I am a pragmatic philosopher at heart. While it’s interesting to consider all the possibilities of all possible worlds in time and space, at the end of the day, I want what is useful. So did James. As the brother of Jesus he was skeptical until after the resurrection. I mean, having a big brother who was the long promised Messiah makes little sense to the pragmatist who expected Messiah to be a political force. But, skeptical pragmatists follow evidence, and James became one of the leaders in Jerusalem’s early church.
This epistle was written somewhere around the time of the Jerusalem Council of 50 AD (CE). By this time in history, the first Herod Agrippa (the one who imprisoned Peter in Acts 12) was dead, and the province of Judah was increasingly under Roman control. (Romans destroyed the Temple in 70, and both Jewish and Christian people were dispersed.) It was not an easy time to be a Jesus follower. The church was under attack by the Roman authorities and Jewish leaders. To make it worse, the church was also divided from within, between those who blended the Old Covenant with the New, and those Gentiles who only followed the New Covenant. You can read the whole debate in Acts 15.
The context for this letter (as with everything) is important. The believers who were James’ audience were feeling pressure from all sides: religious, cultural, economic, and political. They were fearful and discouraged, and not sure what to make of the chaos. When James opened with “Count it all joy,” he recognized their level of disquiet and gave them a different perspective.
We are living in uncertain times. It makes sense that we feel uncomfortable, uncertain, or unable to process the chaos that COVID19 is causing. James reminds us that we can choose joy. Joy is not a reaction to circumstances, but a response in circumstances. Trials in many forms are not optional; they are part of living in this world. Choosing joy in the middle of chaos lets us see the sovereignty of God so that our faith will grow. We become steadfast in faith, rooted in hope, and abounding in love.