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The Epistle of James – Chapter 1 – “Lacking in Nothing”

 

This letter deals with very practical questions about Christian life and practice.  James at first glance seems to challenge Paul’s idea that we are saved by faith alone (James 2:24).  Yet in the context of the discussion, James is really saying, with Paul, that “the only thing that counts is faith acting through love” (Gal. 5:6).  We are not exactly sure who the author is but tradition has ascribed the letter to Jesus’ brother, James, the leader of the church in Jerusalem (Acts 21:18).

Faith Being Tested – 1:1-16

James is writing to churches that are facing trials.  These trials could take many forms.  They could include persecution, internal conflict or physical problems which could include everything from sickness to natural disasters.  James’ advice in such situations is not what we would expect.  He says that such difficulties should bring us “nothing but joy.”  Is he kidding?

James definitely means what he says.  Testing builds up our endurance.  The practical effect of this is that, rather than ask God to remove the temptation, we should pray for the endurance which ii is supposed to teach us.  In testing God always provides a way out (I Cor. 10:13).  That doesn’t mean the testing will go away.

James next brings up a provocative idea.  We are invited to ask for wisdom (something that is essential to knowing God, Prov. 8).  But we are to ask in faith.  Already we can see that James, like Paul, places a priority on faith.  We are not to doubt.  This cannot mean a categorical absence of doubt since doubt and faith invariably go together (Mark 9:24).  James is using doubt here in the sense of a general uncertainty.  He speaks of being double-minded.  This is a person without true conviction who wavers back and forth, essentially a person without commitment.

James goes on to address the issue of wealth.  The rich will wither away in the midst of their busy lives.  For James, the rich should boast in being brought low.  It’s important to remember that in the context of the present world most Americans would be considered rich.  There’s no point in envying the rich since, as James says, they will “disappear like the flower in the field.”

James then ends this section with a discussion of temptation.  We may well ask, what’s the difference between trials, which we are to count as “nothing but joy” and temptation which is an enticement to evil?  The clearest way to understand the difference is the temptation of Jesus.  The Holy Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness which is the place of temptation (Matt. 4:1).  However, the Holy Spirit doesn’t tempt Jesus.  Satan does.  Yet God may allow us to be tempted as a way of testing our faith.  We see a similar example in Job.  God allows Job to be both tested and tempted.  Yet it is Satan that is doing the real evil.  What James is really saying here is that we cannot blame God for our temptations.  We most often tempt ourselves.  As James says we are tempted by our own desires. Temptation itself is not sin.  Yet if we allow ourselves to be lured and enticed then the temptation finally results in sin.

Doers of the Word, Not Just Hearers  – 1:17-27

James proceeds now to list several basic characteristics of the Christian Life.  The first is to recognize that everything we have is a gift from God.  God does not give with a hidden agenda (How many times do we get calls saying that we’ve won a “free” gift?).  God gives freely and openly.  The greatest thing he has given us is new life in his Son.  Why then should we choose to live according to the old and fading patterns of the world?  James gets very practical.  He calls us to be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger.  Imagine how many conflicts we could avoid if we followed that pattern!  If we believe in Christ we have God’s Word implanted in our lives.  Every day we have to concentrate more and more on that Word.

James then adds that it is not enough to listen to the Word.  We need to be doers of that Word.  As we encounter God’s Word in reading, study or worship we can freely nod our heads.  We agree with that Word.  We recognize its truth.  However, if we don’t live out that truth then we deceive ourselves.

There is a long-standing tradition that goes back at least as far as Martin Luther in the sixteenth century which tends to see James in opposition to Paul.  However the more we study them both the more we see that is not the case.  James here speaks of the “perfect law.”  He does not mean by this the Law of Moses.  No, he is referring to the “law of liberty.”  This lines up with Paul’s view of freedom (Gal. 5:1).  The true law of liberty cannot be reduced to a legalistic code.  This law of liberty needs to be lived out in open and effective ways, even with some risks.  James seems to be saying that we have to dwell on God’s Word to experience this “law of liberty.”  Too often we simply forget what we have seen in God’s Word.  James uses the example of looking in a mirror and then turning away forgetting what the image showed us.

James now gets very personal.  If we are to be true followers of Christ then one of the first things we need to do is to hold our tongues in check.  James will have more to say about this.  Gossip and slander have done more harm to the Christian Church than almost any other sin.  He concludes this section telling us that “Religion that is pure and undefiled” consists of caring for widows and orphans and keeping ourselves “unstained by the world.”  The world remains a constant source of distraction, false goals and, indeed, temptation.  Trials build up our faith but giving into temptation can damage our faith.  We need to find the balance.

Questions for Us

  1.    Why is it so hard for us to find joy in the midst of trials?
  2.    How can we better discipline our tongues?  Why are we so often more ready to speak than to listen?
  3.    What are some examples of being doers of the Word instead of just hearers?

Next Study – James Chapter 2 – “Faith Brought to Completion