James writes this letter to Christians who are a long way from home (outside the land of Israel). He calls them siblings, or in the NIV, “brothers and sisters.” This is the most popular term in the New Testament for those who are in the church of Jesus Christ. Jesus is the Son of God, and when we are adopted in Christ, we become Jesus’ own family members. As such, we become brothers and sisters. James, though he could claim authority and power over others, identifies himself with all those who have chosen to follow Jesus. He is a brother to all the sisters and brothers. This letter is for siblings in Christ. James addresses his letter to Jewish siblings, but it reaches out to all siblings, Jew or gentile.
These siblings are not home. One reason they are not at home where the language, food, and customs make them comfortable is what he calls “trials of many kinds” (James 1:2). Perhaps these trials drove them from the homeland into a foreign country, often called diaspora. The excitement of a foreign country for the tourist is exile for the one driven from home involuntarily. I’ve visited Israel, Turkey, and Greece imagining palpable experiences of Jesus and the apostles. What may be for us an adventure was for them homelessness. If one reads this letter as an exiled person, one hears something different than how we read it in the comfort of a cozy chair with a cup of coffee. James calls their situation “trials” because where they were has to do with those trials.
What trials are in mind? They are something happening to the Christians by someone or something else. In this letter such experiences pile up for the attentive reader: economic oppression, favoritism of the wealthy against the poor (Christians), publicly slandering Jesus, shaming one another, and the rich exploiting the poor. Look in your Bible at these verses: James 1:9, 27; James 2:1-9; and James 5:1-6. The trials or tests have occurred because they are Christians.
They had memories and plenty of knowledge about their trials, but James wanted them to have more than knowledge. He wanted them and us to have wisdom. Wisdom grabs information, sorts it out into knowledge, and then discerns the ways of God. In our passage, James reveals such wisdom. Tests press us deeper into our faith. Think of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German martyr under Hitler’s National Socialism. His book Discipleship has that famous line, “When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die.”1 That book is famous too for what he said about “cheap grace.” We know these things, but Bonhoeffer pierced through knowledge into wisdom. His ideas were formulated, turned into lectures, and then into a book in his own kind of exile, an underground seminary that had to change locations because Hitler’s agents were on his case. The trial of the churches to conform to Hitler’s will was resisted by Bonhoeffer and produced the wisdom of a book that has challenged us for nine decades. The category of “cheap grace” and the call to follow Jesus, no matter what, was wisdom’s deepest challenge for the German churches and has become wisdom for us.
What wisdom can we discern from tests and trials and pressures? Only a wise and imaginative faith can “consider it pure joy” in the middle of a storm (James 1:2). James’ kind of faith-shaped imagination prompts us to find wisdom in our tests.
First, tests of our faith promote our growth.
The word “maturity,” sometimes translated with the word “perfection,” matters to James and he uses it several times (James 1:4, James 1:17, James 1:25; James 2:22; 3:2). It does not mean sinlessness (James 3:2) or perfection as we often use the term. Rather, it evokes the person who reaches the goal, who attains the vision, or who completes the journey. It describes mature moral development in one’s relationship to God, to self, and to others. Some people seem to arrive early while most of us need decades. The wise move toward maturity.
Second, tests of our faith require wisdom.
To ask God requires that we start with sound theology: God “gives generously” and God gives to us “without finding fault” (1:5). We don’t hear God griping with “What a pain that guy has been!” or “You again?!” or “Will you ever grow up?” James reminds us that our requests begin with the wisdom that God is not only good and generous but that God answers. Jesus taught the very same thing in Matthew 7:7-11.
Wise faith trusts and does not doubt. This is one of those either-or statements that looks only at the ends of a spectrum: most of us trust with some doubt or even doubt with a little bit of trust. James presses the distinction as a way of exhorting the Christians to trust the generosity of God. He’s like a father teaching a daughter to dive off the 10–foot diving board the first time into the pool by saying, “Jump, you’ll be alright. Go ahead. You’ll never know how fun and easy it is until you jump.” Most jump and learn and easily forget how difficult the first jump was. (Someone say “Amen!”)
Trusting God to be generous, even for those with this mixture of faith and doubt, evokes a Galilean Sea image. Mixing faith and doubt is like being in a boat tossed by the waves. (I get dizzy, sometimes more than that, thinking about it.) James pushes harder by saying the doubting-believer is “double-minded” and “unstable in all they do” (James 1:8). James grew up daily reciting what we call the Shema from Deuteronomy 6, which exhorted him to love God with all his heart. To be double-minded splits the heart. The doubleminded person experiences trials as chaos even though our good God, who turns chaos into order (Genesis 1), generously offers a clarity that calms the chaotic waters.
Let’s tie this into a simple observation: if God is one who gives without reprimanding us, then we are to be persons who ask without doubting God. God, it can be said, is simply good — good in all God does — so we are to be simply trusting — trusting in all we do. Wise persons have learned by trusting God that God is trustworthy, which itself leads them to trust God again and again.
Third, tests of our faith give us social perspective.
I like this turnabout: it is the poor who are actually wealthy, and the wealthy who are actually poor! We can add a verse to Lauren Daigle’s song: You say I am rich when I am feeling poor. Yes, the poor experiencing economic downturns and oppression are the ones in the “high position” (James 1:9), while the rich exploiters are in a state of “humiliation” (James 1:10). Why? Riches, as James’ glorious Lord Jesus taught him, don’t last (Matthew 6:19-34). Grabbing an image from his Bible, though we are not sure from which book (Psalm 90:3-6 or Psalm 103:15-16 or Isaiah 40:6-8?), or perhaps spotting it on the Galilean hillsides, James sketches for all of us the impermanence of riches by comparing it to a “wild flower” (James 1:10-11): the sun’s heat withers the plant, the flower falls off, the plant dies. The rich businessmen — notice how James finishes with “go about their business,” and now look at James 4:13-17—and their riches will fade away like one of these scorched wild flowers.
What lasts? Being loved in God’s generous love and care. That’s information and knowledge, but wisdom takes it into the heart, turns to God, and trusts God come what may. Even in exile.
Questions for Reflection and Application
- James writes an oft-quoted verse in this first chapter: “Consider it pure joy... whenever you face trials of many kinds.” McKnight helps us understand that James’ readers were going through something significant because they were Christians. What trials did he suggest come to mind based on the entire book of James? What might you consider to be “trials of many kinds” for Christians in North America?
- McKnight writes, “Tests do things.” What are three things that tests do according to James, as covered in this section?
- How would you explain wisdom? McKnight writes, “Wisdom grabs information, sorts it out into knowledge, and then discerns the ways of God.” What do you think of this explanation of wisdom? (In 3:13-18 McKnight defines wisdom as “living in God’s world in God’s way.”)
- How might your social media usage (or your personal conversations) change if you were “quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry”?
- What is a trial or challenge you are facing that you can look at as an opportunity for growth? How does that shift in perspective change your approach?
1. The official translation is not so poetic. It reads, “Whenever Christ calls us, his call leads us to death.” See Discipleship (DBW 4; trans. B. Green, R. Krauss; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001), 87.
FOR FURTHER READING
2.Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, DBW 4; trans. B. Green, R. Krauss (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001).
3.Scot McKnight, “Poverty, Riches, and God’s Blessings: James in the Context of the Biblical Story,” in Eric F. Mason, Darian R. Lockett, Reading the Epistle of James: A Resource for Students (Resources for Biblical Study 94; Atlanta: SBL Press, 2019), 161–175.