We’ll soon observe that James packs a lot of content into a few sentences. This passage touches on the response of the Christian to persecution, dealing with our ignorance, faith, and equality in the body of Christ. James’ letter reminds me a little of proverbs in that he gives many short pithy statements which have little or no direct connection to each other. I don’t consider this to be a fault — merely the result of his need to be as clear and concise as possible.
Most of James’ letter has a contemporary feel to it. Think of his sentences as bullet points in a PowerPoint presentation. He doesn’t explore each theme in depth. He just reminds us of things we all forget so quickly. If, we need more than a reminder, he trusts his readers (whether in the 1st or 21st Centuries) to do some work for themselves. Let’s get started with the text — reading the verses that deal with trials.
James 1:2 to 4 — My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. But let patience have [its] perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing.
James wrote his letter to Jewish believers in Jesus who were scattered throughout the Roman Empire during a time of increasing persecution. These new Christians were rather isolated from what we might call “the mother church” in Jerusalem and needed both encouragement and instruction. In these opening verses of his letter, James acknowledged that the lives of his readers were subject to a variety of challenges and sought to encourage them by connecting trials and faith in an unexpected way.
Normally, we would assume that difficult circumstances would shake our faith. We’ve probably seen this in the lives of others and maybe even experienced it ourselves to some extent, but James declares the things that try our faith produce patience which, in turn, has a perfecting effect on our spiritual lives.
Faith is a big component of our spiritual life. Like anything that is important, it needs to be tested or proven to be sure it works. That’s why when the mechanic is finished working on my brakes, he takes the car for a little test drive. Faith is tested by trials. If it’s the real thing, the difficulties and challenges of life will produce patience. This patience which is produced by our trials, strengthens us to face whatever lies ahead in the future. Instead of trials having a negative effect on our confidence in God, with patience, trials strengthen our faith.
This is a rather startling revelation — that patience is both produced by our trials and helps us to withstand them. How can this be? Patience is all about recognizing God’s purposes and timing in everything, the pleasant and unpleasant, the easy and the difficult, the joyful and the painful and so on. When difficulties arise and we accept that God is working in them for our good, we bear the trial with patience, which, in turn, increases our faith as we cast ourselves ever more completely on God.
The idea that God demonstrates his care for us by removing all troubles and giving us whatever we want is not based on the Bible. God shows his care by passing through the trials with us, sustaining us, teaching us important lessons about His faithfulness. This is why the big payoff of trials, according to James, is that we end up being “perfect and complete, lacking nothing.” This is ultimately our goal. Though we wouldn’t expect trials to have a positive outcome in our lives, with faith and patience, they do.
Another thing worth noting here is that according to Galatians 5:22, patience is produced by the Holy Spirit. We’re not talking about clenched-teeth determination generated out of our own strength of will here. The patience produced by the Spirit allows us to be experiencing love, joy, peace, gentleness, goodness and so on at the same time. It is supernatural in character. All aspects of the fruit of the Spirit are produced simultaneously. God doesn’t develop patience in us in ways that rob us of our joy, for example. God’s work in us is always good, even when the means is uncomfortable.
One of the key things that helps us to have patience in the face of trials is to have some understanding of the reason for them. I believe this is why James gives us these verses: to help us grasp that God has good intentions for us even in the most difficult circumstances. However, every situation is different so he reminds us of something else.
James 1:5 to 8 — If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for he who doubts is like a wave of the sea driven and tossed by the wind. For let not that man suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; [he is] a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.
Here, James encouraged his readers to ask God for wisdom, who will give it to us generously. I do not believe that James was suggesting that God gives us specific reasons for every individual trial which we experience. God may show us His purpose and plan on occasion, but that is not usually the way He works. What James promised in these verses is that God would give us wisdom as we face the trials. That is different that giving us information about why we’re facing them. If our purpose is to glorify God with our response to our troubles, then too much specific information could actually get in the way. We could become focused on our troubles and the reason for them rather than on our response to them.
In this regard, once again, James brought up the issue of faith — indicating that it is essential if we hope to receive anything from the Lord. The writer to the Hebrews wrote words along the same line:
Hebrews 11:6 Without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.
So, the letter to the Hebrews tells us that without faith it is impossible to please God and the letter from James tells us that without faith it is impossible to receive anything from God. I believe this only makes sense. After all if you don’t believe in God and actively trust Him with your situation, you would not glorify Him if He were to work in your life. Why would God give you what you ask for, if you aren’t going to acknowledge Him? God does not apologize for or explain the way He is working in our lives, what He offers is wisdom to help us respond to our circumstances in the way that will glorify Him, bless us and benefit others.
Let’s move on to the next couple of verses.
James 1:9 to 11 — Let the lowly brother glory in his exaltation, but the rich in his humiliation, because as a flower of the field he will pass away. For no sooner has the sun risen with a burning heat than it withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beautiful appearance perishes. So the rich man also will fade away in his pursuits.
Is it fair for me to suggest that the vast majority of us harbour ideas about social status and where we fit in? It seems to be part of the human condition to compare ourselves with others and, then, to look up to or down on others. However, the words we just read remind us that, though socially we may have different status, before God we are all equal.
Let me clarify something here. The fact that before God we are all equal clearly does not mean we are all the same. Humanity comes in a wide array of shades, builds, and features. We have broadly varied interests, abilities, and preferences. We range across a spectrum in terms of intellectual prowess, emotional stability, and social comfort. On top of all this, factors of circumstance like the place we were born, the family we are part of, and the culture that surrounds us draw out a variety of strength and weaknesses that further distinguishes us. We are most definitely not all the same. However, we are all of the same value to God. No matter how you may feel about yourself (high or low) or how others perceive you (privileged or disadvantaged), God sees you as a unique person of such value that Jesus died to redeem you.
To those who feel that they are at the bottom of the social scale, James says, “Rejoice, God exalts the lowly ones.” He values them the same as He does those that society see as privileged. Yet, to those who feel personally self sufficient comes the reminder that, rich or poor, we all have only a brief day in the sun and will pass away almost unnoticed when it is time for us to depart this life. The rich is humbled to know that he is of no more value to God than those he considers contemptible. Some of the rich and famous have great crowds at their funerals and memorial services, but a few years later they are remembered only occasionally, and the next generation has little knowledge of, or respect for, them.
It’s easy to understand why the humble should be glad to know God exalts them. But why should the rich glory in their humiliation? Here’s my answer to that question: Because the humbling that comes with recognizing their sinfulness, their need of the Saviour, and their crying out to God sets them up for ultimate exaltation when God ushers all believers, regardless of their status on earth, into His glorious presence.
We have time to look at just one more verse today.
James 1:12 — Blessed [is] the man who endures temptation; for when he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him.”
We use the word temptation almost exclusively to refer to an inducement to sin in one way or another. But it is used in the New Testament more in the sense of testing or proving something. This is the sense in which James is using it here. You’ll notice that first part of this couplet tells us that the person who endures temptation is blessed, and the second part talks about the reward he well receive. Linking these two thoughts is the idea of being approved — of having passed the test.
We happen to be anticipating the Olympic games just now and athletes are busy preparing themselves. Their coaches give them more and more difficult challenges — pushing them to develop speed, strength, control, mental focus, self discipline and whatever else is demanded by their sport. No one criticizes the coaches for doing this. If athletes are going to get to the podium, they have to be in top form. So every day, the stop watches and measuring devices are out. Every day, the athletes test themselves against the previous day’s effort.
Now consider this: These coaches are NOT doing all this to break down the athletes, to demoralize them, and prompt them to withdraw. They constantly test them to prepare them for the next challenge so that when the Olympic games finally come, they will be in top form.
This is the purpose of God with our trials. He is not trying to make us give up, but to strengthen our faith and produce the endurance that will get us, not just to some man-made podium, but into His presence. That’s why James challenged Christians to “count it all joy” when we face trials. These trials will produce great positive results. They are necessary to prepare us for the next level of challenges, and, one day, the crown of life which God has promised to all those who love Him.
Think about your own situation today. Consider whether or not your love for God is growing as you face the trials of life. Don’t merely endure them, embrace them as the means through which God is maximizing your potential both for future service and for final reward.