Jesus Creed

Jesus Creed

A Brother’s Wisdom 2

James, brother of Jesus, offers us wisdom. He opens his letter with a very typical greeting and then dives right in with these words:

2 Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. 4 Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.


This verse has been a favorite of positive thinking; it has shaped some to form Christian Stoicism; and it has led others to think we can simply neglect this world. None of this works for James. For him, James sees the storm coming and he walks right into it with his head held high: “Sure,” he seems to be saying, “you’re facing trials. Sure, it’s tough and it might cause some pain. But instead of caving in to it, turn the winds around and learn from them.” Trials and tests can lead to maturity — to perfection (a common translation for “mature” in 1:4).

But what trials did he have in view?

Good question because it forces us to ask how we are to read James. For some, when James says “whenever you face trials of many kinds,” they think James is referring to most anything we can imagine or most anything we face. The next thing we are talking about losing jobs or broken relationships or flat tires. This view of James 1:2 is shaped more by what we can get out of the text than what James meant.


The first thing we are to do is read James to see what he might mean, and we can come up with a nice little list of his pressing concerns:

1. 1:2-4 suggests he’s talking about the sorts of things that try one’s very faith and that lead to the virtue of perseverance.
2. 1:5-8 suggests he’s talking about the sorts of things that lead us to cry out to God for wisdom.
3. 1:9-11 suggests he’s talking about stuff the poor are experiencing and it right here that we can explore all kinds of texts in James, including the judicially-sponsored exploitation of the poor (2:1-7) and the oppression of the poor by the rich (5:1-6).

It is wiser to let James give us concrete ideas before we impose our own concrete applications. James is more likely talking about the stress of the poor at the hands of oppressors than he is giving simple timeless wisdom about wearing a happy face.

Comments read comments(8)
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Carl Holmes

posted February 17, 2009 at 1:36 pm

oh boy… this is gonna be good.

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posted February 17, 2009 at 1:45 pm

Stress of poor in the face of oppressors or stress of faith in the face of persecution? I would have thought the latter would be the kind of trial that tests faith and builds perseverance.

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posted February 17, 2009 at 2:53 pm

Amen, amen, amen. I’m really glad to see that context plays a role in how you interpreted this scripture. I can’t count how many times I’ve seen/heard someone teach a lesson that was way out of context.
Remember this: If your interpretation wouldn’t make sense to a 1st centruy audience, your interpretation isn’t Biblical.
I look forward to hearing more discussion on this

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posted February 17, 2009 at 2:55 pm

A graded test – or pass/fail?

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Charles Laster

posted February 17, 2009 at 3:02 pm

Very smart discussion.By the way, what is your fovorite gospel(mine’s Luke).

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posted February 17, 2009 at 4:27 pm

James is one of my favorite books. I look forward to hearing more of your thoughts!

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Jim Martin

posted February 17, 2009 at 8:23 pm

A great post! Love what you said regarding trials and dealing with the context. I read through this and made a mental note to come back to this post again.

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james wheeler

posted February 18, 2009 at 12:03 pm

Hey Scott. Interesting thoughts about interpretation here. I agree that the meaning of James needs to be rooted in its historical context but also think that our social contexts and therefore our spiritualist interpretation may not necessarily be that far off. Many, who are in poverty or suffering, can read this text too. I remember reading 1:27 as a 14 year old. My dad had died the year before. We were in a financial bind and with scant resources. That is stretching the analogy but it seems my context and the historical meaning of that text are not too far off (in my 14 year old mind anyway).
I do cringe at bourgeois interpretive practices that are highly self invested. One of my biggest concerns in ministry within the evangelical sub-culture is how self-invested our teaching and preaching is. It is often more therapeutic than ethical. Can you suggest some reading on this subject? (although maybe the book of James is a great place to start!) Certainly historical critical method helps with this process though.
I wonder if there is any value of connecting 1:2-3 with virtue ethics? That is the concept of character formation? Or does that run too close to what you are calling stoicism?

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