READ : James 1:19-27
Christians on the left are often concerned about social justice, while those on the right tend to pay more attention to matters of personal morality. But according to James, true religion cares about both.
Today we begin a series of programs on the letter of James. Historically, the author of this little book, James, is understood to be the James whose mentioned in the book of Acts as the brother of Jesus and the leader of the church in Jerusalem. His letter is addressed to the twelve tribes in the dispersion, as he writes in verse 1, which doesn’t mean that he’s writing only to Jews. It’s James’ way of describing the Christian church, the new Israel, the twelve tribes of God, scattered among the nations. In other words, this book is addressed to the whole church throughout the world which makes James one of the so-called Catholic or universal epistles in the New Testament.
James is definitely a product of Jewish Christianity which, as we should recall, is originally the only form of Christianity there was. It was first and foremost the Jewish citizens of Jerusalem who came to faith in Jesus, the Messiah. And James reflects that origin. His book is filled with the great themes of Jewish religion, especially an emphasis on practical morality, on living out our faith. As John Bunyan said in his great classic The Pilgrim’s Progress, “The soul of religion is the practice part. It’s practical Christianity that really proves whether our faith is real or not.
If I were to summarize the theme of James in one word, I think I would choose the word wisdom. James relates well to the wisdom literature of the Old Testament, to books like Proverbs and Psalms and Ecclesiastes, and so he writes early on in verse 5 of chapter 1: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God who gives generously to all without reproach and it will be given to him.”
In the Bible, wisdom has very little to do with intelligence, and even less with education. Surely we all recognize that. It isn’t how learned a person is or even how smart they are that determines whether or not they’re truly wise. In the Bible, wisdom is contrasted with folly. The fool is the one, according to the psalmist, who says in his heart, “There is no God,” but it’s “the fear of the Lord” that is the beginning of wisdom in the great Old Testament definition.
So wisdom has to do with how you relate to God. If you live as if there’s no God, or if you even overtly claim you don’t believe in God, that makes you a fool, but if you fear the Lord, that is, if you hold him in proper awe and reverence, if you live your life as under his gaze and toward his purposes, then you’re a wise person.
As we think about this and look at James, chapter 1, we can see that he begins by talking about being wise in our understanding, especially our understanding of life and the adversity that it often brings. He begins this chapter by talking about trials, in other words: How do you face trouble?” Listen as he writes, “Count it all joy, my brothers and sisters, when you meet trials of various kinds.” Isn’t that remarkable? Count it all joy when you face trouble? Trials of various kinds. By that James doesn’t just mean persecution for your faith. The New Testament says a lot about that. But he’s talking about the ordinary course of suffering that comes to us just by living in a fallen world as frail and mortal human beings. “Count it joy,” he says, “when you face this.” Why? “Because you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness and when steadfastness has its full effect,” he goes on to say, “you will be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”
So we prove our faith by the way we view and live through adversity. Above all, do we remain loyal to God? “Blessed is the one who remains steadfast under trial,” says James, “for when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life.”
Do we continue to believe that God is good – all the time – as the phrase says? Because as James points out in verse 17, every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. It’s by holding on to this understanding of God, by remaining loyal and faithful to him, by refusing to give up, even when we experience the most heartbreaking sorrows, the most difficult trials, that we prove our faith is real and win through finally to the ultimate prize: eternal life with God.
Next, James talks about wisdom in our living, not only in our understanding, in our faith, in our belief about God, but in the way we exercise that faith in day-to-day obedience. And he begins by talking about the importance of our attitude toward God’s Word. Listen to this great statement in James 1:22, “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.”
You know, it’s easy just to listen, to let God’s word go in one ear and out the other, as we say. It’s even easier to simply talk about it. One of the great memorable characters in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress is the man he calls Talkative. Talkative could talk a good game when it came to the Bible and the Christian faith. He could spin you a tale of doctrine and theology from one day to the next. But when it came to actually living and obeying the Word of God, that’s where he fell short. His faith was all talk and nothing more.
One of the great themes of the letter of James is the way we use our tongues. And he says in verse 19 that we ought to be very slow to engage them. Don’t put them in gear until you’ve had time to listen first. “Know this,” he writes, “let every one be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness that God requires. Therefore put away all filthiness and wickedness, and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.”
So here’s the rule James gives us for true wisdom: Listen first, receive the Word humbly, meekly, and then obey it. Later on at the end of the chapter, James uses a wonderful analogy of a mirror.
“If anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer,” he writes, “he is like someone who looks intently at his face in a mirror, and then goes away and forgets what he was like.” In other words, God’s Word, the Bible, is given to us to show us what we need to do, to show us where we need to change. John Calvin said, “It’s like the mirror that shows us the spots on our face.” But if we simply glance at it and then walk away without doing anything about it, what good is it? You might just as well throw it away.
So the first key to practical wisdom in living out our faith is to make sure we commit ourselves not just to reading the Bible or talking about it, or listening to the preacher or the teacher, but to obeying, to doing, what God’s Word tells us to do. And this brings us to what I think in many ways is the climax of James chapter 1, his great statement at the end in verses 26 and 27 where he defines for us what true religion is. Listen to what he writes:
If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.
Sometimes the word religion takes on a kind of negative connotation. “I’m Christian,” some people want to say, “but I’m not religious.” This whole term, or idea, of religion being religious has attracted a kind of bad smell about it, mostly because of the often-perceived hypocrisy of self-declared religious people. But there is such a thing as true religion. Calvin defined religion this way: “It is the reverence together with the love of God which the knowledge of his benefits induces in us.” Isn’t that wonderful? In other words, religion is the way we respond to the goodness and gifts of God to us.
It’s true that there’s a kind of false religion. Some people pursue religious practices as a way to earn God’s favor. But true religion is simply the lifestyle of those who have been saved by the grace of God, who know that everything they have is a gift from him, and who want to give back their lives in gratitude to him. And here’s what it consists of, says James, two things: outward actions and inward purity. True religion and pure before God is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction. What he means really is to care for the poor and the disadvantaged in our society. Those were the widows and orphans in his day. And when he says “visit them,” he doesn’t just mean knock on the door and say hello. He means to provide for their needs in every sense: materially, spiritually, psychologically, socially. And then there’s this: “to keep yourself unstained from the world.” In other words, inwardly pure, sexual purity, moral purity.
It’s interesting, isn’t it, how often Christians will separate those two things. There’s kind of a great divide. On the one hand, there are the social activists, people with a conscience about our society, and then on the other hand, there are the pietists who are greatly concerned for our moral purity. Too often in our day those who try to do good in society aren’t very pure in their personal lives, and those who try to be pure in their personal lives don’t seem to be doing much for others in society, especially the poor.
But as the Bible says elsewhere in another context, “What God has joined together, let no one put asunder.” James combines them both in his definition for us of what real religion is. And it’s in doing this that we will become the kind of men and women God intends us to be. Isn’t that what it means to be truly wise?