James explains the radically different way Christians deal with trouble in life, and why they do so.
The author of this epistle is James, the earthly brother of Jesus, not the Apostle James.
then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles;
– I Corinthians 15:7
He was a leader in the church at Jerusalem and was writing to Christian Jews living outside of Jerusalem who were growing weak in their faith.
In this letter he explains that Christians have a particular way that they act and deal with life that sets them apart from others. They are not simply “church-goers” but are people who react differently to things that happen to them in this life. Differently, that is, than how unbelievers react to life.
How a Christian Reacts to the Trials of Life
Trials include a variety of things such as adversity, inconvenience, personal suffering and injustice, to name a few (it does not have to be great injustice to qualify as a trial, being cheated on your car repair is a form of injustice).
2Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, 3knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. 4And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.
– James 1:2-4
James begins by describing how Christians should react to life’s various trials and why they should have this reaction. He says that believers should see these trials as a cause for joy. An unbeliever’s best possible reaction to trials can either be stoicism, resignation, bravery or acceptance, but it is rarely one of joy. Only Christians react in this way, and this is what makes them different.
James provides the reason for this unusual response to trials. He says that when there are trials in a Christian’s life, the believer knows that specific things are happening to him, not just the trial. James describes several of these in his opening verses.
- A person’s faith is being examined. This is what is going on at the spiritual level. God does not normally send the trial, but He does use it as an opportunity to examine the quality of a person’s faith. Faith is examined in three ways: storms (problems of all kinds), fire (temptation), time in the desert (loneliness/when God seems far away).
- The testing of faith through the trials produces endurance. Endurance is the ability to remain steady under pressure and not quitting, complaining, getting angry or losing faith, hope or love. The virtue of endurance cannot be produced in any other way.
- Endurance eventually produces stability in the face of trials. In the military they call this “bearing” where the military person remains steady despite the noise and chaos of combat. This “spiritual bearing” becomes a mark of the mature Christian.
James begins by saying that the Christian religion (a way of life/a way of thinking) considers trials a cause for joy because through them God matures, strengthens and perfects the individual believer. This maturing spiritual condition ultimately produces peace, confidence and a true experience of joy in the inner man (in one’s soul).
God Provides Help to Face Trials
5But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him. 6But he must ask in faith without any doubting, for the one who doubts is like the surf of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind. 7For that man ought not to expect that he will receive anything from the Lord, 8being a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.
– James 1:5-8
James continues to talk about trials, but here he mentions the help that God provides Christians so they can successfully face those trials. We do not always find the “why” of suffering and trials, but if we maintain faith, we eventually come to know Who is there with us and how He provides for us during these times.
In verse 5a, the word “wisdom” is used in connection with the trial itself. This is the ability (wisdom) of seeing the good and the truth within the situation we are experiencing, not just the pain and inconvenience. For example, we may perceive that the trial is actually pointing out our need for more dependence on God, or the destructiveness of sin, the quality of our friendship, the brevity or the value of life, etc. The wisdom is the ability to see and appreciate these things despite the pain we are experiencing. Whatever the insight, it requires wisdom from God to understand the true nature of what is happening to us aside from the trial, and God provides us with this wisdom.
In verse 5b, “prayer” is the next response that God provides. Prayer is the way that one actually gains wisdom and insight. God has provided Christ as our mediator so that we can come before God in prayer, and the Holy Spirit as our intercessor so that our prayers come before God in an acceptable manner (Romans 8:26).
In verses 6-8, James explains how we should pray:
- Without doubt that God hears us and is at work for us (because trials and sufferings cause us to doubt).
- Without changing our minds.
- Saying and doing things according to God’s will.
Some pray by saying, “God, please help me” but think in their hearts that this is not really going to work, and do not follow up their prayer by doing what is right. This is the attitude that says, “I might as well pray, I have nothing to lose, it cannot hurt, etc.” In difficult and unsure situations we often need to take a first step of faith, even when we do not know what the second step will be. God rewards a first step of obedient faith which is usually an appeal to God in prayer.
Examples of Godly Wisdom
9But the brother of humble circumstances is to glory in his high position; 10and the rich man is to glory in his humiliation, because like flowering grass he will pass away. 11For the sun rises with a scorching wind and withers the grass; and its flower falls off and the beauty of its appearance is destroyed; so too the rich man in the midst of his pursuits will fade away.
– James 1:9-11
Here, James provides examples of the wisdom God provides for both the rich and poor man of faith and prayer.
- Wisdom Concerning Poverty: Recognizing one’s true wealth in Christ is the wisdom that helps the poor man, suffering in poverty, have hope.
- Wisdom Concerning Riches: Recognizing our true position before God and need for Christ is the wisdom that humbles the wealthy man and prevents him from being blinded and hardened by his wealth. He understands that he cannot depend on his wealth for salvation.
The poor man sees how rich he is, and the rich man how poor he is because God has given wisdom to each. Both poor and wealthy Christians need to pray with faith in order to posses the wisdom to deal with their particular life circumstances. Without this wisdom the poor might become discouraged and quit, and the rich might be blinded by wealth and lose his soul.
Blessed is a 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
James phrases the reward for enduring trials in the same way that the beatitudes were phrased in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:3-12). He says that the one who perseveres in trials will be blessed and happy for several reasons:
- He will be “approved,” meaning that he will be considered genuine. The trials are used by God to separate the sheep from the goats. Persevering is like a “fact check” that verifies that one indeed is a true disciple, an approved and tested disciple.
- This blessedness or happiness is born from the realization that as an approved disciple one can look forward to the crown of life (eternal life) which is the reward promised to all who are approved.
- Happy also because endurance is a definite proof of our sincere love of Christ.
Blessed is the one who endures trials because his endurance is a witness of his faith, love and maturity in Christ, and a visible proof that there is a crown of eternal life waiting for him/her in heaven.
Happiness vs. Excitement
I would like to highlight the difference between happiness (joy) and excitement (stimulation). Happiness is a much sought after state of being. There is nothing wrong with searching for happiness, but most people search for it in the wrong places and in the wrong manner. For example, you cannot obtain happiness by acquiring things, power, fame or pleasure, etc. Ask people who have acquired many things and they will tell you that neither the acquiring nor the possession of things have brought them lasting happiness. Acquiring and possessing provide stimulation (excitement), but do not create happiness. Gaining, winning, buying and shopping all provide excitement that demands repetition in order to maintain the stimulation. However, we must not confuse this process and the feelings that it generates (excitement/stimulation) with happiness (joy).
The difference between excitement and happiness is that excitement, while stimulating, does not last and is not satisfying. Actually, too much excitement can make you ill. Happiness, blessedness or joy, on the other hand, is a well-being within oneself that lasts and that no one can take away. It produces peace of mind and satisfaction that is the opposite of being obsessed. Obsession is a mark of unhappiness.
The happiness/blessedness that the Bible speaks of begins to take root when one becomes a Christian by confessing Christ, repenting of sin and being baptized in His name.
36Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ—this Jesus whom you crucified.” 37Now when they heard this, they were pierced to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brethren, what shall we do?” 38Peter said to them, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
– Acts 2:36-38
At this point in time two things happen: sins are forgiven (eliminates guilt for past sins), and the Holy Spirit is given (guarantees spiritual growth and resurrection in the future). True happiness (joy) begins here. But happiness continues to grow as our faith is tested throughout our Christian lives. This is what we have just read about in James. He explains how trials produce happiness in the Christian. What is left unsaid is that we need to expect trials and be ready for them because they will eventually come into everyone’s life whether they be believers or not.
This increasing happiness will be complete and permanent when Jesus comes to bring with Him to heaven those who have been faithful, despite the trials.
When we examine ourselves, a good question to ask is, “Am I seeking happiness or excitement?” Another question to ask is, “Am I seeing trials as inconveniences and asking God to simply set me free, or am I seeing trials as something God is using for His purpose and my ultimate good?” Like the song says, “Don’t worry, be happy!” James’ translation of this upbeat song is, “Don’t worry, when trials come, just be happy knowing that your faith is being tested and an opportunity for growth that will eventually produce happiness is at hand.”