What a way to start a book! James sure knows how to get our attention…”Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials…” What? How can trials produce joy? Trials produce a lot of things in me, but rarely joy. But James says the joy comes not in the pain of the trial (fire of circumstances), but in the endurance that the trial has the potential of producing in our faith. And endurance leads to maturity.
Sounds a little backwards. Most of us don’t want to endure, we want to escape. Trials are difficult and seldom fun. There’s generally a lot of relational friction and personal angst. And I believe that most of this is caused by our inability to view our circumstances from anything other than our own limited, earthy perspective.
You see when God creates heaven and earth in Genesis, there is no separation between the spiritual and the physical. God walks in the garden in the cool of the day. It’s not until sin enters the picture that we see a split between the earthly and the heavenly. And if we follow the story throughout the first several chapters of Genesis, and indeed throughout the rest of the Old Testament, we see that the seed (many) of the woman (as opposed to Seed, one) from Genesis 3.15 are those who call on the name of the Lord, who have a heavenly focus, while the seed of the serpent are those who are focused on terra firma. So the descendants of Seth call on the name of the Lord while the descendants of Cain build cities, make bronze implements and fashion musical instruments.
Jesus tells His disciples in the Sermon on the Mount not to worry about the earthy things like food and clothing, but set their sights on heaven (Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things will be added to you.). Paul says, “Keep seeking the things above where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on the things above…”
So James says, “Ask for wisdom.” Ask for the ability and the wisdom to see the trial or circumstance from God’s perspective. Set your mind on the things above. This world is transitory. Focus on the world that is eternal.
But endurance and maturity are not automatics. Experience alone (just “surviving”) doesn’t produce maturity. I bet you can think of a time when you said, “I’m never going to do that again.” You had an experience with some unpleasant consequences. And then, some time later you find yourself in very similar circumstances facing identical consequences. We’ve all done it. I know I have. More so as a kid (hopefully), but we’ve all seen that the experience itself produced no learning, no changed behavior.
However, evaluated experience (i.e., wisdom) produces maturity. Learning to see the trial from God’s perspective and asking the question, “God, what is it that you want me to learn from this experience?” produces wisdom and maturity and results in life.
Trials are external. Next James addresses the internal. Temptation is borne out of our internal lusts. And temptation yielded to causes a kind of death in the life of the believer. Sin hampers our relationship with God and quashes our effectiveness in carrying out His mission for our lives. James’ remedy…receive the word implanted that is able to save your life. Life is fulfilling all that God has called us to in loving Him and loving others, in expanding His kingdom. Very cool to see the centrality of the word in fighting temptation. It reminds me of Jesus’ parable of the sower where the seed is the word of God and the goal is fruit 30, 60 and 100 fold.
Quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger isn’t just a New Testament proverb. It allows us to approach our circumstances and the trials that come in learner mode, humbly seeking what God wants to teach us through the fire and how He wants to conform us more to the image of His Son.
Echoing Jesus’ words at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, James contrasts doers of the word with hearers only. Guess which one he wants us to be. The doer of the word is blessed in what he does. The doer of the word also turns the circumstances around. Where we might be tempted to focus on ourselves in the midst of trials (“Woe is me!”), James says the cure is to focus on widows and orphans in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
I don’t know about you, but James 1 had several aha moments for me. I’m asking for wisdom a lot more and seeking what God wants to teach me. A very different perspective on trials.
Until next time, stay salty my friend.