The End of James


So here at the end of these 31 days of James, I feel blessed. I’ve tried to treasure this early Christian letter the way its first recipients would have treasured it. Reading it verse by verse, passage by passage, I’ve tried to soak it in. According to 2 Timothy 3:16, God breathed out this work through James. I have tried to get my face close enough to draw in some of that breath. John 14:26 suggests that scripture provides words the Holy Spirit brings to mind as a means of speaking, and I have experienced this. Troubles, distractions, temptations, and loneliness come upon me in various shades, and often enough, the relevant words out of James come to mind in response. Count it all joy....

But there is something still missing, something I still want. James was a sibling of Jesus, a kid brother to the Son of Man. And James never knew Jesus was the Messiah until his brother was taken, beaten, nailed like furniture, and left to squirm and scream. And even that wasn’t enough, because his brother came back to stand before him personally, just him, James alone (1 Corinthians 15:7).

My question is: What was that like? How did that feel?

Just asking this line of questioning reveals what a product of the modern world I am, and what a modern reader. I look for disclosure. The people who have experienced extremes or depths are expected, somehow, to present the emotional content of that experience for my own and others’ perusal. We are so comfortable, so safe within our routines, that we look for second-hand emotions to sample like bonbons just so we can feel something without putting anything about our own selves at risk.

James was a leader of the Christian church by the time he wrote this letter. His thoughts were with the church. He picked up a pen, or dictated to a scribe, the instructions that were on his heart to give—the instructions that he thought would make the people of the church stronger. If he felt despair over the fact that it took him so long to recognize the Messiah, over the fact that he could not see the true nature of his own mother’s son, then this emotion was his burden to carry. It was his anchor, his ballast, keeping him fixed upon the work to which he was called. It was not something to be traded cheaply in search of consolation. And while telling stories about the boyhood of the Nazarene might be harmless enough, those stories would entirely miss the point of the Son of Man.

James simultaneously illustrates both the necessity and the power of the death and resurrection of Jesus. He illustrates the necessity, because without the death and rebirth, people were not able to see. Jesus’ own brother could not see. The clues were always there, but it took Jesus standing before him in the risen flesh before the clues made sense. I imagine James rejoiced upon seeing his brother in this way. But also, much later, I believe he wept. He wept for how much he had squandered of the life he could have lived with his brother, and for the heartless and reckless arrogance that had enabled him to be so blind.

And, as I say, James also illustrates the resurrection’s power. He illustrates its transformative power—salvation’s power. James the kid brother, James the fool, now became James the leader. He stood up out of the wanton blindness with which he had protected himself, with which he had preserved his once-tidy life, and he took up the truth. He squarely faced the trials that came from this and he found the doorway into joy.

He held together a church that is still held together today.

And he taught something, out of the depths of his experience. Through his brokenness, God breathed. God whispered through him with grace and love to speak some of the very first words of a second canon of scripture, the unexpected canon that came after Jesus Christ. From James and through James came this astonishing extra gift, a testament that was altogether new.

Pray for One Another


“Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.”—James 5:14

Do church elders have special healing powers?

Not exactly. God heals. The elders’ plea for healing might be granted, but James sees an additional promise in their prayers.

The result of verse 5:14 is 5:15: “And the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up” (emphasis mine). We are to be patient. The reassurance of those we esteem and trust offering their prayers over us can save us from losing patience, losing steadfastness, when sickness is the trial.

Yet there is also the separate problem, afflicting sick and well alike. The word “heal” actually appears in the next verse, 5:16: “Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed.”

The unconfessed sin we harbor against one another itself constitutes a malady, and one that might reach deeper than the bodily illness.

[31 Days of James]

Let Yes Be Yes


“But above all, my brethren, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath. But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No,’ lest you fall into judgment.”— James 5:12

From time to time, a person promising to do something will append the promise with, “You have my word.” When I hear this, I wonder: Does that mean I do not have your word anytime you leave off that last part?

[31 Days of James]

The Prophets


“My brethren, take the prophets, who spoke in the name of the Lord, as an example of suffering and patience.”—James 5:10

We have it easier than the prophets did.

They suffered and withstood trials so they could predict what they would not live to see.

When we suffer and withstand trials, we are able to stand upon the victory that has already been accomplished.

[31 Days of James]

How the Farmer Waits


“Therefore be patient, brethren, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, waiting patiently for it until it receives the early and latter rain.”—James 5:7

Here is a return to the point of the letter and the reason James wrote it. The victory has been won, so why are we still here? The apparent answer is that Christ has a purpose for this world and a role for us to play within it. You have work to do—but not “work” the way you or I are tempted to understand it.

“Be patient,” says James. He does not say, Put your back into it. Nor does he say, Be quick about what God commands you to do. “Be patient” is precisely the opposite of this.

I’ve argued in these posts that James’ reference to our being “justified by works” is not a description of earning God’s grace by effort, which we cannot hope to do. The fuller context of James’ letter makes this clear.

James 5:7 is part of this context. We struggle in this world, as preceding passages in James make clear. But as we do, we are also the means and material of God’s kingdom advancing. The analogy James offers is that of a farmer. The “good works” out of redeemed and sanctified lives grow up as the fruit grows up from the soil.

There is no forcing it. The fruit doesn’t grow because the farmer wills it to ripen. The fruit doesn’t grow according to the farmer’s direction or timetable. Yet still the farmer is there, patiently tending the ground.

That patience is trust in what will come. The kingdom coming through you, the unique and special fruit of the life that you have cultivated by faith, arises naturally—arises out of grace. In fact, the time of your trials might be the most fertile time of all, the very season in which this fruit is spreading its roots deep.

[31 Days of James]

If the Lord Wills


“You ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that.’”—James 4:15

People who say “God willing” tend to be bracing for impact when they say it. They are allowing for something freakish to happen, some collision with peril akin to being struck by a meteor. This is generally the sense of “I’ll see you tomorrow, Joe—God willing!”

To gravely shade one's plans with a proviso in this way is to obey the letter of James 4:15, yet still to miss the promise in this verse. “You boast in your arrogance,” says James 4:16. That arrogance is the belief that your plans are best, and if those plans are waylaid, then something bad must have happened.

What if joy happens? What if your plans to do this or that are waylaid because, somewhere along the way, God shows you a way that is better than your plans? We all should hope for this.

[31 Days of James]

Vapor


“...you do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away.”— James 4:14

You are a mist. The trap that keeps people from the liberty of eternal life is the folly of treating the life in this world as if it is eternal.

We make life heavy by acting as if we will always have the life we do.

We make ponderous plans because we think we have to guard this grave life against its becoming tarnished by the stain of failure—as though that stain is somehow permanent.

Life is a vapor. Yes, that means it might drift or disperse at any time. But there's more to see in the image of the vapor than just this. Life is also lighter than air.

[31 Days of James]

One Lawgiver


I have a heart that points fingers.

In my thoughts, in my feelings, I waste emotional energy believing I am not only able to identify, but also entitled to resent, those people who are wrong. Certainly, there is truth to be found. But in place of my continuing to seek after it, I settle into regarding my own personal preference as a seat of authority. From this seat, I determine who is wrong in what they advocate or wrong in what they pursue.

Strangely, I am most likely to point this secret finger of my authority against those whose beliefs are very near to my own, those who also place their faith in a risen and redeeming Christ. I inwardly grimace toward people because of some nuanced detail of disagreement within the faith that we share.

Stupid.

At best, I know what walk God has given to me. At best, I know what God has given me to follow in, given me to overcome, given me to do and pursue, and given me in the form of a garden for me to tend or a role for me to play. I say “at best” about knowing all of these things, because it is a stretch to say I know even this much for sure.

Certainly I know hardly any of this about someone else.

And if I claim that I do know this, then I am God. It’s that plain. “Who are you to judge another?” says James 4:12. “There is one lawgiver,” one judge. If I am judging, then I must be him.

[31 Days of James]

Lifted


The first instruction in James was, “My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials” (1:2). That advice still seems strange.

I’m not naturally inclined to equate joy with “trials.” Most of us aren’t. We tend instead to equate joy with happiness. Indeed, our everyday language treats these two words as meaning the same thing.

Yet joy and happiness are actually quite different—and the difference is more than just nuance or degree. “Happiness” is satisfaction or thriving derived out of the experience of this world. Approval, laughter, riches, and success all feed it. By contrast, “joy,” being an attribute of the spirit (see Galatians 5:22), does not require these things. It can follow a counterintuitive path.

“Let your laughter be turned to mourning,” James says. Let your joy be turned to gloom (4:9).

That is, trust your joy. Trust it enough to allow it to flow into gloom. Do not seek trials for their own sake (the advice is not masochistic), but look for the renewal of joy within the trials that do come. The wilderness is uncomfortable, but it is a place of searching. Our trials constitute a wilderness in which there is less happiness to distract us from joy.

The notion still seems strange. James’ letter provides more detail. In fact, this far into the letter, we have now tracked the transformation. Look here:

1. We seek joy in trials (James 1:2).

2. Trials offer a way to wisdom (1:3-5).

3. Wisdom produces humility (3:13).

4. The humble receive grace (4:6) and are lifted by God (4:10).

The resurrection does not explicitly appear in James’ letter. Yet the progression above outlines a course of personal rebirth. We die into humility within this life, and we are raised up into joy.

[31 Days of James]

Let Your Laughter Be Turned to Mourning


“Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom.”—James 4:9

Laughter is frequently the refuge of the haughty and proud. I laugh because I’ve grown a thick skin. I’ve grown a thick skin by becoming callous about my own brokenness and the concerns of other people.

This is the laughter that needs to cease and the thick skin that needs to be pierced. The physical body grows thick skin—calluses—as a means of protection. But my soul no longer requires such protection. I am safe in entering sorrow—safe even in confronting the dark or petty aspects of my own self—because the defeat of death means that mourning will no longer have the last word. Laughter can turn to mourning because rich and pure laughter, the laughter of love instead of fear, will win in the end. Joy can turn to gloom because joy will always come back.

There is mourning, but then there is morning.

[31 Days of James]

Draw Near


James 4:8: “Draw near to God and he will draw near to you.” What a marvelous promise.

Jesus said to seek first the kingdom of God (Matthew 6:33). Try doing this literally. Try to take whatever it is you do that you believe draws you nearer to God, and make this the very first thing you do every day.

When I do this, I find God returning the consideration. I seek the realm of God in the morning, and through peace and grace, he makes his presence known within the tiny realm of Pete throughout the day.

[31 Days of James]

Submit to God


The turning point of James’ letter is verse 4:6. James writes of humility by humbly yielding the stage, citing more ancient scripture than his own in order to make his vital point. “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble,” he says—quoting Proverbs 3:34.

To get us to this point, here are the way stations that the letter of James has passed. The letter says a great deal that is not included in the sketch below, but here is the shape of the letter so far:

We experience trials. Through belief, we’ll outlast. (1:2-21)

But there is something more than mere outlasting. Is there not a purpose for the renewed life we’ve been given within this world? (1:22-25)

Some of the good we can do is plain. Take care of the vulnerable (1:26-27). Don’t take up the world’s way of ranking people by rich and poor (2:1-7).

But there is more still—more that you will do....

Not “being good” by obeying all of the religious rules. That leads to harshness. (2:8-13)

Not “believing” in God in only an abstract way. God is real, and your faith will have a real effect. (2:14-26)

Not being quick to tell others what to do. We barely know this about ourselves. (2:27-4:5)

No, you surrender all that. Submit to God, says James 4:7.

All of the following are forms of pride: That I imagine I am finished because I follow the rules ... that I think my belief does not have to touch my life in a way that you can see ... that I presume to instruct without my own self being changed. All of this is pride—stones in the dam that blocks off grace.

James is a letter about doing, about “works.” Yet it is not me alone who can choose or realize the fullness of the works God had in mind when he made me.

My role is to be humble. My role sometimes is to wait. My role is to seek God, to seek his will, to recognize his way of patient love and fruitful joy, and to see the stones of pride removed so that the work of grace can be released to flow out through me.

[31 Days of James]

Grace


“God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”—James 4:6

Grace = God’s forgiveness, his guidance through a confusing world, and his accompaniment and protection within this world, among other blessings.

Pride keeps me from all of the above. Pride tells me the selfish things I do are reasonable and don’t have to be forgiven. Pride tells me I can make my own way in the world because I already have the way figured out. Pride also tells me the hope of protection is pointless, because I have resolved instead just to quake with worry over whatever perils I perceive.

Sometimes, because of pride, I am brought down low. My pride produces a painful failure. When this happens, often it is God giving me a gift by bringing something foolish to an end. The defeat of folly gives me a fresh opportunity to choose humility, and humility is the way to grace.

[31 Days of James]

What Do You Actually Want?


“What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you?”—James 4:1

Andy Stanley wrote a wonderful book about the care and management of the human heart called It Came from Within. In it, he says that whenever he would catch his young sons fighting, he would break it up by saying, “You know why you’re fighting? Because someone here is not getting what they want!” Taking the time to confess and describe what it is we actually want can have a seemingly mystical power to defuse a quarrel.

Often, we don’t even know. The combatant has to think about the question. That is because we feel a lack before we understand it. We shirk from searching for the meaning of the feeling, because we fear our desires won’t be heard or fulfilled—leaving us feeling even worse. It’s strange, but the result is that we tend to fight first, before even taking the time to squarely face and describe what it is we feel we are missing.

[31 Days of James]

Envy and Self-Seeking


“For where envy and self-seeking exist, confusion and every evil thing are there.”—James 3:16.

Self-seeking: I want more so that I can have more and occupy a higher place above other people.

Envy: I despise another because that person has something tangible or intangible that I think ought to belong to me.

Both of these attitudes put me on the throne. The object of my emotions and the energy of my thinking is me.

Letting go of the focus on me does not mean I allow myself to be disregarded or lost. To the contrary, letting go of the focus on me is a logical response to the realization that I already have everything.

Life is eternal. One implication of this is that I am not going to miss out on anything. As life goes on, I’ll experience more and more of the life that is greater than this world.

Thus, the James verse above suggests the key to having life fall into place. Turn attention toward seeking the source of this eternal life, and confusion is replaced by simplicity. Turn attention to believing in this gift more fully, and “every evil thing” has a way of fading toward insignificance—replaced by the fruitfulness that grows out of faith.

[31 Days of James]

Show by Good Conduct


“Let not many of you become teachers,” said James.

Several lines later, he gives the alternative: “Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show by good conduct that his works are done in the meekness of wisdom” (3:13).

I am writing a blog. Lately I’ve been posting to the Internet every day.

Yet the truest and most meaningful lessons come from those who post to reality every day. That is, those who allow their faith to become works—to become real—by means of the brave choices they make in their day-to-day lives and the humble service they provide.

The one who lives well in this way, without ever seeking to be seen as an instructor, has a way of instructing and persuading people to a fuller extent than the self-declared teacher or blogger ever might.

[31 Days of James]

Rahab


Rahab was pursuing her own self-interest. This makes her one of the most fascinating heroes (or heroines) of the Bible. In the New Testament letter to the Hebrews, chapter 11, various Old Testament figures are cited as examples of faith. By comparison, the letter of James passes over nearly all of this list to highlight the two figures that James apparently sees as being the most significant to his point. They are Abraham, the patriarch, and Rahab, the prostitute (James 2:25). In Rahab’s case, the strength of her faith was seen not in any outpouring of worship, service, or sacrifice, but instead in the fact that she was willing to trade on what she had come to believe. She was willing to stake what was dear to her upon her belief about God.

Rahab’s story is in the Old Testament book of Joshua. God had promised the Israelites that they would take the city of Jericho. Rahab, an inhabitant of Jericho, believed this was true. She could not explain the advancing success of the Israelites in any other way except that their God was real and their God was with them. Therefore, she made her choice. When Israelite spies came to reconnoiter the city, she hid them. She lied to the king to cover for them. In return, she sought and obtained from the Israelites a promise that her family, her parents and siblings, would be spared.

Pause for a moment upon this concern for her family. It seems reasonable to guess that this very concern might explain her prostitution, might explain why she was stuck in this life. Jericho’s king was clearly aware of her (Joshua 2:3). Perhaps submitting to an upper-class clientele was the one means Rahab had found for obtaining a comfortable income for the support of the ones she cherished.

But then these spies came. The will of God came. In response, we do not see Rahab glorifying God with any expression of worship, nor do we see her donating money or supplies to the cause. If she did these things, they are not recorded. What we do see is her faith. With clear eyes, she took her real-world personal interests and she aligned them with what she had come to recognize as true.

For this, she was honored. The Israelites spared her and her family, just as they had promised, but they did even more than this. They gave her a place among them from that day forward (Joshua 6:25). Today, Rahab is cited in three New Testament books.

In fact, her exerting a faith this strong—strong enough to stake what she cared about upon it—led Rahab into blessings far beyond what she had sought. It led her to freedom. Rahab’s once seemingly inescapable life as a prostitute came to an end, replaced by a home and a people. She became a wife. She became a mother. These developments are not recounted in scripture, but we know of them because of one of those New Testament references. In the genealogical citation of Matthew 1:5, we learn that Rahab was a many-times great grandmother to Jesus.

[31 Days of James]

God and Reality


Those who first believed were not persuaded by a doctrine. The doctrine had not been documented.

Those who first believed were persuaded by an event. Jesus rose and hundreds saw it.

Many who heard this news (most who heard it?) still were not convinced. Yes, God is great, they said, but in the end, certain things don’t change. People stay dead.

In other words, reality is bigger than God.

The persuaded—the believers—were the ones who couldn’t escape the nagging conviction that went: You know what? God is bigger than reality.

And by overriding death, God had just demonstrated that very point.

Death is reality’s most basic thing, but God is more basic still.

God is bigger than reality.

Carry that point one step further, and you have the letter of James. In essence, James says, If God is bigger than reality, then this should affect how you engage with reality. How you live your life should change.

James doesn’t mention the resurrection. He doesn’t have to—it was the most immediate thing on believers’ minds. It was why and what they believed. Instead, James starts from there. He picks up the question, Now what?

At its heart, the letter of James could be summarized this way:

The resurrection has implications.

[31 Days of James]

Faith and Works III


[Faith and Works I is here and II is here.]

James: “A man is justified by works, and not by faith only”—James 2:24.

Paul: “A man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith”—Galatians 2:16.

Is there a contradiction between these two verses?

No.

Though the choice of one word happens to be identical, the “works” of James’ argument are not the same as the “works” in the point that Paul is making. In fact, the “works” of James are the opposite of the “works of the law” that Paul argues against.

Paul’s argument about the “works of the law” could apply to all of the religious or churchy things I do in the hope of earning God’s favor. As Paul makes clear, these works don’t work.

By contrast, James’ “works” include the personal changes and outward choices that arise naturally—gracefully—because of my belief that God’s favor has already been won, and has been given to me for free. Believing I have this favor, I can stand upon it and start to walk in it. My faith will go to work.

(PS. These two men, James and Paul, deserve the space in which to develop their arguments. It is not splitting hairs to allow that the same word might point to two different things within their different contexts. To read how Jesus used the word “works,” see John 14:12.)

[31 Days of James]

Faith and Works II


We are justified by faith and not by works.

Translation: We are made right with God and restored into an abundant relationship with him not by anything any of us can do to earn this favor, but simply by believing in the love and accepting the gift that he offered through Jesus Christ.

Beautiful. Christians do well to guard this principle, which offers a defense against every bully demanding that salvation requires some special act or sacrifice that you or I do not feel called to perform.

For this reason, the letter of James can seem off-putting when James says, “Faith without works is dead” and “A man is justified by works and not by faith only.”

Yet what James is really advocating is the “law of liberty” (James 1:25). That liberty, that freedom, will automatically entail the freedom to do something—likely a different, special something in the case of every one of us.

Another way of expressing James’ point is that faith is for real. If my faith does not produce a change in my “real” life, then it must that be I still see God, and his liberty, as being less real than this life.

[31 Days of James]

Faith and Works


“Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.”—James 2:18.

Faith is belief in something transformational. Life overcomes death. Eternity overcomes finiteness. God rules the world and overrules its priorities. To have faith produce no transformation, no outward change in the way this life is lived, is effectively equivalent to having no faith at all.

As James notes, even those opposed to God show an outward effect. “The demons believe—and shudder!” (2:19).

As James also notes, Abraham in the book of Genesis was counted as righteous because of his faith (2:23). However, on the day when Abraham thought that he would have to sacrifice his son, that very faith played out in the form of obedience.

When James writes that faith is completed by “works,” he is not saying that there is any special work to be done to earn your place or prove your faith to God or anyone else. In fact, James is arguing the mirror image of this idea. Rather than works proving faith, faith manifests as works. James’ point is that faith plays out.

Faith, embraced and believed, naturally produces the way forward into some new, personal change that the lack of this faith would never have permitted.

Perhaps you have seen faith play out in this way for you, within your own life. Perhaps you are still seeing faith play out within your life today....

[31 Days of James]

Praying with Skin in the Game


Is God my errand boy? I have been guilty of treating him this way in prayer. I pray about a problem that someone has brought to me not as the greatest measure of my commitment to the matter, but as the least measure of my commitment to it.

In my castoff prayer, it is as if I say, I’m not sure how much I care about this problem, God, but I am willing to mutter an appeal to you and see if you care.

James 2:16 has a picture of this. The believer expresses an appeal that a neighbor would be fed and clothed, but then doesn’t give the person food and clothing.

The sincere prayer puts skin in the game—or heart in the game. In every prayer I pray, what if I appended the following idea? What if I said: And if I am to be the instrument of answering this very prayer, God, then I am willing to go....

[31 Days of James]

Faith


“What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can such faith save him?”— James 2:14

Plenty of seemingly thoughtful words are spent on the question of whether God exists. However, answering the question is meaningless if it is strictly a thoughtful exercise. As James points out, even the demons believe to this extent (2:19). If God does exist, then God is by definition the most important thing in the universe. Seeking God is therefore more meaningful than seeking anything else. I can claim to have faith in God, but a true faith will make its claim on me. The power of this faith is seen in the action or effect, such as personal change, that arises from confronting the universe’s most important thing.

[31 Days of James]

Rich in Faith


“Listen, my beloved brethren: Has God not chosen the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which he promised to those who love him?”—James 2:5

The rich person has a real problem. And by “rich person,” I mean me—an example of someone who lives a comfortable, modern American life of material excess.

The problem is this: While the poor person of faith often has little choice but to rely on and draw upon that faith, the rich person has the more seductive choice of falling back on his own resources. But where faith aims toward something eternal, these resources are inherently vulnerable. Sensing this vulnerability, I am inclined to act callously in defense of what I possess (James 2:6). I am prone to regard the Lord casually in my swagger (2:7).

An answer to that problem is found in somehow embracing an obvious truth—namely, that this life is as fleeting as that of a wildflower (1:10). Whether I admit it or not, “The rich man will fade away even while he goes about his business” (1:11).

Are there any of us who have ever “gone about business” who do not recognize this? We turn corners in our thoughts sometimes to catch an awareness of exactly what this fading away feels like.

[31 Days of James]

Partiality


“[When] you pay attention to the one wearing the fine clothes and say to him, ‘You sit here in a good place,’ and say to the poor man, ‘You stand there,’ or, ‘Sit here at my footstool,’ have you not shown partiality among yourselves and become judges...?”— James 2:3-4

The world treats the rich differently than it does the poor. That was true in James’ time and it is true now. While those who are well off in the modern world are not typically domineering over those who are not, people do tend to be deferential to those they see as wealthier than themselves, and are sometimes patronizing to those they see as having less. Rich and poor alike get trained by this, with the former becoming confident and the latter becoming insecure. As a result, while we might not wish to treat people differently based on their material circumstances, we end up doing so just by unconsciously responding to people’s own cues.

The best defense against this partiality is to be aware of it. With each new individual you meet, it might take at least a moment’s prayerful pause to avoid picking up and carrying on the world’s tired and unfair assumptions about that person. This is true even when the meeting takes place in church.

[31 Days of James]

Keep Oneself Unspotted


“Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.”—James 1:27

Unpacking that verse:

“...to visit....”

Go personally. Send yourself.

“...orphans and widows....”

That is, the most vulnerable—the ones who are easily overlooked because their connections are gone.

“...in their trouble....”

See and appreciate their own personal struggles, not the ones we expect them to have.

“...to keep oneself unspotted from the world.”

This last part follows from all of the above. If I am strong, then by carrying my strength to others, I can keep it from being covered over in callousness.

[31 Days of James]

This One Will Be Blessed


“But he who looks into the perfect law of liberty and continues in it, and is not a forgetful hearer but a doer of the work, this one will be blessed in what he does.”— James 1:25

In my book, I talk about the “zeroth commandment,” the promise of freedom that precedes the Ten Commandments. In the verse above, that promise is fulfilled. Christ’s payment means that the possibility of being condemned for not obeying the Ten Commandments is now gone. Yet the possibility of blessing remains.

God’s law is now a teacher. In the context of what James calls the “law of liberty,” the Ten Commandments are not a bludgeon with which to hammer ourselves or anyone else. The teaching is purely a gift. If I treasure this gift enough to try to practice it, then I anchor the words in my heart and make them real in my life. Through action of this sort, we reshape ourselves into channels of blessing—becoming recipients of blessing as well as instruments of blessing to others.

[31 Days of James]

Liberty



“He who looks into the perfect law of liberty and continues in it ... this one will be blessed in what he does.”—James 1:25

Liberty is useless unless I take up that liberty to do something—something I otherwise felt I could not or should not do.

Life wins. Death has been overcome. Yet if I remain in every way as constrained as I was before I believed in the victory, then it must be that I do not really believe in that victory at all.

Consider that “belief” is never mentioned in the verse out of James quoted above. It doesn’t need to be mentioned. Where the promise is freedom, the extent of my belief is seen in whether or not I act free.

[31 Days of James]

Doers


“But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.”— James 1:22

When you do things, why do you do them? There is some philosophy or value system that guides your actions, whether you are aware of that system or not. You and I listen to many ideas, but there are only certain ones that each of us reveres as true.

Matthew’s gospel gives an account of Jesus’ time in the wilderness. During this time, Jesus listened to the devil. He listened well enough to be able to understand the other’s arguments and refute them (Matthew 4:3-10).

In this encounter, Jesus was a hearer of temptation, but not a doer. The lesson in this is that “hearing,” by itself, is not enough. On the one hand, my hearing temptation is not enough to condemn me, but on the other hand, merely giving respectful attention to scripture or the trappings of faith is not enough to transform me.

Either way, I first have to agree. What I accept as true will be revealed in what I do.

[31 Days of James]

The Implanted Word


The essential insight of Christian faith is that death has been defeated—your death and mine. The challenge is to set aside our pride sufficiently to accept the gift of life and begin again.

Romans 10:9 says, “If you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” The second of those two conditions might be hardest. Yes, there is a God, one might say—and yes, in some abstract way, Jesus revealed him. Accepting this construct, it’s possible to say that Jesus is Lord and agree in principle with nearly any believer who says the same thing.

But do you believe that the gospel story is so relevant—and do you believe that you are so valuable—that God placed the defeat of death right into the midst of history, right into the midst of human events, so you could know you are saved and know you need not be troubled by the trials of this passing life?

“Receive with meekness the implanted word which is able to save your souls,” says James 1:21. Jesus went into the depth of the tomb in the same way that he goes into the depths of our hearts. The implanted word germinates within those depths, then flowers out.

[31 Days of James]

A Kind of Firstfruits


When we pray the line in the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy kingdom come,” what are we really praying for?

If his kingdom is the ethereal realm we imagine when we picture heaven, then his kingdom is a place. It is located on the other side of whatever border separates it from us in the geography of God. Is his kingdom this stationary and this remote?

No, we are of heaven. James 1:18 says, “He brought us forth [to] be a kind of firstfruits.” As we turn in submission to the way that Jesus led, we become agents of heaven on earth. As the authority of pride declines in each of our lives, heaven's agency increases.

We are heaven. When we ask for God’s kingdom to come, part of what we are asking is for God’s kingdom to come more fully through us—to win out against our will to belong to the earth instead. Heaven is a place, but it’s also an allegiance, a conviction, a people. Heaven is what we become part of, here on earth, by taking a stand for heaven’s love within this world.

[31 Days of James]

Every Good Gift


“Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning.”— James 1:17

What if every good gift was not from above, not from God? Where instead would you look for the source?

Answer: You would look in the world. Good gifts come from this world, you would think. Plenty of other people have plenty of good gifts. I am in this world, too—so where are the rest of my good gifts? Where are those things that I feel like I deserve?

When I fail to recognize that every good thing comes from God, I fail also to recognize that no good thing is mundane. God did not promise any particular comfort within our brief time in this world. He does not promise riches, attainment, validation, health, success, security, etc.—even though many people have and take for granted each of these things.

When we see that he is the source of all blessings, we begin to glimpse the abundance of blessings he has poured into each of our lives. In trying to count how many good things have come to me, I come to humility, lost before the uncountable number of times the Lord has remembered me.

[31 Days of James]

First Things First


The very first chapter of the very first document of the New Testament puts two false ideas to rest at once. James chapter 1 refutes the idea that God’s blessing ought to take the form of wealth or comfort. James chapter 1 also refutes the idea that you have displeased God if you do not have these things. Just the opposite might be true. Before even reaching the midpoint of this first chapter, both of these seductive lies are done for.

[31 Days of James]

Wisdom


How do we get wisdom? James 1:5 says, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him.” Reading this verse by itself, one could get the impression that God just spoons the wisdom into our minds.

But when the verse is read in context, the complete passage suggests a particular means by which God imparts this wisdom. Verses 1:2, 1:3, 1:4, and 1:6 all refer to trials. Why wouldn’t verse 1:5 relate to the same theme? God might give us knowledge through our meditation and study, but he gives us wisdom by tempering us with personal difficulties. During the times of these difficulties, trust that you are receiving this wisdom and do not turn away (1:6-7).

[31 Days of James]

Count It All Joy


James 1:2 says, “Count it all joy when you fall into various trials.” That sounds like a strange way to think about trials.

To be sure, you do not experience trials as joy. You’re no masochist. Our trials are trying, our pains are painful, and the verse does not say otherwise.

However, something big has changed. One of the most immediate implications of what was demonstrated with the resurrection is that your troubles can only go so far. Life is eternal. Death, which is the worst trouble and the wellspring of all trouble, has been revealed to be finite. Death is limited. That means your troubles are even more limited still.

Thus, every sorrow and every pain will sooner or later come to an end—perhaps in this world, perhaps beyond it. Either way, you will stand on the other side of that trial experiencing the joy of being done with it, the joy of again being completely you, albeit now with the added understanding of knowing all of what that trial consisted of and what your getting through it was really about.

Jesus said we would suffer in this world (John 16:33), so the fact that we do suffer is no surprise. And a line of scripture offering joy is no remedy—no switch by which the pain of our hurts can be shut off.

But do recognize the profound inversion that has now turned things right-way-up. Philosophers ask for the meaning of life. That question amounts to mere whistling in the dark. Jesus answered the real question: the meaning of death. Death and its associated miseries and troubles have been revealed to be only a blight, only a shadow, only a stain that will wash away. Death can never reach as far as life will reach. Therefore, the way forward is always and necessarily the way toward joy.

[31 Days of James]

Greetings


“James, a bondservant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the 12 tribes which are scattered abroad: Greetings.”—James 1:1

James is the get-to-the-point apostle. Elaborate salutations are a hallmark of Paul’s letters. James simply begins with “Greetings.” A letter he helped to write within the book of Acts begins the same way (Acts 15:23).

A man of the Jewish tradition who had seen the resurrected Christ, James was writing to others who shared his heart or were feeling their hearts pulled as his was. This is a letter to the believers and searchers in general—though written so early that it wasn’t even clear yet what it would mean for Gentiles to become Christians. The letter’s opening addresses the 12 tribes, which was the full breadth of the context for the church he knew at that time.

Throughout that church, what was on the minds of the people?

In such a general letter, presumably James would give attention to what he saw as the most common, pressing, and universal spiritual questions. If so, take a good look at the questions he starts with. See how well the concerns and struggles of first-century Christians still resemble the concerns and struggles that privately face us 2,000 years later. In the earliest lines of his letter, James picks up these points:

1. If Jesus saved us, what did he save us into? In my new life, I still have troubles. What does this mean? (James 1:2)

2. Even within the church, some people are rich and some are poor. What should I think about this? (1:9-10)

3. Though I have obtained forgiveness, I still am drawn to sin. How is this happening? (1:13-14)

All of these questions address matters from which we might prefer to look away, so as not to risk tarnishing the specialness of the life of faith. Yet James did not see any of these questions as matters to be avoided. He brought these questions right into the open, right away.

[31 Days of James]