Submission in action

James 4

Commitment to God is a continuing action of submission to Him. How we treat others is evidence of our submission to Him. James starts by telling his readers that wanting what other people have is not an attitude of submission. Similarly, complaining that we don’t have something we think we need is pointless, particularly if we haven’t already taken the request to the Father. And when the Father says, “no,” we still complain. God knows what we need, when we need it, and why we need it.

Jesus told his disciples to ask in His name and they would receive (Matthew 7:7-8; John 16:24), but the context of those verses was not asking for material things, but that of asking for God’s perfect will through the Spirit. It is permissible to ask God to meet our needs, and even our wants; He is a good Father who lavishes His children with good gifts. However, when we ask God to provide our daily bread, we must come with humble hearts, seeking His will above our wants. Wanting to quarrel and complain is a sign that our motives were wrong from the beginning.

James reminds his readers (including us) that only God knows the future and anything we plan to do must be planned through the knowledge that He may have other plans. The current COVID-19 pandemic is a good illustration of how quickly our plans can unravel when the unexpected happens. Our response to the situation indicates our attitudes about our plans: if we pivot to the new reality, then we are probably seeking God’s will rather than our plans. If our response is continuing anger, frustration, or argument because our plans are thwarted or things change in ways we don’t agree with, we are likely operating out of our arrogance (James 4:13-16). It’s one thing to react to an unexpected event that forces us to take a path we didn’t choose, but it’s another thing entirely to live in that reaction. The wisdom from God that we say we want brings a harvest of righteousness sown in peace (James 3:18).

So how do we respond to the trials that inevitably block our paths? There may not be another pandemic in the next 100 years like the current one, but there will always be challenges to overcome. Illness, job insecurity, financial crises, and other calamities are part of living on this earth. James offers gives 6 actions we who call ourselves believers can (and must) take to rightly receive and share His grace.

James 4

1. Submit to God. We need to remember who we are on this earth. We are impermanent mists with limited influence in the grand scheme of things. We cannot control the things that happen around us, whether it is illness, political decisions, economics, or spiritual warfare, but we can control how we respond to them. Our decision to submit to God will be reflected in how we speak and act in the middle of the mess.

2. Resist the devil. People are joking about weight gain during this time of sequestering (the Rona 15) because, with nothing else to do, we don’t resist the snacks and second helpings. Resistance requires active discipline to stand firm against appealing things.

3. Draw near to God. Worship, prayer, and consistent time with the Father will help us withstand any temptation.

4. Cleanse your hands. If we have learned anything in the last couple of months it is how to wash away the viruses that may harm us. Spiritual cleansing, ridding ourselves of habits that harm our walk with the Lord is even more important. If turning from temptation requires singing a psalm for 20 seconds, so be it.

5. Purify your hearts. Just as we wash our hands to reduce external contamination, to too we consume healthy foods to keep our hearts healthy. What we ingest spiritually affects our inner selves as well. For me, that has meant removing certain social media apps from my phone so that I may keep myself from annoying, frustrating, and pointless discussions about political things.

6. Humble yourselves. We are not God. Most of us are not judges nor law givers. We cannot know the future and we do not know the hearts and stories of the people around us. Our responsibility in submission to God is to do the right thing according to His command and His Word.

Let us choose to live wisely in submission to Jesus today and every day! When we do, we will bring grace and peace to the people around us, which is good for us and glorifying to God.

Faith in action, part 2

James 2:14-26

Faith is made known by works

If I were to choose two people from the Old Testament to illustrate what faith in action looks like I would probably include Abraham. Patriarch of three major religious traditions, blessed by kings of multiple nations, and known for direct conversations with the Almighty, Abraham is an easy choice. If you want to read his whole story, start in Genesis 12 when God calls him to leave everything he knows and goes to a place that God will show him. God didn’t even give Abram (his original name) the destination! The Father said, “Go…and I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing” (Genesis 12:1-2). And Abram packed up and went. No argument, no questions, and no hesitation. At 75 years old, he gathered up his possessions and moved.

Abram had his moments of insecurity, to be sure (including passing off his wife as his sister twice), but ultimately, he trusted God more than his own wiles, and his faith was profound enough that God made a binding blood covenant with him, promising him a great nation from his descendents. Abram had no children, but he believed.

Long story short, Abram tried to make things happen on his own (Genesis 16) when his wife, Sarai’s faith was not as strong as his, but eventually (Genesis 17), God renamed Abram (which meant exalted father) to Abraham (meaning father of multitudes) and established His covenant with him. Abraham’s wife, renamed Sarah, gave birth to Isaac (another fun story from Genesis 21).

Then God called on Abraham to sacrifice Isaac (Genesis 22). At this point, Abraham had to know that God would work things out, but he had no idea how. Just like packing up and leaving his home close to 30 years before, Abraham acted on his faith. Eventually, Isaac married Rebekah, gave birth to Jacob who married Leah and Rachel, whose 12 children made up the tribes of Israel (Genesis 24, 26, 29, 30, 46, 49).

So, as an example of active and living faith, Abraham makes perfect sense. But of all the people to call out as a second example, Rahab? Not Miriam, sister of Moses (Exodus 2)? Not Deborah, the great judge of Israel (Judges 4)? But James chooses Rahab, whose story is found in Joshua 2.

There are good reasons to not understand why Rahab is part of James’ letter. She was a woman. She was a prostitute. She was not Jewish. She lived in Jericho, an enemy town. What could Rahab possibly have in common with the father of multitudes?

Rahab acted. That’s what she had in common with Abraham. She had heard about the God of Israel, and she believed HE was the all-powerful God over all the familiar gods she knew from childhood. She didn’t understand all the details, but she knew in her heart of hearts that hope for salvation would come through Israel. Her actions, hiding the spies, marking her position, and keeping her word, demonstrated her faith in the Unseen God. The Israelites promised to preserve her and her family, and they were faithful to their word (Joshua 6). She had no way of knowing what might happen to her once she got out of Jericho. She might have been taken as a slave or some man’s concubine. She could have been shunned, maligned, and marginalized for being a pagan prostitute. But she acted on faith is a God she did not yet know, trusting His salvation. Her faith in action gave Israel the victory, and this woman, in spite of all the strikes against her, became part of the lineage of Jesus (Matthew 1).

I think James chose these two to make a point. God uses whomever will believe and act on that belief without hesitation and without necessarily know how all the details will work out. Abraham was 99 years old when God told him that Sarah would give birth to a son, at age 90. They had no children before that–and Sarah actually laughed at the idea. But Abraham believed. And Sarah had a baby boy, naming him Isaac, which means laughter. I love that. This boy bore a name that reminded his parents of their initial response to God’s words, even as they acted on them. Abraham modeled faithful action based on his knowledge of God.

Rahab, on the other hand, did not have a knowledge of God, but she knew His people. She could not have known what might happen even if the Israelite spies rescued her and her family, but she knew their God was superior to hers. Abraham had a visible covenant but was physically weak. Rahab had youth and vitality, but no connection to this God she chose to trust. Both, however, took action in response to a call they recognized as coming from outside themselves. In both Abraham and Rahab, faith was active along with works and faith was completed by works (James 2:22).

The lesson to take away from this passage is clear: faith apart from works is dead. And dead faith is worthless. But faith is available to everyone, not the select few. And all of us who believe have both the power and the choice to demonstrate that faith through action.

Faith in action, part 1

James 2:14-26

Faith without works is dead

This part of James’ letter is familiar to most churchgoers. Faith without works is nothing.

Times were hard for James’ audience as both State and Religion tried desperately to squelch the new Church. Times are hard now for most people as COVIC-19 wreaks havoc on the health of people and the economies of nations.

Words mean little in times of chaos unless actions follow. There is plenty of negative news right now, but there is also a resurgence of the Church acting as it was meant to act. Churches aren’t meeting in person, but they are in communities, serving those in need through food delivery, supporting healthcare workers, sharing resources, using their connections to provide water, and encouraging believers to worship together virtually. The Church has shifted to the hospital for hurting people as it was intended to be.
Not all local congregations or pastors are living out their faith, but many are. They are making sure their communities are warmed and filled (James 2:16) while they live out the commandment to make disciples. New believers and those who have been part of the body are working together, putting concrete actions to what they say they believe.

Faith without corroborating actions as evidence is not saving faith. Faith is inextricably intertwined with the work of the Church. Anyone who is not part of the work in caring for the needs of others attends church like it’s just another social club. With social distancing as a reality, it is apparent who approaches faith as one side of the salvation coin.

Working out faith does not mean violating recommendations or orders to isolate physically. Action takes many forms, not all of them requiring personal contact. Look around at the needs of others and use your resources to fill the needs and encourage those who have no choice but to be vulnerable (e.g. health care workers, food preparers). Encourage one another through letters, cards, and calls. Learn how to walk out your belief now, and then keep working after this crisis is over. Show your faith BY your work, both now and in the future.

Mercy and love in action

James 2:1-13

No matter what is going on in the world or in our culture, our testimony for Jesus is borne out by the way we honor our brothers and sisters in Christ. We are called to ONE body, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, serving ONE God (Ephesians 4). Showing any kind of partiality is wrong. The heart of the fight against injustice, racism, classism, ageism, and all the other “isms” is the way in which we honor our brothers and sisters in Christ.

That is easy enough in theory, but is can be hard in practice, especially if we disagree about things like politics, music preferences, worship styles, clothing, and all the other things that divide us. If we are really serious about our claim to be Jesus followers, we must be known as people who default to grace, mercy, and love the way Jesus did. That means we don’t succumb to the temptations to fight back over insignificant things. It means we hold ourselves to a higher standard of behavior than those who do not yet understand the gospel.

Mercy triumphs

We also need to stop comparing sins. There are no greater or lesser sins; sin is sin and no one can claim to be sin free. Knowing we have been redeemed by Jesus is not license to sin in any way (Romans 6). We must remember that the Law reveals the need we all have for God’s mercy and our response must be to show mercy to the people around us. That includes the people in the church with whom we may disagree. Mercy triumphs.