Meditations in James: 28 : Stumbling Christians?
Jas 3:2 We all stumble in many ways. If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check.
Have you ever wondered why all the pastoral letters of the New Testament were written? The simple, short answer is because people aren’t perfect. Once we can accept that simple truth, the Christian life becomes so much more simple. If you haven’t realised that, then when you do fail you will feel guilty and the guilt will cling and keep on making you feel bad. When James says We all stumble in many ways he is saying it to both reassure and to challenge. When I was a younger Christian I encountered those who preached perfection, and because I knew I was not perfect, I felt really bad about myself. I didn’t realize that when Jesus said, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48) he was giving us a target to aim for, something to work for.
Now theologians sometimes refer to ‘imputed righteousness’ and ‘imparted righteousness’. Imputed righteousness is the righteousness that God imputes or credits to us when we receive Christ’s salvation. He declares us righteous in His sight on the basis of the work of Christ. When we receive Christ we are ‘justified’ or, as some have said, God makes it so it is “just-as-if-I’d” never sinned. In His sight we are declared righteous. But any honest Christian knows that from time to time they get it wrong, and there are character imperfections in us that need working on, and this is where ‘imparted righteousness’ comes in. He has given us His Holy Spirit who is totally righteous, and as we learn to let Him lead us and express Jesus through us, so His righteousness is imparted to us and expressed through us.
John in his first letter also alluded to this: “I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defence–Jesus Christ, the Righteous One.” (1 Jn 2:1). In other words sin, or getting it wrong, should not be a common thing in our lives now, but the reality is that we will stumble, we will trip over our feet and get it wrong sometimes. John gives two answers to that. Answer number one: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn 1:9). That is our side of it. Answer number two: if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defence–Jesus Christ.” (1 Jn 2:1). That is God’s side of it, Jesus speaking up in our defence, reminding the Father that he has died for all our sins. The challenge that comes with all this, is can we aim to keep sin out of our lives as much as possible?
But then James says something that seems both an impossibility but at the same time a challenge: If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check. The person who is careful in what they say and is never at fault in speaking, is a perfect person and that ability to speak righteously reveals the heart that is within and that heart enables us to control our whole life. Now is it possible to be perfect? Well, we’ve already covered that above in the first paragraph. Maturity is certainly something that the Bible suggests we can achieve. The writer to the Hebrews commented, “solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.” (Heb 5:14). There are therefore mature people. Paul also said, “We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature.” (1 Cor 2:6) implying the same thing. James said earlier, “Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” (Jas 1:4). There he linked it with being complete or whole. Jesus’ call to perfection in Matthew 5 is actually a call to wholeness or completeness. So, rather than worrying about being ‘perfect’, and constantly feeling bad when we spot things that are less than perfect, can we instead aim for maturity, for wholeness and completion? This then becomes a goal to work for rather than a means of condemnation. Recognize that you have some way to go, but actually set yourself the goal of letting God change you, like his word says (2 Cor 3:18), to become more and more like Jesus.
There are two things we can do to facilitate this process of change. The first thing is to let the Holy Spirit search you and help you face up to how you fall short. This is similar to the assessing that Paul says should go on in us when we come to take Communion: “A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup.” (1 Cor 11:28). There are some things that will be obvious and we need to confess them and deal with them. Some things we may feel we need the Lord’s help to overcome. Ask Him. The second thing is simply to develop your relationship with the Lord. As we do that, His presence will change us. Now there are basic disciplines that Christians through the ages have found build and change us – reading the Bible, praying, worshipping, fellowshipping with other Christians, being a witness to others – all these things work in the process of changing us.
So, to summarise, recognize that sometimes you will get it wrong but there are two things to help us there (see above). Don’t be content with those imperfections: confess them, seek God’s help to overcome them, and at the same time work positively to develop your relationship with Him. Be changed!