James

James 5: But God Does Redemption

I am intrigued how James ends this letter that has focused so much on what we are to do in our faith.

So be patient, my brothers and sisters, for the appearing of the Lord. . . . the appearing of the Lord is near at hand. (5:7-8)

Three more times in four verses James uses the words “patient” or “patience.”

All letter long James has focused on our actions — all the while avoiding the legalism and self-reliance of the Judaizers — and at the end he closes by drawing the readers’ attention back to Jesus.  And not just Jesus, but the return of Jesus to this world to set it right with judgment and re-creation.

Waiting for Jesus

Lest we turn the book of James into justification for salvation by works, he reminds us that the most important work of all comes solely from God, not us. All we can do is be patient as we wait for God through Christ to restore this world to the just, loving, and faithful kingdom it was meant to be.  As we do faith and do love and do wisdom, James reminds us it is God’s role to do the redemption of this world and our very souls.

James has many, diverse messages, but did one overall point really hit home with you this week?

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James 4: Give God Control

I am a recovering control freak, and sometimes the recovery is put on hold.  That is why this chapter really hit home with me today, and not always comfortably.

Where do wars come from?  Why do people among you fight?  It all comes from within, doesn’t it — from your desires for pleasure which make war in your members?  You want something and you haven’t got it, so you murder someone.  You long to possess something but you can’t get it, so you fight and wage war. (4:1-2a)

James claims that the root of conflict is a desire to have something.  He mentions murder and maybe in his time that was more prevalent than it is today. We definitely do have people who will take others’ lives for money, a car, drugs, an inheritance, or even pleasure, but that is not the norm.

But are we willing to “kill” a person’s reputation, image or authority so as to advance our own?  Are we willing to take away a person’s freedom so as to get our own way?  These are much more real temptations in our culture, and what drives these?  Maybe a desire for control over our life?

James gives the answer in the next sentence:

The reason you don’t have it is because you don’t ask for it! (4:2b)

James encourages us to simply ask for what we truly need and trust God to supply what is best.  Of course, God has no interest in meeting our selfish desires (4:3), still we might find that some of the conflict in our life is removed if we are willing to trust God to provide for us instead of using our own force and control to make a way.  Trust is hard for a control freak, but it is the path to recovery.

Later in the chapter James returns to remind those of us who like to plan out every detail of our life that we simply do not have that much control.

Now look here, you people who say, “Today or tomorrow, we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there, and trade, and make money.” You have no idea what the next day will bring. (4:13-14a)

The issue is certainly not planning or even an enterprising spirit.  Again, the issue is control and the pride that comes from it (4:16).  The ugly side of control is the temptation it brings to think we are our own gods.  And God loves us too much and longs too jealously for our souls to let us becomes His enemies (4:4-5).  Lord, help us to trust.

What verse spoke to you in this chapter?

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James 3: Doing Wisdom

When we think of wisdom, we usually think of the mind.  We might see wisdom as more practical and everyday than knowledge.  I once was taught this simple definition: wisdom is knowledge applied.  Still, in this way of thinking wisdom is a matter of the mind.

I am struck by how earthy and everyday James’ description of wisdom is in today’s passage:

Who is wise and discerning among you?  Such a person should, by their upright behavior, display their works in the humility of wisdom.  But if you have bitter jealousy and contention in your hearts, don’t boast and tell lies against the truth.  This isn’t the wisdom that comes from above. . . . The wisdom that comes from above is first holy, then, peaceful, gentle, compliant, filled with mercy and good fruits, unbiased, sincere.  (3:13-15a, 17)

Chock full of action words, James describes wisdom in 3:13-18 as much as a matter of the hands as a matter of the mind.  Much like faith and love in chapter 2, wisdom is what one does and does not do.  Wisdom is seen and identifiable.  As practical as it can be, wisdom is how we treat others.  It is behavioral.

What struck you from today’s chapter?

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James 2: Doing Faith & Love

“Talk is cheap” is what they say, and today James enthusiastically agrees.

“Love” is a lot of things, but let there be no mistake, love is active.  Love is a verb.  Love is something you do.

So too is “faith.”  We may “believe” certain things to be true.  We might give “mental ascent” to a concept.  We can even intellectualize fine sounding arguments for why something is true (like a lot of things on this very blog, right?).  But until action is added into the mix, what we have isn’t “faith.”  Faith is something you do.

You keep the royal law, as it is written, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”; if you do this, you will do well. (2:8)

Supposing a brother or sister is without clothing, and is short even of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; be warm, be full!” — but doesn’t give them what their bodies need — what use is that?  In the same way, faith, all by itself and without works, is dead. (2:15-17)

Since the beginning of humanity’s relationship with God there have been people who have focused only on what one does.  This compartmentalization can be convenient.  We get to lay out the right way to live and once we have accomplished that we can pat ourselves on our self-assured backs.  There have also been people who have focused on what one believes.  One, therefore, does not have to worry about how those beliefs should shape one’s actions.  We get to go about life our way not getting too involved in other people’s problems nor letting our religious views interfere with the rest of our life.

Both of those extremes are problematic.  Focus on “doing” and it becomes easy to think you have done it all.  This becomes a religion of self-reliance and that which only God can do is forgotten.  Focus on “believing” and it becomes easy to think God has done it all.  That can easily become a religion of complacent “cheap grace” and our role is forgotten.

People have noted that the views of Paul and James seem to be at odds, especially when you talk about the role of faith and works in salvation.  But could the solution to this perception be this simple?  Paul was talking to people who overemphasized actions to the point where grace and the need for Jesus had been eliminated (like what we saw in Galatians).  James was addressing people on the other end of the spectrum who were quick to tell you about their great faith (2:18-19) but didn’t do much to show it (2:15-16).  When dealing with people holding extreme views, you play up the part they are neglecting in order that they may come back to the middle where all parts are present and appreciated.  Had we an opportunity to talk to Paul and James together and ask them about their own personal views on faith and works maybe we would find they actually held very similar views.  And both would likely remind us that over and above this whole conversation about faith and works we have to remember that the Spirit works through us, so without the Spirit our works don’t amount to much.

In today’s passage James describes “faith” as something that has to have belief (2:19) and works (2:18) in order to be alive (2:17, 20, 26), full (2:22), and justifying (2:24).  Belief by itself is not enough; works by themselves are not enough.  Maybe for too long our definition of faith has been too small.  Faith and works aren’t two separate things.  “Faith” only exists when works are present.  In other words faith is this larger idea that contains the smaller component we call works.  Belief would be another component as well.  Bottomline, James reminds us that faith is something we do.

Likewise, love is more than just a feeling that creates actions, as if love and actions are separate things.  “Love” has within it feelings, but also actions.  It is not enough to feel some sort of fellowship with people who calls themselves Christians.  One has to allow those feelings to shape our actions, for instance, in such a way that favoritism is banished from the way we deal with others (2:1-10).  We are loving when we do love to others.  Until we treat our neighbors like we would want to be treat we have no business claiming to be loving (2:8).  Love is something we do.

What do you think?  

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BONUS: James 1:14-15 – Sin Strikes One DEAD

I know some of you don’t read comments so I wanted to take a snippet posted today in the comments on James 1 and move it here.  Roberta Pledge offered this great acronym for remembering how sin originates and how to avoid becoming trapped in it.  Thanks Roberta!  Very memorable.

D for DISTRACTION, sin begins by  simply taking our eyes off of God

E for EVIL DESIRE, soon this distraction becomes an evil desire

A for ADDICTION, then it totally consumes our thoughts and actions

D for DEATH, whether spiritual, physical or both, the end result of sin is death

Roberta says: “When we understand where sin begins, we can pray regularly to see the distractions in our lives and stop our sin at that point.  A weed is much easier to pull before it is deeply rooted!”

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James 1: Learning to Rejoice in Suffering

Scholars who study the book of James say this letter defies any attempt to structure and organize James’ thoughts.  Again like Proverbs, James jumps from topic to topic.  This is the kind of book where one verse or small passage in a chapter will catch the eye and speak to the heart.  Because of that, I imagine each of us will have different reactions to each chapter.

In chapter one I was drawn to the way Wright worded verse 2:

My dear family, when you find yourselves tumbling into various trials and tribulations, learn to look at it with complete joy.

I remember reading this verse for the first time, in the New International Version:

Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds.

I remember thinking, “What? Are you kidding?  Be glad about hard times?  No way!  Surely not!”

But I had missed the first two words, “consider it.”  In other words, choose to think of it as a blessing.  This is not a reaction that comes naturally.  That is why I like Wright’s way of saying it, “Learn to look at it with complete joy.”  This is a frame of mind that comes with time and training.

May we learn little by little that the fires of life aren’t meant to burn us up, rather they refine us and make us pure!

When did a hardship turn out to be a great blessing?

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BONUS: An Introduction to James

I can remember studying the book of James at summer camp for a week back when I was around twelve.  With James’ practical focus, it was the first time I ever realized the Bible actually did relate to everyday life.  This great little book, written most people think by Jesus’ own brother James (Gal. 1:19), will yield a week full of wonderful lessons once again so many years later.

James is typically classified as a “general epistle,” meaning it was likely written to be circulated amongst several churches and therefore had a broader focus as opposed to most of Paul’s letters which seem to have been written to address a particular situation going on in one specific church.  This does seem to be true.  James has no personal details at all.  However, as I read through the book with a group of students recently I was struck by how many times proper relationships between rich and poor Christians occurred in the book.  That has to be related to something going on in the background of this letter, though the details may be lost forever.

James was likely written to Jewish Christians.  James says their meeting place was a “synagogue” (2:2), the Jewish law is discussed with great familiarity, and the recipients are called “the twelve tribes,” probably a reference to Israel (1:1).  The recipients are said to be “scattered among the nations” (1:1).  James played a leading role in the church in Jerusalem so likely he is writing to Jewish Christians who had to flee from Judea when persecutions of Christians started (see Acts 11:19).  Ever the leader, James is pastoring his scattered flock.

James is best known for the strong argument in the second half of chapter two that faith is only real if it is active.  If one comes to James with a belief that faith is purely a matter of the mind and that good works are of no worth to God, he or she would probably join Martin Luther in disparaging the book of James; Luther called James “an epistle of straw, for it has nothing of the nature of the Gospel about it.”

James 1:27 nicely puts together these ideas and serves as an appropriate theme verse:

As far as God the father is concerned, pure, unsullied devotion works like this: you should visit orphans and widows in their sorrow, and prevent the world [from] leaving its dirty smudge on you.

Over the next week we are guaranteed some very practical lessons from this part of Scripture that in my mind is closest to the teachings of Jesus or the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament.  How appropriate that James would sound a lot like his brother Jesus!

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