Blessings on people who are persecuted because of God’s way! The kingdom of heaven belongs to you. Blessings on you, when people slander you and persecute you, and say all kinds of wicked things about you falsely because of me! Celebrate and rejoice: there’s a great reward for you in heaven. That’s how they persecuted the prophets who went before you.
• Matthew 5:10-12, KNT
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Wednesdays with James
Lesson Five: Eschatological Joy and Growth through Suffering (aka Life)
We are taking an adaptation of Peter Davids’s outline as our “big picture” of the Epistle of James.
Today we’ll start to look at the text itself, which begins after the epistolary introduction of verse 1. Our focus today will be on James 1:2-4 (we’ll cover bigger chunks in future lessons). We are using N.T. Wright’s New Testament text, The Kingdom New Testament: A Contemporary Translation.
My dear family, when you find yourselves tumbling into various trials and tribulations, learn to look at it with complete joy, because you know that, when your faith is put to the test, what comes out is patience. What’s more, you must let patience have its complete effect, so that you may be complete and whole, not falling short in anything.
In writing this, James suggests that the Jewish believers who read his words should take a particular perspective when it comes to facing all kinds of tests, trials, and difficulties in life. The specific troubles they are dealing with will be introduced soon, in verses 9-11, but before focusing in to their exact circumstances, he reminds them of good news that Jesus himself taught (Matt. 5:10-12, see above). When Jesus uttered similar words, he encouraged his listeners to look back, to see themselves as part of a long line of God’s people who had endured suffering, people God had rewarded and honored. James, on the other hand, encourages his readers to look forward, to see themselves as part of the blessed community of the last days who, like their Savior, would emerge from suffering to receive the glorious kingdom of God.
When James says, “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials,” he is urging them to pursue a particular kind of joy. Peter Davids calls it “eschatological joy,” the joy “of those expecting the intervention of God in the end of the age.” He is not encouraging them to seek out trouble, nor is he saying they should gloss over it with a patina of smiles and clichés. Suffering is real, painful, and not something anyone should want. But James (like Paul and Peter in their epistles) sees “an ultimate eschatological benefit in the suffering.”
Wisdom teaching throughout all the world, all religions, and all philosophies has spoken to the question of human suffering, and by and large has encouraged people to embrace it and allow it to make us stronger, better people. Here James follows this same pattern, with an eschatological twist because of the new reality created by Jesus. He is not so much exploring “why” suffering occurs but rather how a wise person — in particular a follower of the suffering and exalted Savior — will view it in the long term. In the final analysis, he affirms, no ultimate harm will befall the believer, who will emerge in the end “complete and whole, not falling short in anything.”
But James also speaks to the process and formation that suffering may bring along the way. One who learns to take a long view of suffering can develop patience or endurance. We see this in all manner of examples around us in the world: athletes who put themselves through tortuous training to make themselves better in competition, soldiers who drill tirelessly and are exposed to extreme conditions to toughen them for battle, business entrepreneurs who sacrifice normal lives in the short term to build better futures, ordinary folks who deny themselves instant gratification in all manner of things to pursue deeper pleasures and greater prosperity.
I’m convinced that 90% of our “discipleship” or “Christian growth” programs are well-intentioned but ultimately getting it wrong. They rely primarily upon conveying certain information and urging certain behaviors. All well and good, but it seems clear to me that there is only one real way to “grow” as a Christian (by which I mean become a mature and loving human being), and that is by actually going through life, with its many trials of prosperity and adversity and everything in between.
We grow by living, and that means we grow through suffering. We become mature by gaining experience and perspective, and though books (including the Bible) can help us conceptualize some of what that means, experience and perspective must be worked into us. Maturity can’t be taught, only developed. The “patience” James commends is the outworking of real life processes in real life settings with real life choices and adaptations. God does not give us patience, he works it into us through life experience. Virtue is not the result of education in the narrow sense of academic achievement but in the broad sense of letting life and our responses to it (the arena in which God works) form us.
This is the life God is in. He is leading us to the age to come, in which all will be made new. But until then, we who follow Jesus can (and must) participate in the daily process, anticipate the end result, and learn to practice the patience of hope.
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Wednesdays with James