Last night we began a study through the letter of James. Here are the notes on the first passage:
Now, a lot of us know these verses, and they’re probably not in our list of favorite verses. And if you’ve never read them before, they might just sound crazy. So what’s going on here? Before we think James is just giving us a mountain that’s too tall to climb, let’s look at his reasoning. When you first read this, it kind of seems like he’s telling us to have an impossible emotional reaction to trials—“get happy when something you hate happens to you.” But actually he tells us to think first, and then feel. Notice, James says, “When trials come your way, consider it to be a reason to rejoice.” In other words: think this: “This is a good thing, and a reason to be happy.” Why? In verse three James says it’s because we know something before that trial comes—we know that the way trials work in a Christian’s life is that they becomes means for testing and refining our faith; for proving it out. Specifically, James assumes that we already understand something about how life works—that endurance is a crucial thing for us all to have. When we understand how crucial endurance is, we will see the trial as an opportunity to increase our endurance, and face it with an excitement about growing, even if we don’t have any excitement about the trial.
In verse 4, James encourages us no to short circuit this process, but gives us incentive to allow endurance to do its work. He says the final goal is not simply that we’d be people who endure, but that we’d reach true maturity. The two words he uses here have the idea of “reaching the highest level” and “having everything you’re supposed to have.” In other words, James wants us to not be satisfied with our current state. The Lord wants to stimulate us to want to progress to the highest level of humanity God has designed us for—fully mature humanity.
It seems like James is saying, here’s the process:
- When trials come, go through the mental exercise of remembering what we know about the things that will help us become mature
- This give us the right mental stance towards difficulty,
- which will lead to this kind of emotional reaction which would otherwise be impossible.
So the reason for Joy is not the suffering in itself, but in what it produces.
Verses five through eight add an important piece to this discussion. There are two related ways to look at what James is saying here. First, whenever I’m in the middle of trials, one of my biggest needs is wisdom. I need help understanding how to navigate through the difficulty. I need help making decisions, knowing what to do. James tells me how to get the understanding I need in order to make it through trials. So far so good. But a major part of this wisdom I need to navigate through trials has to be the wisdom James mentions in verses 2 through 4. The first thing I need in a trial is the understanding he tells me to have—the understanding about what God’s aims for me are and what will get me there. If I just can’t see it this way—if every time something hard comes into my life I just hate it, and if James’s teaching about Joy seems unrealistic, he says—“if you need this wisdom, ask.” And in verse five he says, “Don’t worry, God won’t make fun of you or criticize you for not having this understanding, he’ll just give you wisdom—that’s who he is.”
So this is big—wisdom doesn’t come automatically through trials. I’m sure we all know lots of people who’ve gone through all kinds of difficulty and aren’t any wiser than when they started. A lot of people just get broken by their trials. They don’t end up more mature, or more whole, or more strong—they end up weak and small. What’s the difference between people who grow through trials and people who shrink? James says it’s whether someone personally involves God in the situation by asking him for the wisdom they need—especially the wisdom to see the trial in the right light. When they do, God gives them wisdom, and that triggers the process of verses 2 through 4.
When you do ask for this wisdom, you must, as James says, ask in faith. It seems like he’s not simply saying, “you need to have utter confidence that God will answer your prayer,” but something more like, “you need to have decided once and for all if you really trust God and want to follow him.” I get that from James’ descriptions of what someone who does not ask in faith is like. He says they’re “double minded” and consistently unstable. The picture seems to be of someone who hasn’t really decided if they trust God enough to follow him, so they vacillate. They flip flop. They haven’t really cast in their lot with Jesus. They are like a wave driven back and forth with every passing breeze. If that’s someone’s state, and a trial comes, and they ask for wisdom without settling this issue first, they won’t get the wisdom they need for trials. If that sounds mean, all we have to do is look at the kind of mindset you need to have to grow in trials up in verses 2 through 4. How could God give that mindset to someone who didn’t even know if they wanted to trust God and follow Christ?
In verses 9 through 11 James gives us two different situations as a kind of case study. If someone is currently poor (which is easy to identify as a “trial”) that person can rejoice, because they have what he calls “exaltation.”
- They have a new status in the family of God that is not based on their socioeconomic status. They are full members of the family, regardless of their income.
- They can also rejoice because they have a change coming—one day they will be rich beyond the highest level of riches this world currently has to offer.
The rich are also told to “glory” but for a seemingly opposite reason. If I’m rich, I should glory in my new status that associates with things other rich people consider beneath them. Low people. Low things. Low ideas. James points out that I can do this because I recognize that all my wealth is going to pass away. Everything economically that seems to make me different from someone who’s poor is destined to wither up like an old flower. So I’m only being called to live in reality. Like, why would the rich person get excited about this? Because they can kow that their wealth hasn’t blinded them. They haven’t forgotten what’s really true—that all the riches of this world are temporary, and so even though they’re rich, it hasn’t ruined their eternal perspective. They glory in the fact that they know who they are. Who are they? Just children of God. What excites them? Things that can’t pass away. Identifiying with those who are rich spiritually, but not physically—especially Jesus.
Who should really be envied? Who really has a life worth living? The person who endures temptation.
Because one day the Lord will give him the crown of life. This is the eternal reward of ultimate life.
Summing up: James is all about having a True Understanding of Life.
An Eternal Perspective
- In Trials: there is something beyond the trial, and this whole life. (1:2-4, 1:12).
- In Wealth or Poverty: (1:9-10) expect the eternal riches and admit the temporariness of riches.
In order to understand life, and not to give up in hard times, or lose your head and “good” times, you need to remember eternity. What is god really doing in trials? Why do we need to be people who endure? Think…the new earth? This life has a point. The point of it all happens when we meet Christ.