James 3:17 says, “But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.” A statement like this does not summarize the way our culture, at large, voices its knowledge and opinions. Like when I think of my social media feed amidst the last year when it came to discussion about political, social, or Coronavirus issues, for what its worth, it doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of James 3:17. And if I’m being honest, I don’t post much on social media or engage often in said conversations, but the script that runs through my mind and heart of what I think, want to say, and feel, also does not line up with this “wisdom from above”. So this is one of those passages, if you’re like me, you read and you’re like, “that’s great, but how do I get this wisdom/become like this type of person?”
This was indeed the direction our conversation headed the last time we met as a group. We worked through the passage. We made comments about what we’ve observed in the last year, or engaged in ourselves when it came to dialogue that wasn’t “pure, peaceable, open to reason, gentle, etc.” And then we came to a point where we asked the question, “How do we become like this?” Or to put another way, “how do we get this wisdom?” It is a really important question to ask because of what is at stake, namely, our witness in the world for Jesus. Can you imagine if believers were known for being “pure, peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere”? The interesting thing about the way James describes this is that it is not just knowledge/facts that we know, but how we share those knowledge and facts. That is wisdom. Wisdom is how you apply what you know to be true, how you live, speak, act. Peacefully. Gently. Open to reason. Mercifully. Impartial. Sincere. They are the goal. So just how do we get this wisdom from above?
The main way is to go to the source of such wisdom. Clearly this source is not in and of ourselves (sorry guys, see James 3:1-12). James says it, that it is wisdom “from above” (3:17). So, in order to get this wisdom, we need to go to God. And when there, I believe these two things will be helpful. Both are simple: seek and ask.
The first one is to spend time with God. Seek His face. This came up in our conversation!. Spend time with the source of said wisdom. Set your gaze upon the Lord and don’t move for a while. Jesus Himself was/is full of this wisdom from above. When I think about these words James says in 3:17, I think of Jesus. I’d challenge you to read through some of the Gospel stories with James 3:17 in mind and see how full of this wisdom Jesus is. Let’s spend time with Him, reading His Word, at His feet. Before moving on from this, I just want to ask, how has your time with God been? The reality is that your life is the product of what you give your time/attention to. It really is for all of us, for better or for worse. How much of your time/attention is devoted to God and what He is doing in the world? Jesus Himself was full of “wisdom from above” and if we spend time with Him, over time we will have more and more of that wisdom, as He makes us more and more like Himself.
Secondly, James says to ask for wisdom (1:5). This comes in the context of enduring suffering in trials, but is no less applicable here because again God is the source and He wants us to ask for this wisdom. James says, “if any of you lack wisdom, let him ask God. I think we all can acknowledge that we do lack this wisdom, wisdom from above. The beauty of our God is that He offers it to us, we only need to ask. And when we ask, His Word says that He will give it generously, and without reproach. I challenge you this week to ask God for this wisdom, and trust that He will give it!
So, in attempting to answer, “how do we get this wisdom?”, we’ve said two things. Seek. Ask. Sounds a lot like what Jesus said in His “Sermon on the Mount”. “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find…” Let’s do this together, prayerfully, as we continue to seek to grow in our Christlikeness and our pursuit of this wisdom.
The last time we were together, we worked our way through the first twelve verses of James 3. It was within these verses that James pulled no punches in regard to humanity’s collective inability to control the tongue. If humanity could do so, James said they would be perfect (3:2). But, the tongue is a small member and boasts of great things (3:5). He also refers to it as a fire, a world of unrighteousness. And, to take matters a little further just so we know exactly what this tongue of ours is capable of, James says that it is a restless evil, and full of deadly poison (3:8).
And we all said, “thanks James.”
Its true, though. As we all observed in our conversation, we’ve all “set the woods on fire” with words that we knew we shouldn’t have said before we said them, and then felt guilty after we said them. The bottom line is: our tongue can hurt people, really badly.
To take it one more step, Jesus in Luke 6:45 says, “out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks.” So, these words, this deadly poison, this tiny spark that sets a forest on fire - all of that - flows out of our hearts. Meaning, we can’t escape responsibility for anything we say. We have to acknowledge where that word/thought/action originated, and that is from within.
James says the tongue can’t be tamed. But there is indeed hope for growth, and I think the first step towards growth (not perfection) is to keep watch of your heart.
Proverbs 4:23 says this, “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life (ESV).” The point I want to make with this here is that one part to keeping your heart (that rhymed), is that you have to know what may cause you to fall into sin. To put it differently, and more in context with taming the tongue, we must be aware of what may cause us to lash out with our tongues. We have to grow in knowledge of what it is that might cause us to “set a forest ablaze”. Part of keeping your heart is staying away from those things that may lead you to lash out and you can’t stay away from those things unless you know what they are.
For example, I said last week that some of my worst moments are when I’m in a hurry. When I feel rushed, when I feel like there is too much to do, or when I’m running late, I have a tendency in those moments to be short with those I’m around. So, in order to keep my heart, knowing that about myself, I intentionally make an effort to slow down. Like I literally try to walk slower. I also make an effort to not be rushed or running late, but in those moments I try to remind myself of what really matters and if I’m running late for something - I don’t need to take it out on my wife, and I don’t need to take it out on the person in front of me who just won’t seem to drive over the speed limit so I can get where I’m going, faster (Lol). I am far from perfect, but I try to do those things as a means to counteract what I can be like when I am rushed, in a hurry, etc.
Maybe for you, it is when you’re tired (me too). Maybe it is when you don’t get your way (yup, same). Maybe it is when someone shares something on Facebook and you want to comment back and give them 15 reasons why they are wrong (don’t point a finger, we’ve all done it). Maybe it is when you’re stressed....
Whatever it may be that causes us to be short - the common denominator is simple - us. It flows from our hearts. When Jesus said, “Out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks.” He did not add a clause that said “except when…” We can’t escape responsibility for our words, they all flow from within. What we can do is identify what it is that may cause us to be short. Once you’ve identified what those things may be, keep your heart. Watch it. If you feel rushed, slow down, it’s better to be late to something than to hurt those closest to you. If it’s when you’re tired, maybe take a nap, try to get more sleep at night, or if you can’t do that, grab some coffee and remember to laugh (and if you succeed at that, just think how well you’ll be able to tame your tongue when you’re rested again). If it is when you see something you disagree with on social media, maybe consider fasting from social media. If it is when you’re stressed, do your best to find outlets for that stress.
Let’s do this, together, friends. Hold each other accountable. Pray for each other, and keep watch of our hearts.
In our most recent time and discussion together we covered James 2:18-26. James further comments within these verses on the discussion of faith and works. He uses two Old Testament stories, that of Abraham and Rahab, to illustrate that we are justified by works and not by faith alone. I really hope that our time together was as encouraging to you as it was to me. We ended up covering a lot, and so for this week’s reflection, I simply just want to highlight what I saw as the key takeaways from our time together.
Firstly, and very important to remember for the Book of James, especially chapter two, James is comparing two faiths when he discusses faith and works. He is comparing faith with works, and faith without works. And he is saying that one of them is salvific (has the power to save) and one does not. The faith that has the power to save is the faith accompanied by works. The other faith, which is merely belief and no practice, no external outworking, is not a faith that saves. James illustrates this point further by saying, “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe - and shudder!” It is possible to “believe” in God and not be saved. Many people believe in God or a god, but if that God is not the God of the Bible and the God revealed in Jesus Christ, then that belief is not salvific. As we’ve said, genuine faith in Jesus leads to transformation (i.e. “works). As the great Reformers said, “Faith alone justifies, but a faith that justifies is never alone.”
Secondly, we turn our attention to Abraham. We covered the grueling story of him having to lead his son up the mountain for a sacrifice. Did you feel the tension in this story? Isaac asked his dad, “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering? (Genesis 22:7)” Abraham, knowing what God has asked him to do responds and says, “God will provide the lamb.(Genesis 22:8)” Can you imagine the pain Abraham felt in his soul when his son asked this question? He still walked in obedience, by no means was that easy. Remember, he waited 25 years for Isaac to be born. That. Is. A. Long. Time. A time that is hard for us to comprehend, because most of us are that age, or a bit younger. God was asking Abraham this question, “Do you love the promise more than you love me?” And Abraham, in his waiting, walked in obedience all the way until the knife was at his son’s throat, and then at that very moment, God spoke and intervened (Genesis 22:12). At the very last moment. Abraham waited on God, and it was in his waiting that he had to exercise his faith, and he was willing to obey. This faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness (James 2:23).
Thirdly, and finally, we turn our attention to Rahab. She took in the spies or “messengers” in James’ wording and sent them out a different way. She covered for them because of who their God was, because she believed in their God. The point here is - she risked her life. Rahab was brave and bold in her belief in the God of Israel, so much so that she risked her life in a manifestation of her faith in the God of Israel. And this, James says, was Rahab's “justification by works” (James 2:25).
Debating Two Faiths
The book of James has been one of the most controversial/debated books throughout church history. This is not because it is not inspired by the Holy Spirit (forgive me for the double negative). It is not because James is a false teacher. And it is not because some of the statements he makes contradict other teachings in the Scriptures.
The reason that this book has been highly debated is a direct result of some of the statements James makes that seem contradictory, but really are not. These are statements like:
- “faith, by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” (James 2:17)
- “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24)
- “For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.” (James 2:26)
The reason that these seem contradictory is because of some other passages in Scripture that seem to communicate that we are saved by faith alone. Specifically with the Apostle Paul’s writings, here are some examples:
- “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” (Romans 3:28)
- “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works so that no man may boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9)
Do you see the potential for contradiction? Or even a fun debate between James and Paul…
Paul: We are justified by faith, and not by works of the law!
James (tongue in cheek): Yeah, but if faith is by itself without works, it’s dead.
Paul: Your salvation is not your own doing though, not a result of your works! It is by grace, through faith.
James: What good is it though, if you say you have faith, but have no works. Can that faith save you?
I digress...and retire from my short career of writing plays.
Do you see this tension here, though? James emphasizes works. Paul emphasizes faith.
So what is the answer to this tension? Here is my answer:
James and Paul are not in contradiction with one another, and so, in my opinion, wouldn’t have this debate. We actually create the tension as we read it.
James is not elevating works over faith. I think that at times this is how Christians have tended to read it, and thus creates the tension. You see, James and Paul were both writing to different audiences who needed correction on different things. If I have learned one thing about interpreting Scripture it is this principle:
The passage cannot mean for us what it did not mean for them.
“Them” meaning the intended original audience.
So, we can say with confidence that Paul is not saying that works are useless. He is rather emphasizing that faith is ultimately what saves us. We can’t say that because of his emphasis there that he doesn’t care about our conduct/works. After all, he is the one who wrote about the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5. Works/external result of true faith matter to Paul, but he is trying to communicate that they don’t secure salvation, and that faith does that.
On the other hand, James is not communicating to his audience that faith doesn’t matter, but rather that true saving faith in Jesus will manifest itself in works. If faith does not have works, it might not be true saving faith in Jesus.
The point is this: James is comparing two different faiths. He is comparing a faith that has works with a faith that does not have works. He is not drawing a line between faith and works and their power to save in and of themselves.
So now that I’m done being a nerd, here is the thing, friends. If we truly have saving faith in Jesus, we will be propelled towards good works. Or to be corny and make a play on words, “a faith that does not have works, doesn’t work.” Genuineness of faith will inevitably result in good works because we cannot encounter God’s love and remain the same. We either move farther away from Him, or closer to Him.
James, the Proverbs of the New Testament
We’ve been studying the book of James for almost 7 months now (woah). We’ve been moving at a really slow pace working our way through each verse, trying to gain an understanding of the book both in its original context, and what it means for us as Christians in 2021 (I accidentally wrote 2020 at first, lol).
As we continue to work our way through this book, I wanted to remind us of a few of the broader points of the book itself. Sometimes in our deeper study it is easy to forget that this book was a letter, meant to be read and heard by its original audience. Reminding ourselves of its overall themes can be a helpful tool, and encouraging along the way of deeper study.
Firstly, as with the title at the top, the book of James is often referred to as “the Proverbs of the New Testament”. The reason for this is that the content found in the book of James is content that practically and faithfully reminds Christians how to live. The book of Proverbs contains much on how to live wisely in this world before God. This, too, is the broad, overarching, and unifying theme of James. He is instructing this Jewish audience in how to live out their faith in Christ, and we can glean some insight for that for our lives.
Secondly, there is an underlying theme of a hatred for hypocrisy. Hypocrisy can be understood as you claiming to have moral beliefs/values to your life does not line up with. James goes right at this many times throughout this book, most recently (in our studying) in James 2:14-17. He began the conversation of faith/works. James here compares faith that has works with faith that does not have works. He doesn’t outright call this hypocrisy, but it is pretty clear that those who have faith but not works are indeed hypocrites. And James’ hatred for such hypocrisy can be found in his tone that he communicates with.
Lastly, there is also an underlying theme of the warning against being double minded. This is especially prevalent in James 1:2-8 where he directly calls it out. It is also prevalent throughout the book. Most recently, again, in James 2:14-17. Having faith without works, for James, is being double minded - it doesn’t make sense! It is an unstable path, and ultimately one that leads to destruction.
So, in closing, let’s continue to press forward in our study of James with these themes in mind. Ultimately, with the intention in mind of how to live faithfully as Christians in this world, in 2021. The Bible may be thousands of years old, but is still the inspired Word of God that speaks to all times, all peoples, in all contexts. That being said, let’s continue to seek to be both hearers and doers of His Word, allowing it to enter and form every aspect of our lives, by the power of the Holy Spirit.