30. Tongue Burnt

Meditations in James: 30 : Burnt by the Tongue

Jas 3:5,6 Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.

There are two sorts of TV programme that don’t excite me. One is the morning TV where there is a studio full of people talking about a contentious part of life.  The other is so-called soap operas.  Imagine both of them without any sound.  First of all imagine the contentious couples debate if they, and the other participants, were dumb.  Nobody would watch it, would they, because it is the angry words spoken that stir people’s interests.  Imagine soap operas as real life dramas and imagine again the people being dumb.  Most of the ‘difficult situations’, that go to make up the interest of these ongoing television fillers, are what they are because of what the various people say.

Oh yes, the tongue is the instrument that has this devastating potential for causing upset and upheaval. Having just written about how the tongue guides our life, James now goes on to warn us of the tremendous power of the tongue.  Solomon was aware of this when he wrote Proverbs: With his mouth the godless destroys his neighbor (Prov 11:9) andThrough the blessing of the upright a city is exalted, but by the mouth of the wicked it is destroyed.” (Prov 11:11) and A fool’s lips bring him strife, and his mouth invites a beating.” (Prov 18:6) and A lying tongue hates those it hurts, and a flattering mouth works ruin.” (Prov 26:28).  Note the things in that short list that the tongue is capable of doing: destroying a neighbour (presumably by slander), destroying a city (presumably by lies, deceit, and generally leading into unrighteous business deals), personal strife (probably by rudeness and verbal attack which invites retribution), and general hurt and ruin by harshness and flattery which deceives.

If you are a watcher of these “sort out the problems” morning TV programmes or of soap operas, next time think about what all the people are saying.  Observe where there are words that are attacking, words that are demeaning, words that are violent, and think how different the situation would be if the exact opposite sort of words were spoken instead.  James says, Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark and so watch and see how a few words can ignite a situation and cause hostility and upset and division and hurt and anger and….. the list goes on!  In families there are words that should never be spoken: “I hate you!” or “I wish I’d never been born!” or “You’re ugly” or “You’re stupid!”  Each one of these is a small spark that has devastating effects.  Once said they cannot be withdrawn and they set a fire of passion blazing which is not easily put out.

But James pushes it further.  He says, The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. That sounds awful!  Why is he using the analogy of a fire?  Because a fire is something out of control and capable of spreading destruction.  But why does he say that this fire is a world of evil among the parts of the body? Well we sometimes speak about how we ‘compartmentalise’ our lives, and he’s saying imagine our bodies like different compartments.  If you imagine the tongue as one ‘department’ in the running of your life, it seems that in so many people it is a department that is evil.  It may be the expression of the heart, but it is the visible, or rather audible expression of evil.  The mouth is the propaganda machine of the human body, that is able to reach out and influence or harm others by the words that come out.  It is seen in many people as evil, speaking out hurtful, harmful words.

But he goes on, It corrupts the whole person. If you corrupt something you spoil or mar it, you taint it or pollute it.   Speaking out words is very influential, and tragically most of us don’t realise this, so that when we put something into words it’s like it strengthens something in us.  While it only remains a thought, it is fairly powerless, but once we speak it out, it seems like it has the effect of spreading that negative right through us, so it is something that becomes more established in us.  If our lives were like a glass of clear water, when we speak negative, unkind, hostile, impure, unrighteous words, it is like black ink is being dripped into that clear water and it is polluted and no longer clear.  The words have the ability to change the life.  The heart was wrong, but the words established that wrong in a deeper, firmer way.

But James then piles on further pictures: It …sets the whole course of his life on fire. If the tongue is a fire, then the words are like flaming pieces that soar up into the air and where they land they spread the fire. As we’ve just suggested, when the words are spoken they affect the rest of the life. We used the analogy of clear water; James uses the analogy of fire.

Then he finishes with a strange expression: and is itself set on fire by hell. Can I use an analogy that I use often, that of anger? A person may use anger to get their own way, but that is unrighteous. Now if a person uses unrighteous anger regularly, then they open themselves up to Satan’s influence and he can press in on that person so that their anger flares up and is completely uncontrollable. Now the same thing is true of the tongue. Some people use the tongue to put down others, as a means of having influence over them, but this is unrighteous.  So what happens is that when they do this they make themselves vulnerable to Satan (and hell is just shorthand for ‘the powers of darkness and all that they bring’) and so Satan takes the fire (emotional words) that they have used, and blows on it so they become completely out of control.  What this person finds is that no longer can they control what they say; they are motivated or driven by these emotions which are beyond their control, and the fire burns and burns and burns until the person is destroyed. Did you realise the terrible power that is there in the use of the tongue and the forces of destruction that can be released by it?  Well think about these things.

29. Steered

Meditations in James: 29 : Steered by the Tongue

Jas 3:3-5 When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts.

We take life for granted. We don’t think about the things we do, because they are so natural. We get up in the morning. We get dressed, eat breakfast, go out for the day, come home, eat, rest and sleep – every day!  We have eyes to see, ears to hear and mouths to speak, and we take them all for granted.  Take the mouth for example.  We may get up in the morning and so we groan about the day negatively.  We turn on breakfast TV, or breakfast radio, or read a morning paper, and grumble about the state of the world.  We complain about a bus or train being late, or about the weather.  We criticise people in the news and at work.  And we wonder why we feel so negative about life.  We speak thoughtlessly to someone and we hurt or upset them and a relationship is broken.  We speak hastily and the die is cast and a decision made that was unwise.  Our mouths play a large part in expressing what we feel, in determining what we feel, and in creating or breaking relationships with other people.  Oh yes, our tongue is a powerful bit of our body, and the wise person thinks about this.

James has been guiding us to think about our lives and has been challenging us about the nature of them as we live them out in the midst of the world that is so often hostile to us and to God. He’s talked about the link between faith and deeds, and he’s gone on to allude to spiritual maturity, something we should be aiming for.  Have you ever used Google Earth or some other satellite system that looks down on the earth? You see the earth from a distance and then you can zoom down and roads become visible and then, as you get nearer, buildings take shape, and then details can be seen and, if it was a real shot, even people seen.  We zoom in and more and more detail is seen.  That’s what James is now doing.  He is zooming in on our lives and focusing specifically on that all-important organ, our tongue!

He doesn’t go into immediate teaching about it; he paints pictures that make us think about it.  He speaks first about the bit in the mouth of a horse.  It’s a very obvious picture.  As the rider pulls on the reins the horse’s head is pulled round and its body follows the direction of the head.  The implication is that we go where our tongue takes us.  There is a sense that the tongue controls the whole body.  Yes, we know that the tongue speaks what is in the heart: out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks.” (Lk 6:45).  As we feel on the inside so we speak, but it is as we speak so our direction is set.  We speak and others hear what we say, and we are committed.  If we keep quiet, we are not committed; it is only as we speak is our path set.  What we say, we tend to do.

Then James gives another picture, that of a ship. Oh yes, he says, there may be big waves and strong winds, but it is the rudder of the ship that determines where it goes.  The rudder is so small in comparison to the rest of the ship, but it is still the part that determines the course of the boat.  The same implication is there.  Our course is determined by such a small part of us. Someone offers us as job.  We say, “Yes, I’ll take it.”  Our course is set by our tongue.  Someone chides us for wrong behaviour.  We lash back with our tongue defensively.  Unfortunately they were our manager, and our future hope of promotion has just gone.  Our course is set.  In a marriage, a row ensues and angry words create division.  No healing words are spoken and the rift gets bigger. A course is being set. It is our words that set our course. Think back over the past week or month and see if you can identify times when your words set the course of what was to follow.  Think about things that are yet to happen today or tomorrow and consider how your words will set the course of what is to follow.

James gives a strong warning to finish this verse: the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. What is boasting?  It is speaking out and making claims that are untrue, claims that we are bigger and better than is really true. The tiny tongue can say such silly things, but they are things that make other people think less of us; they are things that lead us further into self-deception. Boasting reveals pride and it reveals foolish thinking, but even worse, it leads us along a course that is damaging to us.

Before we go anywhere else with James in this consideration of the use of the tongue, can we realize how significant our words are? Can we realize what our words do? Can we see that they reveal the state of our hearts and the also commit us to the path ahead. We will, in the days ahead, be determining our paths, partly by what we will be saying. That needs thinking about!

28. Stumbling Christians

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!

27. Maturity of Teachers

Meditations in James: 27 : The Maturity of Teachers

Jas 3:1 Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.

We have often commented in these meditations that it is important to note the context and catch the thought pattern of the writer. When we come to chapter three, if we are not careful it could seem as if James is jumping to a new subject, but he’s not. If you scan back over the previous chapter you’ll see again that James has been concerned to emphasise to these scattered Christians the importance of living out practically, the Christian life, a life of faith.  Earlier, at the end of chapter one, he had cautioned us against letting our tongues run away with us. In the second verse of chapter three, which we’ll consider in detail tomorrow, he says, “We all stumble in many ways.” In other words James is wanting us to look at our lives to see that they conform with God’s expectations as seen in the New Testament, but at the same time realize that we all fall short and miss it sometimes.

In those days, the height of having become someone who had mastered life, was to become a teacher.  A teacher wasn’t just someone who imparted information, they were considered to be those who were mature and wise and who could impart truth from a life that showed by its fruits that it had grown in self-control and wisdom.  Now of course James is speaking to the church and this applies doubly so.  As he has been saying for a large part of this letter so far, we are called to be those who cope with the trials of life (1:2-18), those who DO what God has said (1:19-25), those who can control their tongue (1:26,27), those who do not have wrong assessments of people (2:1-13) and those who live out their faith in real and practical ways (2:14-26).  Now if you can say you’ve got on top of all these, he implies, then you can be a teacher of others, to lead them also into these things.

In fact, the way he says it comes with a warning. You really don’t want to be a teacher unless you have got it all worked out, because if you stand before others, telling them how to live, and actually haven’t done it yourself, then God is going to hold you accountable. You will be in trouble! In a sense this is just a further call to self-assessment.  That is what this letter is really all about. He is saying, look I know you have been scattered into the world, and so you are having to learn to live in the world without the strength of Jerusalem upholding and encouraging you, so I want to remind you of what you have been called to and I want you to check yourselves out against that. Don’t think too highly of yourselves because, probably there aren’t many of you who will have reached such maturity in these things that you can become teachers of others.

We also have to see these things in the wider context of the whole New Testament.  Jesus scolded the teachers of his day who loved being acknowledged publicly for what they were (Mt 23:7).  He looks for humility in such people.  That is a first thing to note.  With maturity comes humility that does not seek for position.  Indeed a teacher should be a servant: Nor are you to be called `teacher,’ for you have one Teacher, the Christ. The greatest among you will be your servant. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” (Mt 23:10-12). So a teacher is to be a mature person who does all that James has been speaking about, so that maturity will bring wisdom with humility, to act as a servant of others, not as one who lords it over others. With all these warnings against being a teacher, one might think that the New Testament teaches against becoming a teacher, but the contrary is true.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt 5:19). His implication is that after practice comes handing it on to other people. Indeed Jesus’ closing instructions at the end of Matthew’s Gospel were to go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Mt 28:19,20). Teaching, or imparting to others all that Jesus had taught, was to be a very real part of the life of the church.

The writer to the Hebrews expected people to mature and to become teachers: We have much to say about this, but it is hard to explain because you are slow to learn. In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again.” (Heb 5:11,12). Now there is a challenge to the church where most people are happy to sit back and do little. No, says the teaching of the New Testament, the role of the leaders is to bring YOU into a place of maturity so that YOU can do the work: It was he who gave some to be ….pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may …. become mature (Eph 4:11,12). So James’ call is a call to self-assessment, but it is not an excuse for immaturity. Our call is to become mature and to impart the truth to others. May it be so!

26. Rahab’s Faith

Meditations in James: 26 : Rahab’s Faith

Jas 2:25    In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction?

There are times when I giggle at the audacity of the Bible writers as, in a subtle way; they poke fun at the self-righteous, Sunday-only ‘Christians’.  As you may have gathered from earlier meditations, I have a problem with ‘ladies in big hats and men in suits’ type of religion.  It is so frightfully ‘nice’ and so far from the reality of Jesus Christ who met with prostitutes, crooks and the general dregs of society.  Now I apologise if you belong to one of those rare congregations who can wear nice hats and suits and yet also rub shoulders with the poor and the unrighteous at the same time, but so often the two do not go together.  I’m sorry for these descriptions, but they do exist and they do portray a poor imitation of the life of Christ.

I hope you will have been getting the message from these recent reflections on what James has been saying, as he has been speaking to the church, living in the world, and in danger of taking on the world’s values.  ‘Snobbery rules OK!’ is NOT a motto for the church of Jesus Christ; neither is ‘performance religion’ acceptable, where you turn up to perform as good people on Sundays but for the rest of the week fail to exhibit the nature and characteristics of Jesus Christ, or exhibit Biblical faith as the Bible teaches. These are the dangers that James is seeking to counter.

The ‘nice’ Christian is very happy to hear illustrations involving Abraham, because Abraham was a good man, a man of faith, THE man of faith.  Abraham conjures up good images, but Rahab is a bit different!  Rahab was a prostitute (possibly an innkeeper) who lied to save the Israelite spies.  A prostitute, an innkeeper and a liar!  How embarrassing!  To make it worse, it’s not only James who cites her.  The writer to the Hebrews in the ‘gallery of faith’ in chapter 11 also cites her: By faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient(Heb 11:31).  It gets even worse, Rahab is cited in Matthew’s record of Jesus’ family tree as the mother of Boaz, which makes her the great, great, great grandmother of King David (Mt 1:5,6).  Jesus’ human family tree included a prostitute?  Yes, because even prostitute’s get saved!  Well they might not in your church, but they do in Jesus’ church. (Sorry about that!)

What fun! James who is so meticulous about right behaviour in the kingdom of God, isn’t ashamed to use a prostitute as an example of faith – because she was!  Now that is a bit of a challenge!  It’s a challenge because of the way she exhibited faith, and it’s a challenge in the light of our own lives today.

Let’s consider first how she exhibited faith.  You can find it in Joshua 2.  The key to her citation is found in the following: Before the spies lay down for the night, she went up on the roof and said to them, “I know that the LORD has given this land to you and that a great fear of you has fallen on us, so that all who live in this country are melting in fear because of you. We have heard how the LORD dried up the water of the Red Sea for you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to Sihon and Og, the two kings of the Amorites east of the Jordan, whom you completely destroyed. When we heard of it, our hearts melted and everyone’s courage failed because of you, for the LORD your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below.” (Josh 2:8-11).  Do you see it?  We have heard Remember Rom 10:17, faith comes from hearing the message”?  She had heard what God had been doing for Israel and she believed and she wanted to be a part of them as a result. Her conclusion was, the LORD your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below.” She became a believer and because she was a believer, she acted to protect the spies.  In a Fallen World, sometimes you have to choose the lesser of two evils.  Yes there are both evil, but you have to choose one of them to prevent a worse thing.  Thus she lied and saved the spies and was taken into Israel and became part of the Messianic family tree.  But don’t forget what James is teaching: because she believe she acted.

Now the second challenge that comes out of this, is to respond as least as well as Rahab did.  If a prostitute can respond to the Good News that “God is here,” (because basically that is what she heard and believed and responded to), how much more should we respond to the wonderful news that He has come in the form of His Son, and now in the form of His Holy Spirit who lives within us.  Recently in these meditations we considered the rewards we receive in heaven, and perhaps we may find some surprises there.  Could it be that those who comes from socially much inferior groups to some of the ‘nicer’ parts of the country, may receive greater rewards because they responded more fully, being more aware of their need?  If the local drug dealer turns to Christ and his life is totally transformed and he lives a real life of faith, how does that compare with the person who thinks they are all right,  simply goes to church on a Sunday, and sees little change in their life and knows nothing of the faith experience we have been speaking about recently?  Challenging stuff here in James!

24. More Than

Meditations in James: 24 :  Faith is more than just believing

Jas 2:19 You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that–and shudder.

As we have been saying over these past few days, it is our belief that this matter of faith is one of the most crucial issues for the church of the twenty-first century, no doubt as it has been for the church of every century. The temptation, for every one of us who is a Christian, is to lapse into a belief mentality that is merely an assent to information. I can assent to what astronomers tell me about the planet Jupiter, but it has absolutely no bearing on how I live my life. I can assent to what scientists tell me about the structure of atoms and molecules and even smaller particles of matter, but it has absolutely no affect on how I live my life.

When it comes to the Bible, I have a feeling that there are probably many things which, if we are honest, have little or no bearing on our lives. Thoughts about the Millennium for instance. Different theologians have different interpretations about what will happen and so rather than argue it, which does nothing more than massage the ego, I’m happy to say, “I’m a pan-millennialist – I’m sure it’ll all pan out in the end.” Large parts of the Bible, again if we are honest, merely go to reinforce or confirm our faith which is why I always advocate read all of it. In fact I am of the opinion that we can meditate on any passage in the Scriptures and God will feed us through it, and in feeding change us. Yet, I will still maintain that some parts of the Bible will be more alive and vibrant to us than others. The New Testament will have far more impact on us as Christians with all of its teaching about Jesus, salvation and the life God has for us, than say Ezekiel’s descriptions of the new temple he sees in his vision. That’s simply being real. But again, there is a danger here in just absorbing information – ‘knowing about’.

We’ve focused on this one little verse today because in it James is making this further point here about faith – it’s not just about having knowledge. Now knowledge is important as I have just been suggesting, (and would never want you to take what I have been saying as a reason for not reading the Bible – read it even more!) and indeed without knowledge it is really impossible to have Biblical faith.  We quoted the other day,By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.” (Heb 11:3). The implication there is that we have been told through the Scriptures that God made this world from nothing, and that creates an awesome response to Him. That response is worship and worship is an act of faith. The writer later went on, anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him (Heb 11:6). Again something in us believed there was a supernatural being, because that is how we are made, but when we came to the Bible we found it was ALL about God. The more we read the more we were convinced that He exists and desires a relationship with human beings, whereby when they seek Him with all their heart, they find Him (Deut 4:29), and when they find Him He blesses them. This knowledge evoked a response in us. That response is faith. The only question is, will we continue to let it evoke responses in us?

You believe that there is one God. Good! says James. Oh yes, knowing about God is a good starting place, is what he is saying, but he’s not happy for us to stop at that place. Even the demons believe that, he continues.  Why is he saying that? Well demons are fallen spirits who are led by Satan, and they are in rebellion against God.  God so permits that state of affairs because He makes use of them, but the truth is that they are not God’s children and they are not living in the blessing of God’s love and are not called to live by faith –  but they still ‘know’ about God!  You see what James is saying?  Even God’s enemies know about Him, but that doesn’t mean to say that evokes a faith response in them.  To the contrary, they shudder with awful fear, knowing that God is All-mighty and one day He will decree their end (Rev 20:10).  Oh no, they have every reason to shudder, but that is not faith.

Yes, you can have a variety of responses to hearing about God. It can be the response of the atheist, the response of denial, and for that the Bible calls them fools (Psa 14:1). Then there is the response of the agnostic which, when they hear, is, “Well, I’m not sure,” and so they sit on the fence and remain lost. Then there is the response of the would-be believer who responds gladly and receives salvation, but it is at this point that James challenges us for it’s like he says, don’t stop believing AND responding. Don’t let your Christian faith lapse into a knowledge thing, for it’s meant to remain alive and vibrant, a relationship where we go on hearing God and go on responding to Him. Make sure it is, won’t you.

23. Faith No Deeds

Meditations in James: 23 :  Faith without deeds

Jas 2:18 But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.

Faith is at the heart of the reality of the Christian Faith. That is why James perseveres with his argument and why we continue with it for a third day. Remember behind all James’ teaching is the thought that he is writing to a dispersed people living in the world and so James is saying things that they particularly need to hear, to combat the deception of the enemy in the world. One of the enemy’s strategies is to try to get us into an extreme position, so there are some ‘faith’ people and there are some ‘action’ or ‘deeds’ people. The ‘faith’ person is a great prayer warrior perhaps, or a great Bible expositor and the rest of the church hold their spirituality in awe.  Then at the other extreme is the person who is full of good works, constantly helping the poor and needy but who is never heard to utter a prayer and never spends time with God in the Bible. One of them has their head in the clouds of heaven, but that is all they have. The other has their feet on the earth, but that is all they have.

Now when we look at verse 18 there is a problem. Ancient manuscripts don’t have punctuation or quotation marks, and some Bibles change the punctuation marks to include the whole of the debate, but let’s accept it for what we have above. James imagines one of these ‘extremists’ saying, “Well you’re a faith person James; I’m a deeds person. I’m not a great spiritual giant like you, but I do stuff.” James’ reply needs to be seen as saying, “Well if you separate the two out, if you think they can exist separately, if you are a Christian show me your faith separated from deeds, and then I’ll show you a better way, faith shown by deeds.”

Do you see what James is doing? He is showing us the folly of trying to make faith and deeds two separate things that can exist by themselves. Well, deeds can exist by themselves, that is true. An unbeliever can do good works, and many do. Yes, good deeds can exist entirely separately from religious faith, but faith cannot. As we said in a previous meditation, and we keep on needing to hear, faith that doesn’t express itself in some way is merely a mind thing and we can’t be sure it even exists. If you say, “I believe” but there are no signs of the expression of that belief, then the reality is that you don’t believe; it’s just words. “But I go to church on a Sunday morning,” someone might say as a defence to this challenge. If that is the only expression of your belief, then it is rather shallow isn’t it? “But I keep the Ten Commandments as well,” I hear you protest. Still rather a shallow faith isn’t it, when you line that up with what we said previously about faith – about it being about hearing God and responding to Him in a daily, living relationship.

No, we would do well to consider further a “faith that works”. That little phrase sums up the Christian life well. It is, indeed, a faith that works. It works in the sense that a machine works, and it works in this way because it is simply an expression of how God has designed things to be. When we come into a living relationship with the Lord, we find a new peace, harmony and order appearing. Living God’s way, and in harmony and in fellowship with the Lord means that all His resources, His grace, are available, including things like wisdom or strength, and so suddenly there is an observable change that takes place that can only be explained using such words as peace, harmony and order.  Suddenly this life starts working as it should do. Until we became a Christian we had been dysfunctional, only working in the material realm, yet we are beings designed to work in the material and spiritual realms. If the latter is missing we can never fully function as we are designed to. No, we suddenly see a faith that is now working.

But even in saying that, what we mean is that there is a visible outworking of faith by the way the life is now being lived, seen by the things the person does. The actual living out of their life, the ‘doing’ of it, is what reveals the reality of the faith that is there. The person who goes to church on a Sunday morning but who still remains a self-centred, grumbling and moaning person, godless in every other way except Sunday morning, actually doesn’t have faith. The truth is that when God speaks, and a person responds and is born again, that affects the whole of their life. Satan will try and tell us to compartmentalise our lives and keep faith away from work or school or whatever, but when we came to Christ we surrendered the whole of our lives to him and he is to be Lord over every aspect of our existence. The result should be that every aspect of our lives, all the things we do, will reflect that.

Check this out. Are there areas of your life where you try to keep God out? Are there areas of your life where faith does not operate? If there are, you’ve obviously not realised that God is concerned to bless every aspect of your life, every single thing you do. It’s time to let Him have free access to every part of your life so that faith may work in all areas, and that all areas may work as He’s designed them to work.

22. Good Deeds

Meditations in James: 22 :  Faith needs good deeds

Jas 2:15,16 Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?

Yesterday we laid down the foundation for working through what James is saying by considering what faith is and how it comes. We started by suggesting that in fact this is some of the most vitally needed truth for the church in the twenty-first century if we are to avoid being church in name only. In the meditation we saw that faith needs to have a ‘doing’ element in it for it to be true faith, otherwise it remains simply a mind thing, a dead thing, lifeless and meaningless.

In our verses today James provides an illustration from church life to show how faith without action is a meaningless thing. Perhaps this is better explained if we first consider Jesus’ teaching on caring for one another: Jesus replied: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: `Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mt 22:37-39). Loving your ‘neighbour’, anyone near you, was a central core teaching and came a very close second to loving God.  To his disciples, Jesus added,A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” (Jn 13:34), implying a sacrificial love that lays down its life for others. If we weren’t sure about it, he repeats it: My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” (Jn 15:12,13) Now there is no room for doubts or questions about this; it is quite specific – love others as you would like to be loved, and let your love be sacrificial.

Now the point is emphasized by the apostles. Paul wrote, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.” (Gal 6:10) and John later wrote, If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.” (1 Jn 3:17,18). Now even if there was any question about loving outsiders, and there isn’t, there can be no question whatsoever about loving other Christians. Moreover John hasn’t given us any grounds to make excuses when he said If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need and similarly now, James refers to a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. These two apostles place the situation well and truly in front of us with these two clear references to love being expressed in very practical and tangible ways – especially in the church.

Let’s spell it out even more. Yesterday, we saw that real faith has a practical ‘doing’ aspect to it. Now we are considering Jesus, John and James saying that practical ‘doing’ aspect is to be first and foremost expressed to those in need closest to you. Paul was most specific about this: If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his immediate family, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” (1 Tim 5:8). The ‘love command’ that Jesus gave (Jn 13:34 – see above) is to be worked out in very practical ways. If you don’t care for and look after those who are closest to you, you are not fulfilling or obeying the command to love which is at the heart of the Faith.

James rubs the point in even more. There is no point in saying “I wish you well” without doing something about it. Pious words don’t help put food in a person’s stomach or clothes on their back. In a day when, in our country, the State provides ‘benefits’ for many people, we might think that our obligation under this teaching is removed. Surely, we think, they have food and clothing, so I don’t need to worry about them. Hold on, the basic teaching was Love your neighbor as yourself. If you love yourself you want to care for yourself and not in a most minimalistic way. Is it loving to see some one just getting by when you have plenty?

So let’s summarise what we have been saying. Jesus and the apostles taught that we are to care for one another and provide for one another when there is need. Faith is responding to God’s word which, in this case, came through Jesus, John and James, not merely giving mental assent to it, but actually responding in practical ways so that others in the church who have little benefit from our plenty. Faith is ‘doing’ and doing means practical help for those who need it. May we be that sort of church!

21. Faith & Deeds

Meditations in James: 21 :  Faith needs deeds

Jas 2:14,17     What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? …. In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

We will, over the next few days, cover this subject being now laid out by James in some detail, but we will take it step by step. Now there may be some who reading these verses say, “Oh this is so obvious that we don’t need to bother with this.” I would suggest that that is far from the truth. My observation is that the truth of these verses is only truly perceived when we give some little thought to it, and in fact this is some of the most vitally needed truth for the church in the twenty-first century.

Our starting point must be to ask, what is faith? Hebrews chapter 11 is the chapter of faith: Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” (Heb 11:1)  Faith is about belief.  Faith is about believing about the future and it’s about believing about what we cannot see.  It’s believing about the future because if it was about the past we would ‘know’ for a certainty, and faith is being sure about what is yet to come.  Now supposing God said to you, “Pray for this person in front of you and I will heal them.” Now that is a future event because you haven’t yet done it.  When you stretch out to pray for them, that is faith.  You are expecting something to yet happen because God has said so.  In this instance, healing is something you can’t see until it has happened, yet when we sense we have heard God’s voice, we have an inner certainty that it will happen.  This is faith.

Now in our example we referred to God speaking. So how does faith come? faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ.” (Rom 10:17)  In other words, very simply, faith comes when God speaks. Now we may not be very conscious that we’ve ‘heard a voice’ because it may just be the quiet inner witness of His Holy Spirit within us.  Yet we hear something and that ‘something’ brings a sense of assurance in us, we become sure that it will happen.  That is faith.

Now suppose a third party is watching us.  We sense we have just heard God. Our observer sees nothing at this point; it is all going on in us.  We are sure that God has spoken but so far we have done nothing.  Now is this faith?  In one sense, yes it is, because we are sure of what we hope for and certain about what we do not see. But how can we be sure we are sure of what we hope for? (Yes, that question is right!)   We can only prove it, by responding to what we have been hearing, by doing what we heard.  Until then it is only a mind thing and we may be kidding ourselves, but faith is only real faith when there is action involved.  Faith starts with belief, so the Hebrews’ writer starts out,By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.” (Heb 11:3)  We’ve heard or read, he says, that God created the universe, and so we live in the light of that.  He continues on with varying ‘belief’ items, until he comes to Noah when, warming to his theme, he says, By faith Noah, when warned about things not yet seen, in holy fear built an ark to save his family.” (v.7)  Noah heard from God and showed his faith by doing something, building the ark. He continues, By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going.” (v.8).  Similarly Abram heard from God and showed his faith by going.  All of the examples that are then given in that chapter are examples of people DOING.

The big temptation that Satan puts before us, is for us to just be believers who believe things in their minds but do nothing with it.  Thus for instance we have believers who say they believe in the God of the Bible but deny anything that could be Him moving, and they certainly don’t expect (or want) Him to do things through them.  Passive, inactive Christianity is a denial of the Bible. Every now and then I come across seekers who say, “Well yes, I believe all this about Jesus Christ being God’s Son and dying for our sin.” and they remain completely unchanged.  Why?  Because they haven’t seen yet that that applies to them and he died for them, and they’ve got to ask God for it to apply to them.  That is faith, responding yourself to what God says. As James says, What good is it if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? If it stays in the mind and the life is untouched, what good is that.  That is not salvation.  That person is still stuck in their sins and doesn’t know forgiveness or the powerful presence of God’s Holy Spirit who only comes when we respond to His word in obedience: We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.” (Acts 5:32).

So you were born again.  Was that the end of it?  No, just the beginning! From then on you entered into a new life: For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Eph  2:10)   There is a life to be lived, responding to God’s word and to His Spirit.  If we don’t respond, nothing happens and it just stays in our mind and we and the world get no benefit.  So-called faith, that is just belief in the mind, is in fact dead.  Nothing is happening, nothing is changing, there is no life here, and God is not able to move.  This is a dead situation.  Now there is a challenge in all this: without faith it is impossible to please God (Heb 11:6) God’s salvation through Jesus is meant to change us, change people, change the world, for that is what God’s will is.  He is only pleased when that is happening, and so if we just remain with a set of dead, inactive beliefs, that is doing nothing!  Nothing doesn’t please God!  God is pleased when His children respond to Him and He is able to move through them and bring blessing to His world.  Has your faith got actions to it? 

20. Judgment & Mercy

Meditations in James: 20 :  Judgement & Mercy

Jas 2:12,13     Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment!

Sometimes in Scripture we move into areas where there is language being used that is not used in common, every-day life, and which, therefore, requires some definition.  This is one such place. ‘Judging’ is fairly easy because we have TV programmes where people have to perform and are then ‘judged’ by a panel. When we talk about judging, we talk about assessing or, to use an older phrase, being weighed in the balances. ‘Mercy’ is not so commonly used. Mercy is unfounded compassion. Mercy isn’t earned or deserved; it is just given. Now we have to apply these two words to see what James is saying in these rather complex verses.

First of all he makes a call in respect of our behaviour – speak and act. But we are to speak and act in a particular way, a way governed by what is going to happen to us in the future. He says, when you speak or act remember that you are going to be judged or assessed by the law of love that we have been recently considering. That law of love brings a freedom of movement; it allows us to reach out and touch others in very positive and purposeful ways. The law of love will be the yardstick by which we are measured.

Now earlier we didn’t go the full extent with the definition of judgement because it doesn’t only refer to the act of assessing, it also involves the act of determining what happens to the person being judged.  On these performance-TV shows the person or couple who is judged to have been bottom of the contestants, leaves the show and doesn’t appear any more. When we read of judgement in the Bible it can be either eternal judgement – where our eternal destiny takes us – or judgement that is short-term discipline, or even long-term if that discipline doesn’t bring the fruits that God is looking for when he brings it.  Judgement is also used in terms of rewards in heaven.

There is a clear Scriptural teaching that we Christians will receive in heaven according to how we have lived here: If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames.” (1 Cor 3:12:12-15) and For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad (2 Cor 5:10) and Behold, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to everyone according to what he has done.” (Rev 22:12). The message is very clear. When we are Christians we have an eternal destiny in heaven with God, but the nature or character of that destiny (to start with at least) appears to be determined by the nature or character of the lives we lived here.  That is the judgement that James is possibly referring to.

But we need to consider his comments about mercy as well. Remember that he has just been speaking against favouritism and favouritism puts some people down while it elevates others. The poor needed our kindness and we didn’t give it.  We failed to show them mercy is what James is implying.  Oh yes, this isn’t a branch off to some completely different subject; this is an extension of his argument about treating all people equally and well.  If you don’t show people mercy, is what he is saying, you will not be shown mercy when it comes to your judgement time.  When you have finished your performance and are being assessed on it, if you haven’t included mercy in your performance, don’t expect to be shown mercy.  Expanding that word, if you haven’t shown undeserved compassion to those who needed it, don’t ask for special favours to get more than you deserve in heaven. Everything we have and will have, comes by God’s mercy and grace. He doesn’t HAVE to give us anything. We deserved eternal punishment, but in His mercy, His undeserving compassion, He offered us salvation through Jesus. That gave us a new eternal destiny.

But within that new life, He still gives us free will to choose how we will respond to His word and His Spirit and, therefore, we can be dilatory and casual and fail to be the people He wants us to be. If we are like that, we need to realise there are consequences. We may not loose our eternal destiny (though I believe Scripture indicates that is possible where there is apostasy) but we may not get all we could get if we had fully entered into the will of God, what He desired for us – which included letting His love reach out through us to those who were poor and needy.  Oh yes, there are definitely long-term consequences to what we do or don’t do today, and we really do need to consider those in determining how we will live now.