Without further credentials than being a slave of God and Jesus, James opens his letter by addressing believers who are “scattered abroad” (James 1:1). He then immediately dives into practical advice and maintains this focus for all five chapters: live this way, not that way, because of clear realities that God has revealed. While some scholars believe that James is simply a collection of abrupt maxims without a cohesive theme, other scholars agree that Jesus’ brother James wrote this to real people in real circumstances for a real purpose: encouragement and practical advice in adverse circumstances.
The author writes to an audience that is enduring deep trials, finding themselves in need of wisdom, and struggling to hold onto their faith consistently. These circumstances hold credible mirroring amidst the social turmoil and injustice of the late 40s and 50s ad. Faced with poverty, violent injustice, and no end in sight, even the most devout of Christians could have been tempted to use the weapons of the world to defend themselves. This reality deeply troubled James and drove him to write an epistle rich with relevant and practical advice.
Though his counsel is strong, James’s endearing term of “my brethren” has the effect of camaraderie and empathy. He can see the violence and suffering they are experiencing, and he knows that they can control only their response. Instead of following the examples of rage and revenge, his readers are invited to allow the growth of patience within them, to endure and persevere in Christ-like response instead of reverting to the short-term non-solutions of the world.
Wisdom was needed in these harsh conditions, and James affirms its abundant availability from God. His only counsel was for them to ask “with no doubting, for he who doubts is like a wave of the sea driven and tossed by the wind. . . . He is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways” (James 1:6, 8). The tossing wave parallels the instability of someone without faith to anchor them. Thus, circumstances default to the deciding factor: when circumstances look favorable, the believer thrills with joy and peace; when circumstances look dark or trials come, the believer’s so-called faith departs from him. This mentality permeates every aspect of life and “all his ways.” Thus, James counsels, allow for faith to be tested but not taken, even in the worst of circumstances.