Chances are, you are one of the many people who love the book of James. James is such a practical, relatively easy book to understand, and I think this is one of the reasons it is a favourite of small groups, youth groups, personal study, and devotionals. There are a few difficult verses to work through, but its reputation as the “Proverbs of the New Testament” makes it popular, as it’s all about putting faith into action.
Personally, James was not always a favourite of mine. In many ways, I’d prefer to work my way through through Paul’s theology than be accosted by James’ practicality. I can happily get lost thinking about the second coming, women in ministry, spiritual gifts, etc., but James doesn’t offer that safe haven of heady issues to wrestle through – James demands that the reader DO something. Many believe that Paul and James are contradictory in their writings, but I don’t think that’s the case; I think these two New Testament authors are complementary. Paul emphasizes that we are saved by faith through grace, and James reminds us that true faith bears fruit – it results in action. In no way am I saying that our works save us – the Bible is clear that we are saved through God’s grace and our faith in what Christ has done – but I think even Paul would say that God calls us to do good works (check out Ephesians 2:8-10), and that the fruit of a faithful life is those good works. James says “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works” (James 2:18). This means there’s no sitting on the sidelines. This is challenging for me, and James certainly had every intention of challenging the original reader.
The book of James was likely written to Jewish believers who were suffering because of their new-found faith. They were impoverished, struggling with the segregation they experienced when they came to Christ, and they were undergoing trials of all kinds. Its possible that they were surrounded by Gentiles and could be facing temptations to walk as the unsaved Gentiles did. Perhaps they were thinking, “We believe that Jesus is the Messiah, but we don’t necessarily need to live as though we do…” in an attempt to make life easier for themselves. Maybe they were tempted to compromise the outworking of their faith so that their trials and poverty would be lessened. James offers a stern reminder that they are to live out their faith. It is not enough to have air-tight theology – “even the demons believe – and shudder!” (2:19). No, if they truly have a saving faith, that faith will be demonstrated through what they do. Regardless of the circumstances they find themselves in, they are to walk the talk wholeheartedly, living as Christ has called them to live. They are to stand steadfast through trials (1:2-4), they are to live according to godly wisdom rather than worldly wisdom (3:13-18), they are to speak lovingly and encouragingly to one another, building one another up (3:1-12), they are to have no regard for riches or offer the rich special treatment (2:1-7; 5:1-5). They are to walk out their faith, and they are to care for one another, encouraging one another to stay on the narrow path that leads to life, rather than straying to take the “easy” way (5:19-20).
As I was studying James, I feel that God was emphasizing to me the importance of standing steadfast throughout trials – of walking out faith no matter the circumstances. Sometimes this is easier said than done. Walking out my faith seems simple when life is rosy, but what about the days when I feel I am suffering for my faith? Am I eager to walk out what I believe then? Do I let the distractions of the world water down my faith so that it is not bearing fruit? All too often, the answer to that question is, “Yes.” God, I pray that you would help me to stand firm in my faith no matter what my circumstances, so that I might walk out my faith as You lead and direct me.