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I woke up with the stomach flu. I puked a couple of times this morning, hacking up bits of lettuce and saliva-infused water. I felt hot and my skin was sensitive.

I became a little delusional in the early morning. I said things like, “what’s the point, God?”, “Fuck that shit”, “Why the fuck did you have to take her?” (referring to my mom). All sorts of weird things came out.

To cope, I entertained fantasies that I will not pen here.

And then I forced myself out of bed, poured a can of chicken broth into a pot with old rice, ate it, and took an ibuprofen.

Then I played Douglass Moo’s lecture on the book of James on YouTube, the book we are studying in church right now. I respect Moo because other people respect his scholarship, but I also like listening to him because he’s an eloquent but gentle speaker. He fields all questions with respect and does not talk down at his students.

The book of James is a mess. According to Moo, it’s unlike the Pauline epistles and more like the intertestamental wisdom literature, stuff protestants like me don’t know about. The structure is not easily discerned, if there is one. Luther classified the book as a secondary letter, since it disagreed with his “justification-by-faith-alone” ethos and others seem to have labeled James as “weak” in theology. It’s just a bunch of exhortations, like Proverbs.

Moo replies that while James does not have much explicit theology, it is still theologically written. Its content is concerned with pastoring a flock gone awry, not with indoctrination or fine points of theology. In light of this revelation, we can read and appreciate James for what he tries to accomplish – the exhortation of brothers and sisters in the Christian diaspora to act properly.

James starts off with:

Count it all joy, my brothers,[b] when you meet trials of various kinds, 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.

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind.For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord;he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.

It’s hard to be joyful in moments of disappointment and loss. In our 30s, I can already see some of my friends suffering from deep disappointment in themselves for not accomplishing the things they wanted to have accomplished by this age. Some want to be married. Some want financial stability. Others want to be more advanced in their careers. All of us compare ourselves to others. “He’s younger than me, but he has a child already”, “he’s got millions and a house and a great girlfriend…God’s favor is on him”, “he went to a great law school and has a job set up for him already”. Living in the bay area, where so many young, talented, highly motivated, and rich professionals populate the area, I think envy and anxiety are creeping around at every corner. We want to hang our heads high but the competition is just too fierce.

Moo reminds us that trials come from God. Much of the Old Testament, he says, report God giving his people trials to test their faith. Perhaps the most famous being Job, and, in the New Testament, Jesus.

If we see our failures in life as trials from God, I think we could have some sort of joy. James encourages his readers to persevere in trials because it renders the believer mature or perfect, as the ESV puts it. Moo comments that the NIV translation, “mature”, is too weak of a word to get across the finality and strength of what James means by teleios. “Perfect” is too loaded a term in English because it connotes a sense of OCDness or impossibility, and, thus, a despairing word. And yet, James pushes us to have faith in the testing process, which will achieve for us some wholeness, and, of course, “a reward of the life of the crown” (v.12), that is, life itself. With this end goal in mind, perhaps it might be easier to see our tests as occasions for joy, for we will not only have eternal life but also transform into the healed, whole person that we all truly desire to be.

In our trials, however, we are tempted. We are tempted to curse God, like I did. We are tempted to self-console through the usual or unusual vices like gambling, alcohol, sex, porn, overeating. We are tempted because we have inherited this strange desire to rebel against or thwart God. I’m not entirely sure why or how we are programmed like this – perhaps our hearts and minds are so fed on a diet of pleasures and rewards of the world that we seek to make friends with it to receive our due reward. In other words, we work hard in order to play hard.

In the face of utter failure of our designs, then, is an opportunity to rejoice in the trial. There is some purpose behind our failure, and it’s not merely if at all the reason to succeed later on in whatever worldly way we conceive. Our capitalistic society does a good job at convincing us that dogged determination will help us be like Mike or Bill Gates or Jack Ma.

James also advocates for a single-minded perseverance, but not in the same worldly sense. He tells us to persevere under duress, because that single-minded pursuit of the kingdom will reap for us wholeness, and rebirth. An existence not predicated on our own expectations of what the “good life” is, but one that rests solely on the glory of God.

On a personal note, as mom’s death anniversary comes up, I can’t help but try to apply this to my mom’s situation last year. She died a painful death. I saw her deteriorate rapidly like a broken plane sputtering across the sky crash into a fiery blaze into the earth.

She cried because of the pain. She vomited from the pain medicine that she received, which in turn created more pain. I saw her drench her bed with urine. I heard her complaints and cries for help. I will never forget the day I sat next to her, massaging her aching hip, hollowed out by cancer, when she suddenly buried her face into my shoulder crying, “hao tong, hao tong” – “it hurts, it hurts’.

My mom always said with a sad, childish face, “I’m not afraid to die, but afraid of the suffering leading up to it”.

1 year later, it is still hard to see the joy in that trial, one which we will all experience soon enough. And yet God promises us that these are the things we shall undergo in order to become whole and complete. May God grant us the faith to believe in this truth, may he give us the wisdom to endure it. I know he will. He wants to.

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