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The Wisdom of James (4)

May 19, 2009

Scot McKnight says, “James sees the testing of faith — the ability to see through a bad situation to what God will make of it — as an opportunity to set off a chain reaction:”

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.

Here are these Jewish Christian communities under duress. They could go on the offensive and return the attacks tit for tat; they could internalize the criticisms and attacks of others as personal failings; they could  assimilate back into their original communities, “because that is just the way it is.” James is urging upon these tiny communities another alternative, to choose to see through the situation to what God will make of it. Suppose someone does just that. McKnight says, “that person sets off a chain reaction for moral formation:

1. Perseverance leads to…
2. Maturity and completion…
3. Lacking nothing …

When suffering pain our natural response is to find a quick way out. But what if there is no way to avoid suffering? What if  we need to choose the suffering because the suffering is part of what gets us to where we need to be (The athlete endures pain in order to be a better athlete)? What do we do then? James is suggesting a way of dealing with suffering which seems outrageous to so many of us, shaped as we are by our expectation that the desires of the self are almost alwyas to be indulged and satiated, if the self is to be healthy and whole. Maybe Bernie Maddoff buys into that mindset, but not James. Suffering for James is an education in moral formation. “Again, we are unwise to think James would suggest this for all suffering; after all, he protests much against some kinds of injustices. Like mothers everywhere, he didn’t need modern medicine and psychology to know that grinding, unrelieved suffering is very destructive.  What he’s talking about here is either something they can do nothing about or a temporary situation.” But he also knows that suffering has an impact on character. It can be educational, even transformational. And anyone who has suffered knows the same thing.

Does God bring the suffering? The question of suffering is one of the most difficult questions we ever deal with, especially as we are still living in the shadow of the  most destructive century ever in human history.  Such a big question requires massive if not volumes of books for the question to be addressed honestly. Likewise if we are to respect James we cannot make him address questions that are not being asked. What we can be sure about is that “James does not say here that God brings the suffering; he does not say everything they suffer is an act of God. Instead, his focus is on God as one to whom they can go for wisdom and one in whom they can trust and that God, in spite of the suffering, can use that suffering to make something of it.”

Many of us get a bit confused with James’ use of the word “perfection” , translated “maturity” above. He’s not talking here about flawless behavior, sinlessness or sinless perfection. As the teacher who can control his tongue is perfect (3:2), so the sufferer can learn the same by learning to look through the situation to what God can do. “Perfection here is about wholeness, maturity, holiness, love, peace, etc. and not about attaining a level below which one will never fall again. An unskilled laborer learns maturity (perfection) through being joined to a master craftsman as an apprentice. She learns  to work and take responsibility through the freedoms and assignments given by the master craftsman, and the decisions she makes in those activities allow for growth as the skills of the master craftsman are acquired. Her choice to give attention and focus to the specific disciplines of various master craftsmen; to take again and again a thousand steps in the same direction, undeterred by her own inertia and the resistance of others, pushing through trial and error. These are the things that make for maturity.

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