The Letter of James: Chapter 1

Here Stuart explores life’s trials and difficulties and the importance of hearing and doing.

Man seated with his head in his hands and his arms on his knees
icon-home » Daily Living » Time to Reflect » Discover the Letter of James » The Letter of James: Chapter 1

In our Introduction, we tried to get into the world of James’ original audience and to get an overall view of the letter. It’s best to keep that birds-eye view in focus as we now dig a little deeper into the contents of this letter.

James chapter 1 can be split into 2 sections:

  1. Trials and Difficulties
  2. Hearing and Doing

Let’s take each of these in turn:

Trials and Difficulties: vv.2-18

In modern emails, we are encouraged to include a subject, so that people can see at a glance what the email is about. Here, as soon as James has greeted his recipients, he immediately talks about facing trials in life. If you remember from last time, James was writing to a community of Christians who were experiencing persecution – trials, testing, and suffering were all part of everyday life. Under that kind of bombardment, it’s easy to begin to question our faith and to ask where God is in it all. James writes to address that experience.

HANDY TIP: pay close attention to the little words in the Bible; conjunctions (e.g. for, and, when, nor, but, if, or, yet, so), in particular. They shed light on the meaning of a passage.

Notice in verse 2 that James uses the conjunction ‘when’. That gives his statement on trials a certain inevitability. It’s not as vague as ‘if’ would be. This theme is consistent in the New Testament; compare these verses in James with what St. Peter says in 1 Peter 4:12; we aren’t to be surprised when trials come. Followers of Jesus Christ are not promised an easy life, but one that is marked with the cross as with a seal, and bears the commission to carry our cross daily in the footsteps of our Lord.

So, as Christians, trials and sufferings are to be expected.
But how do we cope with them? James tells us: with joy.

It’s important to note that there’s a distinction between happiness and joy; happiness is an emotion that comes and goes, whereas joy is a stable abiding sense that comes from love, says St. Thomas Aquinas. Just as love remains present even in the midst of sadness, so too can joy. It is, as St. Paul says, a fruit of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23); it’s a living action within us by the presence and working of the Spirit, something that God does within us rather than something we can manufacture (which means it’s something we can ask God for, or for more of). Joy gives us the ability to face trials and to transcend them by reminding us of what we most deeply love: God himself.

The Bible also gives us an example of this kind of joy, in our Lord himself; Hebrews 12:2-3 tells us that Jesus endured the suffering of his Passion with his heart set on the joy that was set before him. Where the founder of our faith has gone, we follow in his wake. As the writer to the Hebrews continues: consider him (that is focus on Jesus; ponder him, meditate on him) so as not to grow fainthearted ourselves. That is how we can live out James’ first call to us; to face trials with joy – consider Jesus in his Passion. It reminds us of the beautiful devotion to Divine Mercy that St. Faustina gifted to the Church; there we see joy in the midst of suffering lived out.

James seems to unexpectedly pivot (as he does quite frequently in this letter) from this exhortation about joy in suffering to a paragraph on effective prayer. Maybe, though, these thoughts are not as disconnected as they may seem?

We could sum up the lesson in vv. 5-8 in this way:

  1. If you have a need, bring it to God in prayer.
  2. When you do, bear these things in mind:

God is a generous giver.
Ask in faith, without doubting

We have to be careful to avoid extremes here: is James really saying that whatever I need, God will give to me, as long as I don’t doubt? Does that mean that if I don’t receive what I pray for, that I don’t have enough faith?

James isn’t teaching that God will give us whatever we ask for as long as we keep our deposit of faith unsullied by the slightest speck of doubt. Yet asking with faith is deeply important. James is teaching that if we ask without faith in God, we shouldn’t really expect an answer (although one may still come!).

Remember to look for the small words that we sometimes miss. Notice in verse 5 James begins the paragraph by saying that if we lack wisdom, we should ask for it in faith. That’s a crucial verse, isn’t it? This teaching on prayer, and its promise to receive what we ask for in faith, is rooted in the need for wisdom. The question we should ask, then, is what is wisdom?

St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that wisdom is a kind of practical know-how in life as a Christian; knowing how to discern, judge, and direct the happenings in life. This is what James says God will give generously, through the gift of the Holy Spirit.

So, ask for wisdom; ask for that practical discernment in life. But also ask for ever deeper and stronger faith. Whilst James does tie his remarks here to asking for wisdom, there is a wider principle at play; something that we can see in so many of Jesus’ miracles that are based on faith, so approach God and ask in faith for everything that you need and the wisdom to know what that is.

Questions to consider

1) Are you facing trials in your life at the moment?

2) Does faith feel disconnected from the reality of your life?

3) How can you consider Jesus and face the trials of life with joy?

4) Where do you need wisdom in your life?

Hearing and Doing

After speaking about wisdom, James goes on in the final section of chapter 1 to discuss more practicalities. Most notably, perhaps, is verse 22; the call to be doers of the word.

We hear that phrase often, don’t we? We hear it at Mass; in the readings, in the antiphons, in the prayers and collects. If we pray the rosary, we might meditate on the Scriptures related to the mysteries. James issues us a challenge, though; if hearing doesn’t translate into real change in our lives, then we have totally missed the point.

We have radical examples to look to from the lives of the saints; St. Anthony, for example, heard the Gospel reading to sell all he had and give it to the poor (Matthew 19:21) and promptly did so, moving into the Egyptian desert and becoming one of the first monastic Desert Fathers.

Not everyone is called to that kind of radical change in their lives. But we are all called to be transformed by the word of God when we receive it day by day and to incarnate the message of the Bible in our lives.

The concluding verse of this chapter encapsulates the kind of Christian living that James wants to promote. He lists three things that he says constitute pure and undefiled religion:

  1. Visit orphans
  2. Visit widows
  3. Keep unstained from the world

That’s a striking list, isn’t it? A little reminiscent perhaps of Micah’s list in the Old Testament: do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8). It is perhaps more significant to us for what it leaves out; no mention there of prayer (although, as we’ve seen, James talked about prayer earlier), no mention of going to Mass on Sunday. Are these unimportant? Certainly not! But James’ point is that our religion can’t stop there, it has to go deeper, it has to incarnate the gifts and graces we receive in prayer and in the sacraments in a life that blesses the world around us.

Questions to consider

  1. Do you find anything difficult in moving from hearing to doing the word of God?
  2. How might the word of God be challenging you today?
  3. How do you react to James’ list of acts of pure religion?

Concluding Prayer

Spend a little time with your notes from this chapter and your answers to the questions; does anything jump out at you that you would like to pray for?

Heavenly Father,
I have heard your word today and I want to put it into practice.
Give me the wisdom to know how to do that in my own circumstances.
Help me to bear the trials that life throws at me
with an abiding joy that comes from your Spirit.
May I offer you the service you desire in compassion and care for the poor and needy.

Through Christ our Lord.