Problem Passages in James: Part 1

Let the lowly brother (NASB, NIV: Brother of humble circumstance) boast in his exultation, and the rich in his humiliation, because like a flower of the grass he will pass away. For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flowers fall, and its beauty perishes. So also will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits.       – James 1:9-11

This passage is challenging because of what it seems to be saying to affluence. I come from a reasonably well-off family. We weren’t always, but God has chosen to bless my parents financially. Though making right around the Ontario minimum wage, my salary puts me well in the upper middle class in Uganda. Most of my friends are university students/graduates who by virtue of their studies will have an opportunity to succeed in ways that many cannot. Is James teaching that there is something inherently wrong with wealth? I appreciate the encouragement to the “lowly brother”, but is my application of this text to take a vow of poverty?

If that were the message of these three verses, it would make for an awkward fit with the verses surrounding it; an interruption in flow of thought. A general rule I use in biblical interpretation is: if the initial reading of a passage requires a sudden change of topic from the preceeding verses- especially if the author returns to the original topic immediately afterwards- that’s a clue to read it again.

James begins with a command to count it all joy when we go through trials because trials produce perfection (alternate reading: maturity) if we persevere and allow perseverance to have is full effect. If we don’t have the wisdom to think this way, we ought to ask God in faith and He will give liberally. The cumulative picture is that we are to grow up so we can appreciate the blessing of trials.

The connection between our passage and the preceeding verses can be thought of as “for example”. James is giving a picture of how this way of thinking operates. The contrast is between the brother whose trial is his lowly circumstance and the rich man who is managing to escape tough times. Contrary to our natural way of thinking, the man going through the trial is actually better off that his comfortable counterpart. The rich man is not humiliated because he is wealthy, but because he isn’t being built up and refined like his brother is. He is compared to a flower, a plant which for all its beauty is actually quite frail. Like a flower, the rich man fades away in the midst of his pursuits without leaving much fruit or impact.

This passage is an example of how to see trials as valuable, and not a teaching against wealth. James continues on to explain the benefit of going through and persevering in trials. “For when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life which God has promised to those who love Him.” (1:12)

This is consistent with the rest of scripture. Peter tells us that our faith is validated as it stands throguh trials and this process is more valuable than gold (1 Peter 1:7). The letters to the seven churches in Revelation each give a promise to the one who overcomes (Revelation 2:7,11,17,26;3:5,12,21).Paul warns Timothy that all who desire to live godly lives will be persecuted but instructs him to persevere because of the Word (2 Timothy 3:12-16). He also instructs him to view himself as a soldier of Christ, bearing hardship and not getting caught up civilian pursuits to please his master (2 Timothy 2:3-4).

But, the obstinate ascetic would object, doesn’t James say later, “Has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heir of the kingdom , which He has promised to those who love Him?” (James 2:5)

Yes, but context matters once again. The message of the section is that the poor are every bit as worthy of honour as the rich. After all, if God invites anyone to adoption and citizenship in His kingdom, who are we to dishonour God’s elect?

Yes, Jesus teaches, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” and told the rich young ruler to sell everything he owned and give it away. Yes, Peter tells Simon the magician, “May your silver perish with you,” (Acts 8:20). The problem isn’t financial, however, but a matter of the heart.

Looking through scripture, you’ll observe the number of wealthy people God used for His purposes. God commended King David as a man after His own heart, blessed Solomon with prosperity, provided for Christ’s ministry with donations from wealthy women (Luke 8:3), and His grave through Joseph of Arimathea (Matthew 27:57-60). The Holy Spirit made Cornelius the first recorded gentile to receive the gospel (Acts 10:9-48) and Paul acknowledged Philemon as a beloved fellow worker.

Everything we have comes from God (John 3:27, 1 Corinthians 4:7) and we are to receive every blessing with thanksgiving (1 Timothy 4:4). Some people, in God’s sovereignty have been blessed with wealth and are called to be good stewards of God’s resources. All believers, however,  are to follow in Paul’s example of contentment in all circumstances (Philippians 4:11-13) and to rejoice always (4:4). Our message from James is simply to see trials, in whatever form they appear, as a blessing from God.

May God be glorified in how we respond in all circumstances.

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