Et tu, James? You, too, along with St. Paul are commanding me to rejoice in my trials?
To which St. James replies simply: “Exactly.”
I welcome the break from St. Paul’s weighty letters, hoping to catch a breather from his demanding gospel, which is the gospel of Jesus Christ and the apostolic tradition that we are to keep. I was looking forward, to a break from Paul’s constant emphasis on how we are to respond to suffering and trials in our lives.
And then St. James opens his letter with the same weightiness as St. Paul.
Do you think maybe God is trying to tell me (and you) something?
Like St. Paul, St. James begins his letter not with a whimper but a BANG! “My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials.” From the beginning of his letter, James makes it clear that trials, testing, tribulations, and suffering are going to be a major focus of his. With all of the attention paid to this theme by the apostles, it must be something God is extremely desirous that we understand.
It’s a great encouragement that James helps us out by explaining what always appears as a mystery and usually as an oxymoron to us: that we should be joyful in trials. In fact, what James is doing is explaining how life in God’s kingdom works, and his point is not just one about joy in trials but also about the humility that is necessary to live in God’s kingdom and presence.
James tells us that when our faith is tested, then it produces patience, which if it is allowed to work in us will perfect us and make us complete. This is such an incredible benefit from godly patience and joy in trials that I, for one, want to know what it takes to get this patience that will make me complete in Christ.
Unfortunately, James doesn’t tell us directly, but I believe it gets back to the idea of humility and submission before God, without which it is not possible to see God. The connection between our humility, God’s blessing, and our ability to have joy in trials is seen in James 1:1-12 in three ways: in relation to patience, poverty, and prayer.
First, James tells us that when we face trials, our faith is tested. This is not a punishment from God but an instrument of His divine shepherding, and therefore it is neither to be feared nor resisted. But patience is required if we are to receive life’s trials in such a way to be received God’s blessing and joy through them. Patience is required because God is under no obligation to take away our trials or suffering immediately. Just as our physical muscles need to be exercised by physical resistance in order to grow larger and stronger, or even to maintain a constant state of health, it’s also true that our spiritual muscles need this resistance of trials in order to be healthy and strong.
Surely, this is a mystery, but in some way God has ordained that through trials, and not apart from them, we will grow in holiness and perfection. Patience is required, though, because God wants us to trust Him and His method of leading us, rather than trusting in ourselves or even in His gifts instead of Him.James shows us that humility and submission before God are necessary as well by his teaching on those who are rich. It might be that James just happens to insert 3 verses about the rich because it just happened to strike him as important at the time. Or it might be that it is related in some way to his teaching on trials in verses 2-8 and also in verses 12-18. One way of seeing this connection is that the lowly brother, who has a trial known as poverty, will be exalted if he receives it as a means God is using to increase his faith, patience, and joy. On the other hand, the rich man who does not use his good gift (and it is a gift) of earthly riches for God’s purposes, is actually humiliated, even if he doesn’t know it. The rich man, his riches, and his pursuits (verse 11) will pass away very soon. The riches that he thinks of as his pride and joy is actually his humiliation and ruin, if he does not humble himself before God.
The third way James teaches the importance of humility in receiving our trials with joy and as a means of blessing is in its relation to prayer. How can we have joys in trails? Often we don’t know. How can we be delivered from our trials or profit from them? In both cases, the answer is to humble ourselves before and pray to Him. When we pray, we are acknowledging that God is greater than we are and that we cannot do anything without Him – and that is the beginning of wisdom. Even when we don’t ask for wisdom, when we faithfully turn to God in prayer we are acting in a wise manner. When we pray, God comes to the aid of His people. It may not be immediately (because He is teaching us patience and to wait on Him), and it may not be the way we want (because He is in charge and not us), but when we pray with faith, God will give His people the gift of patience to endure our trials, the patience and humility that God is really after. Finally, when we pray our faith is strengthened, even if that isn’t what we specifically asked for. In the act of prayer, we are acting humbly, wisely, and patiently, and all of these things have their effect in strengthening our faith.
So now you know how and why James can command you to count it all joy when you fall into various trials: it is because God is using those trials to produce in you patience, faith, joy, and humility. In other words, we have joy in our trials because God Himself is with us, blessing us through them.
Prayer: Almighty God, I humble myself before Your holy face this morning, knowing that you desire my humility. I come, knowing that I am not worthy to come before You nor strong enough to face my own trials. Increase in me, Lord, my patience that I may see Your hand in my trials, and having seen You in and through them receive Your joy again.
Point for Meditation:
Reflect on how you have been receiving your trials lately. Examine whether or not you have received them with joy, patience, faith, and humility. Choose one particular trial you now find difficult and practice responding to it with one of the virtues listed above. Remember to make prayer a part of your response.
Resolution: I resolve to practice patience, faith, prayer, and humility today when a trial comes to my attention.
© 2015 Fr. Charles Erlandson