Let the lowly brother glory in his exaltation, but the rich in his humiliation, because as a flower of the field he will pass away. For no sooner has the sun risen with a burning heat than it withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beautiful appearance perishes. So the rich man also will fade away in his pursuits.
I was fifteen years old, and my life was ending. Or so I thought.
As I wandered the halls of my high school one drizzly spring day, I saw an existence I had built and come to enjoy disappearing before my very eyes.
That year had been the most eventful of my scholastic career up until that point. First place in the science fair (ant farms rule!), a fun school choir season, a part in the school play, a niche in a cool (to us, anyway) posse of kids – life was good.
Then my parents dropped the bomb on me: next year we would begin homeschooling. And just like that, my castle of status and socializing came crumbling down in ruins. For the weeks remained of the school year, as I participated in the activities and hung out with the “gang”, I had the sense that it was all going to be over soon, and would mean absolutely nothing in the long run. My entire perspective had suddenly changed.
And that’s the point.
If there’s one thing that James wants us to do in his book, it is to change our perspective. Specifically, in this first section, he wants us to see our trials in a completely different way – as a motive for rejoicing.
How can this be? Well, for starters, he has showed us how our trials build into our lives faith, perseverance, holiness, wisdom, and dependence upon God. And now he brings up another point: our trials serve to transform our perspective from a temporal to an eternal one. Wealth is like burnt grass…and that’s a good thing!
A tale of two bank accounts
In making his point, he brings up two groups of people: the poor and the rich. Interestingly enough, he spends much more time on the latter than on the former. The poor get eight whole words, after which the rich get a rather severe lecture.
Why is this? Perhaps because James understands that for the poor, having an eternal perspective is not as difficult as it is for the rich. Lacking in earthly goods, the hope of riches in Christ becomes much more real. But for those whose bank accounts are full to overflowing, whose houses are surrounded by manicured lawns ensconced in swanky gated communities, whose toughest choice in the morning is deciding which car to drive to work – the Ferrari or the Jaguar – well…people like that can easily become distracted by the things of this world.
So James lays into them. He compares them to field flowers – pretty for a moment, but withering away in the heat of the Sun.
And the amazing thing is, James thinks the rich should rejoice in this fact, just as the poor rejoices at his ultimate exaltation. That seems…odd, until we remember James’s overarching point – Christians should see trials as a motive for rejoicing. So the rich person in question, a well-to-do believer, is going through trials. Perhaps he lost money on a bad investment, or his wife totalled the Jaguar on her way to the mall. Maybe there are health issues, or family problems. Or perhaps he stands to everything if he maintains a Christian witness. In any of the above cases, he can look at all of his wealth and possessions and say “Well, you know what, it’s all temporary anyway. I might as well cling to Christ.”
All of us reading this passage will fall somewhere on the spectrum between abject poverty and fantastic wealth, most of us somewhere towards the middle. And wherever we find ourselves in that spectrum, the message is the same: when we go through trials, God is teaching us to think – in the words of the old hymn – with eternity’s values in view.
Back to school.
Though it in no way seemed so at the time, my parents’ decision to homeschool me was one of the best ones they ever made. It opened up many opportunities – including one to visit Brazil, which led to a two-year short-term ministry, during which time I met the lovely woman who is now my wife, who bore to me two amazing boys…and on and on and on. Could I have but looked forward on that miserable spring day, I would have felt much differently.
And that’s what James asks us to do here: look forward, to eternity with Christ. Doing so will make all the difference.
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