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Persevering through Tests - an introduction to James

Life is filled with tests, and those are necessary for making us more like Jesus.

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for James 1

God uses tests to build our faith in Him. Satan uses temptations to destroy us. But if we learn to rely on God and ask for His wisdom and help in navigating life, all of our experiences can build our faith. James notes that wealthy people, in particular, may rely on their wealth to get through trials rather than God’s wisdom.

Consider it a great joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you experience various trials. James 1:2

[Throughout the years, I have produced a newsletter for teachers to help with that week's Bible study. I'm going through the very slow process of online-ifying old lessons in order to easily reference past ideas and topics.]

Getting Started: Things to Think About

Sticking to Your Resolutions

If you don’t think this will be a downer, start a conversation about resolutions you have failed to keep. There have been lots of studies done on New Year’s Resolutions; how long do you think they last? According to Business Insider, 80% have failed by Valentine’s Day. The ones related to dieting and exercise (gym membership and weight watcher participation, etc.) can be tracked a little more scientifically. According to Nielsen Analytics, 64% of such resolutions last a month, and 46% last 6 months; only 14% of people over 50 actually meet their goal! Why do people fail to stick to their resolutions? Every gym can tell you; Gold’s Gym even turned their explanation into a fun acronym (“cliff”): can’t find the time; lack a game plan to keep going; ignore your commitment; frustrated with lack of results; forget why you started. My guess is that as you hear reasons why they don’t stick to their resolutions, it will sound a whole lot like what David preached last Sunday on self control, or even what our lesson was about last week on “don’t give up doing good”.

Shouldn’t that make sense? God made us, and Satan knows how to play our “fleshly desires”. Satan can make us not “feel like” doing something. When these gyms try to help members stick to their resolutions, they are simply observing basic human nature. Paul talked about this the last two weeks in Galatians; James will start us off that way in James.

Facing Trials and Tests

Why do teachers give tests? Assuming you have teachers in your group, ask them how they tell the difference between a “good” test and a “bad” test (this is about tests they write, not standardized tests). In my experience, a good test encourages the type of preparation that challenges students, and a good test accurately measures how well the student has actually learned the material.

Adults have tests, right? But our tests aren’t on paper—our tests are about how we respond to various circumstances. Have you ever thought that a circumstance you found yourself in (say, a “tough time”) was a test from God? (I’ve talked to several people in our church who were very convinced that a particular experience was a test from God.) How did you know? (If no one thinks they have ever experienced a test from God, they’re not paying attention very well.) Here are two absolute rules that James will give us about tests from God:

  1. God never uses temptations to test us; and

  2. God always uses tests to build our maturity.

In my life, I too often realize after the fact that God was testing me and I failed (i.e. the Spirit was prompting me to talk to that person, and I didn’t). But sometimes, I realize that a choice put in front of me is God “testing” my obedience and maturity. Passing those tests is character-building.

This Week's Big Idea: Introducing the Book of James

You might remember from my introduction to Galatians that I said that Galatians and James were likely the earliest of all of the New Testament letters. Both were written before the “Jerusalem Council” of 49 AD, so they’re a great way for us to see the thinking of the early church—the Jewish perspective from James in Jerusalem, and the Gentile perspective from Paul on the “frontier”.

Author. There are multiple James’s in the New Testament. You might find it interesting that the reason we believe that the James who wrote this letter is Jesus’ half-brother is found in Galatians! In Gal 1:19, Paul singles out “James, the Lord’s brother” as a person of widely known authority. We know that Jesus’ siblings did not believe in Him at first (John 7:3-5, Matt 12:46-50, etc.) but Paul mentions an appearance to “James” after the appearance to the disciples (1 Cor 15:7) which has led scholars to believe that post-resurrection, Jesus’ family finally realized who He was. James, perhaps by virtue of his unique relationship with Jesus, rose to leadership in Jerusalem. All of the early leaders of the church attribute the letter of James to James the half-brother of Jesus.

Date. James was killed in 66 AD, either by stoning or by being thrown off of the temple, so we know the letter was written before that. There are not many internal clues. He speaks of “assembly” instead of “church”, which implies an early date. Further, he makes no mention of the results of the Jerusalem Council, which would have applied to several of his points, implying that he wrote before the Council in 49 (that’s a weak argument, but like I said there’s not much to go on).

Purpose. I’d say the best argument for the early date has to do with James’ purpose—something very much like what Paul was writing about in Galatians. I identify two groups of recipients. (1) It seems that some early Christians misunderstood the purpose of God’s grace and thought it gave them license to behave however they wanted to. They were the sort of people the Judaizers were attacking in Galatia, trying to pull those new Christians into a strict Jewish lifestyle. (2) It also seems that some early Christians were having trouble living around the very immoral Roman culture. They were constantly being tempted to sin, constantly being persecuted when they didn’t, and they were probably getting tired of the fight.

That first group indicates an early date for this letter—that’s one of the earliest battles the church faced. That second group is still an issue today; those words could have been written at any time.

Outline. Here’s a simplified outline based on the Holman Bible Dictionary; I won’t put the whole outline in here! I generally like to make my own outlines, but James's letter is so adaptable to the kind of outline I prefer that a lot of people can create it:

I. True religion is developed by trials and testing (1:2-15)

1. Joy is the correct response to testing (1:2)

2. Testing makes us mature and complete (1:3-4)

3. Wisdom comes from God in faith (1:5-8)

4. Wealth is a test of faith (1:9-11)

5. Perseverance under trial leads to blessing (1:12)

6. Temptation must be resisted (1:13-15)

II. True religion is initiated by faith (1:16-2:27)

1. Salvation by faith is a gift from God (1:16-17)

2. God’s will is revealed in God’s word (1:18-27)

3. Salvation does not show favoritism (2:1-13)

4. Salvation results in godly attitudes, actions (2:14-16)

III. True religion is guided by wisdom (3:1-18)

1. A wise person controls the tongue (3:1-12)

2. False wisdom is characterized by evil (3:13-16)

3. True wisdom is characterized by godliness (3:17-18)

IV. True religion is demonstrated by works (4:1-5:12)

1. Avoid being selfish (4:1-3)

2. Avoid being friendly with the world (4:4-5)

3. Avoid pride and presumption (4:6-10)

4. Avoid being judgmental (4:11-12)

5. Avoid presuming on God (4:13-16)

6. Do what you know is right (4:17)

7. Do not depend on wealth (5:1-3)

8. Do not treat people unjustly (5:4-6)

9. Do not be impatient (5:7-11)

10. Do not take oaths (5:12)

V. True religion is expressed in prayer (5:13-20)

1. Prayer is central to true religion (5:13-16)

2. All humans can pray (5:17-18)

3. Christians should intercede for others (5:19-20)

If I were to give you just those main points, you would have no idea that there was a big controversy over whether James should be included in the Bible. Martin Luther thought the line “faith without works is dead” meant that James taught salvation by works. As we will study, that’s not true at all. James makes the same point that Paul did the to Galatians—truly saved people will behave in a certain way—he just makes it from the perspective of a Jew who’s entire religion had once been wrapped up in obeying laws. James’s point is to help those-minded Christians understand why they did need to take behavior seriously.

We’re only skipping the first verse, but that verse tells us a lot about: (1) James introduces himself as the slave of Jesus, not his brother. James did not try to set himself above the recipients of the letter in any way. (2) James focuses his letter on Jews (“twelve tribes”), not Gentiles. It is quite possible that James uses the phrase “twelve tribes” as representative of all Christians, but I believe he is focused on a Jewish perspective (in other words, we are not former Jews, and so we don’t immediately understand some of his references, but we still understand and benefit from this letter as a whole). I’ll point out the few places where James’s unique perspective enhances the meaning.


Part 1: Joy Over Progress (James 1:2-4)

Consider it a great joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you experience various trials, 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 nothing.

Let’s make this as clear as possible: Christians will face trials. [Understand that God sends trials, Satan sends temptations.] And James throws in that these trials are “various” or “diverse”; there are lots of different kinds of trials. Think about this in terms of categories. What kind of tests are there in . . . School? (like written tests) Sports? (like conditioning tests) Medicine? (like bloodwork) Construction? (like strength and stability tests) What is the purpose of those tests? To make sure that something is ready for the next step, like the next grade, or to play in the game, or to have people inside, etc.

With that variety in mind, what kinds of trials are there in the Christian life? I think most of them are God allowing us to endure pressures from the outside world while still maintaining our Christian witness and our faith in God. I think that other kinds of trials include God allowing us to be exposed to the “wrong choice” (i.e. God did not have to let the serpent in the Garden of Eden, but He did). We “pass the test” when we make the right choice and resist the devil.

What is the result of such testing? Endurance. Being able to stand firm in spite of opposition. Take football, for example. Linemen go through all kinds of strength and conditioning tests and drills. Why? Because come gametime, someone is going to be on the other line trying to move them out of the way. The better tested they are, the longer they can endure the opposition. (see above for “mature” and “complete”)


Aside: Tests vs. Trials vs. Temptations

This distinction was really important to James, and so it should be really important to us. The word James uses for “trial” in v. 2 is peirasmos. It refers both to internal struggles and to external adversities (from con-text, it is obvious that James refers to external pressures). That’s a different word than when James speaks of the “testing” of your faith in v. 3. That word is dokimion, which is used in metallurgy—a test to check the purity of an alloy of metal. So James uses it to mean a test that reveals the genuineness of your faith. Then, in verse 12, James comes back to this pair of words: the one who “endures trials [peirasmos]” and “has stood the test [dokimion]” will be blessed. Those words are used positively.

But in verse 13, James adds a new form of the word. Think of it this way—what is the verb form of “trial”? I would say something like “tried”. Can you “try” yourself? I would say not—I would say that being “tried” is something that happens to you from the outside. But it’s the same word! That’s what James seems to be doing here: Christians undergo “a trial” [noun] which “tests” their faith. But when Christians “are tried” [verb], that’s the negative sense of “a temptation”. God may “test” Christians, but God will never “tempt” Christians. The difference in the Greek language is minute, but the difference in meaning is huge.

Think of it this way:

Test —> perseverance —> maturity

Temptation —> sin —> death


Part 2: Confidence in Him (James 1:5-8)

Now if any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God—who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly—and it will be given to him. But let him ask in faith without doubting. For the doubter is like the surging sea, driven and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord, being double-minded and unstable in all his ways.

This is an oft-misquoted passage. James isn’t promising general wisdom from God, but rather specific wisdom as to how to pass a test of faith—or, perhaps, whether or not an experience is a test or a temptation. Wisdom is how to apply biblical truth to practical decisions; God wants to help us use our biblical knowledge in our daily life. Just ask, and God will gladly, generously help us! But we have to be serious when we ask. When I worked in industry, I had a brilliant workmate who loved to help the new guys. But he could tell if I really wanted to learn, or if I just wanted him to do my work. If I was anything less than serious, I was wasting his time (and mine). God is infinitely more aware of our true motives and attitudes when we ask Him for help in our lives. God is not going to make our decisions for us (remember that Jesus said not to put God to the test); He will give us the tools and support we need to follow Jesus, but we’re still responsible for ourselves.

I have talked with many people who have said, “I just don’t know what God wants me to do” or “I don’t know how the Bible helps me” or even “I just can’t learn the Bible”. When I respond with “Have you asked God to help you?”, the answer is inevitably “no”. Every once in a while, someone will say, “I have prayed about this”, but when I prod with “how intently have you prayed?” or “do you really believe that God will answer your prayer?” the answer becomes “no”. James tells us that God will always give us the wisdom we need to endure the trials of our life, but (1) we have to pray for that wisdom intently and persistently (after all, how do we know that God’s delayed answer is not itself a test?) and (2) we have to believe that God’s answer is the right answer. Too many times we pray already knowing what we want God to say. And if God doesn’t confirm our decision, we ignore God and go our own way.

James tells us that the person who prays without really believing God will answer correctly is unstable and uncommitted. That’s so true! Such a person kind of wants God’s help, but also kind of wants to listen to the world. Paul just told us that the desires of the world are opposed to God, so such a person is literally being pulled in two different directions. The question for your class is how do we trust God to answer our prayers? How do declare that God’s way is better than our way?


Aside: Being Mature/Perfect/Complete

When James says in v. 4 that attested Christian is “mature and complete”, those Greek words can be translated “perfect and blameless”. Indeed, over the years, a number of Christian leaders have used this verse to teach that Christians should expect to become perfect in this lifetime. A famous example, John Wesley, called this the doctrine of “entire sanctification”. In time, he walked that back and said that for most Christians it happened at their death. This teaching survived in the spiritual successors to the Methodist Church, namely the Holiness churches (guess what their name means), and through them the Pentecostal churches. In some of the older (and more fundamentalist) churches of that stream, you still find the teaching that through the Holy Spirit, Christians can expect to become like Christ in every way.

In their defense, sometimes I think that we as Baptists set too low a bar for expectations of ourselves. But in this case, I think we have good reason not to translate James’s word as “perfect” in an English sense. The Greek word teleioi also commonly means “mature”. The word that it is combined with, holokleroi, most commonly means “having all of its parts”—and thus combined with “mature” would mean ”complete” rather than “blameless”. You can’t grow to become blameless; you either are or are not blameless. But can grow to become complete.

So, James is telling us that our tests result in our maturity. Is that true in your life?


Part 3: Focus on the Crown (James 1:9-12)

Let the brother of humble circumstances boast in his exaltation, but let the rich boast in his humiliation because he will pass away like a flower of the field. For the sun rises and, together with the scorching wind, dries up the grass; its flower falls off, and its beautiful appearance perishes. In the same way, the rich person will wither away while pursuing his activities. Blessed is the one who endures trials, because when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.

This is another misunderstood passage. First, note that James is speaking to Christians. (Some people argue that “poor” means Christian and “rich" means non-Christian; there’s no support for that idea.) And one of his emphases in this letter is about removing favoritism (God doesn’t show favoritism, so neither should we), so it makes the most sense to realize that James is breaking down a barrier that has divided classes in every civilization: rich and poor. James is not saying that it is better to be poor than to be rich (although some have taken it that way). Rather, James is saying that in the church, we are all equal.

Worldly status Church status

Rich class (lowered “humiliated”)

All equal before God

Poor class (raised “exalted”)

But James does say that there are disadvantages to being rich when you are a Christian. Ask how wealth can make being a Christian harder. James has a very specific reason: when enduring a trial, a wealthy person can be tempted to rely on his wealth to pass that trial. When you’re sick, do you pray, or do you just pay for the best medical care? When a storm is coming, do you pray, or do you just pay for the best contractors? When life gets hard, do you pray, or do you just pay for bigger fences, better vacations, or fancier cars? As the people on the coast can tell you, eventually a storm comes that will wipe out even the most expensive house. But those who relied on God and not on their possessions aren’t devastated by their losses. They know that they have so much more waiting for them in eternity (the crown of life).

[Note: this is not a physical crown that we wear! That would defeat the whole purpose of eschewing possessions. Rather, this crown is life—eternal life. This is just a poetic way of saying that what God has for us is so much better than even the best that money can buy in this world. Don’t worry about wealth, and certainly don’t put wealth before God.]


Part 4: Guard Against Sin (James 1:3-15)

No one undergoing a trial should say, “I am being tempted by God,” since God is not tempted by evil, and he himself doesn’t tempt anyone. But each person is tempted when he is drawn away and enticed by his own evil desire. Then after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and when sin is fully grown, it gives birth to death.

**Save much time for these verses**. I think this is the clearest description of “how sin works” anywhere in literature.

1. First, God never causes us to sin.

We cannot shirk the blame with “God made me this way”. People try to blame their hot temper or the sexual deviation on “born this way”, and that’s missing the point. Every human being is born with desires and the freedom to turn those desires into sins. No human being is born with a command to sin.

2. Second, sin begins with a misplaced desire.

Eating is good; gluttony is a sin. Sex is good; having sex with someone who is not your spouse is a sin. Passion is good; anger is a sin. “Drawn away and enticed” is language of hunting and fishing—luring an animal out of its den, or luring the fish to the hook. It works like “You’re a passionate person; this other person has wronged you; let your passion be expressed against him”.

3. Third, sin itself is choosing to act on that desire.

This is important to note. Noticing the pretty girl who walks by is not a sin; turning red when someone says something that offends you is not a sin; looking over at the dessert table is not a sin. Rather, sin happens when you “look twice”, or when you start formulating a plan on how to give that person a piece of your mind. Now you’re dwelling on your desire; now it has “conceived” dark thoughts.

4. Finally, if you don’t cut the sin off, it will destroy you.

Once you’ve started thinking about a sin, you’re in trouble. With God’s help, you can still cut it off—you can stop before you physically act on your misplaced desire, or you can stop before you’ve done much physical damage. We all know the con-sequences of going down the road of sin.

Here’s what I would you to know about temptations: God can turn them into tests. If you have allowed yourself into a tempting situation, will you ask God to help you come through it without further sin? God will help you! Jesus was tempted by Satan himself, and He withstood the temptation through God’s Word and God’s Spirit. When we resist temptation, we become stronger, our spiritual endurance increases. Nothing good ever comes from sin, but God can use the process of overcoming our sin to make us more mature.

God doesn’t show favoritism, so neither should we.

Ideas for Teaching This Passage

Part 1: Testing. Bring in a frayed wire, or a frayed rubber belt, or even a piece of fake jewelry. “We usually don’t pay close attention to these things. How do we find out they’re not right?” When they break under pressure, or when we try to sell them. We have houses inspected, or cars checked out, or jewelry appraised (“tested”) so that when the time comes, we know they will perform. It can be expensive to repair or replace a damaged/fake item, but it is usually a lot more expensive when it breaks! Just like with us . . .

Part 2: Asking for Help. Did you use study guides in school? Bonus tutoring sessions with the professor? If a professor offers test prep, you should always take it! That professor wants to help the students pass! But if you don’t, or if you don’t use the study guide, then what are you doing? You’re just wasting time. Ask if there are equivalent situations in the workplace to using a “study guide”.

Part 3: The Problem with Wealth. Hopefully you’ve been able to establish that being wealthy is not wrong. But ask what challenges they imagine there being to being wealthy. I think of more work, more things to worry about, more distractions, and more causes for pride. But is that more cause for sin than anyone else? I don’t think so! Just a different kind.

Part 4: Temptation. If you are comfortable with this, you would be best served asking for examples of temptations and specific steps your group members have used to resist them. If it works for one person, it might work for someone else struggling with it! Topics might be not eating right, not exercising, not praying or reading the Bible, getting angry or depressed. Help one another stop these sins before they get destructive.


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