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The value of suffering

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Blessed is he who perseveres in temptation, for when he has been proven he will receive the crown of life that he promised to those who love him. No one experiencing temptation should say, “I am being tempted by God”; for God is not subject to temptation to evil, and he himself tempts no one. Rather, each person is tempted when lured and enticed by his desire. Then desire conceives and brings forth sin,
and when sin reaches maturity it gives birth to death.

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Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers and sisters: all good giving and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no alteration or shadow caused by change. He willed to give us birth by the word of truth that we may be a kind of first fruits of his creatures. [JAS 1:1-11]

This sacred text reads not so much as a letter addressed to people known to the writer but as a homily or short treatise, in the style of wisdom writing.

The counsels it gives come in no particular order. First there are injunctions to be patient in the midst of trials and to treat the poor with respect (1:2-2:13).

The author shows that faith must be accompanied by good works (2:14-26), and then come more specific pieces of advice (3:1—5:20) – notably warnings addressed to the well-to-do (5:1-6) and comments on the value of prayer and the anointing of the sick.

In the Old Testament the title of “servant of God” was given to people outstanding for their fidelity to the Lord, such as Moses, David and the prophets.

In the New Testament it is applied to all Christians, but especially the apostles (see Acts 4:29; 16:17; Rev 1:1), to make the point that they were humble bearers of a divine message.

“In the Dispersion”: this description originally applied to Jews who lived outside Palestine. In the New Testament it often refers to Christians who saw themselves as the new Israel. Here, very likely means Jews who had been converted to Christianity.

This passage contains a number of interconnected instructions that exhort readers to be steadfast in order to ensure that there is no contradiction between their beliefs and their everyday conduct: the author stresses that their suffering of various trials is good for them (1:2-12); from God only good can come (1:13-18); to accept what comes from God, one needs to put into practice the word one has heard (1:19-27) and not discriminate among people in any way (2:1-13)

St James points out how Christians should act in the face of trials and sufferings: they should be received joyfully (verses 2-4) and, when we find it difficult to make sense of them, we should ask God to give us the necessary wisdom (verses 5-8).

Both poverty and wealth are kinds of tests (verses 9-11; cf. 5:1-6; Lk 6:20, 24). Finally, he reminds readers that the reward promised by God to those who endure trials is imbued with the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount (see Mt 5:1 – 7:27).

The problem of suffering experienced by the righteous and, by contrast, the prosperity enjoyed by the ungodly in this life is often dealt with in the Old Testament, notably in the Psalms and the book of Job. But it was not fully and finally solved until the coming of Christ. The “wisdom” that James speaks of (verse 5 is, then, the wisdom of the cross (cf. 1 Cor 1:18ff).

We need to pray with faith (verse 6): “If a man has faith, let him ask; and if he does not have faith, let him not ask; for if he does not have faith, he will not receive what he asks for” (Ecumenius, Commentarium in Iacobum, ad loc.).

The “double-minded man” (verse 8) is someone who cannot make up his mind whether to trust God or not. St Bede comments: “A double minded person is one who kneels down to ask God for things and beseeches him to grant them, and yet feels so accused by his conscience that he distrusts his ability to pray. A double-minded person is also one who, when he does good deeds, looks for external approval rather than interior reward. […] He wants to rejoice in the life of this world, and reign in the other world with God” (In Epistolam Iacobi, ad loc.).

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