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).


1. How do I introduce myself? Do I seek some borrowed luster by name-dropping?

Although you cannot boast that you are Jesus’ brother, you can certainly find other ways to make yourself look good. One way is by name-dropping. It is altogether different to mention bigwig acquaintances for the sole purpose of making yourself look a little bigger. And if your connection with them is casual at best, or even rather distant, you are simply being dishonest.

Paul said that he had been a student of Gamaliel (Acts 22:3), but he was not boasting. He was giving hostile Jews useful information about himself so they might fairly judge his credibility as a witness to new divine revelation. It is altogether different to seek more credibility by mentioning bigwigs with whom you have only a casual or distant connection.

2. When I meet someone, do I seek to glorify myself or to show love?

You can try to impress people by casually mentioning your own achievements and education. But how much more helpful to show interest in the person you are meeting! Make him or her the topic of conversation.

3. Am I willing to represent myself as simply a servant of God?

Whenever the situation allows, you should describe yourself as someone whose only real attainment is to love and serve Christ.

Of course, if they are too many or too sanctimonious, humble words can come across as phony piety. You must always use discretion in advertising anything about yourself, even your humility.

4. When there are circumstances in my life that I wish God to remove, how do I pray for their removal?

Do you go to God with a demanding attitude? Or do you please God by stating your willingness to remain under the heel of trouble if He wants you to endure it? Just imagine how a child might react if he sees his brothers and sisters receiving a larger portion of dessert. He might raise a loud protest, demanding his fair share in no uncertain terms. Be careful not to behave like a foolish child when you approach God.

5. When I go through a trial, do I threaten God by letting Him know that if the trial continues, I will stop doing His will?

For example, if a problem in your church lingers, do you entertain thoughts of leaving or cutting back your involvement? If you fail to escape from financial woes, do you float the idea of withholding your tithe? If you continue to suffer a physical affliction, do you inform God that you might as well stop praying since He refuses to listen anyway? Just to describe such reactions is enough to show how childish they are.

6. Generally speaking, how do I react to difficulties and frustrations in life?

Do you become restless and discontent? Do you constantly push against adversity in an effort to force your way out of it? Do you try to change things through the power of the flesh? Or do you leave the problem to God and rest in confidence that He will work it out in His own way and time? He may require you to take initiative, but you must exercise it only under His direction and only with a right spirit—a spirit of submission to His will whatever it might be.

You must look upon your trial as an opportunity to pursue patience and true joy.

7. In every trial, do I keep myself from murmuring against God?

The people of Israel murmured against Him in the wilderness, complaining that He was failing to provide decent food. All He gave them was the same boring manna. Finally on one occasion He responded to their griping by filling the camp with quail (Num. 11:31-34). Even as the people were feasting on the birds, God sent a deadly plague that took many lives. The ones who died were apparently the ones who gathered the quail most greedily.

In other words, be careful. God may give you what you want and you may live to regret it.

8. Do I cultivate an outward radiance and an inner peace when trials are hardest?

These virtues almost come easier then, because God gives special grace. He is freer with His grace when a loved one dies, for example, than when the roof leaks or the pipes freeze.

9. Do I make it my priority to show others an example of victory in suffering?

Do you stand up and give a testimony as readily when trials crowd us as when the path is free and smooth?

10. Do I daily seek the filling of the Holy Spirit, the source of joy?

He is the source of every virtue (Gal. 5:22). The importance of joy is made evident by its position in Paul’s list. It stands second after love, the supreme virtue telling how anything good differs from anything evil.

Study Questions

  1. To whom is the Epistle of James addressed?
  2. How does James at the very outset of his book demonstrate humility?
  3. How must we be careful even in striking a humble attitude?
  4. What is the meaning of temptations?
  5. What is the good that trials accomplish in our lives?
  6. What is patience?
  7. On what key point do James and Paul agree?
  8. Why is patience so important?
  9. What kind of brokenness does God want us to shun?
  10. How can we have joy instead?

Further Reading

If you have found this lesson helpful, you might want to obtain Ed Rickard's commentary on the whole Epistle of James. For a brief description and for information on how to obtain it, click here.