Wisdom & Suffering: Exegetical Study of James 1:2-8

 

James 1:2-8 is a distinctly succinct explanation of God’s character, and how a believer should respond to temptations and trials.  While a relatively small pericope, James 1:2-8 is deeply inspired, supported and full of applicable instruction.

Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him. But he must ask in faith without any doubting, for the one who doubts is like the surf of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind. For that man ought not to expect that he will receive anything from the Lord, being a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways. (James 1:2-8, New American Standard Bible)

 

On the surface, the book of James can seem to be a jumble of lessons with no real structure or overall theme.  On the contrary, however, James’ letter is a result of his devout religiousness colliding with his desire to foster a community of truth, maturity, responsibility and an interdependency amongst believers.

James has several major themes that he addresses; such as sin, Christology, the righteousness of the poor, wisdom and suffering. It is this last one, suffering that begins James’ book, and it is also the theme that binds all the others together.

As Christians enter into suffering, we need to remember that God has set us free from the punishment of sin, and seek to view our trials joyfully. 

James, the brother of the Lord, understood this truth.  In fact, in his only entry into canonical literature, James wastes no time on lengthy introductions.  Rather, he addresses this idea of joyful suffering, wisdom and sanctification right away.

This pericope was designed to reinforce, to the church, the importance of sanctification; and, seeing the endurance of trials as the path to Christian maturity.


Historical-cultural context

James, the brother of the Lord, was relatively late coming to his faith in Christ.  His life, and ministry is marked with a severity of devotion.

His idea of piety was to spend whole hours in the wrestling of prayer… God was to him a goal whose glory consisted in not being easily won.

Non-Christians as well as Christian Jerusalemites admired his piety, but his denunciations of the aristocracy… undoubtedly played a large role in the aristocratic priesthood’s opposition to him.

It was likely this attitude that caused the high priest Ananus II to execute James around the year A.D. 62.

James demise was not a singular incident, but rather a sign of the times.  Around the time of the writing of his letter, who were once landowners had been driven out of business by Rome’s exorbitant taxes.  These once independent farmers were now forced to work as tenant farmers or day laborers for aristocratic landlords.  Needless to say resentment for the upper class was high, especially as the aristocracy lived a rich life while grain shortages meant hunger for the peasants.

Additionally, the aristocratic priests maintained their rich lifestyle by keeping the tithes of lesser priests, bringing tensions to a climax.

James addresses especially Jewish Christians (and probably any other Jew who would listen) caught up in the sort of social tensions that eventually produced the war of A.D. 66-70.  While this is true, it’s important to note that James saw the lessons as relevant to every Christians, his ultimate audience was all believers from the twelve tribes (v1).


Reaction to Trials (v2)

“Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials.” (James 2:2)

Immediately after identifying himself and his audience in verse 1, James seems to jump right into teaching.  One would be amiss, however, to miss the connection here.  James is writing to a group of believers, his brethren, who are experiencing poverty and oppression.

While the truths contained here can apply to many trials, it’s important to keep in mind that these are the specific trials that James is addressing.  It is interesting to note that the word “trials” is also translated as temptations.  How does James expect believers to react to trials and temptations?

Breaking down the verse from the beginning we James says “Consider it all joy…” This phrase “all joy” means something special, and isn’t necessarily as much a feeling as it is a choice.  James is being both literal and figurative here when he exhorts us to find joy in our trials.  Often when we think of joy we think of pure happiness, but this isn’t truly the full meaning of the word.

Joy is a deep sense of well-being that may at the same time embrace sorrow, tears, laughter, anger, pain… It is choosing to live above feelings but not deny them… Joy is a particularly Christian response to life since it depends on faith in God’s sovereignty. It is quiet and grateful, and it inwardly delights in the goodness of God.

With this extended definition of joy, we can begin to understand what James was trying to tell his fellow believers.  We are to experience our trials and temptations with a fullness of joy, rejoicing in what these trials can produce in us, and leaning on our faith in God.  This very idea is James’ next point.

The Benefits of Enduring Trials (v3-4)

“…knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:3-4).

James expects believers to consider trials as a reason to rejoice, and have faith in God.  Now we shall breakdown exactly why a believer should choose to have joy through trials and temptations.  James points out that:

  • Believers should “know” that there is a benefit to trials.
  • These trials will test, or provide proof of, our faith, and produce endurance or patience.
    • As we endure these trials, standing firm in our faith, our faith will be proven legitimate on the other side of the trial.
    • Early Hebrew and Greek wisdom placed a great deal of emphasis on enduring, or having patience (the words are interchangeable here) through trials and/or temptation.
  • If we stand firm through one trial, we can be assured that we will be stronger and more ready to stand for the next. For, as our hearts and minds are assured of our faith, the more boldly they will endure the next trial.

James is not questioning the faith of his audience, he already believes them to have faith.  What James understands is that their faith lacks maturity, and encouraging them to an endurance of faith.

“Endurance is faith stretched out; it involves trusting God for a long duration”

James continues this line of thinking urging us that to let endurance produce a “perfect result” making us “perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”  Here we see that enduring trials is part of the process of being made perfect, or sanctification.

By context, we see that James sees some of the virtues being developed as joy, patience and maturity.

In other words, through sanctification, our faith is made stronger, and we become more holy.  There’s a catch, however, we must be wise enough to discern the truths, and lessons that come through our trials.

Seeking Wisdom (v5-8)

Having, seeking and gaining wisdom is the key growing our faith into the kind of faith that produces greater endurance, and sanctification.  In verse 2 James exhorts us to “consider”, this is directly related to the wisdom that we need in order to do so.  Our lack of wisdom and faith is exactly why our trials overwhelm us.  Were we to have enough of both we would never falter during struggles.

God’s Gift of Wisdom (v5)

But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him” (James 1:5).

God is a generous and fulfilling God, and continually we are told that if we need anything, that all we need to do is ask.

During His Sermon on the Mount, Christ said, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7).  James continues his lesson drawing on this truth, instructing any who lack the wisdom (to find joy in the trials), to ask God for it, and he shall receive it.

God does not resent our reliance on Him, but generously, lovingly and continually gives us all that we ask.

 Doubting God, the Double-Minded Man (v6-8)

But he must ask in faith without any doubting, for the one who doubts is like the surf of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind. For that man ought not to expect that he will receive anything from the Lord, being a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways. (James 1:6-8)

After teaching us to seek wisdom from God, James tells us the danger of trying to live in our own understanding, doubting God.

The phrase “any doubting” does not refer to doubting God’s existence or wisdom, but rather doubting God’s goodness, compassion and willingness to give us what we need.  James was urging fellow believers to go boldly into prayer, asking for wisdom and expecting God to deliver it.  Anything less, leaves us without God’s wisdom, and finds us being controlled by our circumstances.  We lose the stability that faith, wisdom and joy bring.

Wiersbe once said,

“Double-minded Christians are not stable during trials.  Their emotions and their decisions waver.  One minute they trust God; the next minute, they doubt God.  Faith in God during trials will always lead to stability

Application

The biggest question when looking at any scripture is always, “how do I apply this to my life?”  Fortunately, James’ teachings are practical and easily translated to our lives.

There is little room for error in interpreting this pericope into our daily walk with the Lord.

  • Every day of our lives we will face temptation and trials.
    • They won’t always be something as an oppressive government, poverty and the temptation to fight back with violence.
    • For some, it’s about understanding how to navigate the day with a difficult co-worker, roommate, road rage, or disagreements with our friends or loved ones.
    • Other times, we will be dealt a blow and need to persevere through tough trials such as addiction, unemployment, divorce or the loss of a loved one.
  • Fortunately, James’ instruction applies to all of these situations (and infinitely more).
  • We must stand firm in our faith through adversity, and truly consider it joy when trials come.
    • Each test of our faith, produces deeper faith, and is part of the process of sanctification.
  • James’ encouragement to seek wisdom is the key.

By wisdom, James means not only knowledge, but the ability to make wise decisions in in the midst of trials.

  • Every time that we find ourselves facing trials or temptations we should:
    • Stop
    • Thank God for His authority over the situation
    • Seek His wisdom
    • Believe that He will give us exactly what we need to endure the trial.

Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, 2 fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 For consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. (Hebrews 12:1-3)

Conclusion

James, the brother of Jesus, and a devoutly pious man, was considered a teacher of wisdom.  Even so, he gained that wisdom particularly from Jesus.  As a result, much of his teaching echoes sayings of Jesus. This wisdom, however, meant much more to him than just good ideas.  James saw wisdom as the key to sanctification and the perseverance of trials as the catalyst to spiritual maturity.  In James 1:2-8 we see James encouraging fellow believers to rejoice, or have faith, through various trials.  James understood that trials produced endurance of faith, wisdom and sanctification.  Without this growth, and the seeking of wisdom from God, we are left to our own understanding.

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