James is writing in a context of suffering and persecution. Theology of suffering is not only James’ starting point in the letter (1:2-4), but it has been suggested by one commentator that it is also ‘the theme that binds all the others together’ (Nystrom, D.).
James deals with both the source of suffering and how Christians are to respond in the midst of suffering.
The first source of suffering within James’ audience is selfish desire. Trials and temptations come when someone is ‘lured and enticed by his own desire’ (1:14). The quarrels and fights within this community are caused by ‘your passions at war within you’ (4:1).
The second source of suffering is status and money. In the section on the sin of partiality (2:1-13), the rich are ‘dishonouring the poor’ (2:6) and they have added to the suffering of their labourers by fraudulent underpayment (5:4). The pursuit of the rich to gain more status leads to the increased suffering of the poor. However, they will be held to account for their behaviour (1:10-11; 2:4; 4:16; 5:5-6, 9).
The third source of suffering is Satan. This is implied by 1:13 where God is not the one responsible for temptation. Worldly wisdom is described as ‘demonic’ (3:15) and in his discussion on worldliness, James’ call is to ‘resist the devil and he will flee from you’ (4:7).
In the midst of suffering the first response of the Christian is the pursuit of perfection. In James 1:2-4, the Christian can approach suffering and trials with joy, because they know that God will use hard times to accomplish His purpose. Testing leads to steadfastness which leads to maturity. This is described as ‘perfect and complete, lacking in nothing’ (1:4).
Akin to the pursuit of perfection is to respond in patience. If God is accomplishing His purposes through trials and temptations, the Christian simply needs to trust that God is good and is using this for their good and His glory. God will bring justice (5:9) and the call is to be patient ‘until the coming of the Lord’ (5:7). Patient like the farmer waiting for rain (5:7), the Christian needs to know that ‘the Lord is at hand’ (5:8). The prophets were patient in suffering (5:10) and they were blessed in and through their steadfastness (5:11 cf. 1:3-4). Job is given as the ultimate example of patient trust in God (5:11). Suffering is normal in the Christian life and Calvin says that patience is ‘a real evidence of our obedience’ to God.
The final response to suffering and sickness is prayer. ‘Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray’ (5:13a). This is a further extension of patient trust in God and His purposes. The final section of the letter (5:13-20) explores the idea of prayer in affliction, elders praying for the sick, the confession of sin and the removal of suffering through healing today that points forward to the ultimate removal of sin and suffering when the Lord returns.
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