A brief overview of the letter:
True faith, when confronted by trials and temptations, doesn’t react with doubt, but rather stabilizes a believer’s attitude. Attitude should be based on counting blessings not on focusing on troubles. James makes this point through three examples. In verses 2-11 he discusses how true faith emerges from life’s trials. In verses 12-18 he shows how true faith deals with lust’s temptations. And in verses 19-27 he explains that when a true believer is faced with principles and commands from Scripture, the response is to change according to what Scripture teaches.
Believers tend to rationalize and make excuses when they face situations calling for righteous actions which conflict with their prejudices and pride. Through love, true faith overcomes rationalizations and excuses. Paul in Galatians 5:6 NIV tells us, “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” True faith fights prejudice (verses 1-13), indifference (verses 14-20), and unproductive intellectual belief (verses 21-26).
Faith should be expressed with control and humility, not arrogance and insensitivity. James mentions three different ways in which we express our faith: Verbally (3:1-12), emotionally (3:13-4:12), and volitionally (4:13-17).
In the midst of distress and suffering, true faith does not panic and fail. Instead, it produces patience. James illustrates this truth with everyday events: Not having enough money (verses 1-12), sickness (verses 13-18), and dealing with a spiritual brother or sister who isn’t walking with the Lord (verses 19-20).
Style and Date
The style of writing and the high quality of the written Greek leads many bible scholars to believe that original material from James was edited and assembled into this letter by someone highly skilled in Greek. However that may be, the thoughts and message are from James. The date at which the letter was written is also controversial, but it is likely it was as early as 45-50AD, just some 15-20 years after the resurrection. The letter’s content is practical and intended to encourage believers under pressure to abandon their faith to stand fast and live a life worthy of their status in Christ.
Difficult to Outline
This letter is notoriously difficult to outline. There are several distinctive parts to the letter. The overall theme is to stand firm in the face of trials and develop strong faith that is active and alive, a faith that keeps us doing the right things at the right time for the right reasons, a faith that determines behavior in every phase of life. We will look at the individual themes of the various sections as we come to them.
Circumstances at the Time of Writing
For James’ first readers it was an increasingly difficult time. Opposition to Christians had reached the point where openly living their faith often caused believers to be shunned and ridiculed as well as sharply restricted in employment and market place opportunities. You get the right sort of picture, by remembering the situation of the Jews under the Nazis. The Nazis step-by-step prohibited the Jews from owning property, restricted the jobs they might hold and schools they might attend. They were forbidden to mingle with non-Jews, forced to live in designated areas, and so forth. Eventually, the Jews were rounded up, transported to prison camps where they were severely abused. If not deemed able to work as slaves, they were executed.
The same sort of downward progression was happening to the believers to whom James wrote. At the time, they were still near the beginning of their trials, but they, like the Jews under the Nazis, were destined to be physically persecuted, imprisoned, and martyred. That happened closer to the end of the first century. James’ concern was that the increasing pressure on believers to conform to the dominant non-Christian view of society plus restrictions being placed on them were causing some to deny or hide their faith. They were also bickering among themselves as those stronger in faith condemned the weaker ones for giving in to the pressure.
Comments on the Letter From James
“James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion: Greetings.” In this humble and direct greeting the writer identifies himself only as James a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ. There was only one James so well known in the early church that he would need no other form of identification, and that was James the Just, brother of Jesus, leader of the Church in Jerusalem. The prominence and importance of James in the church is seen in the salutation of the New Testament letter from Jude that begins, “A servant of Jesus Christ and brother of James.” James claims no title other than “servant.” His letter is to believers scattered among the nations.
James appears to have been an unbeliever until after the resurrection. In 1 Corinthians 15:1-7 we see that the resurrected Lord visited James. From that moment on, James appears in Scripture as a different man. James was with the apostles at Pentecost (Acts 1:14) and we see references to him in Acts 21 and Galatians 2. In 50 AD an important conference was called in Jerusalem to review the missionary work of Paul and Silas. As head of the Jerusalem church, James led that conference. When Paul made his last visit to Jerusalem (Acts 21:18), James was still in the leadership position. It is generally believed James was martyred after the death of Festus in AD 62, but definitely before the AD 66-70 war with Rome.
“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, 3 for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. 4 And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”James 1:2-4
It is a startling idea to consider trials as joyful events. Verses 1:2-4 and 1:5-11 are directed primarily at trials arising from external sources. Every trial (external or internal) carries with it a temptation to do something to relieve the pressure of the trial. Likewise, every temptation is a trial testing one’s moral strength. All people face trials and suffering. Most sources of trials and suffering are beyond our control. At times trials and suffering occur because of our own wrong choices. But some trials are simply because we are humans living in a fallen world. People are abused physically and mentally because of what they believe. Living in a fallen world means getting sick, suffering accidental injuries, experiencing weather and other natural disasters. God uses all trials and suffering of believers, whatever the source, to reveal and strengthen their faith. Trials befalling believers because of their following Christ are a special case. In Jesus words, Matthew 5:11-12, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
Counting Blessings not Focusing on Troubles
Believers’ attitudes toward trials should be based on counting blessings not focusing on troubles. True faith is strengthened by a proper attitude toward life’s trials. Suffering may arise from yielding to temptation as well as persevering in righteousness. The two cause are different and should not be confused. Suffering as a consequence of yielding to temptation leads to ultimate spiritual death if God doesn’t intervene, but suffering from persevering in faith leads to eternal life.
Trials challenge faith. True faith, when battered by trials, may bend or stretch but it doesn’t break even under a load of emotion and doubt. True faith manifests itself as a persistent willful commitment to our Sovereign God.
This is a Difficult Saying
James spends no time on preliminaries. He gets right down to the meat of his concern. “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds,” 3 for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. 4 And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” At first thought it may seem James is saying facing trials enables one to be perfect and complete, lacking nothing. But, of course, that is not what he says. There is no inherent good in trials and suffering. It is steadfastness in the faith in both good and bad times that is good and enables one to become perfect and complete. The point is that even the unpleasantness of trials will have a positive effect when you endure them standing steadfast in the faith trusting God.
Count it all joy. To me this means to choose the right attitude toward whatever is happening. There is right and a wrong way to face trials. The wrong way is to get panicky, resentful, and scared, reacting with feelings of bitterness and anger. The right way is to trust God’s promise that, if we are steadfast, then even in the face of a difficult and perhaps painful trial, He will accomplish something good in our life.
James says, “we know” God uses the testing of our faith to increase patience, perseverance, and steadfastness. He is confident. We should pray that the Holy Spirit will enable us to stand fast in faith even under tough circumstances of suffering. Ultimately, the reward is to becoming spiritually perfect and complete, lacking nothing. It is equally important to be steadfast in obedience to God when we receive blessings like wealth or power. The temptation to abuse such blessings is great.
Joy in Being Steadfast
Believers are to deal with trials in God honoring ways. But how do we do that when facing a trial where every nerve in the body tingles and we shake with fear dreading the mental or physical pain we face? Emotions and intellect demand we do something, do anything, to get out of the threat. Temptation will be great to take any available “out” even if it compromises our faith.
It is not likely avoid one can avoid the difficulties of a trial, but we can face trials with a God-honoring attitude. We can use our will power to choose a righteous attitude and the corresponding right behavior. Joy is the attitude James suggests. Using will-power works in many situations, but extreme physical and mental torture may be more than body and mind can bear. Whatever the case, James tells us to count up the pluses and minuses of being faithful to God compared to the pluses and minuses of denying our faith. Obviously, it is best to be on God’s side even if it costs our earthly life. God rewards faithfulness steadfastness. A believer’s mission in life is to trust and obey. Succeeding in steadfastness is a cause for joy.
Behavior is the Issue
James is not concerned with feelings or what we think about the fairness of trials. His concern is our behavior. Behavior is strongly influenced by attitude. God has created us such that we have a will which can choose in spite of contrary feelings and intellectual conclusions. We are created such that our will can control our emotions and intellect. Will-power can choose a God-honoring attitude in every situation even when emotions and intellect incline us in some other direction. Attitude and behavior interact, each either strengthening or weakening the other. Attitude and behavior tend to reach an equilibrium in which attitude and behavior agree. Bad behavior and bad attitude go together. Change one and the other follows. Which comes first is somewhat of a chicken and egg problem. The truth is God has so created us that our will can override and control both attitude and inclination for certain behaviors.
There is a kind of spiral effect in which attitude influences behavior and behavior either reinforces or works against attitude. In His grace God has made us so that attitude and behavior not only interact, but He has set both under control of our will. Allowing feelings to choose attitude or behavior is almost always problematic.
Victor Frankl’s Example
The life of Viktor Frankl provides an example of the power of the will in choosing an attitude. As a prominent Jew he was taken prisoner by the Nazi’s during the Holocaust. They subjected him to years of indignity and humiliation, horrors beyond imagination, before he was finally liberated. Something happened near the beginning of his 3 year long ordeal that enabled him to endure. He was marched into a Gestapo interrogation room. His captors had already taken away his home, his family, his freedom, his possessions, even his watch and wedding ring. They had shaved his head and stripped off his clothing. There he stood naked before the Gestapo, under glaring lights being interrogated, falsely accused, and having every reason to believe that he was doomed. He was destitute, a helpless pawn in the hands of brutal, prejudiced, sadistic men. It seemed he had nothing. But suddenly he realized that wasn’t quite true. It came into his mind unexpectedly that there was one thing he was free to do.
Dr. Frankl realized that even in his horrible situation he still had the power to choose his own attitude. Unless they took his life, no matter what was done to him and regardless of what the future held for him, he could choose his attitude. He could choose bitterness or forgiveness, choose to give up or to go on, choose hatred or hope, choose determination to endure or the paralysis of self-pity.
Frankl realized he had only that one freedom left – the ability to choose his attitude. He chose to believe in the future and the goodness of God. During the concentration camp years, Frankl was mistreated in inhuman ways, but he endured, kept steadfast in determination by the power of his will. While he didn’t know until after he was liberated, his father, mother, brother, and wife were all gassed or died in the concentration camps. After being liberated, with his persevering attitude, he went on to an illustrious career in neurology and Psychiatry.
Each Believer’s Attitude
The power to choose a right attitude toward people, things, and events is a key to right behavior and right attitude. Empowered by the indwelling Holy Spirit, it is possible to choose to do “right” even when it opposes our intellectual and emotional inclinations. We can in fact “trust and obey” God even when our feelings and intellect don’t agree.
Believers are to have a Christlike attitude of humility and willingness to sacrifice self for the benefit of others. Philippians 2:5-8 – “Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, 6 who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. 8 Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
Making Right Choices
Our emotions, intellect, and will are not independent. They interact, each influencing the other. But, the will can control the other two. Sometimes the choice to do right is easy. Other times, choosing to do the right thing is exceedingly difficult. When emotions and thoughts agree with the choice to do right, the choice is easy. When emotions and thoughts oppose making the right choice, choice is difficult. For this reason, Scripture repeatedly instructs us to train our intellect and emotions so that they are so aligned with Scriptural principles that choices routinely are godly choices.
Putting Off and Putting On
We are to put aside thinking, feeling, and choices that do not fit a godly pattern of life. We are to put on thinking, feeling, and choices that are consistent with a godly life. For example in Ephesians 4:17-24 Paul says: “Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. 18 They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. 19 They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. 20 But that is not the way you learned Christ!— 21 assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, 22 to put off your old self,[f] which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, 23 and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, 24 and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” Put off wrong attitudes, emotions, thoughts, and actions, and put on godly attitudes, emotions, thoughts, and actions. This is something God enables doing though no one should say it is easy.