The book of James has been one of the most intriguing to me since I first became a Christian three decades ago. For the Christian searching for God’s will, James is crystal clear in providing a record of God’s standards and expectations of how Christians should conduct themselves, how we should treat others, how we should respond to trials and temptations, and a host of other very real situations of life.
The letter of James is thought to be the earliest document in the New Testament, written about 44-49 A.D., as soon as a decade after Jesus’ death and resurrection. The letter came at a time when a great number of Christians had fled Jerusalem and Judea after the stoning of Stephen (Acts 11:19) and at the time of Herod’s ever-increasing persecution of Christians (Acts 12). James addresses his letter to “the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad” (James 1:1). By comparison, the earliest gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—were written in the 50s and 60s A.D., while the gospel of John is dated to about 80 A.D.
The author is James the half-brother of Jesus (Mark 6:3) and brother of Jude (Matthew 13:55). Very early after the death and resurrection of Jesus, James became a leader in the church at Jerusalem. Paul referred to James, Peter, and John as “pillars” of the Jerusalem church (Galatians 2:9). James also was called “James the Just” due to his focus on righteous living. Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian, reports that James was martyred about 62 A.D.
One of the most outstanding indicators of the early date for the letter from James is the fact that he deals with none of the doctrinal disputes we read about in many of Paul’s letters, written in the 50s and 60s. The church was still young and had not been embroiled in doctrinal arguments to any degree at the time of James’ writing. So we find the letter of James deals with basic issues: responding to trials and temptations, equality of rich and poor, faith and works, responding to worldliness and strife, facing hostility, and prayer for the sick.
Throughout the letter, James emphasizes the practical aspects of Christian commitment. His purpose is to show our faith should show itself through godly living.
In Chapter 1, he writes about our attitude toward trials that will face each of us from time to time throughout our lives, giving a decidedly different view of trials than we receive from our 21st century western culture.
Count the experience of trials to be joy (1:2)
The first aspect of verse 2 we need to recognize is that the same Koine Greek root word is used for “trials” here in verse 2 and “temptations” in verse 12. By itself, the word can mean (1) adversity, affliction, trouble, that tests or proves one's character and faith; (2) an enticement to sin or a temptation, whether it arises from sinful inner desires or from outward circumstances; (3) a general term applying to any trial of person's fidelity, integrity, or virtue. Paul even uses the term to refer to a physical illness or disability in Galatians 4:14.
So we need to rely on the context to correctly translate James’ thoughts here. In verses 2-8, the context emphasizes what we might best call external trials—situations we face in the course of life. James writes that these trials are something we “fall into” or “encounter” (verse 2). There is no mention in verses 2-8 of personal accountability for the circumstances of the trial, sinful desires producing the conflict, etc., but merely that they happen and how we should respond. The term “fall into” or “encounter” is used in Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan, Luke 10:30: “A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell among thieves . . .” This is as opposed to the context in verses 12 and following, where James describes a different circumstance. Here, he refers to the experience of trials or temptations not as something that just happen to us, but something that entices us, when we are drawn away by our own desires (verse 14).
From the context, then, there is a little room for debate on the meaning of the word in verses 2-8. There is near-universal agreement among translators that what is in view in verses 2-8 are trials, not temptations. James calls them “various sorts” of trials, which we know from first century history of the Christian church included persecution, poverty, injustice, as well as illnesses. We also can rule out the idea of temptation here, I believe, because James calls it a “testing” (verse 3), and we know from verse 13 that temptation is not from God.
James writes in verse 2 that we should “count it all joy” when trials face us (or “consider it an occasion for joy”), an odd-sounding piece of advice for us today. Since we know trials are not pleasant, we can see that James is calling for a purposeful, intelligent, faithful response, not an emotional reaction. Following this standard, James tells us we are to regard trials not as negative events, but see them from God’s perspective: painful circumstances can produce something valuable for and in us.
Recognize the good results of trials (1:3-4)
In verses 3-4, he elaborates, telling his readers that trials, though unpleasant to experience, can produce good results. As believers, we are called on to rise above the immediate unpleasantness of a difficulty we encounter and find joy in what God will accomplish by leading us through the trial. We can know, James writes in verse 3, that trials are a “testing” of our faith that produces patience.
Testing is the method by which something is tried or proved. For example, gold has a relatively low melting point and can be “tested” for impurities by being melted. Impurities would separate and sink to the bottom of the crucible or float to the top. This word “test” is used only one other place in the N.T. (1 Peter 1:7), in which it is used to refer to gold being tested by fire (melted in the crucible). Therefore, James is making the point that the presence of trials in our lives refines our faith, strips away what is false and purifies our trust in God, makes us stronger, and gives us the positive experience of a purer, more experienced faith and better understanding of God and His purposes.
Testing produces patience. A better translation of this word would be “steadfastness” or “endurance.” In the New Testament, we find that this is a characteristic of the person who is not swerved from his or her loyalty to faith and piety by even the greatest trials and sufferings. A bit later in history, this term “endurance” was used to describe those Christians who were martyred by the Romans rather than to deny their faith and worship the Roman gods. Endurance also is a character quality of Christ, as we read in 2 Thessalonians 3:5: “Now may the Lord direct your hearts into the love of God and into the patience (endurance) of Christ.” Finally, James uses the word again in 5:11, to describe the perseverance of Job, referring Job’s continuing faith in God despite his terrible troubles.
James tells us in verse that the experience of endurance can make us “perfect and complete, lacking nothing.” The term “perfect” does not mean absolute perfection, but “full grown, adult, of full age, mature.” The word “complete” means “whole” and “without blemish or defect” and lacking nothing. Perhaps none of us feels like our faith is completely mature and lacking nothing when we are enduring a trial. James deals with this in verses 5-8.
Ask God for wisdom to deal with trials (1:5-8)
James singles out “wisdom” as the quality that may be lacking when we face trials. He uses the same term “lacking” in verse 4 and “lacks” in verse 5. The thought is connected. What is lacking in our faith as we face trials and do not persevere is wisdom.
Wisdom is more than knowledge. It is knowledge plus moral discernment, the ability to make choices and respond to the pressures and negative circumstances in ways that are not just righteous, but also right. James further portrays godly wisdom in 3:17 as being “from above,” describing it as pure, peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, and without partiality or hypocrisy. Notice how he contrasts these qualities with human wisdom in 3:14-15: human wisdom arises from bitter envy, self-seeking character, and it is earthly, sensual, and demonic . . . as opposed to wisdom “from above.”
The contrast is to the wisdom of the unbeliever—that is, human wisdom—which, faced with trials, tends to choose the expedient or self-serving solution. But the wisdom of a mature believer will tend to reflect godly qualities: mercy, good fruits, purity, etc.
So, assuming I am not perfect and complete yet, I need wisdom “from above.” James writes that if we lack wisdom, we should ask of God, who always can be counted on to give liberally and without reproach, and wisdom will be given to us. Why “without reproach”? One possible explanation is that James never even hints that trials are punishment, as we sometimes might imagine. We should therefore be assured that God would not reprimand us for asking help in knowing how to respond to our trials.
The promise to us is that if we pray for wisdom, God will give it to us. There is a condition, however. We must ask in faith, with no doubt; faith that believes God is hearing and will answer. Remember that the biblical concept of “faith” includes trust. We can trust God to provide wisdom and trust that God’s way is best. This narrows our options. We are to pray for wisdom, not to complain to God about the trial. We are to therefore be open to the wisdom He provides.
Look back at 3:17: the wisdom God supplies in answer to our prayer will lead us to pure, peaceful, gentle solutions. It may mean we see the godly way to handle a trial is yielding, showing mercy, acting without partiality or hypocrisy.
It is possible for the Christian, especially the less-mature Christian, to go through the motions of prayer, all the while having doubts about whether God will provide wisdom, or doubting whether the wisdom from God is better than our own human wisdom. Such a Christian, James writes (verses 6-8), is like a wave of the sea driven by the wind. That is, he or she has no self direction, no faith in God to provide the solution and either ease the trial or provide the patience to endure it. That person, James tells us, is “double-minded,” that is, doubting, hesitant, with divided allegiance, unsettled, restless, vacillating in what to do in the face of the trial, sometimes thinking God may supply wisdom and other times giving into discouragement, abandoning the hope of enduring.
During trials, the mature Christian is driven to God in prayer. He or she feels encouraged to ask God and then trust Him for the answer, knowing it will come at the time God chooses. Sometimes, we must admit to ourselves, facing a trial seems to be the only way God can get us to talk to Him.