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James 1:9-11 - Poverty and Riches

James 1:9—11 — Believers in humble circumstances ought to take pride in their high position. But the rich should take pride in their humiliation since they will pass away like wildflowers. For the sun rises with scorching heat and withers the plant; its blossom falls, and its beauty is destroyed. In the same way, the rich will fade away even while they go about their business.

In verses 9–11 of Chapter 1, James applies his teachings on trials, maturity, and wisdom to a situation that was very prevalent during his day – poverty. To understand the transition James takes here, it helps to understand a little better the audience to which James was writing and the situation they were in.


James addressed his letter, remember in verse 1, to the 12 tribes scattered among the nations or the 12 tribes in the Dispersion. James uses this description to refer to and to include all Jewish Christians who were being dispersed and scattered because of what they were experiencing at the hands of Roman and Jewish officials.


We can gain more insight into this particular situation in the Book of Acts, beginning in chapter 8. We learn here that after the stoning of Stephen, a great persecution broke out, and “all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.” Consequently, the intended audience of this letter was the Jewish Christians who were being scattered to avoid persecution. Many who survived suffered the loss of their homes and endured confiscation of their property (Hebrews 10:34).


So, clearly, poverty was a difficult issue for many during James’s time, and this is why he addresses the issue here amid his instructions on trials, perseverance, and wisdom. James, being the good pastor that he is, encourages his flock to remain steadfast in their faith, even amid persecution and its lingering effects.


In these few verses, we immediately notice two kinds of people in two different sets of circumstances, each presenting its own kind of trial. There was no middle class in James's time; people tended either to be very rich or very poor. And that’s precisely how James addresses his letter: To the poor (v.9) …. To the wealthy (v.10) …


James first addresses the poor or those in “humble circumstances” and compels them to “take pride in their high position.”  Notice James calls them brothers, so they are clearly Christians. This distinction is important because James is not telling anyone who is poor that they can boast in their high position; rather, he is addressing, specifically, the believing poor. When one can view their circumstances in light of Christ, then the humble person who has been placed low has a very high position in that these individuals are under the provision of God.


James reminds his readers that even if they are poor, whether it be financially or in social status, they can rejoice and “consider it joy.” Why? Because the poor believer is wealthy in spiritual treasures and has a high status in the kingdom of God. James then proceeds to give a word to the rich with a prominent contrast in verbiage. He says, “The person who’s low should rejoice that he’s high (v. 9); the person who’s high should rejoice that he’s really low (v. 10).”


What James is talking about here is perspective. James acknowledged the place of the poor and said perspective is the way to deal with your status. And now he acknowledges the rich, and says perspective is the same way for you to deal with your status. You (the rich) are to use Godly wisdom in the same way, and if you do that, you will see that you should boast, not in your earthly treasures, which are temporary and bring no spiritual advantage, but in your spiritual treasures, which are for eternity.


Now, it is essential to note that James is not saying that being wealthy, in and of itself, is what’s bad. James is alluding to being wealthy with the wrong perspective. In the absence of Godly wisdom, the love of money can cause someone to stumble…to become double-minded, and cause them to trust in their financial/economic/social status more than trusting God.


Overall, in these three verses, James reminds us that trials have a remarkable leveling effect, and the challenges of poverty and wealth can be considered one of the many or various trials that Christians will endure. As we consider these trials through the eyes of wisdom, we need to seek the right priorities and remember that our circumstances must be viewed in light of eternity.


Godly wisdom tells the poor to consider themselves blessed because of their high position in Christ. When one can grasp this, they can look at their circumstances and persevere in faith because of all that is awaiting them in heaven. Godly wisdom says to the rich that real wealth doesn’t consist in the abundance of possessions. Godly wisdom will illuminate the hollowness of earthly stuff and offer ways to resist the temptation to use high economic/social status as a basis for significance.


Both poverty and riches bring enormous pressure on a person to focus on the world rather than on Christ. James says we need wisdom to gain the proper perspective. That perspective is this: It’s what you have in your heart, not your material wealth, that matters to God and endures for eternity.


To conclude, I would like to offer one more passage of Scripture to consider. Rather than boasting in financial, economic, or social status, what should all believers boast in? Galatians 6:14 shows us the perfect perspective.


Galatians 6:14 - May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.


Reflection Questions:


What kinds of things besides wealth do we tend to rely on and boast in for a sense of well-being and security, rather than on God?


For each of the things you mentioned in the previous question, explain why it is foolish to rely on them. If they were gone, what would be left? Why is it better and wiser to rely on God?


What blessings can you count on in Christ—even if you lose all that you have?


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