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An oxymoron isa figure of speech containing words that seem to contradict each other.”  Here are a few examples:

  • jumbo shrimp;
  • clearly confused;
  • cruel kindness;
  • found missing; and,
  • deafening silence.

In James 1:2-12 we find more to add to this list:

  • face trials or difficulties with joy; and,
  • the humble or poor person ought to “take pride in his high position.”

What are we to make of these?

A new creation

James addresses these seemingly contradictory statements to “my brothers [and sisters],” or “the brother [or sister]” signaling that these oxymorons apply to followers of Jesus. They will not make sense to others. Even many Christians wonder how we can face difficulties with joy.

Becoming a follower of Jesus was a radical, life-changing event for me. One of the earliest parts of the Bible I memorized put this change in these words: “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17). A new creation, a fresh start – the old has passed away, it was all behind me – WOW! 

And then one day – BANG! A problem – it was unexpected, heavy, and painful. I was disappointed and confused. What had gone wrong? What had I done wrong? Why was this happening? 

Now, I can’t remember what the problem was. I do remember thinking back then that Christians were somehow immune to trails or difficulties. That was my immaturity and lack of understanding showing.  

Over the years, if you’re anything like me, you have experienced any number of difficulties or trials. They don’t stop coming and they don't get any easier. So, what do we do about them? 

Part of growing up

James writes, “when troubles come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy” (1:2 NLT).  Why? 

It’s not that we seek trials, or that we enjoy problems – both these attitudes are unhealthy. Rather, we need to develop the mindset that trials present an opportunity for development – for growth. James continues in 1:3:

“For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow.” 

With an attitude that is trusting God to bring about something good from a trial, that trial sets in motion certain processes: “So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing” (1:4).

Athletes give us an insight into being joyful in trials. They realize they have to be pressed to their limits physically, mentally, and emotionally to develop to the fullest potential of who they are as athletes. If they only focus on the dreariness, weariness, and pain of training they give up – in the end, they also need to focus on the goal knowing the challenges of training are absolutely necessary for growth – and in this, they can rejoice.

In the same way, if we grasp the purpose and goal of our trials – growing toward maturity and wholeness – we can rejoice as well.

Perhaps at this point, it is easier said than done, and yet it is what James is saying to us – but he doesn’t stop there.

The necessity of wisdom

God’s provision for facing a trial is not escape from the trial; instead, God offers wisdom (1:5):

“if any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him.”

In Greek, the grammar asserts they did lack wisdom: “if any of you lacks wisdom [and you do] …, then ask God.” In the example from my own life, my need for wisdom was manifested by my attitude of confusion or incomprehension in the face of trial. I was not seeing the trial from God’s viewpoint.

In the Bible, wisdom is the skill for navigating life in a way that pleases God.

Simply ask God for this wisdom and He gives it generously – as much as you need, and He does not criticize you for asking – there is no downside.

By the way, when you ask, believe God will deliver – trust him.

Failure to trust

James talks about the person who doubts God – a person who does not believe He will do what He says (1:6b-8):

… he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does. 

“Double-minded” translates dipsuchos which literally means “double-souled.” This describes people who say the right ‘religious’ things about God and His provisions, but they resort to the resources of the world. This is a form of pragmatic atheism – something that can infect a follower of Jesus.

A “pragmatic atheist” will rely on resources that we may think take care of difficulties, insulate us from trials, and make us independent from God – wealth, finances, and possessions. What does James say about that?

The ‘great reversal’

In 2:9-11, James introduces the theme of wealth; he compares rich and poor. In most (if not all) cultures it is desirable to be rich. It usually brings privileges, resources, comforts, status, security, and power. But the rich don’t come off very well in James (2:6; 5:1-6).

In simple terms, a person’s wealth often acts as protection against many of the trials that impact the poor (e.g., lack of food, healthcare, security, and other necessities). But eventually, the rich will droop and fall like flowers – “they will fade away with all of their achievements” (1:11). The insulation of wealth, finances, and possessions is no substitute for the growth that can be experienced when a brother or sister encounters trials in dependence upon the God revealed as Jesus Christ and His wisdom.

Again, this seems strange to our modern western thinking, but James has the long-view that moves us toward genuine wholeness

A blessing

There is a blessing for those who embrace the divine principles of trial, wisdom, and dependence upon God that James is teaching: “God blesses those who patiently endure testing and temptation. Afterward they will receive the crown of life that God promised to those who love him” (1:12).   

In this opening (1:2-12) we have been introduced to major themes in the book that James wrote: trials, wisdom, faith, and wealth – four big issues in our lives as followers of Jesus. 

How does this better equip you to face difficulties, and grow through trials? 

You can also listen to this post as a podcast.

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