James places redemptive suffering, this revolutionary element of the gospel, right at the beginning of his letter. “Count it all joy, my brethren, when you meet various trials, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (1:2-4).
Like the books of Psalms, Proverbs, and Sirach, James reminds us that difficulties have always been part believers’ lives. In speaking of “various trials” that test our faith, he speaks of not just religious persecution but sickness, crime, loneliness, poverty – whatever tests our faith in God’s love, goodness, and justice. What is revolutionary in James’ statement, however, is the idea that Christians should look upon trials with intense joy. The Greek text helps us understand his rationale: “Joy” is charan, from the root word charis, or “grace.” Our trials are occasions for joy precisely because God’s grace is at work to bring us successfully through the period of testing and perfect the image of Christ in our souls. When James says that the testing of our faith produces “steadfastness,” or “endurance,” he uses the Greek term hypomonēn. Etymologically, it points to “remaining under” a heavy load. This load is Christ’s Cross that, like the Master, we must carry (Mt 16:24) if we are to become “perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (Jas 1:4).
We Christians are not masochists. We don’t embrace suffering as an end in itself. Rather, through it, we embrace our crucified Lord so as to arrive with him at the glory of the Resurrection. James continues, “Blessed is the man who endures trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life which God has promised to those who love him” (1:12). When we persist in faith in the Father’s love for us, committing our lives into his hands despite the pain we endure, it is then that we most resemble the Lord Jesus – and that is what makes our suffering redemptive for us personally.
You see, when an Israelite was ordained to the priesthood, his hands were anointed with oil. In the Greek translation of the OT, teleioō was used in place of the Hebrew idiom, “fill up the hands” (Ex 29:29, 35; Lev 8:33; 16:32; 21:10; Num. 3:3). With this in mind, Hebrews 5:8-9 takes on added significance, “[Jesus] learned obedience through what he suffered; and being made perfect [teleioō ] he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, being designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek” (Heb 5:8-10). Jesus was consecrated to the priesthood via obedience in the midst of suffering! Hebrews applies the same term, teleioō, to the spirits of the just in heaven (Heb 12:24) – the same spirits the Book of Revelation shows participating in Christ’s priestly intercession before the Father’s throne (Rev 5:8; Heb 7:25).
As members of his Mystical Body, the Church participates in Christ’s self-offering to the Father. For those of us still on earth, Christ unites our earthly sufferings to his and transforms them into spiritual sacrifices. Further, we recognize that the Father accepts such sacrifices and reciprocates with unmatched generosity; “[G]ive, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be put into your lap” (Lk 6:38). We receive abundant grace and take on the image of our Crucified Lord – the very goal of discipleship.
I would further suggest that the manner in which we endure our trials – committing ourselves, via the movement of grace, into the Father’s hands with our eyes fixed on the resurrection – is an important way that our faith is manifested in works. James tells us that it was Abraham’s response to testing that brought his faith to completion (2:22). Abraham placed his son upon the wood of sacrifice – in effect, joining himself to the Cross – with faith that God could raise the dead (Heb 11:19). We embrace the Cross in the same conviction! Therefore, as James says, “Count it all joy, my brethren, when you meet various trials, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (1:2-4).
In Part 2 of this 3-part series, we’ll look at how Paul builds upon James’s insight, rejoicing not just in the value of suffering for his soul, but the benefit Paul’s sufferings had upon the souls of others.
Editor’s note: This article was adapted from Shane Kapler’s James: Jewish Roots: Catholic Fruits (Angelico Press, 2021). It is the first part of a three-part series on St. James & Redemptive Suffering.