James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ. To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion: Greetings.
My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.
If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you. But ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind; for the doubter, being double-minded and unstable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord. (James 1:1-8, NRSV).
There has been some debate over exactly who the dispersed people James addresses are. It is an important debate, though probably not essential for this collection of reflections. Perhaps it is enough to note that they are a community of Jesus-followers who have been persecuted and scattered. We can imagine that they have lost homes. Maybe their community has been re-shaped. To one extent or another they are refugees.
As it is we know enough to relate: most of us know something of life’s difficulties.
James recognises the existence of these ‘trials’. Very quickly, however, he moves on to the God who habitually brings good out of bad. Before our first sentence is complete James has raised their situation and turned their attention to their trust in the God who is still at work: ‘…you know that the testing of you faith produces… endurance…’ God, he believes, will use this to bring about their maturity and completion.
This is no detached or heartless positivity. The apostle graciously points to the confusion that arises as we face life’s uncertainties. James knows how difficult it is to move forward in ‘wisdom’ when our world is shaken. Where is God in all this change? What is God doing? Has God forgotten us? Such questions are very normal. Job and the Psalms are part of our scriptures and both express these sentiments.
James, it would seem, knows that ‘trials’ and ‘doubt’ are connected. His hope is simply that these difficult days will not lead to a cessation of prayer. Twice the readers are urged to ‘ask God’ and ‘ask in faith’.
This is a call to trust during uncertainty.
There is a danger that the trials of life will lead us to cease conversation with God. The tragedy of this is that the very essence of our faith in God is relationship. It is not about never being rocked by life’s challenges. It is not about never wondering what God is doing. Faith is about staying in conversation – and therefore relationship – with God through the trials.
This is, I believe, the path to the kind of single-minded confidence James desires for this people. He addresses ‘doubt’ and instability precisely because this is one of the threats to faith during persecution. What he is not saying is that these doubts are not real or that they are helpfully hidden from God in some kind of artificial self-denial of our reality. Rather, James urges: bring your doubts before God where they can be reshaped by the generous and ungrudging giver.
Do you lack the needed ‘wisdom’ for your circumstance? Ask God. Do you ‘doubt’ God’s faithfulness? Talk to God about this. Do you feel ‘driven and tossed’, ‘double-minded and unstable’? Take it to God.
Why? Because to stay in trusting conversation with God in every circumstance is the very essence of faith.
As Jesus once said, it is the one who asks that can expect to receive. (See Matthew 7:7).