November 18, 2017

Wednesdays with James: Lesson Eight

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Note from CM: Updated post to use Kingdom NT translation. Thanks, Charles!

Wednesdays with James
Lesson Eight: Taking Responsibility, Receiving from God

Today we will bite off a bit bigger chunk of the Epistle of James, looking at James 1:12-27.

12 God’s blessing on the man who endures testing! When he has passed the test, he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him. 13 Nobody being tested should say, “It’s God that’s testing me,” for God cannot be tested by evil, and he himself tests nobody. 14 Rather, each person is tested when they are dragged off and enticed by their own desires. 15 Then desire, when it has conceived, gives birth to sin; and when sin reaches maturity it gives birth to death.

16 Don’t be deceived, my dear family. 17 Every good gift, every perfect gift, comes down from above, from the father of lights. His steady light doesn’t vary. It doesn’t change and produce shadows. 18 He became our father by the word of truth; that was his firm decision, and the result is that we are a kind of first fruits of his creatures. The Word That Goes to Work

19 So, my dear brothers and sisters, get this straight. Every person should be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger. 20 Human anger, you see, doesn’t produce God’s justice! 21 So put away everything that is sordid, all that overflowing malice, and humbly receive the word which has been planted within you and which has the power to rescue your lives.

22 But be people who do the word, not merely people who hear it and deceive themselves. 23 Someone who hears the word but doesn’t do it, you see, is like a man who looks at his natural face in a mirror. 24 He notices himself, but then he goes away and quickly forgets what he looked like. 25 But the person who looks into the perfect law of freedom, and goes on with it, not being a hearer who forgets but a doer who does the deed—such a person is blessed in their doing.

26 If anyone supposes that they are devout, and does not control their tongue, but rather deceives their heart—such a person’s devotion is futile. 27 As far as God the father is concerned, pure, unsullied devotion works like this: you should visit orphans and widows in their sorrow, and prevent the world leaving its dirty smudge on you.

As we saw in an earlier study, the epistle begins with a double-opening. The author introduces his three main themes and then repeats them in a more expansive fashion. Today’s three paragraphs touch once more on the concepts of testing, wisdom, and poverty.

james opening

Let me try to summarize the argument of this passage:

God’s plan for those under the test is ultimate blessedness (1:12-18):

  • James is trying to encourage communities of Jewish Christians who are suffering troubles and difficulties in their lives. He blesses them as Jesus did in the Sermon on the Mount, and promises them that God will reward those who love him with life, even though they pass through severe tests.
  • Times of testing produce conditions in which they may find themselves tempted in various ways. James encourages them to take personal responsibility for those occasions when they succumb to temptation under stress (cf. 4:1-4). That is not God’s desire for them. It is their own desire leading them to sin, which in turn leads to death.  God, on the other hand, has brought them forth to know life in a new creation. He is the generous giver of good gifts, not one who leads his children astray.

When under the test, we must be wise and avoid anger (1:19-21):

  • In context, James’s counsel here pinpoints some of the temptations that a community under stress faces — failing to listen to others, uttering rash and unwise speech, and letting quick tempers explode. He urges them to avoid this path and gives them a strong warning: this will not produce results that are in keeping with God’s righteous standards.
  • Instead, they are to recognize and clean up their inner attitudes, and humbly seek truth from God. When in doubt, shut up, confess your sins, and seek God’s saving grace.

When under the test, we must continue to care for the most vulnerable (1:22-27):

  • It is not enough to avoid temptation. James reminds these communities that there are needy, vulnerable people among them who need loving care. What good is it to keep myself pure if my brother or sister is suffering and I do nothing about it? So, James says, don’t stop at receiving the word which means your own salvation. Instead, practice the love that God’s word everywhere commends. Guard yourselves, yes, but even more, love your neighbors.

This is a cogent and challenging text. Like most wisdom teaching, it urges believers to take responsibility for actually practicing their faith and not just talking about it.

That’s challenge enough, but when you consider that James is writing to communities who find themselves under severe trials, the task becomes even more daunting. When under that kind of stress, folks, no matter how strong their faith, can easily become selfish, withdrawn, impatient, angry, snippy with others, and forgetful of those in their midst who have it much worse.

James pulls no punches. This is straightforward and direct exhortation. Take responsibility. Practice your faith. It is also shot through with reminders that God is for us, that his desire for us is life and new creation, that his word and presence and power are with us and in us and can save us and enable us to keep going, keep trusting, and keep loving.

This “faith” thing ain’t no game.

• • •

Wednesdays with James
Previous Studies

Comments

  1. I was struck, in studying this, on how times of stress inevitably turn me inward and keep me from loving my neighbors in need. I have always been aware of how stress tempts me to be short and angry toward others, but that’s only part of the problem. As Luther said, sin is “incurvatus se” — being turned in upon oneself. That renders me incapable of love, which is the ultimate failure.

    • Rick Ro. says:

      Yep, so difficult when things are going haywire to think about others. It’s almost like we need a mantra “Keep thinking of others, keep thinking of others.” I wonder if that’s what Jesus did during his most stressful times. His compassion showed up pretty much all the time.

      The interesting thing is how obvious this is to those of us OBSERVING someone under stress. A guy once popped into my Sunday school class right as it ended and proceeded to dump all the crud he was going through on me. About half-way through this dump, I thought, “What this guy really needs is to go out and SERVE someone. He needs to get his focus off himself and his problems.”

      I did end up suggesting that, among other things.

    • flatrocker says:

      Reminds of the acronym on the five reasons why we turn inward.
      Which in turn leads to much of our sin…BLAST

      B – Bored
      L- Lonely
      A – Angry
      S – Stressed
      T – Tired

  2. Rick Ro. says:

    I’m really enjoying this slow walk through James. It’s a refreshing take on a book that sometimes doesn’t appear to reflect Jesus and his Good News (being, on the surface, so works-oriented).

    I’m also noticing that it seems to fit my most recent analysis of James that he wasn’t talking so much about DOING, but rather talking about CHARACTER. That’s maybe a subtle difference no on else sees, but I think there’s a difference. We will ALWAYS fall short of DOING (especially when it comes to pressure from churches and leadership) but that doesn’t mean our CHARACTER can’t be Christ-like. I keep bringing this kind of thinking back to “Am I bearing fruit of the Spirit,” which isn’t necessarily all about DOING, but rather CHARACTER. To heck with DOING…am I loving, joyful, peaceful, kind, faithful, gentle?

    Maybe James is getting at: Bear these kinds of fruits even when you face all this junk you’re going to face. Have the kind of character that Jesus had.

  3. Stephen says:

    James is written in such elegant Greek that the translators of the KJV really rose to the occasion and the letter is one of their best efforts.

    “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.”

    “Wherefore, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath: For the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God. Wherefore lay apart all filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness, and receive with meekness the engrafted word, which is able to save your souls. But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves.”

    Magnificent!

  4. At the end of a long, hard day I will forego many comments and ask one question. Unless I’m misremembering, Tom Wright’s Kingdom translation was used in this discussion up until now. Not this time. I’m assuming this was because of a difference of opinion in the translation and curious as to what it was.

    • I have the most elegant of reasons, Charles. I forgot. Honest to goodness.

      Where’s an editor when I need one?

      • Ah so! I couldn’t find The Kingdom online and finally dug out my box of For Everyone commentaries. Much prefer Wright here. He tips the test/temptation balance toward testing, which I find helpful for understanding a context larger than pee-pee dangers. Also makes James sound more human underneath his austerity. Wright may have rescued James from Luther’s final nail in the coffin. Glad to hear it wasn’t a theological quibble.

        • I will go back and edit the post to make it consistent with the others, and (hopefully) not make the same mistake in future lessons. Thanks for calling my attention to it.

          Wright’s translation is refreshing, isn’t it?

          • >> He became our father by the word of truth; that was his firm decision, and the result is that we are a kind of first fruits of his creatures.

            This throwaway line tucked in one of the least read books of the Bible just may be the most important proclamation in the whole Bible. Much of what James speaks of is shared and agreed with in other religions but the presentation by Jesus of God as our Father is pretty much unique to Christianity and pretty much ignored aside from lip service. We are willing to call Jesus the Child of God but don’t dare join him in that Good News except as maybe a figure of speech or intellectual concept. Not really meant for us worms. Sinful worms.