The Instructional Value of Trials for the Christian

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James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ,
To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion:
Greetings.
2My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, 3because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; 4and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.
(James 1:1–4 NRSV)

Key Observation: Trials have instructional value and can be a source of growth and transformation.

We can know a lot about people by the way they introduce themselves to us. James introduces himself as “a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.” The term “servant of God” combines the ideas of marginality and belonging. The word servant can also be translated as “slave.” To be a servant or a slave is to have low status in the world. Those who have chosen to follow Christ adopt this posture to signal that they share in Christ’s servant attitude. To adopt Christ’s posture and to live like him imply that one lives counterculturally. It means that one upholds standards that often go against what the dominant culture promotes. This may cause one to face the world’s hatred and social isolation (John 15:19). They often view and find themselves on margins—on the fringes of society and outcast. However, to be a servant of God creates a sense of belonging to the family of God, which is an honorable position. Being on the margins and belonging to God reads like a paradox, but it determines the way James not only sees himself, but the way he wants others to view him. This also presupposes the way he lives and acts. Christians throughout the ages have wrestled with this dual reality.

We can also learn about others based on how people describe them. By addressing the audience as “brothers and sisters,” James invites them to view him and each other as equals and to acknowledge that the audience shares the same status and is living in the same reality that he is experiencing. Further, James describes his audience as “the twelve tribes in the Dispersion.” To be in diaspora is to be away from home. The word diaspora describes the reality of Jews scattered outside the land of Israel. James, like other New Testament writers, uses the term as a metaphor to describe the reality of Christians in the world. Some may be experiencing physical or literal displacement, others may be living in the land of their birth, but all feel uneasy about the social norms of the world around them. The discomfort about the status quo is such that they feel, and realize, that they no longer belong. Jesus refers to this reality when he prays for his disciples: “They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world” (John 17:16 NKJV; cf. James 4:4).

With this imagery, James speaks of his readers in words that evoke the realities and experiences of Israel in exile. Stories of life in diaspora paint a bleak picture of suffering, discomfort, hostility, and alienation. The stories of Daniel, Esther, and Jeremiah’s contemporaries in Babylon are all cases in point. Yet, these stories offer a vision of hope and deliverance. Whether James’s audience experienced physical displacement or whether the author is using this as a metaphor to convey his message, his readers would be able to identify as outsiders living in a world that is hostile to those who view themselves as servants of God. This hostility has created a situation in which facing trials is part of the reality of being a Christian. It is against this backdrop that he is writing to exhort and encourage them.

James is exhorting the audience to face trials or tests of all kinds with a joyous attitude. At face value, this is counterintuitive. It is very difficult to be joyful when the realities of exile and the pressures of the outside world are weighing heavily on one’s heart (cf. Psalm 137:4). It is difficult to be joyful when resources are scarce, life is not unfolding as planned, and one wrestles with internal pressures to take matters in one’s own hands. However, James invites the audience to view tests and trials from an instructional perspective. The testing of a person’s faith leads to endurance/patience, which provides opportunity for growth toward maturity and perfection. This, according to James, is something worth being joyful about.

Questions for Reflection

  • What challenges and trials do you face as a Christian? What hopes and expectations do you nourish? In what way(s) can you relate to James’s audience?
  • Why does James use endurance/patience as the foundational element in the Christian maturation process?

 

Perfect for:

  • Sunday school classes
  • Weeknight small groups
  • Individual study

In these pages you’ll:

  • Journey through the core message of the Letter of James
  • Understand the relationship between faith in God and faithful, Christian living
  • Appreciate our dependence on God and our interdependence on one another as believers

About the Study

This next installment in the OneBook Daily-Weekly series is a careful and perceptive study of James from Abson Joseph, an associate professor of New Testament. Joseph leads disciples through an eight-week course of understanding, self-reflection, and real-world application of the teachings of James. Each week carries themes of hospitality, humility, faith, intentionality in our speech and actions, community, and, most importantly, prayer.

Joseph’s masterful juxtaposition of godliness versus worldliness woven throughout the text remind the reader they are a part of a community of other believers working toward a life of continual spiritual development. This book is for anyone who wants to actively be stronger in Christ no matter where they are on their journey. Get it from our store here.

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Abson Prédestin Joseph (PhD) is vice president of Academic Affairs and professor of New Testament at Wesley Seminary, Indiana Wesleyan University. He has taught and offered lectures throughout the world, including Belgium, Haïti, India, Jamaica, Kenya, New Zealand, and Russia. His publications include A Narratological Reading of 1 Peter and Shaping Theological Education in the Caribbean: A Community Approach.

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