James is a countercultural letter. That much is clear from the very outset: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds…”? I mean, come on, James, you don’t know what I’ve been through! I actually had a really good reason to not consider it pure joy.
Except that James was writing to people who were actually in a way worse spot than I have ever been. That’s part of what makes James so challenging.
There are, pound for pound, more imperatives in James than in any book in the New Testament, and he seems to have something to say to everyone about how his or her righteousness falls short. When the commands just keep coming, it is easy to be overwhelmed by James because we don’t measure up to the standard he sets. The problem is that being overwhelmed often leads to being defensive, and if we approach the multitude of commands in James from a place of defensiveness, we defeat the purpose for which James wrote the letter in the first place—becoming more like Christ.
So, what do we do?
“Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.”
This is so hard to do because our default position is to defend ourselves, to plead our case and be understood. You can find proof of this everywhere. If you turn on cable news and the channel is not on a commercial break there is a pretty good chance what you find will be two or more people whose only goal is being understood with no concern for understanding anyone else’s position. If you peel back the veneer of your own relationships, you might find this as well, I know I do. I wish I could say that one place I never get defensive, that I never feel the need to minimize, that I never try to explain why I’m right or at the very least not guilty is in my relationship with God, but that would be a lie.
While I doubt James had this in mind when he wrote this letter, I think there’s a huge benefit to applying his advice in verses 19-20 to his own words. We have to be quick to listen to what James has to say, even when it feels like an indictment. We have to be slow to speak, waiting until we’re sure we understand what James is saying before we plead our case. This means reading his words carefully and completely, and if there is something that is particularly tough, talking it through with someone trustworthy. It also means resisting the urge to be frustrated or overwhelmed by the commands James gives because giving in to that urge keeps us from reaching the righteousness God desires to build in us.
Approaching James this way goes against our natural predilections, and it also asks us a simple but crucial question: are we willing to fully trust God? Like trust him enough to do what he says even when we don’t want to? Because the thing that makes all of the commands that seem so challenging in James possible is trusting God more than we trust ourselves.
On the whole, it seems as though James is on a quest to root out self-righteousness in whatever form it may appear. I get this feeling when I am reading James like he’s been watching me, and whenever I feel the urge to pat myself on the back, James is there to say, “no so fast.”
In the case of James 1:22-27, James makes it clear that there is no such thing as Christianity that is contained solely within the mind or heart of a person. While we should be people who think and feel, thinking and feeling are not enough. I don’t know about you, but I am sometimes tempted to give myself credit for caring as though my care on its own will actually be beneficial. Yet, James makes it clear—our caring must move us to action, because it’s action that counts.
I’m reminded of one of my favorite moments from one of my favorite TV shows of all time—The West Wing. In a moment when Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman has finally realized he needs help to deal with the PTSD he is experiencing, his boss (and de facto father), Chief of Staff Leo McGarry tells Josh this story to explain that he is by no means alone in his struggle:
This guy's walking down the street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep he can't get out. A doctor passes by and the guy shouts up, “Hey you. Can you help me out?” The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a priest comes along and the guy shouts up, “Father, I'm down in this hole can you help me out?” The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a friend walks by. “Hey, Joe, it's me can you help me out?” And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, “Are you stupid? Now we're both down here.” The friend says, “Yeah, but I've been down here before and I know the way out.”
James may have used the example of widows and orphans, but I doubt he intended to limit the scope of those on whose behalf we must act to just those people. The point James is making is if we want to be the people who Jesus has called us to be, we must be people who get down in the hole with people who need us. The thing I hear James saying most clearly to me in this first chapter is that it’s time to stop thinking and start acting.