Count it all joy, my brothers and sisters, when you meet trials of various kinds…
What a way to launch into a letter! No “grace and peace”, thanksgiving or beatitude as in Paul’s letters, rather a bold exhortation to do something seemingly absurd. It does though deal with the objection that James puts works ahead of faith. Rather, faith is his first concern.
James builds a neat staircase to perfection: trials lead to the testing of faith, testing to steadfastness, steadfastness to perfection and completion (cf. Romans 5:3-5). We do not know what specific trials are in view, but it is clear that they are to be understood as trials from without rather than within. They are the trials we all meet, or literally ‘fall among’, varying widely in type.
The testing is the testing of the faith already held. It is a process of refinement and purification that strengthens faith by removing dross. It leads to the quality of steadfastness. This speaks of character – of being one who will not give up, let go, or be discouraged in one’s faith.
One of the great Hebrew words of the Old Testament is chesed, which speaks of God’s “steadfast love” – a love that never lets go of us. A steadfast faith is a faith that will not let go of God.
Steadfastness is, by definition, an ongoing, enduring quality, which is why it becomes a trait of character. As we remain steadfast the refining process continues and our faith is strengthened. We develop to maturity. Maturity is not perfection or completeness, but it brings us to the point at which we are ready for that final step.
We will not attain perfection in this life; we will reach it only when Christ returns and completes his work in us (see 1 Cor 13:9ff.). But by remaining steadfast we prepare ourselves for perfection, which James describes as steadfastness’s “full effect”. This is surely what James has in mind when he exhorts his readers to “establish their hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand” (James 5:8). Our hearts are established by the ongoing steadfastness of faith, which is then crowned by Christ with perfection.
It is with this end in view that James exhorts his readers to rejoice in the face of trials. It is not the sufferings that evoke joy but the outcome of them for faith (cf. 1 Peter 1:6f.). Their (and our) pattern is, as always, the Lord Jesus Himself, “the founder and perfecter of faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross” (Heb 12:2).
How are you responding to a current trial (or how did you respond to a recent one)?
Heavenly Father, I give you thanks for the example of the steadfastness of your Son, my Lord and Saviour. Purify and strengthen my faith, that I may be found steadfast at the Day of his coming, and be made perfect and complete in him, in whose name I pray. Amen.
Photo by Rajesh Ram on Unsplash