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James 1:5-27

August 28, 2017

The first chapter of James could well be titled, “A Counter-Cultural Faith.” He lays out an assortment of ways in which the person (and community) of faith approaches life in ways fundamentally different from the person (and society) without faith. As I mentioned in last week’s study, this first chapter introduces themes that will be developed later in the letter. So this first chapter is filled with brief statements rather than more lengthy explanations–a quick tour of what a genuine religious life looks like.

5-8

Verse 4 assures us that if we endure suffering with faith, the result is maturity, “lacking in nothing.” God’s goal for us is that we not be lacking in emotional and spiritual maturity. Which is why we should have no worries about lacking in wisdom. It is God’s will and God’s design to give us wisdom; all we need to do is ask for it with faith.

Praying to God is quite counter-cultural. It requires trusting in something that is unseen and unprovable: that at the basis of reality is generous, creative, self-giving benevolence. We do not arrive at such trust through mere reasoning or proofs, but through an intuition that risks everything for the sake of goodness and meaning. Will we dare to live in generosity, believing in generosity? Only by such radical trust do the treasures of a meaningful and confident life open up to us. What is true wisdom? Trusting in God’s ultimate goodness and living out that trust.

9-11

These verses deeply challenge the material obsession of our society. Winning a multi-million dollar lottery, or receiving a despicably high CEO salary, will not secure your life. We are all dying; we are all passing away. We are like wild flowers whose beauty is brief and then withers. If we are counting on security through wealth we are betting on a horse that always loses. The lowly (those who are poor or who realize they have nothing that lasts forever, who don’t depend on themselves but on God) will be lifted up by God. The rich (who depend on riches for security and do not share generously) come to nothing. They have no real future. They have closed themselves off from God.

As a wealthy society we would like to believe that wealth does not usually interfere with genuine faith. We would like to believe that wealth is spiritually neutral, perhaps even a spiritual good. But it is not; it is a danger that constantly tempts us toward selfishness and self-sufficiency. James and Jesus are quite clear about this.

12-18

So we better be strong when facing such temptations!

But this leads to a question: where do temptations come from? If God, the basis of reality, is good, then does that mean temptations are from God? No. There is no moral evil in God. Temptations to do wrong or to be selfish do not come from God, they come from us–from our own internal free will and natural desires. We are created free. The question is what we will do with that freedom. Will we make God’s goodness and generosity our highest desire, or will selfishness be the basis for ordering our desires? The latter approach spiritually kills us.

On the other hand, if we choose to make generous goodness our desire, inspired by God’s generous goodness, then we are born of God.

19-27

In these verses is an intertwining of themes. One of those themes is a warning about anger and angry speech. As we will see later in the letter, nothing undoes God’s goodness faster than the intemperate things we say.

Another theme–key to the whole letter–is the need to actually live out one’s faith, not simply listen to religious teachings and nod in agreement. When we listen but do not do, we are not getting beyond a focus on our own ego. We’re simply gazing into a mirror and admiring ourselves. But when we become doers, we are staring not into our self-reflection but into the very heart of God–“the perfect law, the law of liberty.”

Then, in a final counter-cultural move, James defines the heart of religion. It is not assent to doctrine. It is not undergoing sacred rituals. It is not even prayer. The heart of genuine religion is to care for the most poor and vulnerable and avoid all that is selfish. Religion is more than ethics, but without ethical living it isn’t religion.

In a world of many religions, and in a world where many of those religions (Christianity included) get hijacked by preachers of material comfort or by violent believers who wish to impose certain behaviors or beliefs on others, James’s definition of true religion can be used as a test for all religions.

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