The book of James opens by addressing the topic of suffering. James encourages his believing readers to “consider it pure joy” when they face circumstances in life that test their faith (James 1:2). They can regard their sufferings with joy because they know that afflictions due to their faith produce endurance (James 1:3). This is pretty straightforward: when believers continue in faith amid opposition, they are building up perseverance. However, James then says something confusing. He urges his readers to “let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing” (James 1:4, NKJV).
As we study what it means to let patience have its perfect work, it is important to define our terms. The word traditionally translated “patience” does not mean “passive tolerance,” but “active perseverance.” According to many scholars, the idea is that someone remains consistent through opposition or continues despite the difficulty. A good example is Hebrews 12:1, where the same word is used to describe the way believers “run the race” of faith. The image of a runner is not one of resignation but of intentionality, enduring the pain to reach a preestablished goal. In the same way, as the believer perseveres through trials, he grows in endurance and determination (James 1:3).
So, what does it mean to “let patience [endurance, steadfastness] have its perfect work”? Faithful endurance has an end goal: perfection, completeness, wholeness. Endurance makes us spiritually mature. Notice that it is not the suffering that produces the maturity, but the act of endurance. The believer is commanded to “let patience have its perfect work,” which shows that our response matters. Consistency in life, even in the face of trials, is what produces Christian maturity, not just suffering.
James does not give a timeline on this perfection or maturity. Based on the Greek words, it could be referring to maturity in this life or eschatological perfection, and scholars are split on the issue. In much of the New Testament, and later in James, the good outcome produced by endurance is associated with eternal life or the return of Jesus (1 Peter 1:7; James 1:12; Romans 5:3–4). It is possible that James is referring here to our eternal future with God, which gives us hope for the present (1 Thessalonians 1:3). As we endure trials and continue to follow God, we are letting steadfastness have its perfect work, which will ultimately be eternal perfection.
How do we do this? How do we “let patience have its perfect work”? First, we can endure trials, turning to God for strength and hope during painful times (James 1:2, 12). As mentioned, endurance is not passive but active: we should live the same way during times of persecution and affliction as we do during times of safety and comfort. This means not lashing out at those who oppress us or changing our walk with God to avoid discomfort (Matthew 16:24–26; Romans 12:17–21). By enduring and not interfering, we allow patience to have its perfect work.
Second, we can ask God for wisdom. The next verse of James instructs believers to ask God for wisdom, who graciously gives to everyone who asks (James 1:5). Wisdom and Christian maturity are associated in several other passages, and we need God’s wisdom to endure opposition (1 Corinthians 2:6; Colossians 1:28). As we persevere in trials and ask God for wisdom, we will experience the spiritual growth Paul talks about in Romans 5:3: “We also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.”