A Reflection on the Book of James

Quotations taken from the ESV (English Standard Version) translation of the bible.

The Book of James is a letter with many powerful and convicting truths that provide practical help for daily Christian life. James uses a lot of imagery and straightforward language, which I personally appreciate immensely. He aims to guide and instruct his brothers in Christ to a unified life that carries out the work of Christ, pleases the Father, and yields spiritual fruit.

Chapter one opens with some challenging thoughts that should help shape our everyday living and thoughts, both through theological and philosophical truths. Most readers appropriately come to a halt after the very first sentence of the body,

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.

That strong statement carries a heavy charge, and its concept paints the background for the tone of the entire book.

Counting trials as joy can seem impossible, but it results from a proper Christian mindset. As such, our philosophy can be shaped by it. The way we view the world and our own lives should result in joy, even in the most trying circumstances. Here the theological implication reveals itself. Knowing that God uses difficult and painful situations to produce “steadfastness” is encouraging. I should note that although God may certainly test us in certain ways, I believe most of our suffering is brought on by our sin nature and the depraved society that has resulted from it. The fact that the LORD turns evil into good shows a part of his righteous and redemptive character.

James continues with strong statements, urging us to be perfect, righteous, complete, and lacking nothing. Verse five is personally very moving. It is one I live by and cling to.

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.

Wisdom is something that God talks about very often, and that many of the writers in the bible value very highly. This verse is a clear statement of His willingness to give graciously to those who ask for it. Wisdom is something I have sought after for as long as I can remember, especially after hearing the story of Solomon. Christians have access to the ultimate source of universal wisdom and knowledge: the author of both. That fact excites, inspires, and encourages me.

Verse six can be a source of conflict, some viewing it as support for “prosperity gospel” theology. I see it as more of a warning against doubt than an endorsement to use faith as a magic genie lantern. James is contrasting an unstable, flaky man with the steadfastness and faithfulness that he praised shortly before and continues to advocate.

Verses nine through eighteen reinforce and elaborate on the ideas he has presented. James gives us some earthly insight to the tune of ecclesiastes, then a picture of God and sin in their relation to us. He assures us that God will not tempt us, but that temptation arises from the desires of our hearts. The imagery of desire conceiving and giving birth to sin, which grows into death is very poignant. Sinful desire must be aborted swiftly and without mercy for the sake of avoiding sin and death. Simple desire may seem harmless, but desire governs our thought life, which in turn is revealed in our words and actions. Unless Christ is governing our desires, we can not expect Godly actions or spiritual fruit. Likewise, if driven by worldly desire, we fall prey to worldly temptation, corruption, and ultimately death.

The rest of chapter one provides some practical advice on how to live out these ideals. With specific commands of conduct James implores the reader to put into action the truths learned by hearing the word. It is good to know the word and Christ’s teachings, but worthless unless acted upon. He sums up by stating:

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.

Pure and undefiled religion is presented thus as a practical servitude towards the weak and suffering in the world, while maintaining a separation from that which stains us in the world. That stands in strong opposition to dogmatic, ceremonial religion that dominated the culture at the time, and still runs rampant around the world to this day.

Chapter two continues with practical advice, with examples of what Godly living on earth looks like. The reader is told to treat everyone with high respect, with no more or less regard for one class (or race) of people than another. Truly Christ-like character puts other people before ourselves, with love begetting selflessness.

The second half of verse two contains a very powerful passage that blatantly presents the importance of good works.

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.

Without any sugar-coating, James has proclaimed that faith without works is dead. That is personally the most necessary concept to grasp of the whole chapter, and perhaps the whole book. It is useless to proclaim faith in Christ if we do not follow Him in our life with service and love for each other. True love should be a result of true faith. The love of Christ in turn should be spread to others and govern all our thoughts, desires, and thereby our actions.

Chapter three addresses a crucial aspect of daily life. Words and speech are literally a part of every day for almost every person. James illustrates just how powerful the tongue is with several analogies and his characteristically poignant imagery. It is a very poetic passage, with so many great verses I am tempted to quote the whole thing. He likens the tongue to a ship’s rudder, a forest fire, an untamed beast, and declares it to be “A restless evil full of deadly poison.” Such a powerful tool must not be overlooked or ignored. We must be constantly aware of our speech and the impact it has on those around us. As Christians we should direct the power of our tongues into praise, blessing, and the glorification of God.

Chapter four delves into greater detail regarding some of the worldly evils that Christians must guard against. He spends most of the chapter warning the readers not to quarrel or fight with each other. As the world wars with itself, we should be set apart from the conflict that destroys our love and unity, as you recall “For we war not with flesh and blood.” Instead we should concentrate on our own righteousness, sanctification, purity, and piety. We are not set as judges over each other, but as brothers to one another. We are called to humble ourselves and lift up our brothers.

The latter part of the chapter briefly addresses another practical issue. James is warning against pride and boasting. It is foolish to rely on our plans for the future, or what knowledge we think we have of it. “For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.” Our life is so relatively short and unpredictable that we should rely on God above all else, and realize that all achievements and fruits are dependent upon His grace and mercy.

Chapter five opens with vehement condemnation of self-indulgent, gluttonous lords of luxury. James reveals no sympathy for those corrupt, filthy-rich slaves of fortune and power, and declares their doom in verses one through six. With that out of the way, he beseeches us to watch and wait patiently for the coming of the Lord. He tells us that our hope rests in the knowledge of his imminent return. He also states the importance of having a reliable word of honor, as opposed to relying on oaths and swears.

Finally, he closes with a reinforcement of a concept that he touched on in chapter one. He reminds us to pray in response to any of our needs, desires, or failures, whether physical or spiritual, and to do so in unwavering faith. The power of prayer is often overlooked, despite being virtually unlimited.

The whole book is very practical and straightforward. I strongly believe it is important for all Christians to be familiar with the book and the teachings within. It is beneficial to our relationship with God, and with the world. May the wisdom and truth of the Word never cease to guide us and chide us as we seek to follow Christ.