“So wait, is this your belief or are you trying to say that this is what the book of James is saying?” he asked me.
And inside I smiled a little bit.
I smiled a little bit because when somebody asks me this during a Bible study that I am leading, I know it’s going well. I have said something that challenges assumptions and forces people to think critically and deeply about how scripture should inform our lives.
Of course, that’s easier to do with some scriptures than others, and it just so happens that the book of James is full of ideas that ought to challenge us. You don’t have to dig too deeply to discover a thought that shakes your foundation.
I believe that the predominant theme of the letter is the friend of God/friend of the world dichotomy. “Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.” (4:4) This “no-one-can-serve-two-masters” idea is fairly common throughout scripture, but nowhere more clearly articulated than in James, and as such it provokes some pretty deep thought.
Last night at Bible study, many of us sensed the challenge, myself included. We were confronted with the notion that we do not truly live our lives the way God wants us to. And then we realized that there are two options when confronted with this fact.
Option A, we can rationalize our lives. Or 2, we can confess our sin.
Of course our first inclination is to rationalize. We will do all sorts of interpretive gyrations with scripture in order to get its message to fit into our current lifestyle. “It’s for the safety and security and health and well-being of my family,” we frequently say.
Abraham is James’ example (2:21). Abraham, whose friendship of God was manifest in his willingness to sacrifice his own son. Even that.
“I’ll follow you, Jesus, but my dad just died and his funeral is today.”
“I’ll follow you, Jesus, but I’d like to say goodbye to my family first.”
Luke chapter 9. Even that.
The enormous amount of wealth that families amass (my own included) in the form of savings accounts and college funds and insurance policies and investments … it’s all for the welfare of my family, right? What’s so wrong with that?
“I’ll follow you, Jesus, let me just check my 401k first.”
“You do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” (4:14)
Rather than reshape God’s word so that it fits into our lives, the second option is to confess. We don’t like this option, since it requires humility, and we do not do humility very well. Option A doesn’t require humility, or submission, or transformation, so we like it! We can go on living exactly how we want to live, and feel good about it.
Or maybe we could confess.
Maybe we could truly acknowledge that we know very well what Jesus expects of us, and the way we live is nowhere close to it; it’s just too hard.
Maybe we could actually confess our need to discover who Jesus really is and pattern our lives after his and stop bickering about the minutiae of the inane.
Maybe we could confess that we are stuck in a society that pulls on us from a thousand directions at once, and we are helpless to pull ourselves out of it completely.
And maybe in confessing we could receive grace. And maybe in receiving grace we could experience transformation.
And maybe in the transformation we will discover that God will not actually ask us to sacrifice our own son, and provide for our needs anyway. Yes, maybe we will realize that if we are actually seeking first the kingdom of God, a few other things might be added unto us as well.
Maybe we will figure out that confessing opens up space in our lives for grace, and when grace begins to fill your life it is oh, so, so, very, very good! As in, unimaginably good - better than in your wildest dreams!
The book of James expresses the moral imperatives of Christianity in provocative ways. They are written “so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing” (1:4) and in order that we might embody “the implanted word that has the power to save your souls” (1:21).
In other words, “faith is brought to completion by works” (2:22); we live what we believe. And sometimes we don’t. And that’s okay - that’s why there’s grace. But rather than pretend our lives are just fine, maybe we need to confess that they really aren’t, and see what happens from there.