Main Idea: Trials and temptations are both inevitable, and God intends both to deepen our faith.
- Why James?
- To examine the relationship between faith and works
- To explore the impact of our faith on
- life in this city
- life in this world
- Why Trials and Temptations?
- God is sovereign over our trials (1:2-12).
- We learn to grow in His likeness.
- We learn to trust in His wisdom.
- We learn to rely on His resources.
- We learn to live for His reward.
- We are responsible in our temptations (1:13-15).
- The origin of sin
- God is perfectly sinless.
- We are utterly sinful.
- The anatomy of sin
- Step one: deception
- Step two: desire
- Step three: disobedience
- Step four: death
- God is faithful for our salvation (1:16-18).
- His goodness is unchanging.
- His goodness is undeserved.
- His goodness is unending.
- He has saved us from our sin.
- He will see us through our sorrow.
It's probably much easier to draw a crowd by preaching on the next and coolest topic that appeals to us, but what happens in the process is we start taking the parts of the Bible we like, tailoring it to what we want to hear, and creating a Christianity that appeals to us. We inevitably ignore the tough parts of the Bible, the parts of the Bible that confront us, the parts that cause us to change. Or we twist them out of context to fit our lifestyles.
The book of James is one of those tough and sometimes uncomfortable books. So why study James? Some background and context will be helpful in answering that question.
The author of this book is most likely the James who was the half brother of Jesus. Acts 15 and 21 both indicate that James was the leader of the church in Jerusalem. James writes this book predominantly to Jewish Christians who were once associated with the church in Jerusalem. In God's providence, according to Acts 8, these Christians had been scattered when Stephen was martyred. This is why James opens the book, "James, a slave of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ," and then immediately begins to address the theme of trials and suffering.
There are two primary reasons to study the book of James. First, we study James to examine the relationship between faith and works. On the one hand, James refers to faith 14 different times in this letter. On the other hand, this letter from James is filled with commands to obey. Out of 108 verses, the book of James has 59 different commands (Doriani, James, 6). Obedience is everywhere. Genuine faith acts. Genuine faith works.
We live in a day when as soon as you talk about obedience, commands, laws, and the works of the Christian life, people cry, "Legalism!" and run away. People today say, "Christianity is not about doing this and this and this and this." Meanwhile, James says, "Yes it is!" You don't just listen to the Word; you do it. If you don't do it, your faith is dead—you don't even have faith (see 2:14-26). James might not make it as a pastor today since there might not be as many members at his church! Obviously we must be careful to understand the relationship between faith and works rightly and biblically, and this book challenges us. Nevertheless, the point of James is clear: there is a relationship between faith and works. It's immature, shallow, and (to be blunt) damning if you try to separate the two (see 5:1). This is serious stuff.
There's another aspect to the idea that faith works. Faith not only acts, but James also teaches us that faith is effective in the world. So the second reason we study James is to explore the impact of our faith on life in this city and in this world. James addresses many practical issues: trials, poverty, riches, materialism, favoritism, social justice, the tongue, worldliness, boasting, making plans, praying, and what to do when we're sick, among other things. As we'll see, James sometimes moves from one issue to the next, which can make it difficult to find the book's structure, but he returns repeatedly to how faith impacts not only the details of our lives but also the lives of people around us—both locally and globally. Faith moves Christians to lead Bible studies in workplaces and neighborhoods, help addicts in rehabilitation centers, serve food in homeless shelters, teach orphans in learning centers, care for widows in retirement homes, provide hospice care for the elderly, train men and women in job skills, tutor men and women in reading, rock sick babies in hospitals, help patients in AIDS clinics, teach English to internationals, and the list goes on and on. Faith moves Christians to take steps of radical obedience to make the gospel known all around the world.
Why Trials and Temptations?
James 1 introduces a variety of the book's themes, but its primary focus is trials and temptations. Why do we go through trials and face temptations? How do we go through trials and face temptations? The words trials, tempt, and tempted all occur in this section (1:2,12,13,14), and all of these words come from the same Greek word peira. This word can be translated as "trial" or "temptation." We'll see in the context of these verses why the word is translated both ways. As a whole, this important term will frame our understanding of James 1.
If I could summarize the main theme of verses 2-18 in one sentence, here is what it would be: "Trials and temptations are both inevitable, and God intends both to deepen our faith." Sometimes we face trials on the outside, and sometimes we face temptations on the inside, and how we understand them and respond to them has everything to do with our faith. So I want to highlight three truths that affect how we understand and respond to trials and temptations.
God Is Sovereign over Our Trials (1:2-12)
James tells us that trials are never out of God's control. Every trial we go through is under God's control, and He accomplishes His purposes through trials. Now, I'm guessing I'm not the only one who kind of wishes this passage wasn't in the Bible! Yet this is one of the most profound and crucial passages for mature, authentic Christian living. A blasphemous theology present today says God never wants you to be sick or poor, and you should name and claim health and wealth. James is writing to a hurting and predominantly poor community of Christians, and he is telling them to consider their trials "a great joy" (v. 2).
When James says to "consider it a great joy," this is a command, an imperative, and it's a verb that addresses how we think, which is important. This is not about feeling. Trials don't necessarily bring a smile to our faces. This is not simply about putting on a happy face and pretending everything is OK. In fact, I would go so far as to say that perhaps this should not always be the first thing out of your mouth when you are encouraging someone who is going through a trial. When life comes crashing down on someone, James doesn't intend for us to say flippantly, "Consider it joy, brother." I think about John 11, when Mary and Martha approached Jesus after their brother Lazarus had died. He didn't immediately start telling them that God had a purpose in this, although He knew God did. Instead, He comforted them and He wept with them (John 11:35).
So then, how do we experience pure joy when we experience a trial? Notice that James refers to "various trials" in verse 2. "Various" includes small trials, big trials, minor trials, and major trials. Sometimes we wonder why the little trials are there, and then when the big trials come, the tragedies and the difficulties that make the everyday trials seem so small, we wonder what James is thinking when he tells us to count all of these things as "great joy." How can the Bible be serious about this?
We need to realize that trials are not joyful in and of themselves, but they are joyful when we realize they are under the authority of a sovereign God who is accomplishing His purposes through them. And what is He accomplishing? In verses 3 and 4 James begins to pile on the ways God uses trials in our lives, and he continues all the way to verse 12 where he puts a bookend on this section by mentioning trials again. God is encouraging these believers to embrace trials not so much for what they are but for what God sovereignly accomplishes through them. We can learn at least four things in trials that should cause us to rejoice.
We learn to grow in His likeness. The testing of your faith develops "endurance" (v. 3), which must finish its work in you, so that you may be "mature and complete, lacking nothing" (v. 4). This is really the ultimate purpose for trials in this passage and in the book of James as a whole. God's goal in our lives is maturity in Him, growth in His likeness. One day every person is going to stand before Almighty God, and God's goal from now until then is to prepare you for that day. We don't think like this, for we think the goal of life is to be successful, to have a nice job, to get a raise, to achieve a standing in the world, to attain a certain goal, or to have a certain kind of family. Then when trials hit in our family, at work, or with some plans we have, they devastate us. But if our goal is to know God and to be conformed into His likeness, then we can take joy in trials because we can know that no matter how tough these trials are, they are moving us toward our goal.
A James 1:3 kind of lifestyle, the kind that endures because of testing, requires a radically God-centered perspective on life. Think of a trial in your own life (whether it's big or small): if the goal is just to fix your circumstances, then you are setting yourself up for constant frustration because often the circumstance won't get fixed like you want it to, and sometimes it won't get fixed at all. Even when it is fixed like you want it, something else will come up. You will live in constant anxiety. But if your ultimate goal is not just to fix your circumstances but to know God and to grow in God, then rejoice because no matter what your circumstances, you will achieve your goal. God has designed trials for your growth in godliness. Trials are joy when God is our goal. I love what Malcolm Muggeridge said on this topic:
Contrary to what might be expected, I look back on experiences that at the time seemed especially desolating and painful with particular satisfaction. Indeed, I can say with complete truthfulness that everything I have learned in my seventy-five years in this world, everything that has truly enhanced and enlightened my existence, has been through affliction and not through happiness, whether pursued or attained. (Muggeridge, Tesimony, n.p.)
In trials we experience growth in godliness like we could never experience any other way. This is not encouraging if your goal is to have a nice, easy, carefree life—your best life, as it's called—with all the circumstances going like you have planned. If that's your goal, then trials will never be a joy to you. But when you set your sights above the stuff of this world and you fix your eyes on God and the knowledge of Him and maturity in Him, then trials will be a joy to you because they will teach you to know, love, and trust Him.
We learn to trust in His wisdom. The implication in verse 5 is clear: We're not there yet when it comes to wisdom. We are lacking something, and that something is wisdom, which is what we need when we walk through trials. Like verse 2, verse 5 gives an imperative: "He should ask God." This is what we are to do when we lack wisdom. In relation to the wisdom of God, our own wisdom grows through three different factors: knowledge, perspective, and experience. Our limitations in all three of these areas lead to limited wisdom. When we walk through trials, we realize we don't know all that is going on (knowledge); we don't see our situation from every angle (perspective); we oftentimes lack experience in what to do (experience). God, on the other hand, possesses all knowledge, He has an eternal perspective, and in Christ He has experienced every kind of test and has prevailed. And we can ask God because He "gives to all generously and without criticizing" (v. 5).
Verse 5 has to be one of the most beautiful and encouraging promises in all of Scripture. God gives wisdom generously, abundantly, liberally. He pours it out to all without discrimination, without question, and without hesitation. This is the God of the universe saying, "I will impart My wisdom to you." But it's not automatic. You must ask for it. And God doesn't give us the easy answer. When we are in a trial, we just want our circumstances fixed. But God says, "Draw near to Me, and ask Me to help you understand why this is happening and to give you perspective on what you are going through and to walk alongside you as the One who possesses all knowledge, eternal perspective, and perfect experience."
My father was the wisest man I have ever known. He died unexpectedly in 2004, and I would give anything to have one more conversation with him. I'm confident that conversation would be long because I've got a lot to learn in life. I would love to pepper him with questions, then just sit back and listen. But I have something infinitely better: the sovereign King of creation has made His wisdom available to me and to all followers of Christ. So when you go through trials, ask God to give you wisdom and trust Him to give it to you. James tells us not to doubt (v. 6), and this holds true even when life is not easy or doesn't make sense. Believe that God is wise and that He is with you.
Consider an example from your personal experience with other people. If you share life with someone and you see the wise decisions they make as they go through hard times, then you will naturally grow to trust that person the next time a trial comes. This is God's design in our relationship with Him, and He is right every time, so the more we walk through trials with Him, the more we will learn to trust in Him.
We learn to rely on His resources. Verses 9-11 introduce the theme of riches and poverty that we see throughout James. But why, in the middle of this section on trials, does James start talking about poverty and riches? Many of James's readers were likely poor, but some were rich and were trusting in their wealth. James reminds us in these verses that trials have a remarkable leveling effect. If you are poor, you should boast in the fact that your circumstances are actually leading you to trust in God; and in the absence of physical resources, you are driven to boast in your (paradoxically) rich status as a child of God. On the other hand, if you are rich, be careful. Trials will remind you that money can't solve your problems, and all of the stuff you fill your life with can't cover up your hurts. One day all that stuff is going to be burned in the fire, and you're going to have nothing left. Will your life be built on those physical resources or on the spiritual resources only God can provide?
We learn to live for His reward. James closes this section in verse 12 by saying the man who endures trials is "blessed," which is just one of many examples in the book of James where he deliberately alludes to the Sermon on the Mount. The key to understanding this whole book is realizing that James is leaning heavily on Jesus' teachings in the Sermon on the Mount. When James talks about the "crown of life" that the man who endures will receive, there are two ways to misunderstand this image. First, don't picture some "gem-studded headpiece worn by kings or queens": most original readers of this letter would have heard this word and immediately thought about the wreath that would be put on an athlete's head at the end of a race he won (Moo, James, 70). The picture here is that of running through the trials of this life victoriously to receive this crown. Second, the crown of life should not simply be thought of as a physical crown with great splendor. No, the crown is actually a symbol of receiving the glorious reward of eternal life. At the end of these trials, God meets us with life, eternal life. So consider it joy because trials remind you that you are living for a reward to come. Paul puts it this way in 2 Corinthians 4:17: "For our momentary light affliction is producing for us an absolutely incomparable eternal weight of glory."
We Are Responsible in Our Temptations (1:13-15)
The first truth we've seen is that God is sovereign in our trials; consequently, our trials can be a joy. But James wants to protect us against something here, which he explains in the second major truth in this passage. God, in His sovereignty, will test the faith of His people, and He will do it for our good. This truth can be found all over Scripture (see, for example, Rom 8:28; Heb 12:5-6). But we have to be careful not to take the next step in our minds and begin to assume that God tempts us to turn from Him. This is such a slippery slope.
Every trial brings temptation with it. When we face financial difficulty, we are tempted to distrust God's provision. When someone dear to us dies, we are tempted to question God's love. When we experience unjust suffering, we are tempted to impugn God's justice. But know this: God may test us, but according to verse 13, He does not and cannot and will not tempt us. We are responsible in temptations.
The origin of sin. Understanding who is responsible in temptation requires understanding the origin of sin. James says clearly in verse 13 that God is perfectly sinless. Everything in Him resists sin; evil is inherently foreign to Him. He is aware of it, but He is untainted by it. In no way can God be blamed for temptation and sin. Who is responsible then?
To answer that question, James holds up the mirror and says, "But each person is tempted when he is drawn away and enticed by his own evil desires" (v. 14). God is perfectly sinless, but we are utterly sinful. After telling us God does not tempt us to sin, we might expect James to say Satan drags us away and entices us, but he doesn't. Now, that doesn't mean Satan isn't involved in the temptations of this world; this will become clear later in this book (4:7). However, the responsibility for temptation and sin lies squarely with us, for our sinful desires within lead us to give in to temptation. We have no one else to blame for our sin.
May God help us understand this in a world where there are efforts at every turn to absolve us from our responsibility for sin. We want to put the fault on others or blame our upbringing, our friends, our family, our government, our condition, or anything else we can think of. This doesn't mean different factors don't affect us all in different ways, but the teaching of Scripture is clear: the fault for my sin lies with me. There is a problem at the core of who you are and who I am. In the words of Paul in Romans 7:18, "For I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my flesh."
The anatomy of sin. Having looked at the origin of sin, we also need to consider the anatomy of sin. Sin does not just happen out of the blue. There is a process behind it, and we might think about this in the following four steps:
- Deception. Genesis 3 presents a perfect example of this process with Adam and Eve. The heart of sin is unbelief—not believing God. We don't believe God when He says something is best for us or another thing is not. Instead, we question Him. This is where sin starts, and we see it in the serpent's question, "Did God really say, 'You can't eat from any tree in the garden?'" (Gen 3:1).
- Desire. James says each one is tempted when he is "drawn away and enticed by his own evil desires" (v. 14). The language here carries the idea of baiting a hook. No fish knowingly bites an empty hook. The idea is to hide the hook. Temptation appeals to our desires, attracts us, but hides the fact that it will kill us. This kind of desire drives men to pornography, women into another man's arms, employees to dishonesty, and people to a number of other sins. Sin starts with disordered thought, which leads to disordered desire, and we begin to want that which will destroy us. When we are enticed and when desire like that is conceived, it gives birth to sin.
- Disobedience. We act on our desire.
- Death. This is the result of disobedience. The imagery of death is vivid and terrifying, and we need to see it for the horror it is.
Brother or sister in Christ, whatever sin you are flirting with, whatever deception you are buying or desires you are fulfilling, run away from them. They will kill you. And this is in us!
God Is Faithful for Our Salvation (1:16-18)
So, what do we do during trials and temptations, the very time when we are so prone to fix our eyes on our circumstances that we miss what God has in store? What do we do in the midst of temptations, when we are so prone to be dragged away and enticed by the desires that are at the core of our lives? We remember that God is faithful for our salvation. With God, James tells us in 1:17, "there is no variation or shadow cast by turning." In your trials or temptations, don't believe the lies. Remember that God is good, so very good. And He wants that which is good for you. So trust Him in your trials, and turn to Him in your temptations. He is the source of everything good (v. 17). Simply consider these three different aspects of God's goodness.
His goodness is unchanging. God is perpetually, constantly, consistently good. He never gets in a bad mood. He never changes for the worse, and He never changes for the better because He is already perfectly and ultimately and wonderfully good in every way, and you can't get any better than God. If He could change for the better, that would mean He wasn't ultimately good in the first place, but He is.
His goodness is undeserved. Verse 18 says that God chose to give us birth through the "message of truth." We're going to see a lot about works in James, but the foundation is all about grace. God has given us new life based not on our works but on His grace. He chose to give us birth! He chose to take His Word and write it on our hearts, hearts that were sinful to the core. This is the gospel, the message of Christianity—anything good in you is because of God's undeserved goodness toward you! God is the source of every good thing in us. Were it not for Him, everything in us would be bad. We need His undeserved goodness to change us from the inside out. This is what faith relies on at every level.
His goodness is unending. We are the "firstfruits of His creatures" (v. 18). The picture of firstfruits carries the idea of a foretaste of that which is to come. What God has done in our lives to change our hearts by His goodness is only a preview of the day to come when He will make all things new in all creation. And the work He has done in our new birth will one day lead to a new heaven and a new earth where there will be no more trials and no more temptations.
In the meantime, take heart, Christian. He has saved us from our sin. And if He has saved us from our sin, then we can know beyond the shadow of a doubt that He will see us through our sorrow. Contemplate the truth of this gospel, of a God who conquers sin and suffering through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ so that today you and I can consider trials pure joy and face temptations with steadfast confidence.
Reflect and Discuss
- How do unbelievers you know attempt to make it through painful circumstances? How have you persevered through such times in your life?
- What qualifies as a trial? What about a temptation? How do trials test the genuineness of your faith?
- If true faith endures to the end, how is this not a way of earning your salvation?
- How should the need to persevere in faith affect the way we counsel those who have just recently professed Christ?
- Explain how believing in God's sovereignty through our trials is crucial to persevering faith.
- List some ways painful circumstances and unanswered questions can actually strengthen your faith.
- Since God is sovereign, does this mean we are not at fault when we give in to sin? Explain your answer.
- How does Scripture counsel us to overcome sin's attractions?
- If someone no longer has an interest in being a Christian due to a trial, what should we conclude about that person's faith? How would you counsel that person?
- What role does knowing our final reward play in enduring trials?