Summary: The fortunes of God’s people are not determine by their bank account, but by their relationship with God.
In China many years ago there lived an old man, with his son and a horse. Back in those days, having a horse was like owning a car today, so you can well imagine how valuable a property the animal must have been. One morning, when the man went to his field to feed the horse, the animal was gone. People in the village said, "What bad luck to lose a horse!" But the old man said, "Good luck or bad luck, who’s to say. The horse happens to be gone, and we’ll leave it at that." The people thought the old man silly, and wondered, "How could losing a horse not be a bad thing?"
A couple days later, the horse returned and brought with it a beautiful mare. People came by again. "You were right. Not only was your horse not stolen, it brought you another horse. How lucky you are!" But the old man said, "Good luck or bad luck, who’s to say. It’s not always a good thing to have another horse. The fact is, now I have two horses, and we’ll leave it at that." This time, his neighbors just shook their heads. "How could it not be a good thing to get another horse for free?"
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the old man’s son, while trying to break in the new horse, fell and broke his leg. When the neighbors learned of the incident, they said, "You’re right. Since the new horse caused your son to break his leg, maybe it wasn’t exactly a good thing to get another horse. In fact, you might say it was unlucky for you that another horse showed up.
Same as before, the old man was indifferent about the whole thing, and said, "Good luck or bad luck, who’s to say. My son fell off and broke his leg, and we’ll leave it at that."
This time the neighbors thought that maybe the old man was right, and went back home. A few days later, a war broke out and a government official came into town. He conscripted all the able-bodied young men to go and fight in the war. However the old man’s son was made exempt because of his broken leg.
I think that James would have liked that story. He seemed to enjoy an ironic twist or two as he began his letter with such a challenging thought as "consider it pure joy when you endure trials of many kinds." This week as we come to verses 9-11 of that first chapter, he gives us another ironic turn of a phrase.
(Read James 1:9-11 slowly)
I have to be honest, with a quick read that passage is tough to understand. When I first read it, I wasn’t sure what it was saying. It is obviously talking about rich and poor people, but I just wasn’t sure what he was saying about them.
After a little pondering and study, I came to understand what I believe James wants us to recognize. The fortunes of God’s people cannot be determined simply by their financial status. That is a good lesson for those of us who live in 21st century USA to learn. Our culture tends to believe that if a person is wealthy they have it made, while those who are poor face difficulties and pain because of their poverty. James turns that kind of wisdom on its head as he challenges us to recognize that neither poverty nor wealth is a means of determining the fortunes of a person.
In verse 9 James points out how fortunate the people we think of as unfortunate in this world really are. It’s pretty common for people whose situation in this world is not too great to find encouragement in the reward that God has in store for them. The Hebrew people, living in the wilderness during the exodus must have eagerly anticipated living in the Promised Land. The exiles during their captivity in Babylon longed to have their homeland back. The slaves in the 1800’s yearned for the freedom that heaven would bring so they sang songs like "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, Comin’ For To Carry Me Home." They tell me that if you really want to get goose-bumps, go to a funeral of a black believer in the poor end of a city. The descriptions of the pleasures of heaven supposedly will make both your mouth and your eyes water. I have personally sat with people struggling with terrible pain and hardship, and when you talk to them they long for the blessing of heaven in a way that a healthy person doesn’t truly understand. Out of hardship comes the deep desire for the blessing of God, and there is a blessing in that understanding that can’t be experienced by someone who is wealthy or healthy. So, when we read verse 9 "The brother in humble circumstances ought to take pride in his high position," I think James is challenging those who are going through tough times be grateful for the blessings that can only come from difficulties. I think this is something of what Jesus means when he says in Luke 6:20-21, "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh." There is something fortunate about suffering misfortune, and James points that out in verse 9.