Tag Archives: Endurance

Scripture on Sunday – James 1:12 (#2)

Saint_James_the_JustAs we noted in our previous discussion, this verse trades on the concept of God’s promise and its future fulfilment. Christian hope rests on the reality of this promise, and if it be anything less than a sure and steadfast divine commitment, Christian hope, endurance and faithfulness loses its sure foundation. In the face of trials and temptations, Christians cling to their hope on the basis of their trust in the divine promise. The concept of God’s promise is common in the New Testament. The author of Hebrews exhorts his audience to faithful endurance on the basis of God’s promise (6:10-15; 8:6; 10:23; 11:11). In Galatians 3 Paul refers to God’s promise nine times and traces it to the promise given to Abraham. In 2 Corinthians 1:20 Paul assures his readers that all the promises of God find their Yes in Jesus Christ. Behind this emphasis on the divine promise stands a firm conviction in the utter faithfulness of God who will fulfil the promises he has made. In one sense the fulfilment of the promise is wholly dependent upon this faithfulness, and so in hope and trust, we cling to the promise and wait expectantly for God’s act of fulfilment. In another sense, however, the promise is conditional, and it is this aspect that we find developed in James.

One of the aspects of James’ theology that becomes apparent in this verse is a sense of conditionality with respect to the believer’s reception of the divine promise. James does not so much pronounce the blessing as identify what the blessing is (the crown of life) and stipulate the grounds on which it is received (standing firm in trials, loving God). Although James does not use the language of “reward” in this text, the idea is present. Those who fulfil the conditions stipulated will receive the promised blessing. Some might find the idea of “reward” too close to the concept of merit, and so antithetical to genuine Christian faith and spirituality. Luther famously referred to James as less than apostolic, and to his letter as “an epistle of straw” as compared to those other New Testament works which set forth Christ and salvation more clearly (Luther’s Works, 35:362; cf. 395-397). Yet the New Testament often calls believers to consider the blessing which awaits them, and so be encouraged in faithful endurance.

For James, faith and salvation are not the fruit of a simple profession of faith which does not come to expression in the lived experience of the believer. Genuine faith is active and enduring. Faith, in this context at least, consists in faithfulness, and there is no possibility of a separation between faith and praxis, the two belonging together as two aspects of the one reality. This connection between fidelity and blessing was typical of early Christian thinking, according to Scot McKnight, who notes that “James 1:12 is more like Jesus and 2 John and Revelation than like Paul” (111), although Paul also can speak of “faith which works through love” (Galatians 5:6), and of the “work of faith” (1 Thessalonians 1:3). Nevertheless, Paul’s more consistent theme is to speak of faith as distinct from works (Romans 3:21-31), or even over against works (cf. Galatians 3:7-14). As a result, some commentators, pastors and Christians seek ways to bring James’ message into alignment with that of Paul. It is an error, however, to assimilate James too quickly to Paul, for such an approach limits and flattens the diverse New Testament witness. It is a far better approach to allow James’ distinctive contribution to stand in all its stern power. James and Paul sing from the same page but sound different notes, James’ harmony complementing Paul’s melody. A better musical analogy would suggest the two authors represent two songs on a single album, each distinct yet part of a larger whole, each contributing in their own voice and style to the overall project. Christian witness, spirituality and life require both voices to sound, both songs to be heard, both compositions to be accepted on their own terms. We will have occasion to discuss the relation between James and Paul at greater length in chapter two. Suffice it here to say that James’ intent is to insist upon the nature of faith as active and enduring, and to insist also that eschatological validation of one’s faith will be predicated upon the kind of life which demonstrated the genuine nature of that faith.

To say all this, however, is not to suggest that James’ spirituality is one of works undertaken in order to earn merit, achieve salvation, and so gain the promised reward. The final phrase of James’ exhortation is crucial: “which [God] has promised to those who love him.” Love for God is the motivation by which we stand firm under trial, refusing to buckle in the face of pressure, stress and affliction. Love for God undergirds the enduring faith which James has portrayed so steadfastly thus far. Those who persevere under trial and stand firm against temptation do so because they love him. By shifting his emphasis to the believer’s love for God, James clearly indicates that the work of faith over the course of one’s life is an expression of this deeper inner motive. Our faithfulness springs from this love which finds its root in his initiating love for us, grounded in the promise of this ever and always generous God, and the gift of salvation by which he has brought us forth (cf. vv. 5, 18). Our faithfulness toward God is but the echo of his greater, prior and all-encompassing faithfulness toward us. But faithfulness it must be.

What does it mean to love God? In broader biblical perspective we see that love for God involves keeping his commandments (John 14:15). It means to keep his word in our hearts (Deuteronomy 6:4-6). In this context, however, it might best be understood in terms of loyalty to God and to God’s will in the face of pressure to compromise and capitulate. It means to look to God, to hope in God, to approach God in prayer, and to trust in God. It means to rejoice in God and find our boasting, joy and life in him. The Christian life is neither a cynical quest for reward nor a fearful avoidance of hell. It is not simply a stoic endurance of affliction or a herculean withstanding of temptation. It is a life of joy rather than gritted teeth, of hope rather than fear, of faith rather than despair, of generosity rather than selfishness, and supremely, of love.

Scripture on Sunday – James 1:12

Saint_James_the_JustJames 1:12
Blessed is a man who perseveres under trial; for once he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him. (NASB)

Blessed is anyone who endures temptation. Such a one has stood the test and will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him. (NRSV)

These two translations indicate an immediate interpretive issue with respect to this verse: does it belong with the section dealing with the matter of trials which began in verse two, or is it the beginning of a new section incorporating verses twelve to fifteen and dealing with the matter of temptation? The key word is peirasmos which appears in verse two, here in verse twelve, four times in verse thirteen, and once in verse fourteen. The word has two basic meanings in the New Testament, corresponding to the two meanings used in this chapter of James. First, the word can denote external afflictions, especially persecution, and second, it can refer to the inner enticement to sin (Moo, 59). This range of meaning suggests that James may be using verse twelve to transition his focus from the external pressures experienced by the community, to the internal motives and attitudes which they experience precisely on account of the external trials. It is not uncommon that one’s response to external trials may itself be another trial. The two often belong together, and we err when our entire focus is turned outward as though our circumstances are our only trial, when in fact, our response to those circumstances is also a trial which we must endure and perhaps overcome. This way of viewing the text helps us find unity in the overall section from verse two through eighteen, rather than viewing the whole as a series of disconnected exhortations.

We begin by noting the resonance in this verse with what has gone before. As already noted, the key term peirasmos picks up the opening thought of verse two. The testing (dokimion) of our faith in verse three produces endurance (hypomonē). In this verse James pronounces as blessed those who endure (hypomenē, the verb form of hypomonē), for they have stood the test (dokimos). Finally, the promise that they shall receive (lampsetai) the crown of life stands in subtle contrast to the double-minded person of verse seven who must not expect to receive (lampsetai) anything from the Lord. These verbal links with the earlier passage suggest that James is reiterating and extending his earlier comments, and bringing those exhortations to their climax. Not only does endurance under trial develop good character, but it also brings the promise and hope of eschatological blessing. In light of these considerations, the NASB’s interpretation is preferred.

“Blessed is the man” (Makarios anēr hos) is almost formulaic language in Old Testament appearing six times in Psalms and twice in Proverbs (Davids, 79; cf. Psalms 1:1; 2:12; 32:1; 112:1; 119:1-2; Proverbs 8:32, 34, etc). James, then, is taking over biblical language, though his use of anēr (“man”) is not required to make sense of the sentence and should not be used to limit this blessing merely to males. Thus, while the NASB provides a very literal translation, “blessed are those” or the NRSV’s “blessed is anyone” are more appropriate to convey the sense intended. The person so blessed is the one who perseveres under trial as already explained in earlier verses. Such a one, having stood the test is approved (dokimos). In verse three dokimion emphasised the process of testing, whereas here the emphasis is more on the person who has successfully endured that process and so “passed” the test (McKnight, 111). This person will receive (lampsetai) the crown of life, the future tense indicating that the promised blessing still lies in the future, especially perhaps for James’ suffering community.

What, precisely, is “the crown of life” (ton stephanon tēs zōēs)? Virtually all commentators read this phrase as epexegetical, that is, “the crown which is life.” This is another way of saying that those who persevere will receive God’s promise of salvation which is eternal life. The same phrase is found in Revelation 2:9-10 and its use there, in the ascended Christ’s message to the suffering church of Smyrna, may have relevance for interpreting our text:

I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) and the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life (ton stephanon tēs zōēs).

This text has similar characteristics to James 1: the apocalyptic context of trials by which the community is tested. It is not insignificant that James’ community may well be persecuted by other (wealthier?) Jews. Nevertheless the trials are limited in duration, and over against the threat of death is the promised “crown of life.” In Revelation chapter four, the elders clothed in white garments (a picture of the church?) are crowned with golden crowns which they cast in worship before throne (Revelation 4:4, 10). As God’s people endure the testing of their faith even to the point of death, they will be crowned as victors, as those who have triumphed over the opposition. The imagery of the crown is most commonly used of the wreath awarded to victorious athletes in the games (Davids, 80; cf. 1 Corinthians 9:25 where “wreath” translates stephanon). A similar sense is seen in Paul’s words to Timothy in 2 Timothy 4:7-8:

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.

Paul’s crown of righteousness is the equivalent of James and John’s crown of life, and Peter’s “unfading crown of glory” (1 Peter 5:4). Each in slightly different ways refers to the eschatological blessing and recognition awaiting those who faithfully endure. The whole life of the believer will be “crowned” as it were, by their entering into the life “promised” (epēggeilato) to those who love him (tois agapōsin auton). They shall receive the honour and acknowledgement of those in God’s royal presence, his children, and heirs of the kingdom.

The subject of the promise is identified in both translations above as “the Lord,” the italics in the NASB indicating that these words have been supplied by the translators. A better translation would supply “God” as the subject of the promise and so bring this verse into harmony with James 2:5 where an identical construction is used (“promised to those who love him”), and where the subject of the sentence is explicitly identified as God. There is no explicit promise in the Old Testament that James is here citing, though a number of texts do promise God’s steadfast love to those who love him (see, for example, Exodus 20:6; Deuteronomy 7:9; Psalm 145:20). James generalises the broad sweep of Scripture in which those who love God and therefore stand firm in times of trial will be those who receive his blessing.

A Sermon for Sunday: James 1:2-8

Saint_James_the_JustSorry for the inordinate length of this post. Having spent a number of weeks on the exegesis of this passage, I wanted to prepare a sermon based on the passage, moving from exegesis to exposition. I have not preached the sermon, and it would change somewhat according to the audience and context, and as story, illustration and application are added and focused. It could be shortened if time was limited, or extended to two sermons to allow for more extensive exposition of the supporting texts and ideas. I have tried to avoid moralising and to use the passage to preach the gospel, though with faithfulness to James’ idiom. Let me know if you think it works.



A common experience is misconception: we read the data wrongly and get the wrong impression; we have false hopes and unrealistic expectations. Perhaps we think we will get married and live happily ever after: never the slightest spat; this one person will delight me, nurture me, inspire me—til death do us part! Maybe we start a new job or join a new church with high hopes that soon come crashing down. We go to a reputation restaurant and leave disappointed. We think the Dockers will win the Grand Final…

Many believers tend to have misconceptions and unrealistic expectations about the Christian life. Sometimes, having experienced something of the good and gracious God, having received answers to prayer, and the blessings of Christian acceptance and fellowship, having been taught about the victory we have in Christ, some believers may gain the impression that the Christian life is one of continual blessing and endless triumph, praise, thanksgiving and victory. If only that were true! Generally it does not take too long to be disabused of these misconceptions because, simply speaking—you’ve seen the bumper stickers: “stuff” happens.

From the very first words of his letter, James wants to set us straight, but also give us a fresh perspective concerning the nature of Christian life.

     Read the Text: James 1:2-8

James’ words are almost incomprehensible: rejoice when the tough times come! I like J.B. Phillips’ rendition of this verse: When all kinds of trials and temptations crowd into your lives, my friends, don’t resent them as intruders, but welcome them as friends! What was James thinking? Welcome trouble? Invite it in like a long-lost friend? Rejoice in trials? The worse it gets the better we like it? At least he is not telling us to go looking for trouble! He doesn’t have to, because you know as well as I do that trouble comes, “ready or not.” Troubles and trials come to everybody. Is there anyone here who has not faced some kind of test even this week? For some, the trials may have been a minor inconvenience or a momentary frustration. For others, the trials are far more serious, perhaps even a matter of life and death, of major stress or life-change. For others still, the whole course of their life is a continual trial and hardship: unrelenting pain, physical or emotional; the grief of loved ones gone and never returning, of dreams which can never be fulfilled, of reversals from which it seems there is no return.

Alana’s story: measles in infancy...

How can those who suffer in these ways ever make sense of James’ advice? Actually, it’s more than advice: it’s a command. Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind. How can we possibly obey so counter-intuitive a command? Where’s the joy in trials? How can we rejoice when life threatens, hurts and disappoints?

It is evident that James wants to reframe our understanding of life and its many and various trials. He wants God’s people to have new wisdom, godly wisdom, and a new perspective so that when the trials come, they may view them with new eyes, so that they may even become productive rather than destructive. What is James wants us to know?

1. Trials come, but they have a special meaning for Christians

Everyone faces all kinds of trials, and Christians are not exempt (1 Cor. 10:13). Trials arise simply on account of life in a fallen and broken world. These are the conditions of existence faced by all and sundry. Other trials emerge because of human sinfulness and foolishness—our own and that of others. Christians will face all kinds of trials because of these features of life, just as everyone else will. You don’t have to go looking for trouble…

But Christians also face trials specifically on account of their faith. Trials arise because we are Christians: persecution, the suffering which arises because we refuse to participate in the sinfulness of the world, the difficulties which may arise because we have chosen to do the good. We may be forced to wonder if it is really worth being Christian at all. But our faith is also tested even in the normal trials of life: we may wonder where is God when it hurts? Does God care, or have we been forsaken? Is God even real, or have we mistakenly believed in God? Would it not be easier if we simply gave up our belief? It is for this reason that James refers to trials as tests of our faith. No matter how practical an issue we face, in the end what is being tested, tried, probed, pressured and put to question, is our faith.

“These things are sent to try us…” Yes—and No. Another common misconception amongst Christians especially, is that God sends these trials for the purpose of perfecting us, maturing us, or teaching us some lesson. To say this, I believe, is to confuse purpose and effect. God may bring a positive effect out of our trials, but this is not to say that God purposed the trial for this effect. I want to affirm that God is sovereign over all things, that there is not one moment nor one millimetre of this world which is not subject to his vision and power. But to say this is not to suggest that God is the only actor in this world and in our lives. Indeed, James holds a vision of reality similar to other New Testament writers, and to that of his brother, Jesus.

See Ephesians 6:10-13; 1 Thessalonians 3:1-5; 1 Peter 5:8-9; Luke 22:21-32
The apostles Paul and Peter, and the Lord Jesus each warn us of the spiritual context in which the believer’s faith is tested. There is a spiritual enemy whose attack is directed against our faith. These tests do not come to build our faith, but to destroy it.

Why? Because our faith is precious (2 Peter 1:1), a precious gift by which we have been brought into a living relation to God and made heir of all his promises (Romans 5:1-2). Without faith it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6), and indeed Jesus wondered whether, at his return, he would find faith on the earth (Luke 18:8). Thus, he gave the great assurance to Peter—and so also to us—that he prays for us that our faith would not fail (Luke 22:32; cf. Romans 8:34; Hebrews 7:25), for it is by faith that we overcome the world (1 John 5:4) and inherit eternal life (John 3:16; Hebrews 6:12). Indeed, we are preserved by the power of God through faith, and our faith will result in praise, glory and honour to God at the coming of Christ (1 Peter 1:5-6). How precious is our faith! No wonder the enemy of our souls directs his attack against this most precious gift of God.

Given what is at stake, James goes on to teach us how to stand in the midst of trial.

2. Rejoice in Hope

And so we are back where we began. James’ first instruction is that we rejoice in the face of testing and trials. We do not rejoice for the test—which intends our hurt—but in the midst of the test, trusting that God can provide a way of escape and deliverance (1 Corinthians 10:13; Psalm 34:19), and that regardless of what happens, our very lives and our every hope are in his hands. Many passages of Scripture instruct us to rejoice in God even in the midst of testing (e.g. Psalm 27:5-6; 50:23; Jonah 2:9; Matthew 5:11-12). We rejoice in God’s saving grace and promise. We rejoice in the hope which is laid up for us in heaven beyond the vicissitudes of this life.

It is only possible to have such joy, even in the midst of suffering, if we know these ways of God. Because you know, says James. Not only are we to know and believe the hope which awaits us beyond this life, the hope of eternal life and blessing and grace in Christ, but we are also to know that as we stand fast in the midst of the trial, as we persevere and endure, as we exercise the very faith that is under attack, and hold fast to it trusting God, then the trial intended to destroy our faith actually serves to strengthen it! Indeed, the trying of our faith develops patience, endurance and perseverance.

Hypomonē – replacing and strengthening the pillars under Garrett Road bridge. When faith is threatened and begins to sag or weaken, endurance is the strength that helps us stand and withstand. Instead of buckling and collapsing under the pressure, our faith is supported and strengthened.

3. Stand Fast Together

But, says James, adding a second command, let perseverance finish its work. In other words, we must stand fast until the end, as Jesus also taught, the one who endures to the end shall be saved (Matthew 10:23; 24:13). How could we ever do this? Only together, only in the company and with the encouragement of our brothers and sisters in Christ. James has addressed these commands not primarily to individuals, but to the community of the church, his brothers and sisters in the faith. We need one another more than we realise, and over the course of our lives together, we will have many opportunities to give and receive encouragement and care, and help one another stand firm in our faith. Those who are strong are to help bear the burden of the weak for tomorrow we may be the weak in need of their strength (see Romans 15:1-2).

But there is also something more at work here. We are to let perseverance have its perfect work so that [we] may be perfect—mature and complete—not lacking anything. For James, this is the way to maturity, to wholeness, to perfection. God is able to bring good out of that which was intended for evil! He is able to make all things—even the attacks designed to overcome us—work together for good, so that we might be conformed to the image of his Son Jesus (Romans 8:28-29). That you may be perfect!—what vision and confidence James has for his suffering people! James views Christian maturity in terms of mature and virtuous character, and this character is formed and refined as we stand fast together, encouraging and supporting each other, that we might grow, more and more, into the very image of Christ. This is what we were made for—to become a people of character, a truly human community!

4. Pray—and stay—in faith

James finishes his exhortation with two further commands and a very solemn warning. The two commands are let him ask of God and, let him ask in faith. In every trial we need the kind of wisdom that we have already been receiving from James. But we also need the particular wisdom required for the particular circumstances in which we find ourselves, so that we can respond wisely and appropriately. And so James commands any who lack wisdom to ask God for it, and he encourages us that it will be given to us.

But while we may lack wisdom, we must not lack faith! Again we are alerted to the importance of faith in the Christian’s relation with God. Of the various virtues mentioned in this passage—faith, joy, perseverance, wisdom, mature character—faith is singled out as preeminent. We have already mentioned that without faith it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6). Without faith it is also impossible to receive the answers to our prayers. Let not that [doubt-filled] person think that they shall receive anything from the Lord.

Over against the steady trustingness of faith stands the unstable, wavering nature of doubt. To some extent we all doubt sometimes. To doubt is to stand wavering between two options, non-committal and undecided. However, Martin Luther has helpfully suggested that although we cannot stop the birds from flying over our heads, we can stop them from building a nest in our hair! Doubtful thoughts will come into our minds and when they do we must let perseverance finish its work! We can stand together and help one another to trust in God. This kind of doubt is normal and not what James assails in this text.

What James assails is the doubt which has become entrenched in a person’s life to such an extent that it now characterises them: they are a doubter. James graphically portrays this person in terms of the restless, ceaseless, shifting movement of the stormy sea, tossed and thrown hither and thither, driven this way and that: in other words, this person is precisely the opposite of the settled strength and confidence of those who have let perseverance finish its work. They are a double-minded, two-souled, unstable, indecisive, uncommitted kind of person. They cannot, will not and do not commit themselves unreservedly to God. They cannot, will not and do not entrust themselves to his promise and his care alone. They cannot, will not and do not depend rest their hope fully upon God. Let not that person expect to receive anything from the Lord—anything!

A great secret to answered prayer is to pray in faith and then to stay in faith. Nowhere in Scripture is this more clearly taught than in Jesus’ words in Mark 11:22-25, where Jesus teaches that when we pray we must “believe that you have received it, and you shall have it.” The believer believes the answer has been given when they pray, and before they ever actually receive the answer. They must believe first and then “you shall have it.” I once heard an elderly preacher with a whole life of experience say, “Between every prayer and its answer there is a wilderness, and what you do in that wilderness determines whether or not the prayer will be answered.” What was he saying? Pray in faith and then stay in faith. Continue to trust. Let perseverance finish its work!

How can we possibly have such unwavering faith? Here pastor James provides another piece of practical Christian wisdom: keep your eyes firmly fixed on the good and gracious God, rather than on yourself! Instead of worrying about whether or not our faith is sufficient, turn away from yourself and look solely toward the good and gracious God. In verse five James magnifies the generosity of the good and gracious God, who gives generously to all without finding fault. The Greek text is even stronger: God gives with single-minded generosity. Over against the double-minded person stands the single-minded God! God is single-minded in his grace and generosity toward us, and calls us to be single-minded in faith and trust toward him. He is the good and gracious God, the generous-hearted God who has promised to accompany us through every moment of this life, to hear and answer our prayers, and to bring us safely into his heavenly kingdom! This is the good and gracious God who holds our entire existence—past, present and future—in the palm of his hands; the God who will never leave or forsake us.

Trust in this good and gracious God!
Stand fast in the good and gracious God!
Rejoice in the good and gracious God … that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing!

Scripture on Sundays – James 1:4

Saint_James_the_JustJames 1:4
And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing (NASB)

James now uses a second imperative to instruct his listeners, commanding them to let (echetō) endurance have its full effect (NRSV), perfect result (NASB), or literally, perfect work (ergon teleion). In view of James’ later discussion of faith and works, it is of interest that he introduces the concept of work here, at the start of his letter. Indeed, as we saw in verse three, the testing of our faith “works” endurance; now the believing community must let this work occur. That is, James commands his listeners to continue to persevere, to “keep on keeping on” for as long as the test continues. The testing of our faith produces endurance as we endure. As a muscle is strengthened through use, so endurance develops through exercise. The temptation is to capitulate before the test has run its course, to relinquish faith, to cave in under pressure, to walk away.

Just as James’ first imperative (consider it all joy) was tied to a foundation of common knowledge (knowing…), so his second imperative is now tied to a purpose statement: so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. James now holds before his listeners the end result of endurance if they will allow it to do its work: they will be “perfect.” It is impossible to miss James’ play on words in this verse, concerning the perfect work of endurance which results in the perfection of the people of God. The “full effect” or “perfect result” of endurance is not simply to outlast the particular test we are enduring, nor simply to grow more robust in endurance itself. Rather, it is the perfection and completeness of godly character. Perfect (teleios) and complete (holoklēros) function as synonyms, though with a slightly different sense. Teleios connotes a perfection beyond which there is no degree, whereas holoklēros denotes perfection in every part (Vlachos, 20). An interesting parallel to this verse is found in Paul’s prayer of 1 Thessalonians 5:23 where he prays that the Thessalonians may be perfectly sanctified in every aspect of their being, that is, in their whole “spirit and soul and body.” Douglas Moo (61) regards this perfection as the eschatological perfection towards which we strive but which will only be realised in the eschaton. Scot McKnight (81f.) prefers to see it not as “sinless perfection,” but as real behavioural maturity, a way of life and being in which genuine virtue is a reality rather than simply an abstract ideal.

The final phrase—lacking in nothing—is simply a negative confirmation and restatement of the positive message of being “perfect and complete.” To lack nothing, in other words, is to have everything. Such is the power of endurance, in James’ vision of the moral life!

It is worth noting that James directs these exhortations to the community as a whole rather than to individual believers (adelphoi mou – my brothers and sisters; note further that all the grammatical signifiers are second-person plurals). It is the community of God’s people which must rejoice in the midst of hardship and struggle, helping each person to understand their calling, and so to endure. It is the community of God’s people which will ultimately be perfect and entire, lacking in nothing. When one particular member of the community suffers the whole community is threatened. When the community as a whole is under attack, each particular member has a crucial part to play, so that the whole community may be encouraged to rejoice and to endure.


Thus James begins his letter to his suffering listeners with two imperatives supported by an appeal to what they know (v. 3), and to what they are destined to become (v. 4). His teaching here is not unique, however, and very similar passages are found elsewhere in the New Testament:

Romans 5:3-5
And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.

1 Peter 1:6-7 
In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials, so that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honour at the revelation of Jesus Christ.

These passages are similar to James in both language and concept. In Romans, Paul notes that believers exult in tribulations (thlipsis) knowing that tribulation brings about (katergazetai) perseverance (hypomonē), and perseverance, proven character (dokimēn). The apostle Peter also writes to communities distressed by various trials, which serve to prove the genuineness of their faith and so result in glorification at the coming of Jesus. His point is slightly different to that of James who is not concerned with the proof of their faith but with their steadfastness.

That these three authors each use this common language and conceptuality suggests that this was traditional and common knowledge amongst the early Christian communities. It is on this basis that James can readily say, “Because you know…” They did in fact know this as common community knowledge. Lying behind James’ exhortation then is a vision of what constitutes the Christian life, and in fact, what it means to be truly human: that is, to be a person and a community which is perfect, completely sound and whole, mature behaviourally, morally and relationally. The ground and possibility of this maturity is faith—right relation to God which issues in a “rightness” of being. The tests which assail the community intend to draw God’s people away from this faith, to tempt them to seek their own justice and their own right, to become, in Luther’s terms, homo incurvatus in se – humanity curved in on itself. But James will have none of this. Although his vision is urgently framed in terms of the apocalyptic confrontation of evil powers and eschatological hope, it has a very real and practical aim. James is not simply giving out good practical advice for “turning lemons into lemonade,” so that God’s people can be blessed in spite of trials. This is not a prosperity gospel whereby every trial is a stepping stone to greater victories so that we lack no (earthly) thing. James writes to shape the vision, character and way of the community in the world. God’s intent is a people steadfast in faith and mature in character, living in the midst of the kingdom of darkness but bearing witness to the kingdom of light. No wonder trials come! Yet when and as they do arise, somehow, by the mysterious work of the Spirit of grace, the trials designed to destroy our faith, develop endurance and this endurance goes to work in us building character, maturity and virtue. In these opening verses of his letter then, James offers us a vision of what it means to be truly human, and indicates a process for realising this vision.

Scripture on Sundays – James 1:3

Saint_James_the_JustJames 1:3
Knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance (NASB)

In this verse, James provides the first rationale for his command in verse two. Believers are to “consider it all joy” when they fall into various trials because they know (ginōskontes hoti) something: that the trial of their faith produces endurance. James assumes this knowledge on the part of his listeners, as though it constitutes a common stock of knowledge generally available. The word James uses to refer to the testing (to dokimion) of their faith is rare in the Greek, appearing elsewhere only in Psalm 12:6, Proverbs 27:21 (Septuagint), and in 1 Peter 1:7. The Old Testament references provide useful imagery for understanding the nature of trials. As a furnace is used to refine and purify silver, so the tests faced by James’ hearers serve also to  “refine” and “purify” them. The imagery of the furnace captures the unpleasant and potentially destructive force and nature of the testing, while the result of the process is seen as valuable and desirable and so as the grounds for rejoicing.

What is being tested is their faith. According to Vlachos, the trial is intended to refine and strengthen a faith that already exists rather than to test whether faith is present or not (18). This idea seems to align with Peter’s use of the same language in 1 Peter 1:6-7 where he speaks of the suffering believers’ faith being proved or shown to be genuine (dokimion). Indeed, many commentators suggest that the purpose of the test is the purification and maturity of the believer (e.g. McKnight, 69, and Moo, 61). In this view, God is the refiner who places his people into the furnace in order to remove the impurities from their lives and so present them as mature.

Nevertheless it is important here to distinguish between purpose and effect when interpreting these verses. It is at least possible that in James’ mind the purpose of the tests is to destroy the faith of God’s people. This is a quite common mindset in the New Testament, and sees the origin of the tests in the more sinister agency of Satan, the “accuser of the brethren” (Revelation 12:10), rather than in the more benevolent attentions of God. Perhaps more directly relevant to this passage is Paul’s concern in 1 Thessalonians 3:5 that “the tempter” (ho peirazōv) might have rendered his missionary labour amongst the Thessalonians vain by the persecutions they endured, or Jesus’ words to Peter in Luke 22:31-32: “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan has demanded to sift you like wheat; but I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail.” In both cases the blowtorch is applied to the believers’ faith with the intent of destroying it, and in both cases there is the theoretical possibility at least, that their faith might actually be lost. Other texts might also be adduced. Jesus warns that “Satan comes immediately” to take away the Word whenever it is sown (Mark 4:15; cf. 2 Corinthians 11:3). The pattern is seen in his own temptations following his experience of the Spirit at his baptism (Luke 4:1-13). The apostle Peter speaks of “your adversary the devil” who prowls around like a roaring lion seeking those whom he may devour. Nor are Peter’s readers unique in this respect: all believers are subject to this common suffering and must likewise stand firm in faith, resisting the devil (1 Peter 5:8-9; cf. James 4:7-8). The classic texts of Ephesians 6:10-18 and Revelation 12:7-17 situate these tests within the broader drama of cosmic spiritual warfare and an apocalyptic worldview.

To read James according to this view is to think of the tests as a threat to faith. As such, they do not have a divinely intended purpose, nor are they “sent by God to teach us or perfect us” as is commonly said in Christian circles. Rather, as specific tactics in an ongoing war against the people of God, they intend not to build or develop faith but to destroy it. Their purpose is not to teach us but to tempt us, not to lead the believer towards maturation but capitulation, so that they lose faith in God and let go of the hope that faith inspires.

It may be that many modern readers react against the apocalyptic character of this worldview and prefer to understand sin and evil in more human or institutional terms, rather than in terms of an evil spiritual personality. In fact, it is possible that James’ central point is retained, even if the apocalyptic background is stripped from the passage. It is possible that the trials arise as an aspect of the church’s location “between the times,” in this period in which the kingdom of God has found entry into the world and is growing in the world but is not yet fully realised in the world. The way of the kingdom is antithetical to the way of the world and results in pressure being brought to bear upon the lives of those who choose this new way. It may be that the tests arise simply as part of the conditions of life, the normal pressures and stresses of existence which challenge the idea of God’s existence or God’s care. The very real afflictions, pressure and suffering experienced by Christians may cause them to despair of God’s goodness or power or both.

James notes that the testing of their faith produces endurance (katergazetai hypomonē). Katergazetai simply means “to produce,” although the erg-root in the verb is related to “work” and so anticipates ergon (“work”) in verse four. The verb is in the present tense, indicating a process or progression culminating in endurance. Hypomonē literally has the sense of “remaining under,” and so bearing up in the midst of difficult or challenging circumstances. It refers not to passive acceptance or resignation in the face of these circumstances, but is an active, strong and positive resistance of them. Hypomonē, therefore, characterises those who hold themselves steady in the midst of pressure. In the early Christian community it was a trait highly valued, for only those who had it would truly endure to the end (cf. Matthew 10:22; 24:13). It is used in the epistles, and especially in the book of Revelation, to encourage the embattled church to stand firm, even to the point of death. It is often paired with faith, the two virtues working together to ensure the believer inherits the eschatological promise (e.g. Hebrews 10:35-36 (cf. 6:12); Revelation 13:10).

James is obviously confident that his listeners’ trials are in fact producing endurance, but is it necessarily so? Assuming the interpretation of the verse given above, this outcome is not fait accompli, but in fact dependent upon the believer’s response to their trials. This helps explain James’ appeal in these verses: it is as they live in accordance with what they know, as they count it all joy in the midst of their trials, that the testing of their faith produces endurance. In verses 2-3, then, James calls on the church to rejoice in the midst of their suffering, knowing that their trials will produce this highly valued virtue. The trial which is intended to destroy their faith will in fact strengthen and confirm it if they will stand fast. Indeed, by standing fast in the midst of the trial, more endurance will develop, and they will grow stronger and have more capacity for steadfastness in future trials.