Days fly by and time disappears in a dizzying spiral. You’re either in or out of the money, as they say. You’re happy one moment, devastated the next. What does your hope rest upon? What hope do you have that goes beyond the temporal and temporary of this world? On the sunny days or in the times of storm, James directs us to stand humbly and firmly upon Christ. (Jas. 1:9-11)
Part 4 of a whole book study series called “True Faith: A Study Through James”
9 But the brother of humble circumstances is to glory in his high position; 10 and the rich man is to glory in his humiliation, because like flowering grass he will pass away. 11 For the sun rises with a scorching wind and withers the grass; and its flower falls off and the beauty of its appearance is destroyed; so too the rich man in the midst of his pursuits will fade away.
You may wonder, why does James seem to “jump” from talking about enduring trials and asking God for wisdom with confident faith to talking about our perspective as rich or poor people? Our very circumstances may in many cases be a trial or test and require wisdom to navigate. To a person who has little, they are tested to endure with little. To a person with much, they are tested to see what is truly of value. I do not believe that one or the other is more “blessed” in the sense that the world sees blessing. We are too quick to attribute a person’s material prosperity as being “blessed” by God.
Prosperity and poverty are not signs of God’s favor or disfavor; God’s promised mercy in the gospel is the only anchor in the storm.
I do not mean to say that all things do not come from God — they do come from His good and sovereign hand, whether disaster or windfall. Rather, a person can be “blessed” with or without material means. They can even be blessed in the midst of a tragedy if they are confident in the knowledge that God will redeem it — whether they understand that plan for redeeming it or not at that moment.
What are humble circumstances? The Greek (tapeinós) — the same word used both in verse 9 to describe the poor brother and in verse 10 to describe the rich man’s same circumstances — does speak to the actual condition or “estate” of a person. Yet it goes further to describe someone who relies on God more than he relies upon himself — he is likely forced to because of his circumstances. In this, he is exalted.
This is confounding to those of us who think that if a person is rich, they are worthy of adulation and regarded as having a high status in society. It is those who are without means we tend to look down upon or feel pity for. James elucidates this idea more later (Jas. 2:5; 4:10).
Here the man’s humility in circumstance and in his attitude of dependence upon God exalt him in God’s eyes. And for the man, he can take comfort from knowing his true position before God, regardless of what his earthly position may be.
Humility is to know how lowly we are before God.
— Verlynn Verbrugge,
New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, 556
Having a true understanding of your own weakness and His far-surpassing sufficiency changes how you walk through circumstances.
The Right Kind of Boasting
Verses 9 and 10 also speak of glorying, or boasting (kauchaomai). We might be somewhat taken aback by the idea of glorying or boasting based on our circumstances. I would suggest that it is not entirely our immediate circumstances, but our perspective on those circumstances. Further, it is our glorying and confidence in the One behind those circumstances.
23 Thus says the Lord, “Let not a wise man boast of his wisdom, and let not the mighty man boast of his might, let not a rich man boast of his riches; 24 but let him who boasts boast of this, that he understands and knows Me, that I am the Lord who exercises lovingkindness, justice and righteousness on earth; for I delight in these things,” declares the Lord. [Jer. 9:23-24 NAS]
When you pursue an understanding and knowledge of the Lord — which will take all your life and not be complete even then! — you begin to delight in what He delights in. Psalm 37:4 exhorts us to delight ourselves in the Lord and in return we are given the desires of our heart. These desires aren’t all the riches and pleasures the world has to offer. As we are shaped more and more into the likeness of Christ, our desires are conformed to His. Therefore, the more we know of Him, the more we desire as He did: the glory and will of the Father above all else.
So delighting in God changes your perspective on what the true desires of your heart ought to be. You no longer want the empty, temporary, passing things of the world; instead you seek after things that are eternally valuable [cf. Col. 3:1-4; Ps. 119:37]. Those are the new desires of your heart. And those new desires change your perspective on what you’re going through at any given moment.
10 and the rich man is to glory in his humiliation, because like flowering grass he will pass away.
Interestingly, James places more emphasis here in these verses upon the rich man. In American culture in particular, there seems to be a special reverence for those people who have a lot of money. They are esteemed highly by worldly standards. Yet here James calls a rich man to see his earthly riches with the proper perspective when he uses the word humiliation (low estate, a humble condition). Zodhiates notes the lowness or humiliation is associated with a “recognition that his riches cannot extend his life or gain the approbation of God” (Zodhiates, The Complete Word Study Dictionary: New Testament, 1366).
Paul, in his first letter to Timothy, also puts a special emphasis on the attitude and heart of a rich man:
17 Instruct those who are rich in this present world not to be conceited or to fix their hope on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly supplies us with all things to enjoy. 18 Instruct them to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, 19 storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is life indeed. [1 Tim. 6:17-19 NAS]
We’re often under the mistake impression that a rich person must be very, very happy. But stop and think of all the movie stars or musicians who have been showered with wealth and fame, and after gaining so much by worldly standards, have turned around and killed themselves. Isn’t it likely that as they reflected on their possessions and wealth, they realized the futility and meaninglessness of simply accruing “stuff”? Without a relationship with God through Christ, this life can simply turn into a hamster wheel of paychecks and distractions that never, ultimately, hold any enduring satisfaction.
Life is Fleeting
11 For the sun rises with a scorching wind and withers the grass; and its flower falls off and the beauty of its appearance is destroyed;
To help us understand the fleeting nature of our lives, James points to flowering grass, as the NAS translates it in verse 10, and describes in verse 11 just what happens to it. Interestingly, the Greek reads “a flower of the grass.” We can imagine fields of grass (perhaps as in a pasture or open meadow) that are dotted with flowers. The flowers growing there have a short-lived time of blooming; we may pass by such a field and be startled by its brightness and color, and only a few weeks later, the same field will have been blanched by sun and wind, and no flowers remain.
Just as grass is green, then dies under the external effects of sun and wind, a flower blooms, then the petals fall off and it decays. The beauty of its appearance vanishes, and no matter how splendid it may have been, it is as if it had never existed. So it is with our lives. All of us, not just the rich man, may have a thousand plans left, a hundred things left undone, and in the midst of it all, we will vanish like flowers and grass.
This idea is repeated throughout scripture — a few examples:
My days are like a lengthened shadow, and I wither away like grass. [Ps. 102:11 NAS]
As for man, his days are like grass; As a flower of the field, so he flourishes. When the wind has passed over it, it is no more, And its place acknowledges it no longer. [Ps. 103:15-16 NAS]
For, ‘All flesh is like grass, and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls off, but the word of the Lord endures forever.’ [1 Pet. 1:24 NAS; note that Peter quotes from Isa. 40:6-8]
We have no control over how quickly this life goes and the time when we will no longer call this earth our dwelling place grows closer and closer every day we wake up. This is where the true faith — and humility — enters in, where we acknowledge that we are in God’s hands in every circumstance of our life, that our lives are not our own.
A Common End
so too the rich man in the midst of his pursuits will fade away.
The rich and poor man have one thing in common: they both will die. Notice that James makes two references to death in these verses: he will pass away, (he) will fade away.
Despite how death links all of humanity, despite how close we are to it every minute of every day, we don’t like to talk or think about it. Do you ever consider that you might be driving down the road, on your way to the grocery store, or to pick your child up from school, and suddenly be swept from this earth in a matter of seconds?
Here in Portland, one quiet Sunday morning a few months ago, I heard an explosion from across the river. In the space of a few heartbeats, a fuel truck driver drove off the road and passed irrevocably from earth into eternity. It didn’t matter that he might have had plans later that day for an outing with his wife and children, that he might have had a project he was planning to get to tomorrow on his day off, or that his bank account might have been bursting at the seams. Who knows? The only certainty was that in the midst of his pursuits, just as James says here, he faded away from all human and earthly sight.
It didn’t matter whether he was rich or poor, those moments were his last. Money, career, good intentions, relationships, looks — nothing could stay God’s sovereign hand that day.
Fortunately, in this man’s case, he had a confident faith in Jesus Christ as his Savior. At some point in his life, God changed his heart through the gospel and he humbled himself before the only one who could ever save him from his sin. And that humility, that faith, that hope endured past any circumstances, even those of his death.
An Eternal Perspective
So what does James hope to convey to us here? That we should go around with a constant awareness of our own mortality and to live in the shadow of our impending demise? In one sense, yes. But not so we live in a state of utter abjection and withdrawal from those around us, simply bracing ourselves for the day of our disappearance. Rather, James would hope for us to keep perspective. To value each moment that God in His grace has given. For it is all from Him. We do not keep our hearts beating, the air coming in and out of our lungs, the blood flowing in our veins.
Contentment does not lie in our bank accounts, work promotions, or even in a happy marriage or family life. Discontentment doesn’t come from health problems or broken relationships. Our hope lies in the faith that is humble enough to accept all of that in submission to a God we trust as unchanging, sovereign, and good — even when we don’t understand why we are where we are circumstance-wise. Then with Paul, as he refers to his own circumstances, we may say:
11 Not that I speak from want, for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. 12 I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need. 13 I can do all things through Him who strengthens me. [Phil. 4:11-13 NAS]