Chapter 1 introduces the main themes of the letter. This first bit is mirrored by the conclusion in 57-20, thereby forming a framework for the whole letter, addressing the need to keep going when life is hard. We don’t know for sure which James it is who wrote the letter (there are a number in the NT), but I think it most likely that it is the brother of Jesus – and if so, it is striking that he doesn’t say that.
James just assumes we will meet trials in life. These trials are not just those that come specifically from being a Christian, for they are of “many kinds”. James sees three benefits to the Christian of such trials. Firstly, our faith is tested (note how he makes the implicit jump from trials of life to testing of faith between verses 2 and 3). Secondly, we develop perseverance – the ability to stay on the road even when the pressure is immense. Thirdly, perseverance is essential if we are to become mature in our faith.
It is important to see this teaching on prayer for wisdom in its context – it comes in a section bracketed by an exhortation to endure trials (verse 2, verse 12). So this is prayer for the specific wisdom described in verses 2-4 – wisdom to see our hardships in this way. “Without finding fault”, or “without reproach” (ESV) probably means that God won’t meet our requests for wisdom with criticism at our past failure – and specifically he doesn’t expect us to be already coping when we come for help.
The one condition given is that we must ask in faith, not doubting. It’s important to see that “doubt” here is not talking about intellectual uncertainty – we might well have doubts at times like that – so much as a failure to trust. James’s describes the doubter as “double-minded” in verse 8, a word whose meaning is made clear in ch.4:4-8. It refers to someone who wants to have a foot in both camps. They are asking for wisdom, but they don’t really want to live for God when the requested wisdom comes.
James then describes two kinds of trial, for which the Christian needs wisdom to respond properly – poverty and wealth. Wisdom teaches the lowly person to recognise their exalted position in Christ. Wisdom teaches the person who is rich in worldly terms to see that that wealth is temporary and fleeting; it should teach us true humility. In both trials wisdom teaches the proper way to “consider it pure joy”.
Finally, James brings it all together. The ideas of trials and testing come together. The crown is held out for those who love God – that is for those who genuinely love him, and aren’t fair weather Christians whose love for riches or comfort is proved to outshine their love for God. The Christian life is to be lived in the light of the future.
In short, we need to keep going under life’s trials, showing our love for God to be genuine, that we may receive his reward in heaven.