The Beatitude of the Steadfast

Thomas Jefferson said, “The goal of life is the avoidance of pain.” I suppose that if Jefferson were to issue a beatitude of his own it would be something akin to, “Blessed is the man who escapes every difficulty and hardship in life.” Jeffersonian Christianity is a far cry from the Christianity James presents in this epistle. James has already shown the paradox of pain: a Christian should rejoice in the midst of trials (vs.2-4). This is contrary to everything within man who would rather escape the trials of life.

James shifts gears in verse 12 to move from trials in which Christians are to rejoice to temptations Christians are to reject. Just as trials (pain) is unavoidable, so too is temptation. So what do we do and who is to blame for temptation? James makes it abundantly clear what Christians are to do when faced with temptation as well as the origin of temptations.

James 1.12-15 (ESV)

12 Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.
13 Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one.
14 But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire.
15 Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.

The Beatitude of the Steadfast (v.12). “Trials” (Gk. peirasmon) has a broad meaning. On the one hand, it carries the meaning of temptation or solicitation to sin (i.e. temptations). On the other hand, it carries the meaning of afflictions from persecution (i.e. trials). These Greek speaking Jewish Christians would have known and identified this. This is important to note since it has bearing upon the present passage. God does allow and cause “trials of various kinds” to come upon His children to test the genuineness of their faith. However, God, who is free from any and every evil thing, does not and cannot tempt His children to sin.

We’ve already seen the exhortation to remain steadfast in trials. The other meaning seems to be in view here: remain steadfast in the midst of temptations. This is a different kind of test which comes upon the child of God not from God but from within (desires) and without (Satan). There is a blessing attached to being steadfast under temptation, namely, a crown of life.

This verse is strikingly similar to the words of Jesus in Revelation 2.10. The point for these Christians and even reaching to Christians today is that faithfulness to God will result in life – eternal life! Note this progression: pressure (or temptation) comes, steadfastness works its full effect, life is bestowed by God. Life is bestowed on the lover of God by the life-giving God. Love for God is the best motivator to steadfastness in temptations. 

Some will fail the testing of their faith; they will give into temptation and sin. There is no blessing attached to failure. Rather, blessing or congratulations is given by God to the one who remains steadfast in temptation. How many give in to the temptation and do not allow steadfastness to finish its work? James, knowing that there would be those who fail the test from the trials, goes on to explain that those who fail have only one person to blame: self.

Theory 1: God made me do it (v.13). This is the excuse, even the heresy, that is as old as time. From the beginning, man has been trying to blame God for temptation and (ultimately) sin. Man is prone to ascribe authorship of temptation to God. Adam tried it in the Garden of Eden: “The woman You gave me…” Do we not even hear this today? “I can’t help it; God made me this way!” James dismisses this theory outright with a firm, “No, He didn’t!” Do not say that “I am being tempted by God.” The participle used here is passive, meaning the temptation is from without, in this case from (Gk. apo) God.

The reason you do not say that is because 1) God cannot be tempted, and 2) God tempts no one. First, God is “untemptable” ( Gk. apeirastos).  We frail children of dust have a difficult time wrapping our minds around this concept since we are constantly bombarded with temptations to sin. Balaam, in his second oracle, best explains this when he says “God is not man” (Num 23.19). God is of an altogether different nature and therefore stands outside of temptation. God’s whole nature is for good (v.16) not evil and thus evil has no appeal to Him.

Second, James says God tempts no man. How can James say that God “tempts” (or tests) no one? Doesn’t he remember Abraham and how God “tempted” (same word as here in Greek) him (Gen 22.1)? Surely he does since he references that well known story in Jewish theology (see 2.21). And if that isn’t enough, the writer of Hebrews says that Abraham was “tested” (same word used here) when he offered up Isaac. What’s the key?

James offers us the explanation in the description of the nature of temptation: when God “tested” Abraham, Abraham was not “lured” or “enticed” with a desire within himself. For it to be a temptation it must stem from the heart of man. Since this test had its origin in God it was a test of obedience for Abraham to God even when faced with the unthinkable. The other thing to consider is who is being informed about obedience in the Abrahamic episode. Does the all-knowing God who declares the end from the beginning need to be informed about obedience or does Abraham need to learn about obedience? And in turn, are we also not informed about obedience when we read this Abrahamic episode? So while God may test men concerning obedience, James can say that God tempts no man because temptation lies in the desires of man.

Theory 2: The Devil made me do it. It was Flip Wilson who popularized this motto in modern times. But in his explanation of the true nature and genesis of sin, James also by implication deals with this theory. While the devil may tempt people, manipulating and distorting our desires through lies, he does not and cannot force someone to sin. This seem to be in back of the words “lured” and “enticed” – Satan can bait the hook and use it, but it is man who bites! Really, though, the lies of the devil are not appealing until man begins to believe them. That’s the point of James – temptation begins with man.

Theory 3: I made me do it (v.14-15). James explains that temptation begins in the heart of man with his own “desires” (Gk. epithumias). Desires can be either good (Phil 1.23) or evil (here, Rom 7.7). The two words used by James to describe this process in temptation carry two different metaphors: “lured” we would recognize as a fishing term, as when a fish is taken from the water with the hook sunk deep in his gullet; “enticed” is a word which is connected with a seductress who would try to seduce a man to illicit sexual conduct. Both of these verbs are passive voice meaning that something is being to us is the luring and enticing. As mentioned above, we’ve bought into the lie presented to us. It’s as old as Eden – “You will not surely die.” The lie is then made our own when the bad thing begins to look good. Then we bite.

As there was a progression toward life (pressure to steadfastness to life) so there is a progression toward death here: desire breeds in the heart of man, he is lured to sin, and death results (desire to sin to death). The language used by James to describe this is quite bold and graphic: the desire which this person has conceives when the will yields to lust rather than yielding to God. This impregnated desire “gives birth” to sin when will and action are coupled and the desire is gratified. The sin grows and matures by repeated indulgence of the desire and then it “brings forth” its own spawn: death. Sin kills, mortifies; if not met with prayerful resistance and the power of God, spiritual death will result.

The Paradox of Poverty

James 1.9-11

9 Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation,
10 and the rich in his humiliation, because like a flower of the grass he will pass away.
11 For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. So also will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits.

The American Dream has become the accumulation of stuff – cars, houses, and accompanying accoutrements the goes with a lifestyle of luxury. To be rich is to be coveted. This same mentality has crept into the church. Christians horde up for themselves treasures on earth, justifying themselves by saying things like, “God wants me to be happy.” But as Jesus explained while on earth: “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” (Mark 10.23) While this problem may seem new, it is far from it. In fact, James echoes what Jesus taught by asking, “has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom…?” (James 2.5) James writes quite a bit about the relationship between the rich and poor. In 1.9-11, we find yet a third paradox in the Christianity: the poor are exalted, the rich humiliated.

The Paradox of Poverty (1.9-11)

(Several) Someone(s) has said, “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor. Rich is better!” Contrary to this conventional wisdom, the New Testament presents several warnings concerning the dangers of riches in connection with the Christian faith. Riches can be a snare and destroy one’s faith (cf. 1 Tim 6.9-10, 17). In short, rich is not always better! Building on the context of trials and asking for wisdom concerning those trials, James presents a trial that was all to familiar for the poor saints of the early church: poverty. And the paradox of poverty is seen in James’ positive presentation of pride in poverty.

The Exaltation of the Poor (v.9). James presents the positive case of poverty. The “lowly brother” is the Christian who is low on the socio-economic ladder. He is a poor Christian, destitute perhaps. James presents the paradox: this poor brother is actually in a lofty position. Indeed, when we consider that God has seated us in the heavenly places with Christ (Eph 2.6) we are very exalted! This brother is to “boast” or “glory” in his exaltation. While boasting and bragging concerning oneself are condemned elsewhere in Scripture (even in James, 4.16), to boast in the Lord is an altogether different thing. This is what James is calling for – we are exalted in Christ because of Christ. While the poor Christian brother may not have money, he is “rich in faith.” “True wealth is measured not in money but in faith” (Holloway 37).

So there is actually a blessing which comes with being poor. One who is impoverished is predisposed to faith in Christ. Indeed, it was Jesus who said in the sermon on the plain, “Blessed are the poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6.20). And while we may want to spiritualize that or link it immediately to Matthew 5.3 (“poor in spirit”), it is undeniable that in the context of that sermon on the plain and the greater context of the gospel of Luke, Jesus says what He means and means what He says. Couple this with what He says in Luke 6.24 where He pronounces a woe on the rich and the picture is complete.

The Humiliation of the Plutocrat (v.10). Contrast this poor brother with the rich man in the world. While the poor Christian should boast in his lofty position in Christ, the rich of the world glory in their humiliation. Though rich in the world, they are not rich toward God (see Luke 12.21). And like the enemies of the cross who “glory in their shame” (Phil 3.19), so the rich glory in their humiliated station before God. They are destitute of the favor and fellowship of heaven which is a very low place. “He will pass away.” Not might or may, but will. It is inevitable that the rich man will perish even as the flower dies.

Another way of seeing this rich man in light of the context is as a Christian brother. Here is a rich Christian brother and his trial is that he is rich. And what a trial in light all that Scripture teaches about the dangers of riches. The temptation is to allow his wealth to be a cause for boasting. James says that he ought to glory his humiliation. Boast as one who is a spiritual pauper in need of the riches only Christ can supply. “Let him exult in the grace of Christ which has enabled him to pass through ‘the needle’s eye.’”

The Illustration of the Proposition (v.11). Here’s what it’s like: grass that is scorched by the heat of the sun. Think about a patch of grass under a desert sun. It will wither and die. Here’s what it’s like: a beautiful flower whose beauty fades away. Think about a rose in a vase for several days. These are illustrations taken from the Old Testament (Isa 40.8; cf. 1 Peter 2.24) to show what it’s like for a rich person who’s life is tied up in riches and/or the pursuit of riches and not in God and His word. No matter how vigorous his pursuit of riches more may be, it is ultimately frustrated because he is not in pursuit of God. What a miserable end! Truly the humiliation is evident: all that effort was in vain; his pursuits will be snuffed out as a flame.

If you are a child of God, you are wealthy beyond your wildest dreams with the riches that are unlike the flower that fades or the grass which withers. The riches in Christ are eternal riches. This is a lesson lost on American Christians who are self-sufficient in our abundance. We don’t need God to give us our daily bread; we have several days’ worth of bread laid up in store at the house. When compared to the rest of the world, we must realize that just by living in America puts in the upper echelon of the wealthy in the world. Therefore, the warning from James is for us.

The Paradox of Prayer

James 1.5-8 (ESV)

5 If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.
6 But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind.
7 For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord;
8 he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.

The Paradox of Prayer (1.5-8)

Building on this foundation of faithful vs. faithless, James brings the Christian to the realm of prayer. Introduced is the second paradox: prayer without faith. Later in James (5.15), he will talk about the “prayer of faith” but first he addresses a faithless pray-er.

Ask Who? The Giving God (v.5). James says Christians (“you” Christians, v.5) ask God if we lack wisdom. In other words, wisdom is not developed but requested. Certainly the Jewish mind would instantly spring to Solomon who himself asked God for wisdom in how to govern the people of God (1 Kings 3.5-9, esp. v.9). It is in that context that we find a definition of what is wisdom: a mind of understanding and the ability to discern good from evil. God is “the giving God” (Gk. tou didontos theou). We ask of God on a regular basis (present tense) and He hears and “gives generously…without reproach” to all His children (who “ask in faith,” v.6). God’s undivided, single-minded intent as well as His benevolence free from reminding His children of past failures are highlighted in these terms.

Truly, this wisdom is needed if we would see the value of the various trials that come upon us. The world looks upon this joy in trials as sacred sadomasochism; the Christian who has asked for and received wisdom from God can understand the great value of a faith tried and triumphant in trials. To get this point across, James points the Christian back to the preaching of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount: “Ask, and it will be given to you” (Matt 7.7a). James in addressing specifically the need for wisdom says, “Amen!” God will give it for He is the giving God.

Ask How? The Convicted Christian (v.6, 8). James says we are to “ask in faith, with no doubting.” So we must be convicted of something. What that thing is debated by scholars. Some say it is the conviction of God hearing His child. Other say it is the conviction that God will answer. We might sum those previous two up as conviction in the promises of God (God hears and answers). Still others say it is the conviction of God’s very existence. So what is it?

Perhaps this speaks to all of these. In 1 Kings 18.20ff, there is the account of Elijah and the prophets of Baal. Elijah asks the people a question: “How long will you go limping (or wavering) between two different opinions?” That’s the idea here in James. Wavering between belief in God and unbelief in God. Wavering between believing that God hears and God not hearing. Wavering between God answering and not answering. James is indicting his readers about “wavering” (KJV) between two differing opinions about the character and nature of God. This is double-mindedness and instability (v.8).

James also illustrates what it is like when a Christian is doubtful: this wavering person is pictured as being a wave in the ocean “driven and tossed by the wind.” The idea is of the constant changing and shifting of the water, ever in motion and never firm. Here is the one who doubts in prayer. His soul is turbulent. His mind is torn asunder. In fact, he is literally “double-souled” (v.8, double-minded), trying to balance on the fence between faith and unbelief. This instability spills over into “all his ways,” that is, his whole life is consumed with doubt. He is left clinging with one hand to earth and heaven with the other, yet he can have only one.

How many double-souled Christians occupy a pew every Sunday? They are trying to live their lives facing in two directions – toward God and toward something else. They are trying to serve two masters (cf. Matt 6.24). “Teach me your way, O LORD,/ that I may walk in your truth;/ unite my heart to fear your name” (Psalm 86.11, ESV, emphasis mine). An undivided heart is essential to asking God in faith for wisdom.

Ask Why? The Receiving Rule (v.7). The double-minded, unstable, wavering, person who does not ask in faith will not receive “anything from the Lord.” The faithless may be heard, but wisdom is not granted. And here is where the paradox is so striking: this man has enough conviction to ask for wisdom but lacks the faith to be confident in receiving his request. Faithless prayer is not rewarded. Jesus mentioned something like this – here is the man who puts his hand to the plow but looks back (see Luke 9.62). This person is unfit for the kingdom of God and unworthy to receive “anything” from the Lord Jesus, especially this gift of wisdom from the giving God. God is single-minded in giving; we must be single-minded in receiving.

The Paradox of Pain

James 1.2-4 (ESV)

2 Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds,
3 for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.
4 And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.

There is somewhat of a play on words as James shifts from the salutation to the opening subject. He bids them a greeting (Gk. Chairein), a term of rejoicing and gladness. Think of it as a happy hello! From this upbeat greeting, James turns the Christian’s attention to joy (Gk. Charan) in the midst of testing and trials. The defiance is striking – Christians live their lives with joy, defying the circumstances and difficulty that may come with it. At the same time it also a paradox. How can one have joy during difficulty, especially the difficulty of persecution for faith?

The Paradox of Pain (1.2-4)

To his “brothers” both by physical heritage (as Jews) and by spiritual heritage (in Christ) James exhorts that they “count it all joy” when they “meet trials of various kinds.” So here is the first paradox: joy in the midst of pain. Specifically, the pain is in regards to affliction from persecution. Indeed, these are trials both good and bad of “various” sources and kinds. Literally these are “many colored” trials; trials of every shade and hue from living the Christian life. These are tests of one’s faith, as if an experiment were being performed to test the true nature of that faith – is it real, genuine?

Faith Tested. Faith is tested in the crucible of trials. These trials are external of the Christian and are very real. For these first century Jewish Christians, the persecution they endured was real and had scattered them all over the empire. James says to once and for all, starting now, “count it all joy.” This is not some joy mixed with a whole bunch of grief and sorrow because of what is happening; this should be an “unmixed” joy, fully joy and joy only.

These trials come surely. It is ungetaroundable in this life that trials come. And they come suddenly. All of a sudden one may find him/herself surrounded by trials. And they come several. They are “manifold” (ASV) and “divers” (KJV). But they have a purpose: to test the genuineness of the Christian’s faith.

James explains that the testing of one’s faith “produces steadfastness.” And the Christians to whom James is writing “know” this! “Know” here is that experiential knowledge (Gk. Ginosko). In other words, because these Christians have been through the crucible before, they know what this testing can do. In modern vernacular, we might call these trials “teachable moments” – they teach us about perseverance, endurance.

Faith Perfected. A faith that is tested will lead us to a faith which is perfected (or mature). To the Jewish Christian their mind might go to Abraham, the first person of which it is specifically stated that he was “tested” (Gen 22.1). As you proceed through the narrative, you see the resolution and perseverance – nothing would hinder Abraham from doing what God had asked. So firm was his faith, he believed even God could raise his son from the dead (see Heb 11.19). The testing of Abraham and the testing of the Christian share the same Greek root.

And so the paradox deepens: the pain of trials is good! It is good because when faith is tested, perseverance is produced. And when perseverance’s work is “perfected” we can stand “perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” The perfect work of perseverance is the “perfect Christian.” Through these trials, God has worked to test the genuineness of our faith (cf. 1 Peter 1.6-7) and bring about our perfection. Some would say that the perfection here is “maturity.” However, an examination of James’ use of this word in the rest of the epistle (1.17, 25; 3.2) seems to indicate more than just maturity. Every Jew would have caught the connotation here. The sacrificial animals had to be “perfect,” free from disease and blemish and also “complete,” not lacking any part of its body. In addition, every Jewish Christian would have been reminded of the words of Christ in the Sermon on the Mount: “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt 5.48). It is more than maturity.

Faith must have an object. For the Christian, our faith rests in the Lord Jesus Christ. So when trials come, they try our faith in Christ – will we remain faithful to Him? Will we continue to put our confidence in Him? Even in death? James says that if we remain steadfast (even unto death), the perfection of Christ, which is ours in Christ, rests and remains in us. Should we throw in the towel, there is no perfection. When we become faithless, we also become hopeless for only perfection can inherit eternal life in the end. We must learn to keep our faith in Christ through any and every trial test.

One other point: obedience to the commands of God and Christ can produce trials. In Mark 6, Jesus makes his disciples get into boat and begin rowing across the sea. By obeying the Lord, the disciples rowed right into the teeth of a storm. In the same way, Christians will experience trials when we obey the commands of Christ. However, though we row right into the teeth of stormy trial, we must not row with anger in our hearts, but with joy knowing that these trials will make us mature, complete, perfect.