The Bible indicates that a person’s attitude toward material possessions is a reflector of his true spiritual condition. For example, when Jesus challenged the rich young ruler to leave his wealth and follow Him, the man “became very sad, for he was extremely rich” (Luke 18:23). Luke goes on to say, “And Jesus looked at him and said, ‘How hard it is for those who are wealthy to enter the kingdom of God!’” (Luke 18:24). The abundance of material riches often keeps a person from sensing their spiritual bankruptcy which, in turn, leaves them unwilling to run to Christ for the gift of righteousness they need in order to be justified before God.
In light of this, therefore, one rarely-recognized benefit of trials is that they test what a person is really living for; they clarify a person’s true priorities, not the ones they may only imagine are theirs. And a very common form of trials is that which is related to material riches— whether you have them or you don’t. What James does in the next few verses is present a contrast in the form of a riddle, a contrast between the “poor rich” man and the “rich poor” man (Kent Hughes). He says it this way:
Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, 10 and the rich in his humiliation, because like a flower of the grass he will pass away. 11 For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. So also will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits.
TRIALS TEST OUR PRIORITIES (vv. 9-11)
Both the poor and the rich are tested by God. God tests us so that we learn to glory in what matters most because He designed us to be driven by what we treasure: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21).
- The materially poor believer should glory in spiritual riches (v. 9)
The “lowly brother” is the poor Christian. In light of being a child of the King of heaven, he ought to “boast in his high exaltation.” He should take rightful pride in his high position in Christ. The apostle Paul describes the high position of every believer in Ephesians 2:4-7.
4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.
He who is materially poor, now, will not in the end be if indeed he is spiritually rich in Jesus. If the trials of life have left you with financial loss, but you also know that you possess Christ and He possesses you, then glory in that; glory in God and His great love for you. Meditate on what you once were—dead in sin—and what you are now—alive in Christ—and the glorious position of already being seated with Him in heaven.
- The materially rich believer should humble himself before God and others (vv. 10-11)
The “rich” man in the text is the rich believer. The wealthy Christian should glory “in his humiliation,” that is, he should realize that all of his riches are nothing before God and one day they will perish “because like a flower of the grass he will pass away.” He who is rich now will be poor in the end if he treasures his possessions more than he treasures Christ.
Earthly riches are temporary; they make themselves wings and fly away (Proverbs 23:50. Wealth is dangerous and the love of it leads many astray (1 Timothy 6:9-10). Therefore, James is teaching the wealthy Christian that his riches will pass away, too. The reason James places his warning where he does in his letter is because he will revisit the matter of riches and challenge believers to demonstrate true Christianity by how they use their riches to care for one another in the body of Christ. He will present the love of the brethren, specifically meeting their material needs, as a test of genuine saving faith, as John does in his letter (1 John 3:16-18).
So, both the poor man and the rich man have a trial to face. As it says in Proverbs, one faces the temptation to steal while the other faces the temptation to forsake God because of a sense of self-sufficiency: “Two things I asked of You, do not refuse me before I die: keep deception and lies far from me, give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is my portion, that I not be full and deny You and say, ‘Who is the LORD?’ Or that I not be in want and steal, and profane the name of my God” (Proverbs 30:7-9).
So, whether you are rich or poor, glory in Christ. He alone is worthy of being our greatest treasure.