Notes for teaching on James 1:2-15, which is featured in Explore the Bible, Fall 2018, Session 8.
Notes on the Text
(Quotations taken from the NIV)
2 Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. 4 Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.
Trials are a tough subject because they reference the most difficult times in our lives. NT Wright notes that the trials included in James 1:2 are varied. He states, “There are many kinds of [trials]: actual persecution, which many face today; fierce and nasty temptations, which can strike suddenly when we’re not expecting them; physical sickness or bereavement; family or financial troubles; and so on.” Sometimes the trials in our lives are the consequences of our own behavior. Other times, we become the victims of circumstances or other people through no fault of our own. Whatever the cause, James has a prescription for Christians who are facing trials: joy.
Here it is important to note that Christians are not masochists who enjoy or seek out pain. Joy does not come from the pain of the trial itself. Rather, joy comes from our confidence in how God will use the trials that come our way. In James’ mind, trials begin a domino effect in the life of the believer that looks like this.
Trial –> Perseverance –> Maturity/Wholeness
The idea here is that God uses trials in the formation of his people. In God’s hands, trials teach us perseverance, which leads to Christian maturity. While the Christian may hate the trial, she can be joyful because of her confidence that God will somehow use the trial to make her more like Jesus. Importantly, this does not mean that God is the one who brings trials into our lives. Yes, this may sometimes be the case, but trials also be the natural outworking our own decisions, circumstances, or the decisions of others. Rather than speaking of God causing trials and difficulties, we need to speak of God uses them. Think here of the spin doctors who come out in droves after the president’s State of the Union address each year. Regardless of what the president said, members of his party will praise his speech, while member of the opposition party will deride it. While they are not responsible for the speech itself, the spin doctors are responsible for the way they “spin” its effectiveness, whether or not they speak truth. We can think of God as the ultimate spin doctor who takes trials and “spins” them for the good of his children. The difference between God and political spin doctors is that when God spins something, it is truly spun!
5 If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. 6 But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. 7 That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. 8 Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do.
The last section ended with the idea that trials ultimately lead to wholeness, a state described in v 4 as “not lacking anything.” Notice how James strings trials and wisdom together with this idea of lack. The complete, mature Christian “lacks nothing,” but it seems that we may indeed lack wisdom! While this can refer to wisdom in all aspects of life, we should probably understand the need for wisdom in this passage as connected to the trials that came in the previous section. After all, our trials are many times the very situations that require wisdom! Perhaps we are thinking of parents dealing with a wayward teenager or adult child. Or maybe we are speaking of a widow who doesn’t know what she’ll do now that her husband has passed. Or maybe our situation at work is tough and befuddling. In these moments when we need wisdom to tackle the trial in front of us, James says, we can ask God in confidence that he will supply our need.
I find the part of v 5 that says God “gives generously to all without finding fault” to be very interesting. I’m the kind of person who can beat myself up when I don’t know what to do in tough situations. God doesn’t find fault with my lack, though. Rather than being embarrassed that I need to ask for wisdom, I should be confident that God will generously give it.
While vv 5-7 encourage us to ask God boldly for wisdom, vv 7-8 warn us that it matters how we ask. Belief is required of those seeking wisdom. Doubters are like “a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind.” What exactly does this mean? What if we find ourselves unsure as we approach God for help? We might understand this warning to be unnecessarily harsh.
Moo rightly link this teaching about prayers for wisdom to Jesus’ teaching on prayer in general. In Matthew 21:21-22, Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done. 22 If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.” This in mind, James is simply echoing Jesus as he instructs his listeners to believe and not doubt.
Also of interest is that James frames belief as a choice rather than a state of being. We may be tempted to treat think that we either believe something or not. James is not saying, “Woe to the doubters, for they will never change!” No, he is encouraging his audience to pray in belief if they have been doubting. Doubt, he says, is problematic. It not only hobbles prayers, but also one’s entire life before God (see v 8). As God’s people, we can choose to believe that God is who he says he is and pray and act accordingly.
9 Believers in humble circumstances ought to take pride in their high position. 10 But the rich should take pride in their humiliation—since they will pass away like a wild flower. 11 For the sun rises with scorching heat and withers the plant; its blossom falls and its beauty is destroyed. In the same way, the rich will fade away even while they go about their business.
In vv 9-11, James changes topics abruptly, and I’m not sure how to link these thoughts on wealth to the rest of the chapter. What I can say, though, is that James is making both poor and rich believers aware of their spiritual status. Poor believers in humble circumstances have been raised up to a high place in their faith – they are made equal with everyone else who gathers at the cross. As such, they should take pride in their “high position” in Christ. Rich believers, on the other hand, found themselves kneeling before Christ and on the same level as their poor brothers and sisters. In the eyes of the world, this is a demotion. For the rich Christian, though, this position of submission before Christ and equality with other believers is actually a point of pride. James hammers this point home by speaking of the fleeting nature of wealth and status. In the end, only the spiritual status and riches will remain.
12 Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.
Now James returns to his original theme of enduring trials. Not only can Christians rejoice in their confidence that God will “spin” the trial to their benefit, they can also look forward to reward. C.S. Lewis helps those of us who are uncomfortable doing these for rewards (or what we get out of it). He states:
“If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly to hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith.
“Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised to us in the Gospels, it would seem that our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak.
“We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in the slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea.
13 When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; 14 but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. 15 Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.
In vv 13-15, James turns to a specific kind of trial: temptation. Indeed, the Greek word for “trial” and “temptation” is the same. What James wants to be sure of here is that Christians understand the nature of temptation. First and foremost, temptation is not God’s fault! This is so because temptation is against God’s nature. He himself is not tempted, nor does he tempt. Rather than pointing the finger at God when temptation comes, James says that we should point the finger back at ourselves. NT Wright speaks of this well:
In particular, [we Christians must] recognize what’s happening when [we] are tempted. Developing what he said about ‘trials and tribulations’ in verse 2, he warns us not to imagine that God is responsible for the temptation itself. The testing comes from within (Jesus made that clear, too). None of us starts off with a pure internal ‘kit’ of impulses, hopes and fears. If you are true to ‘yourself’, you will end up a complete mess. The challenge is to take the ‘self’ you find within, and to choose wisely which impulses and desires to follow, and which ones to resist.
Notes for Teaching
James is both a delightful and challenging book to teach. It is delightful due to its practical outlook – this is the kind of book that gives you solid instruction on how to live throughout. James is challenging because it is sometimes difficult to understand how its different sections link together. Whereas in Galatians, Paul will follow the same argument for chapters at a time, James seemingly jumps from one subject to another in the span of a few verses. Douglas Moo describes James’ composition like this: “Striking to both the ancient and modern reader alike is the letter’s lack of clear organization. The author moves quickly from topic to topic, and the logical relationship of the topics is often not at all clear.” Teaching, then, can be a challenge because a number of topics can challenge one another for prominence. As the teacher, you’ll need to consider how James best relates to your class and teach accordingly.
When considering this section, three themes present themselves.
- Enduring Trials
- Recognizing Spiritual Status
- Understanding Temptation
Each of these topics makes for good discussion. I’d recommend using special care as you approach the topic of trials. Ultimately, we don’t know what trauma or abuse our students may have suffered. Moreover, be careful not to rush past the difficulty of the trial to wholeness. Considering facing trials as joy is a difficult command. Let the class struggle with that difficulty. Also, it may be wise to note that Christians don’t go looking for trials, nor do they stay in trials unnecessarily. Especially in cases of abuse, escape and not joy needs to be the key word.
As to spiritual status, this will be an interesting discussion for an upwardly mobile congregation. A good question might be: Are we the rich or poor Christians? Take time to apply the logic of James’ piece on fading wealth to the class. What does it really mean for the rich to take pride in their humiliation? What does that look like in real life?
When approaching temptation, I’d once again, as we don’t know what temptations students may be struggling with. While we should not shy away from James’ hard line on the issue, we can nevertheless present this piece with compassion. While James does not address this question here, it may be worth asking what Christians should do if they find that they are paying too much attention to temptation or have dropped into sinful habits.
A Possible Teaching Plan
- How should Christians understand the hardships of life?
- Is this easy or hard to do?
Read: James 1:1-4
- What is James’ view of the trials of life?
- Is James saying that we should enjoy the trial itself? Explain.
- Why should Christians consider it joy when they face trials?
- Do you think that it is true that God uses trials to shape us? Why or why not?
- How should we balance our dislike for the trial with our joy that God is at work?
- Why do you think perseverance makes us “mature and complete, not lacking anything”?
- Does anyone have a story about how God has worked through a trial in your life?
Read: James 1:5-8
- What does needing wisdom have to do with the trials of life?
- Why does James make such a big deal out of belief and doubt in prayer?
- Why is a doubter like a wave in the sea?
- What should we do when we find ourselves doubting?
Read: James 1:9-11
- What does it mean for poor, humble Christians to take pride in their “high position”?
- What does it mean for rich Christians to take pride in their “humiliation”?
- Who do you think we are more like: the rich or poor Christian?
- What are ways that we can make our spiritual status more important than our social/financial status?
Read: James 1:12-15
- According to James, how does temptation come about in the lives of believers?
- Does James’ description of temptation and sin right true? Why or why not?
- How can we guard ourselves from temptation?
- What should we do when we face temptation?
- What should we do if we have dropped into sinful habits?
- What do you think are the most important take-aways from this lesson for Christians today?
Douglas Moo’s The Letter of James in the Pillar NT Commentary
NT Wright’s Early Christian Letters for Everyone: James, Peter, John, and Judah
Explore the Bible Curriculum
 Wright, T. (2011). Early Christian Letters for Everyone: James, Peter, John and Judah (p. 4). London; Louisville, KY: SPCK; Westminster John Knox Press.
 Wright, T. (2011). Early Christian Letters for Everyone: James, Peter, John and Judah (p. 8). London; Louisville, KY: SPCK; Westminster John Knox Press.