My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance; and let perseverance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing. (James 1:2-4)
What were the "trials" that James's readers were enduring? Poverty must certainly have been among them. James's letter is filled with references to poverty and wealth, and he makes clear that at least the majority of his readers are poor. James 2:6-7 makes pretty clear that unfair persecution was one of the causes of the poverty that the early Christians were experiencing. Rich people, who were "slandering" the name of Christ, were "exploiting" the Christians and "dragging them into court." See also 5:1-6, where James accuses rich people of "hoarding wealth in the last days" and "killing" the "innocent" by withholding wages from them.
By stressing that the trials were of "many kinds," James deliberately casts his net widely, including the many kinds of suffering that Christians undergo in this fallen world: sickness, loneliness, disappointment, mourning, uncertainty. Why can believers react to trials with so strange and unexpected a response as joy? Because we know that trials perfect our faith and make us stronger.
I like what Luke Timothy Johnson, a New Testament scholar and historian of early Christianity, points out about the trials we face: "The difficulties of life are intended by God to refine our faith—heating it in the crucible of suffering so that impurities might be refined away and so that it might become pure and valuable before the Lord." The "testing of faith" here, then, is not intended to determine whether a person has faith or not—it is intended to purify faith that already exists.
Testing produces, first of all, perseverance (also interpreted "patient endurance"). The picture of the Greek word here is of a person successfully carrying a heavy load for a long time; eventually steering
them in the right direction. Like a muscle that becomes strong when it faces resistance, so Christians learn to remain faithful to God over the long haul when they face trials of many kinds.
James believes we should rejoice because trials give us an opportunity to develop the virtue of "patient endurance," which will in turn lead to a mature and complete Christian character. This is how Christians are to live. This is not to say that we cannot call pain, pain; difficulty, difficulty. Paul makes it very clear that he could recognize pain, call it what it is, and experience it with the full depth of human anguish (1 Cor. 4:9-13). He also left us the example of fleeing from persecution when it was appropriate (Acts 17:10-14). Yet even in such situations he, with James, could look beyond them to "an eternal glory that far outweighs them all—reminding us to fix our eyes not on what is seen but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal" (2 Cor. 4:17-18).
Jason E. Royle
Welcome to my blog. I'm an open-minded theologian committed to Christ-like compassion & understanding.
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