They don’t really care how much we know . . .

The hallowed halls of academia aren’t really known for fostering a spirit of humility. Not always, of course, but often there’s a temptation toward pride that comes along with being a notch above one’s peers in intelligence and education.

James would call the smart-but-proud person a fool, or at least he seems to imply that here:

“Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom” (James 3:13).

There’s a message there for all of us, I think. Sometimes we religious folks are known for our Bible-toting, Scripture-quoting approach to life, and that’s not necessarily bad. It would help us all to spend more time memorizing portions of the Bible.

But knowing the Bible doesn’t necessarily mean anything.

When I was home from college one summer I worked at a bottling company in Memphis, Tennessee. My boss was a religious man, and he seemed to be fairly well-versed in Scripture. In fact, when a religious discussion came up, he would quickly insert his opinion. He loved to throw out Bible verses to prove people wrong.

A couple of problems made him less than convincing, however: he had a terrible attitude about almost everything, and he cussed like the proverbial sailor.

Guess how many people he converted to his views on baptism?

James asks, “Who is wise and understanding among you?” He then answers his own question: He’s the one who lives a good life, a humble life.

Maybe our lesson here is to be careful how we use our understanding. Maybe we know a lot about the Bible, but if we’re proud we don’t really know it.

The Pharisees of Jesus’ day knew the Bible from cover to cover, but not really. They missed its main point.

That’s something we need to be careful about as well. We’re rapidly becoming a post-Christian nation, and most folks out there don’t really care how many verses we can quote. They don’t care how well we speak churchy language.

What they do care about–what they notice–is if we’re living a “good life.” If anything in us convinces them to pursue faith, it’ll be the good fruit that God is producing in us.

Sticks and stones

There’s never been a bigger lie than the old “Sticks and Stones” rhyme.

Everyone reading this has been deeply wounded by something someone said. Everyone reading this has hurt someone through a verbal dagger in a moment of anger or thoughtlessness.

James isn’t exaggerating when he writes:

And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water (James 3:6-12).

It’s a fire, a deadly poison, the epitome of hypocrisy. It divides marriages, splits churches, destroys reputations, and ends friendships.

It’s impossible to exaggerate how much damage has been done through the years by the tongue. History is littered with vivid examples, and our lives probably are too.

I think of things I’ve said to people I love, and how often I’ve wished to turn back the clock.

But you can’t unsay things, can you?

James also points out how often the tongue makes hypocrites out of us. A freshwater spring won’t produce saltwater, he writes, and a fig tree won’t grow grapes.
But sometimes the mouth of a Christian blesses God on Sunday and slanders God’s children on Monday. Do we ever praise the Lord in worship and then gossip on the way home? Do we worship God for his holiness and then use the same tongue to lie?

In your devotional time today, talk to the Lord about your tongue. You can’t tame it, of course, but ask God to put a muzzle on you when he wants you to keep quiet. Ask him to give you wisdom to know what needs to be said and what ought to remain unsaid. Ask him to sanctify your speech so that there won’t be a disconnect between your Sunday praise and your Monday speech.

For those of us who speak without thinking

Of all the sins out there, it’s easiest to commit the ones with words.

Ever fired off an angry email and hit “send” without adequate forethought?

Ever thrown a verbal jab at your spouse—an insult aimed to hurt?

Is your parental advice sometimes characterized by put-downs and biting criticism?

The list goes on indefinitely, and they’re ridiculously hard to avoid.

James has a way of hitting us right where we live, and here’s a good passage to meditate on today:

For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body. If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! (James 3:2-5).

He’s saying quite clearly that our journey toward spiritual maturity cannot avoid addressing what we say and how we say it.

For some reason we’re tempted to minimize sins of the tongue.

Illicit sex?

That’s bad.

Drunkenness?

Bad.

Theft? Violence? Murder?

All bad.

But what about a little white lie?

A little harmless gossip?

Criticism and negativity?

Well, those aren’t so bad . . . we’re tempted to think.

According to James, though, much of our self-discipline needs to be aimed at our speech.

That would be a good discipline to work on today.

As you meditate on this passage, start thinking before you speak.

Ask God to sanctify your words. Ask him to make sure that what you say can be used to glorify him and encourage others.

Ask him to help you avoid anything that Satan might use to tear others down or hurt your influence.

Sure, we need to avoid the sins of the flesh, but James is suggesting that we won’t find true spiritual maturity until we learn to control what we say.

Teachers and preachers

The Bible includes some scary verses, and for me this one ranks high on the list:

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness (James 3:1).

Those of us who are preachers and teachers need to read it often, if only to remind ourselves that what we’re doing is serious business.

In some sense, of course, it’s a message everyone needs to hear—teacher or not.

Hardly a month goes by when I don’t hear of a fellow preacher—several times it’s been guys I know—whose life has been discovered to be terribly inconsistent with his message. He’s fallen to a sin of immorality or lack of integrity and lost his ministry, and often his family.

Sometimes it’s a problem not with his life but with his message.

Swayed by outside pressure, he starts preaching a gospel that isn’t really the gospel. He gives in and preaches what people want to hear instead of what they need to hear.

Satan loves to seduce teachers of the word. He knows if he can overthrow a minister, he can shake the faith of many who trust him.

If you would, take a few minutes today and pray for the preachers and teachers you know.

Pray that God will shield them from Satan . . . that he’ll put a hedge around them and protect their faith.

That they won’t neglect their own spiritual lives as they minister to others.

That they’ll never do anything to discredit the gospel they preach.

That they won’t give in to pride, to selfishness, to immorality, or to dishonesty.

That they’ll commit themselves to lives that are consistent with their message.

That they won’t give in to discouragement.

Teaching God’s word is a weighty work, and those who presume to do it need to remember James’ warning.

It’s a scary thing to pursue a calling that leads to a stricter judgment.

Do we really believe?

Mark Twain famously quipped, “It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me; it is the parts that I do understand.”

I’m not sure exactly how he meant that, but in some ways I agree with him.

There’s a lot about the Bible I don’t grasp, but I’ve got plenty to do just to work on the parts I get.

Here’s one of the parts I understand: God wants us to do what he says.

You already knew that, of course, but it doesn’t hurt us to be reminded.

It’s easy to get lulled into a sense of complacency and forget some of the basics.

James emphasizes this point here, and his in-your-face approach shows how serious he is about making himself clear:

Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead (James 2:20-26).

It jumped out at me recently how often God tests people’s faith by telling them to do something that doesn’t make any sense at all.

In Abraham’s case, what God commanded him not only didn’t make sense, but it was also completely contrary to God’s nature.

Did Abraham trust him enough to do something sinful?

Did he believe in God strongly enough to offer a child sacrifice, a horrible practice he’d turned his back on when he began walking with God?

Yes he did.

By this point in his life he’d learned just to trust God . . . to do whatever he said.

And that’s a pretty good lesson for all of us.

It’s not hard to do right when it’s relatively low sacrifice.

It’s easy to follow Jesus when the road is smooth.

But I think God is interested in something more substantial than that.

He wants to know if our faith will lead us to do something more significant than attend church services, smile pretty, and act Christianly.

I think he wants to know if we have real faith—genuine, life-changing, God-honoring trust.

The kind that obeys even when what God said doesn’t make sense.

Even when it’s different from what we want to do.

Even when it hurts.

James’ major point in this section is that there’s no such thing as a faith that doesn’t obey.

That’s a faith that’s dead, which isn’t faith at all.

Faith is personal

The world has many atheists in it, but the devil isn’t one of them.

He actually believes quite strongly, having come close to God at some points in history.

James even uses his belief to describe the kind of faith that some believers have.

I don’t know about you, but I’d prefer no one suggest that my faith is devil-like.

But it’s possible.

He’s arguing with a hypothetical Christian; here’s that person’s argument, followed by James’ response:

But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! (James 2:18-19)

It seems that the person is saying something like this: “Well, the way it works in our church is that some people have faith by itself—they don’t really do much, but they encourage the ones who do. And then there are some people in our fellowship who get the work done. Some have faith and some have works. It actually works quite well.”

James thinks the idea is ludicrous. “It’s impossible,” he says, “for a person to have genuine, saving faith without that faith being followed by works.”

True faith expresses itself in obedience; if it doesn’t, it’s nothing more than a demonic faith.

It’s scary, but the same thing could happen today.

A Christian might say, “No, I don’t actually do much evangelism myself, but we do have a minister who spreads the gospel.”

Another might say, “Well, I don’t really help the poor, but I give money every Sunday to the church, and our deacon over benevolence serves people in the community.”

Do you see the reasoning?

Does it sound familiar?

It’s faulty, of course.

Please get this point—it’s impossible for anyone to obey on my behalf, or yours.

It just won’t work.

Faith is personal and individual, and so is obedience. My faith, your faith, if it’s genuine, will express itself in obeying Jesus.

James is as clear as he could possibly be.

Faith that speaks but doesn’t act isn’t real faith. It’s not even as strong as the demons’ faith—not exactly something we want to be said about us.

Was James a legalist?

You believe in obedience, right? I don’t know many Bible-believing folks who don’t.

The Bible’s clear from beginning to end that God really does want us to do what he says. Jesus said it repeatedly, as did Paul and pretty much every other writer.

So why has James taken such a beating for what he wrote about works?

His most famous critic is Martin Luther, who would’ve been perfectly happy if James’ letter hadn’t been included in the Bible. Luther called it a “right strawy epistle.”

Here’s part of the passage he didn’t like:

What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead (James 2:14-17).

Luther thought James contradicted Paul’s teaching about salvation through faith, not works (cf. Ephesians 2:8-9).

The famous reformer may have been a well-learned scholar, but I’m pretty sure he missed James’ point.

James wasn’t arguing that we ought to be legalists and find our justification in law-keeping . . . some kind of earned righteousness.

But he did want his readers to know that God doesn’t bless faith that speaks but doesn’t act.

Saving faith trusts, submits, and obeys.

Actually, this teaching might really be needed right now. It could be a much-needed correction to some of the easy-believism that has filtered into some expressions of Christianity.

And it might be a good reminder for all of us.

It’s easy enough to have a set of things we believe, and another set of things that we actually do.

For example, if you asked me if I believed in sharing my faith with others, I would quickly say yes.

But do I really believe in it?

Maybe a better question would be: Do I share my faith with others?

I know this is true—we don’t really believe things we don’t practice.

Do we believe in Jesus? We can say yes, but we don’t really believe in him if we don’t follow him.

Do we love God? Most of us say yes, but loving him isn’t saying it; it’s doing what he says.

To use James’ example, do we believe in serving fellow Christians?

Maybe the Lord would ask us: When’s the last time you cooked a meal for a grieving brother, or visited a shut-in sister, or sat at the hospital with a worried family?

Maybe I’m oversimplifying it, but I think James’ point is pretty clear.

Faith means a whole lot more than just saying it.

It means getting our hands dirty with all of the messy implications of following Jesus.

Big sins, little sins

Sometimes we put sins into categories without even thinking. Something like: “really bad sins,” “bad sins,” and “not-so-bad sins.”

Sure, I’m a sinner, but none of mine are the really bad ones. I’d never commit those.

Like murder. Or adultery.

My sins are smaller stuff like sometimes thinking bad thoughts, losing my temper with my kids, spreading a little gossip, or being impatient and irritable. Everybody does that stuff.

Sound familiar?

The Christians James was writing to apparently made the same argument. “Sure, we may show favoritism, but at least we’re not murderers or adulterers.”

James didn’t like their reasoning.

But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment (James 2:9-13).

Do you see his point?

A sin—by its very nature—is a transgression against God’s will. For us to try to make some sins not as bad as others betrays a misunderstanding of sin.

That was part of Jesus’ point in Matthew 5. Essentially, here’s what he said:

“You know the Law says it’s wrong to murder, but I’m telling you to deal with the anger that leads to murder.”

“You know adultery is wrong, but I’m telling you to clean up your dirty minds.”

In James’ context, favoritism/discrimination/prejudice, or not loving your neighbor, violates the very essence of what God wants in our relationships with one another. In one sense, if we treat one another poorly, we’ve committed the same sin that leads to murder—disregarding our mutual status as human beings created in God’s image.

So what about us?

It applies to how we treat people, of course. If I disregard someone because for some reason I think he’s less of a man than I am, I’ve missed the Bible’s whole point about loving people. I’ve become guilty of breaking all of it.

We’d never murder anyone, but would we murder someone’s reputation through gossip?

We’d never attack others physically, but would we ignore them, snub them, or mock them?

The gospel calls us to recognize everyone’s equal value before God.

As sinners we’re all in the same boat—we deserve the death sentence.

By God’s grace he stepped in and rescued us, and recognizing that ought to remind us to extend mercy and grace to everyone around us.

God did it for us—shouldn’t we do the same?

Love them all

Love your neighbor.

It just sort of rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it? It’s such a nice thought, and pretty much everybody agrees that we ought to do it.

Do we?

Of course we do, or at least we think we do. We know Jesus commanded it. We know we’re supposed to love everyone.

James apparently thought it was a big deal. He wrote, “If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing well” (James 2:8).

You may remember that he’s writing this in the context of how Christians shouldn’t treat the rich better than the poor, but he’s quoting something that had been a part of God’s will for a long time (cf. Leviticus 19:18).

He also remembers that Jesus had placed this commandment at the essence of a relationship to God (Matthew 22:39-40).

But what is it? What does it look like? More importantly, how can we know that we’re doing it?

As you probably know, it’s something more substantial than having warm feelings toward people we already like.

It actually doesn’t have much to do with how we feelabout people, especially the ones who are already kind to us.

Here are a few questions that’ll help us explore it.

How do we treat the grumpy, stay-on-your-own-lawn-and-keep-to-yourself neighbor?

How do we respond to the grocery store check-out trainee who took twenty minutes to scan the three things we wanted to buy?

How do we treat the spouse who often doesn’t really deserve to be treated well?

Are we good to the people who are different? The ones who are different ethnically? The guy who is incredibly socially awkward? The girl whose past is immoral? The ones who are below (or above) us on the lower-middle-upper class spectrum?

Our faith isn’t really tested much by asking how we treat the people who are kind to us.

Like Jesus said, everybody does that, even people who don’t believe in God.

We learn about our love for neighbor by looking at how we treat everyone else.

Here’s what we know: we need to work hard at loving people, because there’s amazing consistency on this point from the beginning of the Bible to the end.

Walking with Christ means loving the people around us—all of them, regardless of what they look like, how they act, or what they’ve done.

Everyone is prejudiced.

I took a class on the Civil Rights movement once, and I’ve often thought of something the professor told us at the beginning of the semester.

“We’re all prejudiced. Every single one of us.”

I don’t know if he was right or not, but I know this is true: We’re all tempted to view people according to things we see . . . superficial qualities.

In fact, we do it so often and so subconsciously that we might not even notice it.

We put people in ethnic and gender boxes very quickly, and then almost as quickly we’ll put them in a social status box (based on how they’re dressed) and an educational box (based on how they speak).

It’s not inherently wrong—we’re socially programmed to do it—but what we do with it is crucial.

James addresses the social status issue in this passage:

My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called? (James 2:1-7).

We would never do anything this blatant (I hope), but we can certainly see his point.

Maybe a family comes into our church building on Sunday morning and meets all the unspoken criteria for “exactly the kind of family we’re looking for” . . . well-dressed, well-spoken, kids are well-behaved, look they’ve been in church before, etc.

And then a guy comes in who smells like he just left a bar, tattered clothes, obviously a skid row kind of guy.

How do we treat each of our visitors?

Red carpet for one and a wary eye on the other?

I doubt we’d do that, but we might be tempted to.

We need James’ reminder.

We need to remember not to discriminate against anyone based on appearance—whether it’s ethnicity, educational background, whatever.

I find it interesting that Jesus hung out with the kind of crowd that wasn’t exactly the “kind of people we’re looking for,” and that’s one of the things that got him crucified.

We ought to mimic him in this area too . . . he calls us to love people even when they’re different from us.