Encouragement from James

Encouragement from James

Running (or crawling) to the Father of Lights—a sermon

I want to share with you some encouragement, from the book of James, to hang in there when you are discouraged by your own brokenness—when you feel like you’re not trusting God very much and are not successfully walking in the way that God prepared for us. Or perhaps you are struggling with a sin that you just can’t seem to overcome. Some of us may feel like it’s no use: We’ve been screwing up for so long, there’s no way we can ever experience the victory of Christ over this particular problem.

Many Christians, when the book of James comes to mind, think, “Oooh, James is so full of rules. It’s legalistic. It’s condemning. I don’t want to go there.” And so they rarely do. How did James get this reputation? It’s not too hard to understand. Here are a few examples of why I used to agree with Martin Luther that James was “an epistle of straw”:

. . . One who doubts, being double-minded and unstable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord. —James 1:6-8

How many of us never doubt? I suspect almost all of us doubt at least sometimes. Or maybe a lot. So does this mean that most of us must not expect to receive anything from God? That’s a discouraging thought!

Or take this quote from James 2:10: “. . Whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.” This seems to suggest that even if you are an incredibly generous and kind person, but commit one sin, you’re in BIG trouble. Somehow, that doesn’t seem very fair.

Or this: “The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body. . . and is itself set on fire by Gehenna. . . No one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” –James 3:6-8.  That seems kind of hopeless. If the tongue is that bad, and no one can tame it, surely we’re all doomed to backbiting, gossip, and bickering.

These passages can certainly give the impression that our situation is rather desperate.

However, the real problem is not that James—and God—are merciless stick-in-the muds who always look at the worst-case scenario and don’t like to hear people laugh. No. The problem is context—or rather, lack of context. I want to set the record straight about James and how the book can encourage us as we struggle with the challenges in our lives. Let’s start with confession time.

I have a terrible track record in the area of really paying attention to God. For the last several years, my practice has been to turn on NPR as soon as I walked into the kitchen. I would listen as I fixed and ate breakfast, emptied or refilled the dishwasher. I would listen while I cooked or cleaned, or when I was running errands in the car. I would occasionally pray about what I heard, but mostly I just listened.

At the same time, I had an ongoing realization that God was always with me and was longing to have a deeper relationship with me. I was aware of God’s presence a decent amount of time, because I spend a decent amount of time studying scripture. But there were so many “in between” times, when my brain was not involved in specific tasks, that I could have intentionally turned my mind toward God—yet I didn’t. Instead, as I ate lunch, I read. Instead of asking God if he had anything he wanted to say to me as I walked on various errands, exercised, or engaged in mindless tasks, my brain was (and often still is) amazingly blank.

Yet I still want to be aware of God’s presence throughout the day and to intentionally be present to God and to hear God’s voice if he chooses to speak to me. But apparently I don’t want it very much, because instead of being consistent in giving God my attention in those “in between times,” as I call them, I struggle to even remember in those moments that “The God of the universe is here with me!!” and to follow through on that thought.

Far from being the monolithically legalistic book that I understood James to be, I have discovered that it is undergirded by a theme of God’s grace that I had never seen before. I found tremendous encouragement in James in dealing with my decades-long struggle to pay attention to God. I share this with you in the hope that you, too, can be encouraged that whatever you struggle with is not insurmountable: God is with you, and he will enable you to move forward. You don’t need to be afraid that God doesn’t love you or is angry with you because you haven’t been able to be as nice, or mature, or steady, or whatever, as you know you ought to be.

How can James encourage us when we have such dark (and false) ideas?

James doesn’t at all teach that perfection in this life is even possible, much less a requirement for following Jesus. He says that we all make mistakes and sin (For we all make many mistakes, and if any one makes no mistakes in what he says he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body also. –James 3:2 RSV). It’s almost a throwaway line. But it’s clear that he includes himself as someone who is far from perfect. A number of other passages show that he wasn’t the legalist I thought he was.

The most important of these is James 2:1-13, which clearly reveals James as a man who understood grace and mercy. He starts out in verse 2 scolding his readers for their blatant preference for rich, prominent people over those who are poor and generally looked down on by society. These readers have been fawning over the rich who have come to their worship services, flattering them and parading them ostentatiously to “the best seats in the house.” Yet if a person in rags showed up, they’ve said things like, “You can stand in that corner, or if you like you can sit at my feet.”

After reading them the riot act over their ungodly favoritism, James says,

8 To be sure, you do well when you fulfill the royal law that scripture says is “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 9 But if you show more respect to people who are rich and highly regarded in society than you do to poor and neglected people, you are acting shamefully and are convicted as sinners by the law. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law except for failing to keep just one commandment, is still counted as guilty. 11 For the one who said, “You shall not commit adultery, also said, “You shall not murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery but you do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. 12 So speak and act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. 13 For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; but mercy triumphs over judgment. –James 2:8-13, trans EHM

In this passage, James is contrasting two kinds of law. The first is the “royal Law,” given by the King of Heaven, which is, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The other kind of law that James talks about is one that he calls simply “the law.” That is the law of Moses as it was apparently practiced by some Jewish leaders in Palestine, where James lived. These particular leaders imposed their faulty understanding of the law on others, as we know from various accounts in the gospels. It is clearly different from the royal law, because “the law,” as used by James and as opposed to “the Royal Law,” does not show mercy. If you fail in even one point of the “the law,” James says, you are condemned by that law. But the Royal Law is different. It is full of mercy, and those who live by it—that is, those who show mercy and who attempt to love their neighbors as themselves—will receive from God abundant mercy. In the eyes of God, the mercy they have shown has trumped condemnation. So James also calls the Royal Law the Law of Liberty, for in the words of Paul, “There is. . .no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Those who show mercy are in Christ Jesus, and they will receive mercy. As we confront our own failures, it is liberating to know that the law we follow is the Royal Law of liberty: The one who is merciful, and the one who tries to love her neighbor as herself, will receive mercy.

Yet immediately after his description of the Royal Law as the law of liberty, filled with mercy, James says “A person is justified by works, and not by faith alone.” Is he contradicting what he just said? Once again, the problem is not what James actually says. Rather, the problem is taking what he says out of context. In this case, it appears that James is addressing the people who had been deliberately distorting the teaching of the apostle Paul by insisting that Paul advocated doing evil in order to increase the amount of grace in the world!

So James is not intending to contradict Paul by saying, “A person is justified by works, and not by faith alone.” Rather, he is making commonsense statements to point out that trusting in God will always result in behavioral changes. Although people who trust in God won’t automatically become sinless, they will inevitably come to realize that certain actions are destructive. Those certain things are called “sin” in scripture. But if people really do trust and ask God to enable them to grow more and more into God’s loving righteousness, God will not fail to answer those prayers. Sometimes very gradually, sometimes astonishingly quickly, God’s work in their lives will become evident in actions that increasingly result in healing and community and joy.

Here is an extreme example: If a serial killer meets and accepts Jesus, he is NOT going to want to keep murdering people. If that person does keep on murdering people, we can be pretty sure that any claims to trust in Jesus are false. If, on the other hand, that person’s desires begin to change, so that they want to be more like Jesus, we can expect to see evidence of that in their behavior. It’s common sense. Again, James is simply counteracting the propaganda of those who were saying that Paul’s preaching suggested that we should sin so that grace can increase. James’s vocabulary may be different from Paul’s, but I feel pretty sure Paul would agree with James’s common-sense clarifications of Paul’s position, and that James—given his statements about the Royal Law, the Law of Liberty—would agree with Paul that we are saved by the faithfulness of Jesus as God is molding each of us into unique images of our Lord. James and Paul may have somewhat different approaches to the mercy and grace of God, but they are definitely in the same ballpark. If nothing else, it is reassuring to realize that even James really did buy into the love and mercy of God.

In fact, James has some very wonderful things to say about that love and mercy.

James 1:17-18 reminds us of God’s never-failing love. Verse 17 says, Every act of generosity that we experience, and every perfect gift we receive is ultimately from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no change or shadow of turning.” God loves us so much that it is actually God who inspires every act of generosity we experience and every wonderful gift we receive.

Furthermore, verse 17 insists that unlike the fickle, impulsive, selfish, and unpredictable behavior of the supposed deities worshipped in most of the Roman empire, the Father of Lights’ decisions are always for our good. It is not immediately obvious that that’s what James is getting at. Here, again, is a paraphrase of the relevant part of the verse: “All good things come down from the Father of Lights, in whom there is no change or shadow of turning.” If you examine the Greek that is translated “Father of Lights,” “change,” and “shadow of turning,” you will find that all of these were used to describe various astronomical bodies or phenomena. It would have been clear to his original readers that in verse 17, James was comparing God’s reliability to the heavens and all that was in them. The ancient world regarded the heavens and its motions as the only unchangeable phenomena that exist. So James’s original readers would immediately have understood that his description of “the Father of Lights” as the one “with whom there is no change or shadow of turning,” means that God is even more reliable than the most reliable thing/person/phenomenon that anyone could possibly imagine. When we are struggling, thinking about the utter faithfulness of God can bring us both comfort and courage.

James 1:18 says that

“God, desiring [to have a large and joyous family], brought us to birth by the Word of truth in order that we might be a kind of first fruits of his creatures.”

The word translated “desiring” implies not only the desire to have something, but also the careful planning required to achieve that desire. Since the result of God’s desiring spoken of in verse 18 was that God created human beings, and since God clearly desires to have a loving relationship with us, it seems fairly clear that what God was desiring was us! God really cares about us. He wants a giant, loving family, and in creating us he prepared with much love and care. What a wonderful concept! God dreamed of us, and then he created a universe for us to live in; and finally he created us, his beloved children, whom he designated as “a kind of first fruits of his creatures.”

In both the Jewish and the Jewish Christian communities, first fruits were very special. They were the best of the best, and as such were given to God. So this, too, is a testimony of God’s pride in and love for us. And even though we’ve screwed up his marvelous creation, and we suffer not only from our own but from others’ failings, James tells us to be patient and courageous, for Jesus IS coming again. And we know that when Jesus comes, God will renew us, and all of creation, and ultimately will make his home with us. What an incredible thought!

The upshot of all this is that James, though perhaps not as eloquent on the subject as some of the other New Testament writers, does powerfully present the incomprehensible love of God for every one of us.

And what does all of this have to do with my problem of inconsistently walking in God’s presence, and your problems, whatever they may be?

To answer that, we must go all the way back to James 1:2-4:

“Think of it as surpassingly joyful, my brothers and sisters, whenever you fall into various difficult situations, knowing that this testing of your trust in God will result in your becoming a person of steadfast endurance. And let this steadfast endurance finish its work so that you may become fully mature and complete, lacking nothing.”

I certainly think of my failure to consistently seek God’s presence and to engage with God as a “difficult situation.” You probably have your own “difficult situations” that may involve physical or emotional suffering, frustration with your own failures, relationships, jobs, family, etc.

I have always found it hard to be surpassingly joyful in the midst of difficulties. But in this opening passage of James, his admonition to think of it as surpassingly joyful whenever I fall into difficult situations has persuaded me that it is at least possible. What has persuaded me most powerfully is the promise that the testing of our trust in these situations will result in our becoming people of steadfast endurance.

I have never been good at steadfastness, much less steadfast endurance. But I have received so much hope from James’s message about the steadfast faithfulness and overflowing love of our Father, that I am beginning to dare to believe that God can give us the strength to not give up; I am beginning to realize more than ever before that God is asking us to trust him for the strength to not give up in our times of distress; I am starting to understand that if we don’t give up, but simply cry out to God in our helplessness, God will buoy us up and give us the trust in him that we need to continue our stumbling attempts at faithfulness.

If we turn to God when we are discouraged by our own incompetence, James assures us that God will grant us the steadfast endurance that is such a huge step forward in maturing into the image of Jesus. And I am encouraged by James’s insistence on God’s incredible love for us, the sufficiency of our Abba’s provisions for us, and His rock-solid faithfulness. I am beginning to trust that if we hang in there in spite of our discouragement, and keep on going back, whether we run, walk, or can only crawl to get there, and if we keep trying again and again, no matter how many times we fail—if we do that, not only will God give us that steadfast endurance, but that steadfast endurance will eventually result in full maturity and the possession (by God’s grace) of all we need to become fully functioning human beings, as God intended us to be. I don’t expect that process to be finished until Jesus returns to inaugurate the new heavens and the new earth. But what a GREAT moment to look forward to! And when it comes, I’ll be sure to look James up and thank him for his letter, which is most certainly NOT an epistle of straw.