Beyond the Lectionary Text: James 1:1-18

by Joel Schreurs

 

Comments and Observations

When was the last time you experienced pure, unrestrained joy?

For most of us, “joy” is something that goes hand in hand with the best moments in our lives. It erupts, unbidden, when everything is going our way. At the birth of a child. On our wedding day. After opening an acceptance letter to our dream school. When our team wins the Super Bowl. These are the kinds of moments we associate with joy.

But James has a different point of view. James says that for followers of Jesus, joy is not to be tucked away on a shelf like a fine wine, kept on special reserve and poured out only in those rare occasions when we believe all is as it should be. No. For the Christian, says James, joy should be paired with good times and the bad. It should be served when our worlds are exactly as we think they should be and when our worlds are falling apart. Consider it pure joy, James writes in verse 2, whenever you face trials of many kinds.

As James opens his letter and introduces the major themes of his letter in this passage, he offers us a great deal to chew on (more than most congregants will be able to swallow in a single sermon!). But I suspect that most who encounter this text will have a difficult time getting past his opening line. His words make us scratch our heads in wonder–or even shake them in disgust. Joy in trials?!, we may want to shout back. What is wrong with you? Don’t you know what I am going through? What kind of pastor are you? Where is your empathy? Why would we ever consider trials to be a reason for joy?!

One answer to our question comes in verse 4 (James offers another in verse 12). Notice that James is careful to say that the trials in and of themselves are not reason for joy. He is not playing a linguistic game where up is now down, black is now white, and the bad is now good. James is not urging his listeners to delight in the injustices they have suffered in court (chapter 2), the ways they have been mistreated at the hands of the rich (chapter 5), or for that matter, in the diagnosis they have received or the losses they have endured for their own sake. The trials themselves are not the point. Rather, it is what the trials will ultimately produce in his congregation: “maturity and completion” (verse 4). To be “mature and complete” is to grow in the likeness of Jesus (Ephesians 4:13)–the one who was himself tested in every way, and who now promises to give us mercy and grace in our time of need (Hebrews 4:14-16). To be conformed into his likeness is the greatest source of joy imaginable!

Textual Points and Questions to Consider

Illustration Ideas