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The Wisdom of James (2)

May 6, 2009

James, brother of Jesus, invites us to think of the Christian life as the way of wisdom. He opens his letter with a brief greeting and then immediately leaps into the messiness of our lives 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.

When we approach the Bible it is always our tendency to make it say what we want it to say. This is one reason why we sometimes find such widely divergent interpretations of scripture, even of James, who seems so plain in his meaning.

This verse would probably fall into the favorite catagory of postive thinking guru types like Norman Vincent Peale and  Joel Olsteen. On the other hand, it has also been used by some to give shape to Christian Stoicism where what matters is me getting in line with God’s will and the  virtuous state of my soul. The Christian Stoic is concerned to acquire habits of life that are indifferent to external circumstances such as personal health, friends, wealth, respect, success. To them such things are supposed to be irrelevant (Can you see how this could become the world view for those of us who have little control of over our circumstances to begin with?). This kind of thinking has led some Christians to the further conclusion that we can simply neglect this world as “not my home” -heaven being the final destination. In his commentary Scot McKnight says, “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 causing you pain. But instead of caving in to it, turn into the winds, face them head on 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 divorce or flat tires. This view of James 1:2 is shaped more by what we want out of the text than what James meant.

Scott McKnight suggests that the first thing we are to do is read James to see what he might mean. We look for clues in his letter to see what fits logically and what does not, like a giant jigsaw puzzle, then 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 is 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 (i.e. my girl friend dumped me, ). James is more likely addressing the stress of the poor at the hands of oppressors than he is giving simple timeless wisdom about putting on a happy face in the hope that we can rise above our present external circumstances, even eventually be able to leave this world behind and go to heaven when we die.

Perhaps you are already wondering how this all might apply to us who are of the middle class and relatively well off, even rich by the standards of most in the world. I suggest that James is indeed as relevant for us as for the poor. What do you think?

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