The theme of James is captured in the first chapter, verses James 1:2-4:
Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters,[a] whenever you face trials of many kinds, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. 4 Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.
He then discusses trials and faith throughout the rest of the letter. Some of these trials come from without, but some are as near as the members of our own bodies, i.e. our tongues. Someone pointed out that James talks about getting LICKED BY OUR OWN TONGUES. James 1:26 tells us that if anyone thinks he is religious but does not control his tongue but deceives his heart, his religion is worthless. Did you hear that? Worthless! Nobody needs a worthless religion. Then we discover that religion that God looks favorably upon is less about talk and more about caring service. Pure religion that God the Father accepts is to care for the fatherless and the widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unspotted from the world. Getting in touch with those in need and out of touch with worldly pursuits. We learn in James not so much to talk the talk, but to walk the walk. 1 John 3:18 echoes this same sentiment telling us: “Let us not love in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth.”
When I was growing up my parents didn’t tell me that they loved me. In fact, I don’t remember my dad ever saying that he loved me until I was in college at Harding. I had heard a moving sermon about telling your family that you love them and I went straight to the dorm and got on the phone… this was a long time before cell phones, or even home computers… believe it or not. Hand held calculators were still a novelty. Texas Instruments had come out with those not long before this. I had to get in line to use the phone on our dorm wing because other guys got ahead of me to do what I was going to do. My turn came and I called home and asked to speak with dad. I told him about the lesson and then I said, “Dad, I love you and I am thankful to God for you.” I guess it was the first time I had said that to him too. He choked up and finally managed to say, “I love you too, son,” and he gave the phone to mom. I was not alone. Almost all the guys in my dorm had parents like mine who loved in deed and truth so clearly that we knew they loved us, even if the words were not spoken.
Things have changed a lot since then. The danger of today is reversed for many. Hearing the words, “I love you,” are cheap. Sometimes they come from hollow, selfish lives that show otherwise. That kind of third rate love is all too uncommon today. James would say, “What use is it my beloved brothers, if a person claims to have love but has no deeds?” Can such love save him? Love without deeds is dead. It is the same with faith. It’s not just about talk, but about actions that speak louder than words.
James instructs us in how to have a faith that works for God’s glory as it joyfully endures trials for our own good, prayerfully receives wisdom from God,and then works caringly for the good of those around us with special attention to those in deepest need. He tells us right away that faith is tested by trials, and when trials come, if we consider them joy and do not quit or walk away, there is a great reward. When faith is tested by trials it CAN produce a wonderful spiritual tool called endurance. And this endurance CAN work in us a growth in maturity so that James can point to a person formed by this and say, this one is complete… he lacks nothing. He’s got it! She’s got it! But don’t forget, this depends on our cooperation and response to those trials. So we see that it is faith that is the mechanism God uses in us that turns trials into endurance, maturity and completeness in Christ. Obviously, if we face trials without faith and the joy of knowing the reward it brings, we will find ourselves tossed about by the winds of this world and lose the reward God wants to give us as we chase after convenience and ease in life instead of Christ-like character.
Another thing James tells us in the front and back of his letter is that faith during prayer is essential. In chapter 1 we see that God is in the giving business, and for all who ask Him for wisdom, if we ask in faith without doubting, God grants that prayer. He gives to all men generously without finding fault. But if we pray with the wrong motives such as selfishness or with doubts, we shouldn’t expect to receive anything from God. Such a person is double minded, unstable in all his ways, says James. Then in chapter 4 James picks up on this theme again with these words:
What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? 2 You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God. 3 When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.
4 You adulterous people,[a] don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.
Finally, again in chapter James 5:13-18 James tells us that prayers offered in faith have power to save the sick and bring forgiveness of sin and healing of the soul. For James faith, that is, living faith, saving faith, real Christian faith… this kind of faith is active, working, serving, and praying. It is humble, obedient, honest, devoted, growing, durable, and life shaping in nature. Faith, completed by works and matured through trials,shapes us so that we look and act like Jesus.
Again, 1 John echoes this in 5:
1 Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and whoever loves the Father loves the child born of Him. 2 By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and observe His commandments. 3 For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments; and His commandments are not burdensome. 4 For whatever is born of God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith.
Faith is the victory! That believing, loving, obeying, born again spiritual stuff that has no equal in this world.
Last week we looked at how faith works, and in that lesson I explored a little of what Paul says in comparison with James. We looked at Ephesians 2 and James 2. I tried to show that both Paul and James agree in the gospel, but they are addressing opposite extremes. Paul speaks to those who think they can EARN their salvation through works, and James speaks to those who think that they can have saving faith but do nothing. James stresses that faith, saving faith, always works. Faith that does not work is dead. Paul stresses that faith, saving faith, isn’t trying to work its way to salvation. No, saving faith works because of salvation received by God’s grace. In Paul’s words, “I have been crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live, yet not I, but Christ lives in me, and the life that I now live in the flesh I live by the FAITH of the Son of God who loves me and gave Himself for me.
Next week we will dive into chapter three of James and talk about taming our tongues, or as I read this week a sermon called “Managing our Mouths.”
There is a lot of instruction in the Bible about watching our words. James joins the chorus here and helps us with illustrations and clear instruction that makes us pause and take to heart what we say.