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Studies in James: when adversity strikes, 1:1-11

James 1:1-11

Studies in James

When grief becomes unbearable
When wealth becomes worthless

JAMES, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad, greeting.

2My brethren, count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations; 3Knowing this, that the trying of your faith worketh patience. 4But let patience have her perfect work, that ye may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing.

5If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him. 6But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering. For he that wavereth is like a wave of the sea driven with the wind and tossed. 7For let not that man think that he shall receive any thing of the Lord. 8A double minded man is unstable in all his ways.

9Let the brother of low degree rejoice in that he is exalted: 10But the rich, in that he is made low: because as the flower of the grass he shall pass away. 11For the sun is no sooner risen with a burning heat, but it withereth the grass, and the flower thereof falleth, and the grace of the fashion of it perisheth: so also shall the rich man fade away in his ways.

Study of the Scriptures—

Grief drives us to our knees,
and it is here we find God
when nothing else matters, not even wealth

(1:1-8) The Epistle of James opens almost in a perfunctory manner.  There is the standard epistolary common to secular letters of the period:  James . . . to the twelve tribes . . . grace.

Immediately afterwords, however, James begins the theme or argument underlying the epistle.  In fact, there is a paradox combining joy with affliction or adversity.

When our heart is broken
Seemingly, the point is that our character is at stake with trial or affliction becoming the crux in the formation of what we become.  We encounter adversity, come upon on it by chance; we fall into it much like the man who fell among thieves in the Parable of the Good Samaritan.  The adversity may or may not be our fault, but its presence is real enough.  Solving or even understanding the trial escapes us and literally drives us to our knees in prayer.

If we ask God in full faith, God will grant us the wisdom to get us through.  Without that unwavering faith, though, we remain helpless and unstable, much like billowing waves, bobbing and wind driven.  The affliction or trial cancels out any notion we may have had about controlling our own life.  We find ourselves defenseless, driven like waves by external forces, going first this way, then that.  In our pain and confusion, we become even more double-minded, ambivalent, and out of control.  We neither can understand what is happening nor can we solve the crisis facing us.  Even so, such adversity molds us, and tries our faith.  It either does that, or it crushes us beyond remedy.   We never escape the storm.

(1:9-11) The whole question may be that of prosperity, of resources, and of status.  Here, too, there is another paradox.  We are to salute or esteem the very act which engenders humiliation.   The brother who is lowly somehow has dignity in his unimportance while the brother who is rich somehow has dignity in his loss.

When our pockets are empty
We may think otherwise, but wealth was never a reliable resource.  In fact, its passing is as proverbial as the certain withering of a flower under a burning sun.   Indeed, rather than being a secure resource against adversity and shame,  wealth itself fades away and often at the first moment when we find  ourselves the most preoccupied with the business of affluence and achievement.  Ultimately as both time and the world go by,  we can neither keep wealth, nor can it keep us.

Questions that touch the heart

  1. What is a paradox?  What are its essential components?  How does paradox  function as argument?
  2. Are we responsible for our own trials or adversities?  Do we cause our own misfortune?  Hint: consider the man in the Parable of the Good Samaritan.  Why was this particular man robbed ?  What had he done or failed to do (Lk. 10:30)?
  3. James later introduces the illustration of Job and his suffering (5:11).  Did Job ever understand what had happened to him and why?  Did he write the book that bears his name?  Did he ever know about the opening chapter, depicting the struggle between God and Satan?  How much did Job know?
  4. Also later in the opening chapter, James returns to the notion of trials, but this time he identifies suffering with temptation (1:12-15).  Are we to understand that trials (1:2) and temptation (1:12) are identical?  If not, how then are these two notions related?
  5. James begins by talking about trials and wisdom, but then, he seems to change topic by introducing seemingly a totally unrelated point — that of wealth.  Are trials, wisdom, and prosperity merely random points on a graph, or are these three points somehow related?  If so, how?
  6. Exactly what is wisdom?   Is wisdom mere intellectual insight, or might there be a pragmatic sense to the word?  The artisans who build the tabernacle are described as wise  (Exodus 36:1).  How can a highly skilled craftsman be called wise in his craft?
  7. What is ambivalence anyway?  What does James mean by being double-minded?   Can we really understand the trials that come upon us?  Are we to scrutinize and ponder them until we can somehow make sense of them? Are we to search for some psychological insight?
  8. Does James entertain a romantic notion in which poverty becomes a virtue and wealth a curse?  Are we to believe that a poor man is righteous because he is poor, and that rich is unrighteous because he is rich?
  9. Why are we so preoccupied with money and status anyway?  Christianity should change our view of life, shouldn’t it?  How should it change us here?
  10. What does it mean that the rich man fades “away in his pursuits” (1:12)?  The expression there literally means “in his doings.”

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