James 1:1-12: The Purpose of Trials

Several years ago, a friend gave my children a butterfly cage with caterpillars. After the caterpillars were in their cocoons for quite a while, the cocoons began to spin around almost violently. The butterflies looked like they were desperately trying to escape. To help a young butterfly out of the cocoon, however, is to ensure its death. They needed to experience the adversity of breaking out of the cocoon not only to thrive, but to live.

One continual theme in James’ letter is adversity. Perhaps James was writing to predominantly Jewish believers who had left Jerusalem after experiencing persecution. Since James mentions poverty so much in this letter, the recipients of the letter could have been economically disadvantaged. Whatever the case, James’ instruction regarding adversity applies to whatever difficulties we might face: health problems, family relationships, problematic individuals at work, etc.

James doesn’t simply call these events adversities or stressors; he calls them “trials” (James 1:2). Adversity is simply an event or events that are difficult or unpleasant; a trial has a purpose. A trial reveals something vital. In the case of James 1, a trial reveals whether a person’s faith is genuine (1:3). A person’s endurance over time then enables them to become complete or mature (1:4). The road to maturity, moreover, requires wisdom (1:5), and the way to acquire wisdom is to ask God in faith as Solomon did. God is a generous giver who delights in giving with no strings attached. We usually gain wisdom through trials.

One of the issues in this passage is what James means when he says that Christians should ask in faith and not doubt (1:6-8). Some people (wrongly) interpret this passage to mean that a Christian must have emotional certainty that God will grant them exactly what they ask. A key is in a word often translated as “double-minded” in verse 8. The fact that this word occurs in no other earlier piece of Greek writing leads some scholars to suggest James coined the word. It can be translated more rigidly as “double-souled.”

Clement, an early pastor in Rome, used Lot’s wife as an example of someone who was “double-souled.” She was willing to leave her home in response to God’s words, but her heart remained in Sodom. Asking in faith means trusting in and being committed to God.

In verses 9-11, James gives two specific trials believers can face. The first is poverty (which is what James means here by “humble”). How can believers endure this trial? They can remember and take pride in their high status before God. Because of Christ, God has elevated them to the “heavenly places” (Ephesians 1:3). How can wealthy believers endure the trial of wealth and refuse to worship mammon? They can remember their low status before God: They were so helpless that Jesus Christ had to die for them (Romans 5:8).

Because those who have a genuine, enduring faith will become mature and receive the crown or victory wreath of life, they can consider the trials “all joy.” In other words, enduring trials and arriving at Christian maturity mean far more joy than a person would have had otherwise. To be a person whose faith endures trials and receives life is what it means to be truly blessed by God.

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