In contemporary culture, neighbors come and go, not only on a daily basis from behind closed doors, but from year to year as addresses change with each job relocation. We may never get to really know neighbors that come and go but Scripture verses have been tied to their neighbors for centuries and for a reason. Just like real estate considers location to be the key factor in value, understanding scripture requires emphasis on location within a given book. This is the context of the verse which underlies and explains a verse’s intent.
Though not the only factor, the context of James 1:2-4 both broadens and deepens its impact on the Christian in the midst of trial or suffering.
2 Count it all joy, my brothers,[b] 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. (ESV)
As each person walks through suffering, whether one’s own suffering or the emotional pain of a loved one’s suffering, such a verse can either be ineffective or salt in a wound. Having been on both ends of this verse, being told to have joy as I watched a beloved child suffer or myself trying to encourage a dear family member in the midst of heartbreak, it can be an instrument of hope or of harm depending on how it is wielded. When pain is acute, pressing into your flesh or your very soul, steadfastness seems an unsatisfying balm. Maturity or perfection of verse 4 is beyond hope when you just want the pain to leave.
The rest of the chapter, though written as wisdom literature somewhat like the Proverbs, is not just a series of unconnected sayings. The scripture neighbors tell a deeper and broader story of these trials and what they should mean to us in suffering. Verses 5 through 8 encourage us to seek wisdom from the only true source of wisdom, God Himself. What better time for wisdom that in the midst of suffering and uncertainty. Suffering causes one to doubt so much of one’s life. The “why’s” of life abound in the darkness of pain. Steadfastness means that, just as David sought God in the midst of suffering described in the Psalms, we are to seek God for guidance in our suffering.
Verses 9 through 11 are hard ones to swallow in the midst of life untouched by trials. Man views himself as invincible and with the potential for immortality. Fame can leave one’s mark on generations to come. Science beckons with the siren call of eternal youth, optimal health, and maybe even freezing yourself for the next millennium’s reawakening. Suffering reminds one of his station, his mortality, his frailty. The truth of being human awakens rudely, but awakening to God’s love and care ultimately are sweeter and more satisfying. Coming to the end of one’s own delusional self-sufficiency opens the door for God’s provision to provide real hope and healing for eternity.
Verse 12 reminds us that suffering is not the end of the story. Though life’s story may for a time, sometimes for a long time, be a story of pain and anguish, the last chapter is a happily ever after. This earth, in all its fallen brokenness, will never satisfy nor fully nourish us since Adam’s Fall. Only in heaven and on God’s new earth will there be eternal life. The “crown of life” may yet be future, but God’s Word guarantees it to the one who perseveres.
Verses 16 and 17 answers the question asked at the yearly Christmas party, “Who gave me this awesome gift?” Christmas gifts may lose their tags, sometimes even ending up in the wrong recipient’s hands, but our blessings always have a tag on them that says “From God”. This contrasts with verse 13 through 15 concerning bad gifts, as such evil is not God’s gift. God’s gifts are always good ones. The problem is that often God’s gifts may initially seem less exciting that those of the world. God’s gifts may even begin with pain and continue with pain. These gifts require time to bear fruit as steadfastness fashions them into just what we always really wanted, the depth of God’s love and the breadth of this love’s work in all our lives and the lives of our loved ones.
Oh Lord, I cry out with David, “How long oh Lord?” I cry out “Come Hosanna”. I wait with failing heart on God to complete His work in me and in the world. Continue and finish the work ordained before time that a baby born in humble circumstances 2000 years ago would make all things right, even my broken heart and body.