easy. Although the Olympic athletes you’ve seen appear to zoom around corners and skate right up hills, this sport requires a substantial amount of effort just to stay standing!
On our recent trip to Vermont, my mom took me on my annual attempt at keeping up with her on the Nordic trails. I layered up for the 20° temperatures, put on the special boots, grabbed my poles and clicked into the skis. But as we set out on the trail I remembered how much work this was going to be!
First of all, skiing uphill is more like “hiking on skis”. Your first thought upon hearing that phrase might be, “Who would ever do such a thing?” and to that I would respond, “No one!”. In order to prevent gravity (and your slippery skis) from sweeping you right back down the hill, you must dig the skis into the snow at a sharp angle and pray that it holds.
When you (finally) get to the top, you might be tempted to think, “Yay! A downhill! I’ll get a break!” But those are famous last words as you go careening out of control, engaging every muscle but realizing there is no good way to slow yourself down and praying (again) that you don’t hit an unforeseen bump and end up a twisted pile of limbs and equipment at the bottom.
Even on the flats – having the coordination to put one foot in front of the other in a fluid motion is no walk in the park!
The thought that consumes the mind of the novice cross-country skier is: “Why in the world do I have these things attached to my feet? I could have been at the top of this incline ten minutes ago if I had just taken them off and walked! Walking would have also prevented the spectacular wipeout I took coming down that hill, and overall, I’m just not sure if it’s worth all this work just to keep moving!”
The book of James is a letter written to believers who were facing “trials of many kinds” (1:2). From context and history, we know these trials were mostly coming in the form of persecution for their faith in Jesus. And though it appears they were holding fast to their confession of faith, they were struggling to hold to the whole-life of faith that would bring them to the maturity God intended for them to attain (1:4).
Faith can be a huge benefit during difficult times. Knowing there’s a God who is sovereign over all, who is actively present and working, and who cares for us can give us peace and be the thing that keeps us going. I’m not sure how anyone faces trials without Him!
But faith can also be a huge burden during difficult times. When the going gets tough, our instinctive lean is toward self-protection and the last thing we want to think about is taking care of others – which is exactly what Jesus keeps asking us to do. As if this giant uphill in my life wasn’t hard enough, now you want me to do it while wearing these?
James’ readers knew this feeling all too well, and everything he wrote was to encourage them to keep the skis on. He knew they were thinking, “This would all be so much easier…”:
- If I could just focus on me and mine and make lots of money so I could feel secure. (1:11)
- If I could stop being expected to take responsibility for my sin. (1:13, 5:16)
- If I was free to say whatever I wanted, about whoever I wanted, to whoever I wanted to say it to – especially when I’ve been hurt or offended. (1:19, 26, 2:9, 4:11, 5:9)
- If I could just hang out with the people I want to hang out with and not have to use any of my limited emotional and physical energy to make room for others. (2:8)
- If I could soak in all the promises of God’s blessings, but not be expected to give out any of that blessing to anyone else. (2:16, 5:5)
- If I could be excused from considering others and just do what feels right for me. (3:17, 4:1)
- If I could stay in control and not feel like I was at the mercy of Someone else’s plans. (4:15)
Most of us have never and will never experience the kind of persecution James’ readers faced, but we do have trials – which means the temptation to ‘take off the skis’ and put the actions of faith aside (at least temporarily) is all too real. Jesus said His yoke was “light” (Matthew 11:30) but it sure feels heavy when we look around at our non-believing friends who don’t have to wear it.
If cross-country skiing is so much work, then why do people do it? Maybe it’s the peacefulness of the snow-covered forest apart from the busy chaos of a traditional downhill ski area. But really – it’s the exercise! Cross-country skiing is a full-body workout (which my sore muscles the day after could attest to) that burns loads of calories and boosts endurance.
James is clear that, for the believer, difficult times are opportunities to “let perseverance finish its work” or, in the ESV, to “have its full effect” (1:4). Yes, you can take off the skis and walk instead – it’ll be easier getting up the ups and you’ll maintain your sense of control on the downs – but you’ll only get the partial effect. Self-protection and “mature and complete” faith can’t coexist!