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.

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