When our creative team at work began to plan our promo for the next sermon series, an eleven-week study of the book of James, we came up with the title “FaithWorks.” As all the graphics and plans started to come together, I started getting excited about going through this particular book once again. It had been a few years since I’d read James from start to finish, and I’d never done an in-depth study of it.
My pastor refers to the book of James as an “ancient, modern text.” Ancient and modern: two words that seem opposing in nature, but two words that aptly describe instructions that are thousands of years old and yet are completely practical advice for today. I’ve always thought of James as kind of an in-your-face writer, but really, he’s not a bad guy; he’s just very black and white when it comes to approaching life and its struggles—sort of a “here’s your answer, now go and do it” person.
As I’ve been listening to the weekly sermons, reading the text for myself, writing a couple of the blog posts and following the daily blurbs written by others, I’ve come to the conclusion that James is someone I need to read more often.
One of the first things James tells us (aside from orders to stop being so wishy-washy) is to remember where all the good things come from. God gives so freely, and yet we hold so tightly to things, unwilling to share lest we deprive ourselves while helping others. I happened to be one of our blog writers for that first week, and my observation was focused on a couple things: first, that God puts as much effort into the here-today-gone-tomorrow things as he does everything else. We don’t see a flowering dogwood tree with detailed blooms only on the limbs visible to the eye. God doesn’t leave all the other flowers blurry and featureless just because no one can possibly see the top branches. No, even if no human will ever view a particular wildflower or a deep-sea creature, meticulous detail is God’s thing. He’s going to do it right, even if he’s the only one who knows about it.
My second observation in the free gift department was that we can’t receive more if our hands are tightly clenched around what we already have. This is not a social commentary, or an odd motivator to give so you can get more in return, guaranteed. Giving is not the arm-twister for God to then be obligated to us. It’s simply a reminder that when we hold loosely, it’s easier to focus on what’s really important. What may be a small thing to us might mean the world to another.
James also reminds us not to be partial. You may have heard the non-biblical versions of this, which are great reminders with their own variations. Plato started it (probably) with his “The measure of a man is what he does with power” credo. Author Samuel Johnson tweaked it a bit by saying, “The true measure of a man is how he treats someone who can do him absolutely no good.” Even J.K. Rowling got in on the action, adding “If you want to see the true measure of a man, watch how he treats his inferiors, not his equals” to Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. James’s words are much simpler and they boil down to this: if God doesn’t show partiality, how can we justify doing so?
Along those same lines, James says that our actions define where our faith stands. If we have no works to show, people may be right to wonder if we have any faith. My pastor likened it to having a fire in the fireplace: if there is no smoke coming from the chimney of the house, others may question whether we truly do have a fire going. If we have no faith, it’s possible to do good deeds for our own self-satisfaction, certainly, but if we claim to have faith, there’s no real reason why our works wouldn’t stem from that. Our faith should inspire our actions/works, and our works should encourage our faith. One of the FaithWorks bloggers called it “the geometry of faith and works” and compared it to a circle where faith and works sort of chase each other around the circumference. She said, “The goal in this case is for our lives to be characterized by a strong, high-quality belief that produces strong, high-quality behavior. That behavior reinforces the belief . . .”
As the weeks of the study flew by, I found myself motivated by the writings of thirty other bloggers from our congregation as they all took turns sharing their own insights. I learned more about not only listening, but acting on what I hear. What good is it to read my Bible if I’m not going to bother with any takeaways? I also learned more about my own prayer life, which I struggle with.
I’m the first to admit, I’m a terrible pray-er. Part of it is that I’m easily distracted, so praying silently tends to morph into thinking about that day’s to-do list. Praying aloud means I need to have somewhere I’m not overheard. I tend to pray with people right then and there if they need prayer, because then I know I won’t forget them. There’s nothing worse than someone thanking you for praying them through a tough spot when you know you’ve given a halfhearted effort or have forgotten completely.
When I studied this particular portion of James’ letter (chapter four), I examined it more closely because I was submitting a blog post on the first few verses. I found a surprising connection between my selfishness and my prayer life. Who knew, right? I’m going to console myself by thinking that many others struggle with the same thing. Chapter four pretty much says we quarrel because we’re selfish. Yep. Plain and simple. James then expands a little and says our selfish nature inhibits our prayer life and makes it ineffective. We want something, so we try to get it by any means possible. We can’t get it, so we quarrel. We ask for it, but we don’t receive it.
Why? Because we’re asking for selfish reasons. Praying to win the lottery because we supposedly want to feed the world’s puppy population doesn’t fly. God knows our hearts, and he knows why we want that money. Praying for our spouse to get the job we want him to have because it means more prestige, even though it’s not a job he really wants. Praying for God to give me my Christmas list of “needs” because “everyone” else has those things—and the world’s wisdom is overriding God’s wisdom for what’s best for us.
Now that I know all these things (again), I can’t ignore them. Acting on our knowledge leads to wisdom. It does us no good to know things if we do nothing with them.