This passage made me think. This section of the letter is where some current religions get the idea that prayer equals manipulating God for physical healing and that staying sick or continuing to suffer is the fault of the sufferer for a lack of faith. But this teaching is wrong. It is not in context with the rest of James’ letter and it defies other parts of Scripture.
Jesus said that suffering would be part of living (John 16:33). Paul wrote about a thorn in his flesh that no prayer relieved (2 Corinthians 12). I think this passage is about drawing near to God in the hard times so that our relationship with Him is fully reconciled and we can endure whatever the affliction with confidence that God will be glorified even in our suffering. Paul wrote about this concept to the Corinthians where we wrote, “This light and momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” ( 2 Corinthians 4).
An eternal weight of glory, made possible by the prayer of the righteous. And the righteous are those who confess and turn away from whatever sins entangle their hearts and minds (Hebrews 12). To be raised up is eternal, not temporal.
We may feel crushed and perplexed, confused, and lost, but with our eyes on Jesus, who is the author and protector of our faith, we can be at peace. Prayer, fervent and righteous, is the path to joyful reconciliation with the Father.
Don Miguel Ruiz wrote a book several years ago called The Four Agreements. In it, he shares Toltec philosophy for living a happy life. While not remotely Christian, the actual agreements themselves have biblical undertones. For me, it is evidence that God makes Himself known through His creation and in multiple ways (Romans 1 &2). The first agreement finds a corollary in James 5: be impeccable with your word. James says, “Let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes’ and your ‘no’ be ‘no.'” It seems so simple. Say what you mean; mean what you say. Do what you say you will do. Don’t make promises you can’t keep.
It seems simple, but we struggle with the simplicity of it. We hedge our bets with ‘maybe’ or we try to add emphasis by swearing on whatever we think will impress people (the Bible, God, heaven, someone’s life or grave- you’ve heard them all.) Being impeccable with our words means being trustworthy without needing any extraneous explanation or convincing. Making ‘yes’ be ‘yes’ and ‘no’ be ‘no’ speaks to a character of integrity, which comes from drawing near to God and establishing our hearts in Him. We don’t need to complain or argue or want what we don’t have when we are reliant on the Father. And relying on the Father gives us the confidence to speak clearly and with integrity.
Be impeccable with your word; let yes and no mean what they mean. If we speak with the wisdom of God, we will see that we can be steadfast no matter what, knowing that what we say is God-glorifying truth.
Throughout this letter, James wrote about the lure of materialism and the danger of believing that success was God’s reward. At the end of chapter 4, James called out those who claimed their success was a measure of God’s pleasure, saying they boasted in arrogance. James continued his condemnation of that arrogance, being clear that the material makings of success in this world would decay and be the source of ultimate destruction. The arrogant will destroy themselves by putting their faith in material gain.
James then reminded his readers that the characteristics of godly people are patience and steadfastness. He reminded his readers of the prophets like Habakkuk, Nahum, Micah, Amos, and Joel, all of whom asked God, “How long will we suffer?” God’s reply was inevitably, “Wait and see.” The kingdoms the prophets spoke against have long since turned to dust. The kingdom of this current age, with its faith in secularism and humanism will also turn to dust.
Our responsibility is to focus on building relationships, not quarreling or grumbling. We look forward to the fulfillment of God’s promises, while remembering that the mercy and compassion we found in Jesus is still being extended to all the world (Matthew 23- 25; John 3). While we wait in steadfast expectation, we should spend our time, not worrying about the future, but in establishing our hearts in the trustworthiness of God’s promises (Psalm 1; Habakkuk 3; Joel 2; Nahum 1; Zephaniah 3:17).
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.
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.
Controlling our words requires wisdom, and true wisdom comes from God. Wisdom from above is pure, peaceful, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial, and sincere (v.17). The US has been increasingly divided among philosophical, political, and social lines for too long. Like many empires of the ancient world, the US is collapsing in on itself. This time of quarantine may be an opportunity to revisit wisdom over opinion and materialism. We have been given time to reflect and think. If only believers act on James’s words to control our tongues, there could be a substantial shift in discordant discourses. Reason and impartiality, mercy and sincerity go a long way toward reconciliation.
While speaking with wisdom is important for everyone, it is especially crucial for teachers, whom James is still addressing. Teachers are in a place of authority, and many people are not willing to question that authority. Teachers who want the best for their students must hold fast to what is true, rather than what is popular or expedient. Those teachers who rely on and speak from God’s wisdom will be recognized as set apart. They will be found trustworthy, and their sincere compassion for their students will be evident to all.
A verse for teachers in the time of COVID-19: My mouth shall speak wisdom; the meditation of my heart shall be understanding. Psalm 49:3
Teaching is a calling. I don’t think there are many other vocations that have the power to permanently change people’s lives. Whether the class is made up of pre-schoolers, teenagers, or adults, the truly effective teachers do one thing consistently: watch their words. Words have the power to heal or destroy, to build up or tear down. Teachers are entrusted with the minds of their learners, and it is a tremendous responsibility.
James is primarily speaking to church teachers in this passage, but no one should think about teaching lightly. There is too much at stake when learners are involved. Wrong teaching, in school or church, can be damaging. Thoughtless or careless words spoken by a teacher, in school or church pierce the heart and soul in ways that may never fully heal.
The word for teachers to be strict about their words is not limited to the classroom or the pulpit. Everyone has opinions, especially during a crisis like the one in which we now live. And although the First Amendment protects the right to speak freely, the way we speak must be gracious, well-thought out, and aware of the impact our words have on others. Ad hominem attacks, incomplete information, passing along stories without checking for veracity, and sharing third and fourth hand “news” does more harm than good. In a time of physical distancing, the words we write can be just as problematic as the words we speak. Those who teach must be even more vigilant to test stories, research information, and share only what is accurate and true. We who educate are held to a higher standard in promoting what is true and just and right, not just by society, but by the Father, himself.
Our reputations as believers and as teachers (formally or informally) will be judged by the society around us based on how we conducted ourselves in this difficult time. More than ever we need to be quick to hear and slow to speak. We all say things we regret. We all use the wrong words sometimes (okay, maybe often). We must be diligent to make the corrections required so that we do not tarnish the name of the Lord.
Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.
James 1:19 (ESV)
James says the tongue is a fire. Anyone who has lived through wildfires can attest that, once something has burned, it is never the same again. It may regrow; it may be rebuilt; it will never return to what it was.
Words are the same. And teachers bear a greater responsibility to speak with the love of Christ behind every interaction with students, parents, and colleagues. We who are teachers must be vigilant in how we use our words.
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.
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.
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.
There’s a poem by Kipling that begins with “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs…” that could well apply to the current state of the world. Social media reflects the fear, anger, and impatience of the people who post and those who argue with them.
James offers a different way of acting in perilous times. We should be SLOW to speak and SLOW to anger. That’s hard when we are bombarded with contradictory information and behaviors. There is a reason James starts with “quick to hear.” Hearing should be first. Analyzing what we hear, through the Word, through prayers, and in today’s world, through the expert physicians, must also precede anything we say. And even when we do speak, we must control our words and our attitudes. Bridling a horse helps the rider control its direction; bridling our tongues means we direct what we say so that our words leads to godly righteousness.
James does not stop with what we say. He emphasizes that our actions must match our words. We have to do the work of caring for others, especially in times of crisis. That care may look different depending on the situation, but the heart of the matter is that doing the work of God begins with considering others as more important than ourselves (Ephesians 5:21; Galatians 5:14; Matthew 22:37-39). James says that when we persevere in actively working out the wisdom of God through the trials, we will be blessed in the doing, in spite of the chaos that surrounds us.
If you can keep your head when all about you Are losing theirs and blaming it on you, If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, But make allowance for their doubting too; If you can wait and not be tired by waiting, Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies, Or being hated, don’t give way to hating, And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream—and not make dreams your master; If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim; If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster And treat those two impostors just the same; If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools, Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken, And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss, And lose, and start again at your beginnings And never breathe a word about your loss; If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew To serve your turn long after they are gone, And so hold on when there is nothing in you Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue, Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch, If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you, If all men count with you, but none too much; If you can fill the unforgiving minute With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run, Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it, And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!
Steadfastness implies disciplined stability under stressful circumstances. There is no question that we are living in stressful times that test our faith, interrupt our focus, and tempt us to fear. When we are steadfastly persistent in our time with the Father, He will teach us what we can learn in the middle of any trial.
We must never look at difficulties as being God’s idea! God did not create COVID 19 or any other disease or natural disaster or war. He will use tragedy and hardships of many kinds, though, drawing people to Him and working good in the middle of the situations for those who love Him (Genesis 50:20; Romans 8:28). God is sovereign and good and merciful and just all the time; His character never changes. We can trust Him and remain steadfast in hope because of Jesus no matter what is happening in the world around us.