The Book of James – Part 1
At Little Flowers Community we are beginning a series on the Book of James. I will be posting the parts of the series that I lead, but as I won’t be present for two weeks of the series, there will be some gaps. Hope you still enjoy it.
“James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes scattered among the nations: Greetings.”
From this simply greeting, we learn a great deal about the people James is writing to. Like so many other followers of Christ, they are among those who have been scattered by all kind of circumstances. This is such a critical place to begin, as we see how faithfulness to Christ calls us immediately to the Cross. Immediately, these challenges are highlighted in the following verses.
“Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does.”
James’ admonition to consider trials as “pure joy” would have immediately been reminiscent to his readers of Jesus teaching in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:10-12). Not only does this again reinforce the centrality of our response to suffering, but it highlights how significantly the teaching of Jesus was to shaping how the community of faith lived. While this may seem an obvious dynamic, consider how much Christendom has shifted the emphasis from following Christ to worshiping Him. We need reminding that one is impossible- even inseparable- from the other.
If we believe that trials build our faith through developing perseverance, how do we reconcile that with our own culture that teaches us to pursue our own comfort and ease at almost any cost? Consider your life and the life you share with your community of faith: How have trials brought forth maturity and perseverance? Or are we avoiding those trials altogether? What holds us back?
It is clear that, in order for us to build our faith to maturity and completion, we will need to seek God for wisdom. Again, this might seem like stating the obvious, but sincerely seeking God’s wisdom is also a confession of our insufficiency. It calls us to humility, honesty and sometimes even repentance. James knew how strongly we resist this admission of dependency, both to God and the wider community. When we come to God with sincere supplication- not through empty ritual or unbelieving adherence- God will answer our prayers and lead us into maturity and completion in our faith.
“The brother in humble circumstances ought to take pride in his high position. But the one who is rich should take pride in his low position, because he will pass away like a wild flower. For the sun rises with scorching heat and withers the plant; its blossom falls and its beauty is destroyed. In the same way, the rich man will fade away even while he goes about his business.”
Many believe that James seems to go off topic in this section, likening his writings to the wisdom literature of the Old Testament. While those similarities are present, that is not what we are encountering in this section. Rather, the teaching on right hospitality speak directly to the issue of trials and temptations. It speaks directly to a reality the people would have been facing (and one we too will face if we follow Christ together in our communities).
The pursuit of humility as a path to wisdom and maturity is reinforced in a community where the wealthy and the privileged subvert the world’s values through taking the lesser position. Further, as struggling communities in need of strength and resources, it would be a great temptation to give preference to those who might further the cause of Christ through their means. James is clearly reminding us that this is unacceptable.
“Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him. When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.”
It is important to remember that, like in the Beatitudes in Matthew 5, James is not promising a blessing as a reward for perseverance, but reminding us that in the present-yet-coming Kingdom of God, we live in the present blessedness of Christ, even in the midst of suffering. That is most powerfully realized through the incarnation of Jesus Christ present with us and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit which transforms us into that presence for the world.
In the face of trials and temptations, the idealism we often hold falls apart. We can all too quickly begin to blame God for the tension and suffering we face in these circumstances. God is not causing us suffering in order that we will mature. Rather, God is calling us to Himself which cast a light on those things already present in our hearts that hold us back from radical obedience. The barriers and tensions we experience, then, are not created by God as some kind of test, but a reflection of our own brokenness in need of transformation. As they say, if you pray for patience, don’t blame God when circumstances test your patience. God did not make you impatient, but simply provided the opportunity to learn it.
“Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of first fruits of all he created.”
So many excuses keep us in compromise. We justify our compromises by citing the greater good. We minimize the demands our temptations make upon us, pointing to God as the one who is testing us. We make excuses and shift blame, but ultimately we lose out the most. When God leads us on a path, regardless of how difficult it is, where He leads us always brings life.
Are we willing to follow Christ into a life of radical obedience trusting that, in the face of trials and temptations, we believe that He is bring us towards Himself? If so, the Epistle of James offers a powerful direction for us to follow together.