3. Applying God’s Wisdom to Our Trials (James 1:9-12)Related Media
Now the believer of humble means should take pride in his high position. But the rich person’s pride should be in his humiliation, because he will pass away like a wildflower in the meadow. For the sun rises with its heat and dries up the meadow; the petal of the flower falls off and its beauty is lost forever. So also the rich person in the midst of his pursuits will wither away. Happy is the one who endures testing, because when he has proven to be genuine, he will receive the crown of life that God promised to those who love him.
James 1:9-12 (NET)
What is some practical wisdom for our trials—insights which will help us persevere and grow through our difficulties?
James is writing to Jewish Christians who have been scattered throughout the ancient world because of persecution. They have left their homes, properties, and lands. Consequently, many of them became poor because of this. James encourages these believers to see their trials from God’s perspective. Though evil people have mistreated them, God was using their trials to develop their character—making them mature like Christ. In James 1:4, he said, “And let endurance have its perfect effect, so that you will be perfect and complete, not deficient in anything.” Though evil people and circumstances were against them, God was in control and using everything for their good.
With that said, James realized not everybody becomes more complete and mature through their trials. Sometimes we become more broken through them—less trusting of people, more bitter, and more prone to doubt God. Therefore, he calls these believers to ask God for wisdom to grow in maturity from their trials (Jam 1:5)—wisdom in order to not waste them. We all need this supernatural wisdom; therefore, when encountering trials, we should continually petition God for it and trust that he will give it. God promises to answer this prayer as long as we approach him in faith—not doubting (1:6-8).
In James 1:9-12, James is still dealing with the theme of seeking wisdom for our trials—so he gives practical wisdom for two specific groups experiencing trials. Amongst these scattered Jewish Christians, there were both poor and rich. Though we are tempted to think that the poor have it most difficult, from a spiritual perspective, the rich may have it even worse. Both poverty and wealth are trials that can hinder our spiritual growth if we don’t understand and respond to them well. Therefore, he challenges these two types of believers to respond to their trials wisely so they can mature in Christ and ultimately be rewarded for how they handled their trials.
In James 1:9-12, we gain practical wisdom for our trials. James speaks to the poor first, then to the rich, and finally, to all believers. As we consider these, though James’ comments might seem straightforward, there are diverse views on the meaning of them—all with merit and rich applications for us. We’ll consider these and their applications.
Big Question: What practical wisdom does James offer believers who are going through trials in James 1:9-12?
In Trials, the Poor Should Rejoice in Their High Spiritual Position
Now the believer of humble means should take pride in his high position.
When James says, “the believer of humble means,” he seems to be primarily dealing with people who lack financial resources, but it could also have reference to those who might not be looked highly upon in society for various reasons—disabilities, limited education, old age, appearance, ethnic background, etc. In general, societies typically lift up the “haves” and put down the “have nots.” For these humble believers, they would be tempted to become discouraged and hopeless because they evaluated themselves by society’s wrong standards—not educated enough, wealthy enough, beautiful enough, or athletic enough. Many believers struggle with great insecurity and even depression because they have accepted society’s negative views of them and their situation—instead of how God views them and their situation. James speaks to these suffering Christians and says, they should “take pride in their high position.” To “take pride” could also be translated to “boast” or “glory.”
Interpretation Question: What does James mean by calling these poor believers to take pride in their high position?
As mentioned, there is actually quite a bit of debate about what James is saying, since he doesn’t clearly explain it. We are left to discern by considering the context. Here are two views:
1. Some believe to take pride in their high position means that the poor should focus on their spiritual status instead of their earthly status.
Instead of focusing on what the world says about them, they must consider their heavenly status in Christ. Christ was also poor on this earth; he lost his father at a relatively young age and had to care for his family. He was mocked because of the neighborhood he was from. They said, “Can anything good come out of Galilee?” He most likely lacked the education others might have from schools in Jerusalem and other places. Eventually, he was rejected, lied about, and crucified by the leaders of Israel. However, though his earthly status was low, his heavenly status was high. He was the Son of God, the Creator of earth, the owner of all things, and the Savior of the world, and while on earth, he never forgot that.
Likewise, though these poor believers might be rejected by the world, they needed to recognize their supreme, heavenly position. They were children of God, co-heirs with Christ (Rom 8:17)—whatever is Christ’s is theirs. They will one day inherit the earth and judge those on the earth, including angels (1 Cor 6:3). If Christ focused on his earthly position and how people viewed him, it might have kept him from doing the things God had called him to—ultimately, saving the world. Likewise, his disciples were also poor, despised, and hated, and yet, through Christ, God called them to save the world. Poor believers may be rejected, but God has called for them to be the salt and light to all. They are immensely valuable. Their earthly body is just their cocoon; they will one day shed their temporary abode and earthly status and be revealed as the children of God.
To respond wisely to their trials, poor believers must recognize their heavenly status. To do the things God has called them to do, they must realize how special they are. The majority of the early church was poor—many of them were slaves—and yet, they turned the world upside down. We now have the gospel because of them and their witness. For James, wisdom for the poor in their trials meant continually remembering their status and mission given by God.
2. Others believe to take pride in their high position refers to the poor rejoicing in the spiritual benefit of their trials.
These interpreters focus on the connection of verse 9 with verses 2-4, where James called for suffering believers to consider their trials nothing but joy because God was maturing the believers through them. They should not only consider their situation a joy but take pride in it and boast in it. Why? It’s because their earthly situation was tremendously beneficial from a spiritual perspective. Though Scripture does not say that being poor is better than being rich, it does say that poverty has potential for being spiritually advantageous, and wealth has some strong potential for being spiritually disadvantageous. Christ said it was hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God (Matt 19:24). Paul said that the desire to be wealthy is a temptation, and the love of wealth is the root of all kinds of evil—many have pierced themselves with many sorrows because of it (1 Tim 6:9-10). And about the poor, James said, “Did not God choose the poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom that he promised to those who love him?” (Jam 2:5). The poor are more likely to run to God in the midst of their trials because they see him as their only hope; while the rich are more likely to trust in their bank account—their financial reserves to take care of them—instead of God in their trials. Because poverty is a trial, the poor are more inclined to prayer—seeking God’s wisdom to provide for their situation. If one ever does missions to a third world country, the churches in those nations are often more vibrant than in developed nations. There is shouting, crying, and great religious zeal. Often services can last more than half a day. The poor are more prone to make God their everything, because they have nothing else.
Now with that said, poverty also has many temptations. The poor sometimes have unique temptations towards crime to meet their basic needs. They might be tempted to love money because they have none or even get mad at God. However, their trial also has many unique benefits when properly viewed. That’s why James commands them to take pride in their high position. Christ essentially told his disciples the same thing. In Luke 6:20, he said, “Blessed are you who are poor.” This doesn’t seem to be referring to being “poor in spirit,” as in the Sermon on the Mount, or the poor in general. Christ referred to his disciples who had become poor to serve Christ—leaving their homes and careers to spread the gospel. God would bless them for their sacrifice. Likewise, the Jewish believers James addressed, who were suffering persecution and poverty for Christ, should rejoice in their high position before God.
With all that said, this doesn’t mean that the poor shouldn’t work hard to have a better financial standing. Scripture says that we should work hard to provide for our families and to have reserves to help others in need (cf. Eph 4:28, 1 Tim 5:4, 8, 2 Cor 8:7).
Though poor believers may be mocked, they must remember their high position before God and the fact that their trial is an ideal ground for spiritual growth (cf. Jam 1:2-4). That’s the wisdom James encourages them to apply in their trials so they could endure them with joy and become mature through them. Likewise, we must remember these realities as well so we can benefit from our trials.
Application Question: Which view (1 or 2) do you think fits more with the context? In what ways could poor believers having a low estimation of themselves by accepting the world’s standards hinder their ability to grow in trials and to complete their God-given mission to reach the world for Christ? How should James’ counsel to poor believers affect how we view them (or ourselves)?
In Trials, the Rich Should Rejoice in Their Humbling
But the rich person’s pride should be in his humiliation, because he will pass away like a wildflower in the meadow. For the sun rises with its heat and dries up the meadow; the petal of the flower falls off and its beauty is lost forever. So also the rich person in the midst of his pursuits will wither away.
Unlike the poor, the rich face a different trial: People celebrate them, rejoice in their success, and want to befriend them. The rich are tempted towards pride—causing them to think highly of themselves and sometimes to even look down on others. Therefore, the rich are called to rejoice in their humiliation. Again, there are various views on what James is saying.
Interpretation Question: What does the text mean by calling the rich to rejoice in their humiliation?
1. Some believe that the rich taking pride in their humiliation means for them to rejoice in their humble status as ones associated with Christ—the one who was rejected and despised.
The rich are challenged to remember that their Lord Jesus Christ was rejected and despised by the world and many fellow believers with him. Though the rich may be lifted up in society because of their wealth and abilities, and potentially avoid some persecution because of it, they must remember their true humble position as followers of Christ. Certainly, this is a discipline Christians in developed countries who are not openly persecuted must practice. Although they are not imprisoned like many believers around the world, they must remember that they are associated with them. They must not be fooled or dulled spiritually by a perceived accepted status in their society. Christ and his followers have historically been persecuted by the world, and therefore we must not forget it, even though we may not suffer at the moment. Like the author of Hebrews said to believers not suffering the same torment as others, “Remember those in prison as though you were in prison with them, and those ill-treated as though you too felt their torment” (Heb 13:3). We must rejoice in our humiliation—our association with Christ and suffering saints—and respond accordingly.
Therefore, the first view applied both to the poor and rich is to not focus on their material status but their spiritual status—associated with Christ. This will deliver the poor from discouragement and anger with God and deliver the rich from pride and spiritual apathy, which they so commonly struggle with. God has called wealthy and less persecuted believers to help those who are persecuted and to use their resources to support kingdom work throughout the world (cf. Matt 25:34-40, Lk 16:1-13).
2. Others believe that the rich taking pride in their humiliation refers to them rejoicing when they are humbled by trials.
These interpreters connect verse 10 with verses 2-4. Though the poor live in a constant state of trial (a high status) which reveals their vulnerability and need for God, the rich don’t. Therefore, the rich should rejoice when they are humbled. Trials reveal to them that they need God and reminds them that their wealth and their life will pass away just like the wildflowers (v. 10-11). Though flowers bloom and are beautiful for a season, that season is brief. The weather quickly changes causing them to wither. That’s how the rich man’s life and wealth are. Circumstances change—the stock market may crash, their health may fail resulting in an inability to work, or they might get caught up in litigation. Wealth is not something that we should put our trust in. Therefore, the rich should rejoice when God reminds them of the brevity of wealth and life. Nobody can take their wealth with them to eternity. Though the world exalts the wealthy, death is the great equalizer of people. We will all die.
The fact that life is fleeting should remind us to focus more on eternity instead of temporary things. For that reason, the wealthy should be thankful when they experience constant reminders of how temporary their life and wealth are. Those are meant to remind them to focus on God and eternal things. In developed nations, we need to consider this reality constantly. We are constantly tempted to be consumed with moving up the corporate ladder, getting the latest electronic products, watching the newest movie releases, and enjoying leisure. We are tempted to live from high to high (and document them all on social media). While doing this, we often forget that life is fleeting. God has a purpose for us in building his kingdom; therefore, we must live for eternity.
3. Others believe the rich taking pride in their humiliation refers to unbelieving wealthy people recognizing their mortality (and therefore repenting).
The reason some believe that the rich in this text are not believers is because the poor are called believers (v. 9, “lowly brother” ESV), but the rich are not. Also, James later refers to the wealthy who were not believers persecuting those who were. For example, in James 2:6-7, James describes how the rich were dragging believers to courts and blaspheming God’s name. Furthermore, some believe the wealthy landowners who were oppressing their poor workers in James 5:1-6 were not believers.
If James is writing directly to the unbelieving rich, he is writing like an Old Testament prophet who would at times address the oppressors (or even unbelieving nations) in his letter. If this is happening, James is speaking with irony. The rich unbelievers oppressing the Jewish Christians should boast in their approaching death. The irony is meant to shock these unbelievers and bring them to repentance.
James calls for the rich believers to focus on their low status, as those affiliated with Christ and suffering saints. This would remind them to not be haughty, to be faithful in serving Christ, to work to relieve the pain of the saints, and to continue spreading the gospel. When these wealthy believers went through trials, it should remind them that they and their wealth are like wildflowers—briefly here today and gone tomorrow. Again, they should live for the kingdom instead of temporary things.
Application Question: Which view seems most correct to you (1, 2, or 3) in the context? In what way is wealth a trial for believers (cf. Dt 6:10-12)? How can we keep our mind on spiritual things and not secular things when not going through trials? In what ways is James’ challenge to the wealthy needed to be heard by Christians in developed nations who don’t live in constant lack?
In Trials, All Believers Should Focus on God’s Reward
Happy is the one who endures testing, because when he has proven to be genuine, he will receive the crown of life that God promised to those who love him.
Wisdom from God not only makes us properly evaluate ourselves and our trials but also enables us to focus on God’s reward while in trials. God’s wisdom makes us look past the temporary to the eternal, which sustains us in difficult times.
Observation Question: What aspects of God’s reward should we focus on in our trials?
1. In trials, believers should focus on God’s blessing.
When James says, “Happy is the one who endures testing,” it can also be translated “Blessed is the one….” As hard as it may be to discern this in the various tests of life, whether that be the tests of poverty or wealth, we must realize that during these tests God is with us to bless. These blessings are both present and future oriented. During trials, God’s blessing is experienced as he equips us to persevere, transforms us into his image, and gives us joy as we focus on him (Jam 1:2-4). Therefore, as we experience God’s grace in these areas, we must rejoice and give God thanks. We must remember the truth that those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength, mount up on eagle’s wings, run and not grow weary, and walk and not faint (Is 40:31). Even if we’re in a season where we’re just walking and not fainting, that is God’s blessing for those hoping in him. In addition, divine joy is a fruit of the Holy Spirit which is given as we abide in God (Gal 5:22). It is not based on our circumstances. Therefore, we must pursue it and seek to maintain it in our trials by abiding in God (Gal 5:16)—as we do this, we experience God’s blessing in our trials, his happiness. While in trials, we must focus on God’s blessing—perseverance, growing in character, and divine joy through the Holy Spirit.
With that said, God’s blessing is also future-oriented, which we will consider.
2. In trials, believers must focus on God’s eternal reward.
The word “crown” does not refer to the crown of royalty but the one earned in an athletic contest. It was the winner’s crown—the wreath placed on the winner’s head. It is called the crown of life. There is some argument about what the crown refers to.
Interpretation Question: Is the crown of life for all believers or only for those who are especially faithful during trials?
(1) Those who believe this crown is given to all believers point to the fact that the “crown of life” can be translated the “crown which is life.”1 This would mean that our perseverance and faithfulness in the various trials and tests of life prove that our faith is genuine—that we are truly saved. Therefore, though we all receive eternal life at the moment of faith (cf. John 17:3), the crown of life would be the full experience of it in heaven, which is for every believer. For further support that this crown is for every believer, they point to the fact that this crown is promised to those who “love” God. In Scripture, loving God is a characteristic of all true believers. First John 5:1 says, “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been fathered by God, and everyone who loves the father loves the child fathered by him.” Again, this fits with one of James’ major themes, he is providing tests of true salvation. Persevering through trials, instead of turning away from God in them (and ultimately denying him), proves that our faith is genuine. Therefore, we should be motivated to persevere in trials because one day we will receive the full experience of eternal life. This life is short, but our next life and its blessings last forever.
(2) Those who believe the crown is a special reward for those who persevere through suffering faithfully point to the fact that it is an athletic crown—one earned—instead of one given to royalty as a birthright. Since salvation is not something earned, they believe it’s best to consider this crown as one of the many rewards God promises believers for faithfulness. It then would be similar to how, in the Sermon on the Mount, Christ called those who were persecuted for righteousness to rejoice because their reward is great in heaven (cf. Matt 5:10-12). In heaven, not everyone will receive the same rewards. They will be given based on faithfulness. Therefore, the crown of eternal life might refer to a greater capacity to experience the joys of heaven. It’s been said that in heaven everyone’s cup will be full, but some will have bigger cups. For that reason, in trials, we must focus on future rewards as a motivation to persevere. This seems to be what Paul referred to in 2 Corinthians 4:16-18 as he discussed his own sufferings:
Therefore we do not despair, but even if our physical body is wearing away, our inner person is being renewed day by day. For our momentary, light suffering is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison because we are not looking at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen. For what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.
We must focus on the greater glory that persevering through trials is producing in heaven for us—a greater glory which makes our current sufferings light in comparison.
Either way, this crown pushes us to focus on eternity and how great it will be in comparison to our short experience of trials in this life. Both focusing on God’s present blessing and the eternal one will help us persevere in trials.
Application Question: Which interpretation of the crown of life (1 or 2) seems best in context? How has the experience of trials helped you grow in eternal hope and expectation (cf. Rom 5:3-4)? Is it wrong to be motivated by heavenly rewards? Why or why not?
In Trials, All Believers Should Focus on Their Love for God (And Growing in It)
Happy is the one who endures testing, because when he has proven to be genuine, he will receive the crown of life that God promised to those who love him.
Many commentators believe that not only is our love for God one of the reasons God will reward us in heaven, but also, as an implication of James 1:12, our love for God is possibly our greatest motivation to persevere under testing and temptation.
David Guzik said this, in considering temptation specifically:
Some resist temptation because of the fear of man. The thief suddenly becomes honest when he sees a policeman. The man or woman controls their lusts because they couldn’t bear to be found out and thus embarrassed. Others resist the temptation to one sin because of the power of another sin. The greedy miser gives up partying because he doesn’t want to spend the money. But the best motive for resisting temptation is to love Him; to love Him with greater power and greater passion than your love for the sin.2
Charles Spurgeon’s comments are also helpful:
“So that those who endure temptation rightly, endure it because they love God. They say to themselves, ‘How can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?’ They cannot fall into sin because it would grieve him who loves them so well, and whom they love with all their hearts.”3
As we grow in love with God, we will better persevere in trials and stand against temptation. We grow in love for God as we spend time with him, continually reflect on his goodness (and past goodness), and serve him faithfully. Unfaithfulness only pulls our hearts away from his and weakens us in our trials.
Application Question: In what ways is love for God a great motivation to persevere in trials or be faithful when tempted? How has growing in love for God been a protection for you in trials and temptations?
What is practical wisdom for our trials?
- In Trials, the Poor Should Rejoice in Their High Spiritual Position. The poor must remember who they are in Christ, and act upon that—not their standing in the world. Also, they must remember that their trial is a special place for spiritual growth and experiencing God’s power in them.
- In Trials, the Rich Should Rejoice in Their Humbling. The rich, though exalted in the world, must remember their association with their rejected Lord and persecuted believers. In addition, they must rejoice when God allows trials, as the trials help keep the wealthy humble and help them focus on eternity instead of their temporary life and riches.
- In Trials, All Believers Should Focus on God’s Reward. Our temporary trials do not compare with God’s present blessing and the future glory of eternity. Focusing on those realities should encourage us and enable us to persevere.
- In Trials, All Believers Should Focus on Their Love for God (and Growing in It). Love for God—wanting to please him and not disappoint him—will help us remain faithful in trials and not fall to temptation. Therefore, we must seek to grow in our love for God—by being with him and enjoying him.
- Pray to grow in maturity and wisdom through present and coming trials.
- Pray to have the joy of the Lord regardless of our situations, for it is our strength (Neh 8:10).
- Pray to view ourselves according to our identity in Christ and not what others, including the world, say.
Copyright © 2021 Gregory Brown
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1 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1998). James (p. 42). Chicago: Moody Press.
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