The Writer's Opening Thoughts
James addresses his epistle to the "twelve tribes which are scattered abroad" (v. 1). He is referring, of course, to the twelve tribes of Israel. After Solomon's day, ten tribes seceded from the Davidic kingdom and established a new kingdom in the north, leaving a kingdom of two tribes in the south. The northern ten are known as the lost tribes because it is commonly believed that they forgot their identity after Assyria conquered them in the eighth century BC and resettled many of their people in far-flung places. But this old idea is somewhat of a myth. At the time of division, many from the north moved south so that they could continue to worship God at Jerusalem. From then on, the southern kingdom was a composite of all twelve tribes (2 Chron. 11:13–17). Also, when the Assyrians took many northern Israelites into captivity, they left many behind. The southern kings later extended their domain to include this remnant, in effect integrating them with the whole nation (2 Chron. 34:3–6, 9). As a result, when Babylon conquered the southern kingdom in the sixth century BC and led away many to Mesopotamia, the captives included members of the ten tribes. Likewise, when Persia released the Jews from exile, members of the ten tribes were among those who returned to Palestine, although for many, their exact tribal lineage was by now a vanishing memory. Then in the next several centuries, both the repatriated Jews and the Jews still in Persia became a highly mobile group, establishing settlements throughout the ancient world in pursuit of economic gain, so that all the tribes became scattered far and wide. In New Testament times, they were known as the Jewish diaspora (dispersion).
The author begins by weaving into his greeting a striking illustration of one of the virtues he will emphasize throughout his book: the virtue of humility. He does this in two ways. First, he puts aside all the childish rivalry that he once felt toward his older brother and lifts Him to a plane far above his own, calling Him Lord (v. 1). Second, he lowers himself to the same plane as every other believer, calling himself the servant of God and of Jesus (v. 1). He might have boasted in his connection with the Lord. Yet he does not even tell us that he is Jesus’ brother.
The author exhorts us to "count it all joy," when we fall into various temptations (v. 2). How can we view them all as occasions for joy? The exhortation strikes us at first as a little extreme. The rendering "temptations" misses the point, however. The corresponding Greek word does not speak of temptations to sin, but of testings or trials, commonly in the form of suffering.
What is the joy in suffering? The joy consists in anticipating the spiritual result. There is no joy in suffering itself. To seek suffering as if the experience of pain will be, or should be, enjoyable is a false spirituality.
The asceticism practiced by monks and Eastern mystics rests on a false concept of virtue. There is no spiritual merit in depriving yourself of a truly harmless pleasure, such as a good meal that you can acquire without robbing another person of something good. And there is no spiritual merit in hurting yourself by foregoing sleep or lashing your back or crawling along hard pavement.
No, suffering is a form of evil that can exist only in a fallen world. Yet in the midst of suffering, while under no delusion that it is good, we can have joy in our hearts because we know that God will use it to teach us patience (v. 3).
"But let patience have her perfect work" (v. 4). In other words, when you are suffering, do not resist the work that God wishes to do in your life. Do not complain. Do not choose bitterness rather than joy. Do not try to wriggle out of suffering at the price of compromising moral principle or shirking spiritual duty. For example, the right way to handle an unhappy marriage is not to forsake it, but to pursue the solutions made possible by the power of faith and love.
The result of submitting to suffering is that we will become "perfect and entire, wanting nothing" (v. 4). Here we have three synonymous expressions. James’s admonition could be translated, "that ye may be complete, complete, and complete." Only by accepting God’s work in our lives can we avoid gaping holes in our character.
The primary mark of completeness is patience. Although patience is a prime virtue, it is not easy to define. In ordinary use the term means to restrain wrath or annoyance or other negative reactions when we suffer provocation. How should an adult respond to a child who innocently makes the same mistake repeatedly? Patience smiles and waits for improvement. An explosion of bad temper makes the child feel that he is hopelessly stupid. Patience in a spiritual sense has much the same meaning. It is holding back our tendency to grumble during suffering, to indulge feelings of self-pity, to toy with the idea that God is not being fair, to confront God with our complaints, alleging that we could do a better job of running our lives. So, in essence, patience is restraining our negative reactions to trouble.
Some commentators in the past have argued that the writings of Paul and James conflict with each other. But what we really find in their writings is perfect harmony. Compare, for example, James 1:3 and Romans 5:3. The two authors speak with one voice. The purpose of tribulation and trial is to teach us patience.
Why is patience so important? Why does it rank as one of the traits that God wishes most to instill in us? The reason is simple. Patience is submitting to whatever God puts into our lives. It is therefore the same as yielding to His will. It is a form of obedience.
Yielding to God fully, raising no question about His motive or His wisdom in allowing us to suffer, can happen only if our will has been broken; that is, only if our will has lost the desire to be contrary and rebellious. Brokenness is the prerequisite of patience.
We understand God better if we view Him as the perfect Father. A wise earthly father knows that his object in training a small child is to break his will but not his spirit. That is exactly what God seeks to do with us. He wants to teach us that our will leads only to disaster. So instead of trusting ourselves, we should deny ourselves and take up a cross and follow Christ (Matt. 16:24). The meaning is that we should decide to emulate His obedience to the Father’s will, for Christ was "obedient unto death, even the death of the cross" (Phil. 2:8). He was our example of perfect obedience. For us to attain it requires total surrender, which presumes a broken will.
Yet God does not want us to suffer oppression by sadness, or to fall under a sense of failure, or to spend our days in bitter sighing for deliverance from the trials of life—all these being signs of an unhealthy spirit. He wants us to be filled with hope, generating a positive outlook and a serene attitude. His prescription for a healthy spirit is to view every circumstance as an opportunity for joy. Joy keeps brokenness in the will from spreading to the whole person.
How can we gain joy? We can gain it only if we choose it. By God’s grace, we must reach out and take it, as with every other benefit that God offers. The immediate provider of joy is the Holy Spirit. Joy is a fruit of His filling (Gal. 5:22).