My friend Mariam Kamell just published a co-authored commentary on James with Craig Blomberg in Zondervan’s new Exegetical Commentary series (see product detail here). Designed for the pastor and Bible teacher, the Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament attempts to examine the biblical text in its original environment through attending to grammatical details, literary context, rhetorical flow, theological nuances, and historical setting.
Here is an excerpt from one of Mariam’s favorite sections: Positive Potential of Trials (1:2-4):
The first of the three key themes in James demonstrates that tough times can be viewed positively. V. 12 will support this conviction. Chapter 4:13-5:18 elaborates on the theme of testing, in the contexts of temptation to worship riches (4:13-17), experiencing economic exploitation (5:1-12) and suffering severe illness (5:13-18). By introducing all three of his themes here, at the beginning of his letter, in short compass, James implicitly applies his teaching on trials to the social circumstances of his audience. Despite the fact that the majority of them are afflicted by unjust discrimination and deprivation, they can nevertheless choose to view their situation as an opportunity for character building.
Jewish Christians would naturally recall the accounts of the Israelites’ rebellious wandering in the wilderness for forty years between the exodus and the entry into the Promised Land. Instead of imitating their ancestors’ failure, they should instead emulate the Maccabean martyrs, whose faith and joy under torture had become legendary (cf. 2Mc 7). Jesus in his beatitudes had pronounced those who were persecuted for his sake blessed (Mt 5:11-12; Lk 6:23) and had called on his followers to become mature (or perfect, Mt 5:48), as in Jas 1:4. Ro 5:2-5 and 1Pe 1:6-7 (cf. 4:13) likewise describe the need to rejoice in various trials and sufferings because of the genuineness of faith that they can produce. The verbal parallels among these passages suggest that James, Paul and Peter may have all drawn from a common early Christian ethical tradition in their directives. If this is the case, then James’ teaching proves all the more fundamental for Christian living.
But how can believers rejoice in tough times (v. 2), especially when they find themselves suffering intensely? Frankly, many of us would prefer that this passage were not in the Bible! But it may also be one of the most profound and crucial for truly mature Christian living. To begin with, James does not command us to wear the artificial “happy faces” that so many seem to think are required in church or other Christian circles. Denying one’s true emotions seldom accomplishes anything good. But while we cannot will ourselves to be jovial rather than depressed, we can choose how we think-hence the verbs about considering and knowing in vv. 2-3. The joy James has in mind “is an eschatological catchword, not an emotion. . .a theological perception of trials, which considers their complete demise by a God who promises a new day.”
We must also stress that these verses do not claim to teach that everything that happens to us is somehow good and therefore a reason for rejoicing (as in the KJV mistranslation of Ro 8:28-“. . .all things work together for good to them that love God. . .”), but that if we let God work through even evil events, he can produce good (cf. the NIV/TNIV of Ro 8:28-“. . .in all things God works for the good of those who love him. . .). Even if we do not understand those purposes in this life, we will do so in the life to come, the glory and infinity of which will far outweigh our “light and momentary troubles” (2Co 4:17).
Vv. 2-4 can be both “overapplied” and “underapplied.” On the one hand, there is no automatic promise here, as if trials guaranteed blessings or maturity in this life. Even believers can choose to allow difficult circumstances to drive them away from the Lord through resentment, indifference or disobedience. Thus James commands them to “let endurance have its complete effect” (v. 4). At times, it seems that God allows his people to get perilously close to the brink of destruction, but he never pushes them over the edge (cf. 2Co 4:8-12). Indeed, when they rely on him to preserve them, they grow, mature and come out the other side of the trials stronger and more whole, character traits our world desperately seeks but desires to gain without the suffering that is usually required to obtain them.
In light of the full range of NT teaching, this “wholeness” is characterized by the absence of self-centeredness and division, the presence of the fruit of the Spirit, the ability to teach others, deeper insight into God’s will and ways, greater trustworthiness–in short, growing in the likeness of Jesus Christ. Trials do not necessarily demonstrate that one is carefully obeying God’s will, though it is true that those in “front-line” kingdom work often are attacked by the enemy. But one may be going through hard times due to one’s sin or tactlessness or simply due to the fallenness of this evil age. Scripture, moreover, never calls God’s people to seek suffering or persecution; if we live long enough plenty of it will come our way without us looking for it!
On the other hand, one dare not limit the application of this subsection just to the kind of trials of economic exploitation that James’ audience was experiencing. The use of the adjective for “varied” or “many kinds” highlights this point. Against those who think, for example, that God never wants people to be sick or poor, so that believers should “name and claim” health and wealth, v. 2 forms the first of several texts in James that confront and decry this heresy bluntly (see further under 4:13-17 and 5:13-16). Paul teaches plainly that God’s power is perfected in human weakness and that his grace is sufficient to enable us to endure (2Co 12:9). Even when believers have largely themselves to blame for difficulties, God’s sovereignty is not thwarted and he still works to bring something good out of the situation. Genesis 50:20 provides the classic demonstration of this precious theological truth: even as Joseph’s brothers intended their mistreatment of him for evil, “God intended it for good”!