Father Knows Best

1  What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”? But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. 10 Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you. James 4:1-10 ESV

James ended the last chapter with the declaration, “where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice” (James 3:16 ESV). Now, he reveals what lies at the heart of the problem. He discloses the root cause behind the jealousy and selfish ambition that are wreaking havoc on the congregation to whom he is writing.

James appears to drop the pastoral tone of his letter and takes his readers to the proverbial woodshed with a strongly worded disciplinary message. He calls them out and airs their dirty laundry right in front of them. He has received word of their unhealthy penchant for quarreling and infighting and is more than a bit unhappy about it. As a congregation, they have allowed their love for the world to take precedence over their love for one another.

He has already dealt with their practice of showing partiality to the wealthy and influential within their fellowship. This blatant display of favoritism was rooted in greed and jealousy. While flattering and fawning over the well-to-do, they were dismissing and mistreating the less fortunate among them, all in a vain hope that the rich would somehow reward them for their actions. There was an ulterior motive behind their attempt to give the high-capacity donor the best seat in the sanctuary.

Evidently, their worship services had become a competitive event, with everyone jockeying for position and fighting for prominence. But, sadly, their infighting was a byproduct of a much more serious problem. They were suffering from a heart condition. James reveals that the cause behind their quarreling and fighting was internal, not external.

What is causing the quarrels and fights among you? Don’t they come from the evil desires at war within you? – James 4:1 NLT

The pleasures or desires to which James refers are evil because they drive human behavior until they are fulfilled. They are like an addiction that incessantly demands its needs be met, regardless of the price or consequences. These evil desires were worldly and out of step with the godly wisdom that God offered.

…the wisdom from above is first of all pure. It is also peace loving, gentle at all times, and willing to yield to others. It is full of mercy and the fruit of good deeds. It shows no favoritism and is always sincere. – James 3:17 NLT

But James describes a far different atmosphere within this local body of believers.

You want what you don’t have, so you scheme and kill to get it. You are jealous of what others have, but you can’t get it, so you fight and wage war to take it away from them. – James 4:2 NLT

There was no evidence of peace, gentleness, mercy, sacrifice, or selflessness. Their “fellowship” had become a hotbed of strife and destructive self-promotion. Everyone was operating by the myopic mindset: What’s in it for me? The love of self had replaced God’s call to love one another. And James has already told them “If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing well” (James 2:8 ESV). Yet, they were actually making love of self their highest priority. All in a vain attempt to satisfy their individual cravings for power, pleasure, and prominence. And James rebuked them for trying to take matters into their own hands. Rather than taking their needs to the Lord, they were trying to fulfill them through worldly and ungodly means.

Yet you don’t have what you want because you don’t ask God for it. – James 4:3 NLT

Even when they did pray, they did so with the wrong motives. They asked God for those things that would bring them personal pleasure and satisfaction. And He refuses to answer those kinds of requests.

This is where James pulls no punches and displays his disgust for their ungodly behavior. He accuses them of spiritual adultery. They had proven themselves to be unfaithful to God by unashamedly flaunting their love affair with the world. And in doing so, they had made an enemy of God.

You adulterers! Don’t you realize that friendship with the world makes you an enemy of God? I say it again: If you want to be a friend of the world, you make yourself an enemy of God. – James 4:4 NLT

The philosophies of this world stand diametrically opposed to the will and the ways of God. Satan, the prince of this world, uses every weapon in his arsenal to tempt the child of God to abandon his relationship with the Almighty. His goal is to lure the believer into a life marked by unfaithfulness and spiritual infidelity. And he cleverly uses the pleasures and perks this world has to offer as bait. He knows we crave significance. He fully understands our need for self-importance. He is well aware of our insatiable appetite for forbidden fruit, and he is more than willing to offer us whatever our heart desires – in exchange for our affections.

When Satan tried to distract Jesus from His God-ordained mission, he made Him a highly tempting offer.

Then the devil took him up and revealed to him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time. “I will give you the glory of these kingdoms and authority over them,” the devil said, “because they are mine to give to anyone I please. I will give it all to you if you will worship me.” – Luke 4:5-7 NLT

But Jesus refused. Instead, He reminded Satan that God alone is worthy of worship.

“You must worship the Lord your God and serve only him.” – Luke 4:8 NLT

And Jesus would later warn His disciples about the danger of duplicity in the life of a child of God.

“No one can serve two masters. For you will hate one and love the other; you will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and be enslaved to money. – Matthew 6:24 NLT

God longs to have an unbroken relationship with each of His children. He is a jealous God who will not tolerate infidelity and unfaithfulness. He has displayed His unparalleled love by sending His Son to die in our place and by placing His Spirit within our hearts. He has more than proven His love for us and expects us to return the favor. And through His grace, He makes it possible for us to say no to the overtures of the world and the temptations of the enemy.

But His grace is only available to the humble. The presence of pride blocks the flow of God’s grace and prevents us from experiencing the fulness of His love. As long as allow our love for the world to lure us away from God, we demonstrate that we really don’t need or want what He has to offer. Our desire for worldly pleasures indicates that He is not enough. He cannot satisfy our deepest longings or fulfill our insatiable passions. We know what we want and, if He won’t give it to us, we will seek it from the world. And the apostle John warns us about seeking our satisfaction from the things of this world.

Do not love this world nor the things it offers you, for when you love the world, you do not have the love of the Father in you. For the world offers only a craving for physical pleasure, a craving for everything we see, and pride in our achievements and possessions. These are not from the Father, but are from this world. And this world is fading away, along with everything that people crave. But anyone who does what pleases God will live forever. – 1 John 2:15-17 NLT

And James gives us the key to rejecting the enticing allure of the world: Humility.

So humble yourselves before God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come close to God, and God will come close to you. Wash your hands, you sinners; purify your hearts, for your loyalty is divided between God and the world. Let there be tears for what you have done. Let there be sorrow and deep grief. Let there be sadness instead of laughter, and gloom instead of joy. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up in honor. – James 4:7-10 NLT

God knows what is best. His will for us is always right and His love for us is always pure and selfless. But we have to trust Him and believe that He knows what we need. The world is about to steal our hearts and affections. It offers us a range of tempting treasures and pleasures designed to appeal to our sinful natures. But they are empty promises that never deliver what they offer. Instead of pleasure, they produce pain. In place of significance, they leave the gaping hole of futility and despair. Rather than joy, they produce a fleeting form of happiness that disappears as soon as the pleasure fades. But when we humble ourselves before the Lord and rest in His love for us, we find fulfillment, joy, satisfaction, and the immeasurable honor of being His child.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

You Reap What You Sow

13 Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. 14 But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. 15 This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. 16 For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. 18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace. James 3:13-18 ESV

Back in chapter one, James encouraged his readers to seek wisdom from God.

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. – James 1:5 ESV

And he added that God is the source of all good gifts.

Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. – James 1:17 ESV

Through their relationship with Jesus Christ, the Christians to whom James wrote enjoyed access to the indwelling Spirit of God and the life-transforming truth of the gospel. According to James, a Christ follower is to be characterized by obedience to the word of God. It’s not enough to hear it; you have to live it out in everyday life.

But don’t just listen to God’s word. You must do what it says. Otherwise, you are only fooling yourselves. – James 1:22 NLT

And James pointed out that a person who claims to be spiritual but fails to control their tongue is practicing a hypocritical and powerless form of religion.

If you claim to be religious but don’t control your tongue, you are fooling yourself, and your religion is worthless. – James 1:26 NLT

James described the tongue as a powerful and virtually uncontrollable source of destruction – even within the body of Christ. With his lips, a believer can declare his faith in Christ and then turn around and spread vicious rumors about a fellow Christ-follower. Ironically, the same tongue could be used to glorify God and vilify other believers.

Sometimes it praises our Lord and Father, and sometimes it curses those who have been made in the image of God. And so blessing and cursing come pouring out of the same mouth. Surely, my brothers and sisters, this is not right! – James 3:9-10 NLT

Now James explains how to determine whether you are operating according to godly wisdom and displaying an understanding of God’s will and ways. It’s all in how we behave. Our outward actions reveal whether we are walking in step with the Spirit of God. The things we say and do are the most accurate barometers of our spiritual health. They provide irrefutable evidence of the condition of our hearts. That’s why James demands that Christ-followers put the wisdom of God into practice through humble obedience to His will.

If you are wise and understand God’s ways, prove it by living an honorable life, doing good works with the humility that comes from wisdom. – James 3:13 NLT

The apostle Paul stressed the non-negotiable nature of the Spirit’s involvement when it comes to living a godly and honorable life.

So I say, let the Holy Spirit guide your lives. Then you won’t be doing what your sinful nature craves. The sinful nature wants to do evil, which is just the opposite of what the Spirit wants. And the Spirit gives us desires that are the opposite of what the sinful nature desires. – Galatians 5:16-17 NLT

And Paul reminds us that the Holy Spirit is the one who provides us with the power to tame the tongue and produce the fruit of righteousness.

…the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. – Galatians 5:22-23 NLT

The Spirit is a God-given source of wisdom and supernatural strength, and His primary role is to guide and empower believers as they navigate the sometimes difficult path from salvation to future glorification. And Paul would have us remember that the Spirit wants to influence every area of the believer’s life – from his attitudes and actions to the words that come out of his mouth.

Since we are living by the Spirit, let us follow the Spirit’s leading in every part of our lives. Let us not become conceited, or provoke one another, or be jealous of one another. – Galatians 5:25-26 NLT

And James points out how easy it is to try and mask our lack of godliness through deceit and lies. When we fail to live in obedience to the Spirit, our lives inevitably produce a whole range of destructive deeds and Paul provides a shocking but incomplete list of them in his letter to the Galatians.

When you follow the desires of your sinful nature, the results are very clear: sexual immorality, impurity, lustful pleasures, idolatry, sorcery, hostility, quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, dissension, division,  envy, drunkenness, wild parties, and other sins like these. – Galatians 5:19-21 NLT

We’re either living in step with the Spirit of God or giving in to the desires of our own sinful natures. And it’s fairly easy to determine which path we have chosen based on the “fruit” our lives produce. That’s why James warns against attempting to cover up our godless lifestyle through lies and deceit.

But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. – James 3:14-15 ESV

When the wrong fruit appears in our lives, we’re tempted to cover it up by portraying ourselves as super saints and spiritual rock stars. We posture and pretend, trying to convince others of our superior spirituality. But all the while, we are living a lie. Yet we end up excusing and justifying our behavior and, in doing so, we display a form of wisdom that is anything but godly. Driven by selfish ambition and jealousy, we rationalize our behavior and promote a brand of wisdom that comes from the enemy and not God.

Jesus gave a perfect example of this self-righteous but self-deceiving kind of wisdom when He told the following parable to His disciples.

Jesus told this story to some who had great confidence in their own righteousness and scorned everyone else: “Two men went to the Temple to pray. One was a Pharisee, and the other was a despised tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed this prayer: ‘I thank you, God, that I am not like other people—cheaters, sinners, adulterers. I’m certainly not like that tax collector! I fast twice a week, and I give you a tenth of my income.’

“But the tax collector stood at a distance and dared not even lift his eyes to heaven as he prayed. Instead, he beat his chest in sorrow, saying, ‘O God, be merciful to me, for I am a sinner.’ I tell you, this sinner, not the Pharisee, returned home justified before God. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” – Luke 18:9-14 NLT

The Pharisee was self-deceived. He wrongly viewed himself as spiritually superior and worthy of God’s praise. But Jesus declared him to be a self-righteous and pretentious hypocrite whose pride left him unjustified before God. He had lived this lie for so long that he eventually believed it to be true. He went home believing he was fully accepted before God, but he was wrong.

You can attempt to disguise the jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart but, in time, it always makes itself known. And James states that “wherever there is jealousy and selfish ambition, there you will find disorder and evil of every kind” (James 3:16 NLT). In other words, those two traits are never alone. They’re always accompanied by other, equally disturbing “fruit” that produce death rather than life. 

But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. – James 3:17 ESV

God’s wisdom, which is available upon request, is capable of producing a host of outcomes that positively impact the life of the recipient and all those around him. It produces a desire for peace rather than jealousy and strife. In place of self-promotion, it displays a heartfelt concern for the well-being of others. It is reasonable rather than contentious and confrontational. It manifests itself in mercy toward others and produces fruit that is for their benefit. Godly wisdom allows no room for favoritism or partiality. It fosters unity and encourages an atmosphere of humility and selfless service to others.

James’ point is clear. Those who seek the wisdom of God will receive it. And when they avail themselves of it and live in obedience to it, it will produce a harvest of righteousness. The wisdom from above is fruitful but it must be cultivated by those whom God has chosen as His caretakers. If we obey His Word and live in keeping with His Spirit’s guidance, we will “plant seeds of peace and reap a harvest of righteousness” (James 3:18 NLT).

The apostle Paul reiterates this promise of fruitfulness when we choose to avail ourselves of God’s wisdom. But the choice is ours and we must make it every day of our lives.

You will always harvest what you plant. Those who live only to satisfy their own sinful nature will harvest decay and death from that sinful nature. But those who live to please the Spirit will harvest everlasting life from the Spirit. So let’s not get tired of doing what is good. At just the right time we will reap a harvest of blessing if we don’t give up. Therefore, whenever we have the opportunity, we should do good to everyone—especially to those in the family of faith. – Galatians 6:7-10 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

Worthy Words

1 Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body. If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things.

How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. 10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. 11 Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? 12 Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water. James 3:1-12 ESV

It was Jesus who said, “It’s not what goes into your mouth that defiles you; you are defiled by the words that come out of your mouth” (Matthew 15:11 NLT). He was responding to Pharisees and the teachers of religious law who had accused the disciples of eating food without having properly cleansed their hands.

“Why do your disciples disobey our age-old tradition? For they ignore our tradition of ceremonial hand washing before they eat.” – Matthew 15:2 NLT

In response, Jesus accused these men of putting a higher priority on their man-made traditions than they did on the Mosaic law. They were guilty of violating the commandments of God. In fact, He put them in the same category as their disobedient ancestors whom God had accused of infidelity and unfaithfulness.

“These people honor me with their lips,
    but their hearts are far from me.
Their worship is a farce,
    for they teach man-made ideas as commands from God.” – Matthew 15:8-9 NLT

Words matter. What we say with our lips reflects the condition of our hearts. And Jesus succinctly summed up the problem of the hypocritical religious leaders of Israel when He said: “the words you speak come from the heart—that’s what defiles you. For from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, all sexual immorality, theft, lying, and slander. These are what defile you. Eating with unwashed hands will never defile you” (Matthew 15:18-20 NLT).

In this chapter, James picks up on this same theme by pointing out the dangerous nature of the tongue. In doing so, he is simply continuing his emphasis on the importance of works, which are the visible manifestations of faith. For James, anyone who claims to have faith but fails to display any tangible evidence to back it up is only fooling themselves. Their faith is dead and lifeless.

It’s not that these people are devoid of actions or activity. But their behavior fails to measure up to God’s righteous standards. They were guilty of treating one another unfairly by showing favoritism to the rich and influential. They were claiming to love their neighbor while treating the poor among them as second-class citizens.

Now, James focuses his attention on the importance of their words. Like Jesus, James stresses the pedagogical nature of human speech. He even warns his readers to avoid becoming teachers within the body of Christ because God will hold them to a high account.

…not many of you should become teachers in the church, for we who teach will be judged more strictly. – James 3:1 NLT

Jesus had accused the Pharisees of “teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Matthew 15:9 ESV). Through their words and actions, they were instructing the people of God to disregard His commandments. And Jesus warned His disciples, “ignore them. They are blind guides leading the blind, and if one blind person guides another, they will both fall into a ditch” (Matthew 15:14 NLT).

The problem, according to James, is the uncontrollable nature of the tongue. It may be small but it’s extremely powerful and has the potential to do great damage. The words that come out of our mouths can leave a wake of destruction in their path: Hurt feelings, destroyed relationships, damaged lives from deceptive doctrines, ruined reputations, and apostate believers.

All this destruction is due to a simple muscle called the tongue. And James stresses the minuscule yet massive influence of this seemingly insignificant part of the human anatomy. He compares it to a tiny bit that allows a rider to dictate the actions of a horse. It’s like the small rudder by which a pilot can control the direction of a large vessel and determine its final destination. In comparison, “the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things” (James 3:5 ESV).

The issue here is that of control. A bit and a rudder are used to determine direction. They have the power to direct and influence something far larger than themselves. In the same way, the tongue, though small, can be used to influence others in both a positive and negative way. To fail to recognize the tongue’s potential for destruction is dangerous. James compares it to a tiny, insignificant spark that can set a whole forest on fire. And just to make sure his readers understand the comparison, James adds:

…among all the parts of the body, the tongue is a flame of fire. It is a whole world of wickedness, corrupting your entire body. It can set your whole life on fire, for it is set on fire by hell itself. – James 3:6 NLT

Think about what James is saying. The human brain is considered to have the processing power of a super-computer, yet it requires the tongue to communicate its thoughts and impressions. A thought unexpressed by the tongue remains trapped in the mind. But words, both spoken and written carry great power for good and evil. And unlike horses, dogs, lions, and other animals, the tiny tongue remains uncontrollable. No matter how hard we try, we can’t seem to tame the tongue. And James paints a rather bleak picture of the problem, describing the tongue as “restless and evil, full of deadly poison” (James 3:8 NLT).

But his point seems to be that, without God’s help, the tongue will continue to be a destructive force in the life of a believer. We have no innate ability to control what comes out of our mouths. We can try, but eventually, our words reveal the true condition of our hearts. Remember what Jesus said: “from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, all sexual immorality, theft, lying, and slander” (Matthew 15:19 NLT). It begins with thoughts and ends with either actions or words. And what makes our words so dangerous is their power to influence others. That’s why James stressed the tongue’s power to teach. While others may not mimic our evil behavior, they may be influenced to listen to our words and follow our instructions. And James provides a convicting example of how the tongue can negatively influence the body of Christ.

Sometimes it praises our Lord and Father, and sometimes it curses those who have been made in the image of God. And so blessing and cursing come pouring out of the same mouth. – James 3:9-10 NLT

This ties back to the problem of favoritism and partiality. The believers to whom James was writing were guilty of treating some within their fellowship with disdain – and all while they were worshiping God together. With their lips, they were praising Yahweh and denigrating their neighbors at the same time. And James calls them out for their blatant hypocrisy.

Surely, my brothers and sisters, this is not right! – James 3:10 NLT

Their words and works were ungodly and unacceptable. With their tongues, they were doing irreparable damage to the body of Christ. And James points out the illogical and seemingly impossible nature of this kind of behavior among followers of Christ.

Does a spring of water bubble out with both fresh water and bitter water? Does a fig tree produce olives, or a grapevine produce figs? No, and you can’t draw fresh water from a salty spring. – James 3:11-12 NLT

They had been redeemed and renewed by Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross. They were new creations and had received new hearts and enjoyed the indwelling presence and power of the Holy Spirit. They had the God-given capacity to live in keeping with His will and according to the example of Jesus Christ.

The apostle Paul reminded the believers in Corinth of the life-transforming grace of God made possible through faith in Jesus Christ.

I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus, that in every way you were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge. – 1 Corinthians 1:4-5 ESV

In his second letter to the very same congregation, Paul stressed the all-encompassing nature of God’s sanctifying grace.

…just as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness, and in the love we inspired in you—see that you also excel in this grace of giving. – 2 Corinthians 8:7 BSB

According to Paul, the tongue could be tamed. Through the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit, the believer’s speech can be purified and his words can be sanctified so that the body of Christ is unified and strengthened. Like the great king, David, we can ask God to help us tame the tongue so that our words produce good and bring Him glory.

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
    be acceptable in your sight,
    O Lord, my rock and my redeemer. – Psalm 19:14 ESV

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Justification of Works

14 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? 17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

18 But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. 19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! 20 Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; 23 and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25 And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? 26 For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead. James 2:14-26 ESV

For James, faith in Christ was to be a life-transforming experience that manifested itself in tangible and practical ways. He opened this section with the rhetorical question: “how can you claim to have faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ if you favor some people over others?” (James 2:1 NLT). Saving faith should be sanctifying faith. It should change the way we live and how we interact with others. There is no place for favoritism or partiality in the life of a Christ follower.

James was concerned with the double standard that existed among his audience. As believers, they were claiming to “obey the royal law as found in the Scriptures: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (James 2:8 NLT) But, in reality, they were guilty of favoring some people over others and, in doing so, they were guilty of breaking the law. In other words, they were practicing a hypocritical kind of faith. It was the same brand of faith Jesus accused the Pharisees of practicing.

“The teachers of religious law and the Pharisees are the official interpreters of the law of Moses. So practice and obey whatever they tell you, but don’t follow their example. For they don’t practice what they teach. They crush people with unbearable religious demands and never lift a finger to ease the burden. Everything they do is for show.” – Matthew 23:2-5 NLT

According to Jesus, the Pharisees were guilty of being both law keepers and lawbreakers. They were looked up to for their expertise concerning the law of Moses but they regularly violated the very laws they were supposed to uphold. They said one thing and did another.

And James asks his audience a probing question designed to expose the hypocritical nature of their own relationship with the “royal law.” These people were familiar with “the golden rule.” They knew that they were expected to love their neighbor as they loved themselves. This was the clear teaching of Jesus. In fact, when the Jewish religious leaders had asked Jesus to expound on what He believed to be the greatest of all the commandments, Jesus replied, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:37-40 NLT).

Love God. Love others. Those were the two “greatest” or most important commandments of God. They were inseparable and completely interdependent. It all begins with love for God. Once we understand who He is and what He has done for us, the natural response is to express our love and appreciation to Him. But one of the greatest expressions of our love for God is our willingness to love all those whom He has made – especially our fellow believers.

The apostle John described the symbiotic relationship between our love for God and others.

We love each other because he loved us first. If someone says, “I love God,” but hates a fellow believer, that person is a liar; for if we don’t love people we can see, how can we love God, whom we cannot see? And he has given us this command: Those who love God must also love their fellow believers. – 1 John 4:19-21 NLT

Faith is a lifestyle. It changes the way we live. It doesn’t simply save us from future condemnation and reserve a place for us in the Kingdom of God. Through the power of the indwelling presence of the Spirit of God, it transforms our behavior in the here-and-now. It frees us from our captivity to sin and empowers us to live as sons and daughters of God, exhibiting the new hearts and new natures He has bestowed upon us.

James believed that true saving faith would be impossible to hide. It would show up in everyday life and manifest itself through daily interactions with others. He even provides a hypothetical scenario where faith should show up but doesn’t.

Suppose you see a brother or sister who has no food or clothing, and you say, “Good-bye and have a good day; stay warm and eat well”—but then you don’t give that person any food or clothing. What good does that do? – James 2:15-16 NLT

What we have to understand is that, for James, love for others is a tangible expression of a believer’s faith in God. If someone believes in God and knows that God requires that His children love one another, that individual will express His faith in God through obedience to His commands. He will love as he has been loved. He will demonstrate His love for God by becoming a conduit of God’s for others. But that love must be practical and not just a form of lip service.

Words of love are important but they won’t fill an empty stomach or clothe the naked. To claim to love your neighbor while failing to lift a finger to assist them is the highest form of hypocrisy and a blatant display of faithlessness. Why? Because it reveals a lack of transformation and a glaring absence of sanctification. Someone who claims to be a follower of Christ but who fails to model his life after Christ is living a lie.

That’s what leads James to state, “you see, faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless” (James 2:17 NLT). And James knew that there would be those who blamed their lack of brotherly love on their temperament or personality type.

Now someone may argue, “Some people have faith; others have good deeds.” – James 2:18 NLT

But James wasn’t buying that excuse. He countered, “How can you show me your faith if you don’t have good deeds? I will show you my faith by my good deeds” (James 2:19 NLT). Without the evidence of outward love, faith remains invisible to the human eye. You can claim to believe in God but, for James, that was insufficient. Even demons believe that God exists but they have no capacity to live godly lives. They can fear Him for who He is but they are incapable of showing love for Him or anyone else.

There are some who claim that James is contradicting the teachings of the apostle Paul, who proclaimed, “by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9 ESV). Paul makes it quite clear that no one can earn their way into God’s good graces through human effort. Salvation cannot be attained through obedience to the law or adherence to a set of religious standards. And James would fully agree.

But James is simply suggesting that saving faith produces fruit in the life of the believer. It results in a radical transformation of the heart that manifests itself in tangible expressions of sacrificial love and service to others. Saving faith shows up because the life-transforming power of God can’t be held back.

And to prove this point to his Jewish audience, James uses two Old Testament characters as illustrations. First, he directs their attention to Abraham, the patriarch of the nation of Israel. He recalls the fateful story of when God ordered Abraham to offer up his son Isaac as a sacrifice. And he notes that Abraham faithfully followed through on this difficult command, preparing to take the life of his only son and heir. But God intervened, sparing Isaac from death by providing a ram as a substitute. And James stresses that Abraham’s actions that day were an expression of his faith in God.

Abraham was shown to be right with God by his actions when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see, his faith and his actions worked together. His actions made his faith complete. – James 2:21-22 NLT

And quoting Genesis 15:6, James concludes, “Abraham believed God, and God counted him as righteous because of his faith.” Abraham’s faith in God showed up in an outward sign of obedience. He believed in God and was willing to do whatever God called him to do – even when it made no sense. And as James states, “his actions made his faith complete.”

Next, James uses the familiar story of Rahab the harlot. She was a pagan woman who expressed her belief in the God of Israel by providing protection for the two spies who sought refuge in her home. In return for her act of kindness, she asked that she and her family be spared when the city was destroyed by the Israelites. And what motivated her request was a belief in the superiority of Yahweh, the God of the Israelites.

“…the Lord your God is the supreme God of the heavens above and the earth below. Now swear to me by the Lord that you will be kind to me and my family since I have helped you. Give me some guarantee that when Jericho is conquered, you will let me live, along with my father and mother, my brothers and sisters, and all their families.” – Joshua 2:11-13 NLT

Rahab believed in God and put her faith to the test by trusting in the integrity and honesty of the two spies. She protected them and helped them escape and was rewarded for her efforts. Her faith had been accompanied by works, and she was saved.

And James sums up this whole lesson on faith and works with the statement: “Just as the body is dead without breath, so also faith is dead without good works” (James 2:26 NLT). He is not suggesting that his audience is made up of non-believers. He is not questioning their salvation. He is simply stating that their faith in Christ should be accompanied by good works that evidence the transformative power of the gospel. A lack of fruit is evidence of death, not life. An individual who claims to have been transformed by the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit but whose life fails to exhibit the fruits of the Spirit is as good as dead spiritually. He is like a physical body without breath, a tree without fruit, or a cloud without rain.

For James, it was simple. Faith, while invisible to the human eye, could be easily demonstrated by outward actions. That’s why he so confidently asserted, “How can you show me your faith if you don’t have good deeds? I will show you my faith by my good deeds” (James 2:18 NLT). According to James, works may not earn your way into heaven, but they will prove you belong there because they give evidence that you are a child of God.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Fatal Flaw of Favoritism

1 My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called?

If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it. 11 For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. 12 So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. 13 For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment. James 2:1-13 ESV

James ended the previous section of his letter by inviting his readers to take a long, close look at themselves in the mirror to determine the true nature of their spiritual condition.

For if you listen to the word and don’t obey, it is like glancing at your face in a mirror. You see yourself, walk away, and forget what you look like. – James 1:23-24 NLT

The Word of God requires obedience. Intellectual assent is not enough. Knowledge without application is nothing more than hypocrisy.

…don’t just listen to God’s word. You must do what it says. – James 1:22 NLT

So, James provided a practical and timeless illustration of the Word applied to everyday life. He raises the ugly specter of partiality within the body of Christ. And there is an interesting, yet subtle, connection between James’ warnings about practicing partiality and their handling of the trials of life.

Back in chapter one, James mentioned two different groups of people who comprise the church: the rich and the poor.

Believers who are poor have something to boast about, for God has honored them. And those who are rich should boast that God has humbled them. – James 1:9-10 NLT

Now he expands on the potentially contentious relationship between these two disparate groups. Their coexistence within the church is a potential time bomb that threatens to destroy the corporate unity of the fellowship. And, sadly, many of the trials of the less fortunate are due to the inequitable and unjust actions of the wealthy and influential – even within the body of Christ.

There was a common misconception in James’ day that the wealthy were blessed by God. Their affluence was seen as a sign that they had found pleasure with God and had been deemed to be more spiritual. At the same time, poverty was viewed as a curse from God. Despite James’ earlier statement, most people saw no honor in being poor. That condition was to be avoided at all costs. And if you could somehow escape your impoverished circumstances, you should do so without delay.

This errant perspective on wealth and poverty was negatively impacting the health of the local congregation to which James wrote. They were allowing a spirit of unjustified favoritism to influence their daily interactions, and it was motivated by the potential for personal gain. When the church gathered for worship, the wealthy were being treated as first-class citizens and given the best seats in the house – all in the hopes of securing their favor. But James questions the motivation behind their actions.

…how can you claim to have faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ if you favor some people over others? – James 2:1 NLT

And he doesn’t sugarcoat his assessment of their problem. Instead, he goes straight to their practice of partiality in worship.

…suppose someone comes into your meeting dressed in fancy clothes and expensive jewelry, and another comes in who is poor and dressed in dirty clothes. If you give special attention and a good seat to the rich person, but you say to the poor one, “You can stand over there, or else sit on the floor”—well, doesn’t this discrimination show that your judgments are guided by evil motives? – James 2:2-4 NLT

James introduces a real problem within the church by presenting it as a thinly veiled hypothetical situation. It’s as if he is saying, “So, for instance, let’s just say a rich man comes into your church and you show him preference over a poor man…”

James isn’t suggesting this scene could happen; he was subtly declaring that it already had. And he declares that this kind of unjustified partiality was motivated by prejudice and pride. They were guilty of judging one another based on an unrighteous standard.

“The form of James’ question in the Greek text expects a positive answer: ‘You have, haven’t you?’ The usher made two errors. First, he showed favoritism because of what the rich man might do for the church if he received preferential treatment. He should have treated everyone graciously, as God does. This reflects a double-minded attitude in the usher, thinking like the world in this case while thinking as God thinks in other respects (1:8).” – Thomas L. Constable, Notes on James

The practice of partiality is a form of prejudice. It elevates one individual over another based on a false set of external criteria that have nothing to do with the individual’s true value or worth. Rich people are not inherently more spiritual or worthy of honor. Poor people are not to be treated as second-class citizens simply because their clothes and financial status don’t measure up to some arbitrary social standard.  James was warning his readers that they needed to view one another the same way God does.

When God commissioned the prophet Samuel to find the next king of Israel, He warned His servant not to be taken in by the outer appearance of the candidates.

“Don’t judge by his appearance or height, for I have rejected him. The LORD doesn’t see things the way you see them. People judge by outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” – 1 Samuel 16:7 NLT

Just because someone looked like a king didn’t mean he had the attributes necessary to fulfill the role of king. God was more interested in the inner character of the man than any external traits he may have displayed.

But how easy it is to judge one another based on an arbitrary and inconsistent set of standards that have nothing to do with spiritual maturity or holiness. This led James to remind his audience that many of them had come to faith in Christ while in a state of abject poverty. God had chosen to redeem them, not because they were wealthy and influential, but based solely on His grace and mercy.

Hasn’t God chosen the poor in this world to be rich in faith? Aren’t they the ones who will inherit the Kingdom he promised to those who love him? – James 2:5 NLT

God didn’t reserve salvation for the well-to-do. He didn’t send His Son to die only for those who measured up to some worldly standard of worth and merit. No, Jesus came to offer the gift of salvation to all those who were humble enough to admit their need for it. He spent the vast majority of His time on earth ministering to the poor and disenfranchised. He reached out to the dregs of humanity – the tax collectors, prostitutes, maimed, blind, demon-possessed, and even the lowly and despised Gentiles.

In His sermon on the mount, Jesus declared, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:7 ESV). Spiritual poverty has nothing to do with financial status but it has everything to do with humility and an awareness of one’s own unworthiness. Eternal life is not reserved for the wealthy and well-off. It is the gift of God made possible through the death of His Son and is available to any who will receive it in humility and faith – regardless of their earthly status or social standing.

Yet, James accuses his audience of dishonoring the poor by showing favor to the wealthy. Then he reminds them of the ludicrous nature of this kind of behavior.

…you dishonor the poor! Isn’t it the rich who oppress you and drag you into court? Aren’t they the ones who slander Jesus Christ, whose noble name you bear? – James 2:6-7 NLT

They were treating the poor like social pariahs while honoring the very people who were oppressing and mistreating them. What would possess these people to show favoritism to the very ones who were causing them trials and troubles? The simple answer is greed. They hoped to gain something from the flattery of their more well-to-do foes. Perhaps if they treated their rich guests with dignity and respect, they might return the favor. After all, the wealthy had resources and wielded great influence in the community, and the poor were nothing more than a burden on the faith community.

But James warns that this kind of logic was not only dangerous, but it was also ungodly and in violation of God’s law.

But if you favor some people over others, you are committing a sin. You are guilty of breaking the law. – James 2:9 NLT

James specifically mentions one particular law: “the royal law according to the Scripture” (James 2:8 ESV). Then, just to make sure they understood what he meant, he quotes the law for them.

“You shall love your neighbor as yourself…” – James 2:8 ESV

Again, in His sermon on the mount, Jesus affirmed this “royal law” when He stated, “Do to others whatever you would like them to do to you. This is the essence of all that is taught in the law and the prophets” (Matthew 7:12 NLT). Jesus was not recommending the practice of preferential treatment in order to get a preferred response. He was promoting the practice of equity and selfless love. We are not to love based on what we get out of it. Christlike love is not a form of quid pro quo where our love is reciprocal in nature. It is not a you-scratch-my-back-and-I’ll-scratch-your-back kind of equation. Yet the practice of partiality is almost always selfish and self-centered. 

To drive home his point, James reminds his readers of the importance of every one of God’s laws. They were not free to cherry-pick which laws they wanted to obey. And he uses the rather absurd example of murder and adultery. They weren’t free to commit murder just because they had never committed adultery.

the person who keeps all of the laws except one is as guilty as a person who has broken all of God’s laws. – James 2:10 NLT

God expected His children to keep all of His laws, including His royal law to love one another. So, favoritism had no place in the household of God. As far as God was concerned, partiality was a sin and unacceptable behavior among His chosen people. And James provides them with a stern reminder of how God views those who receive His undeserved mercy but refuse to share it with others.

There will be no mercy for those who have not shown mercy to others. But if you have been merciful, God will be merciful when he judges you. – James 2:13 NLT

And once again, James seems to be echoing the words of Jesus, spoken in His sermon on the mount.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. – Matthew 5:7 ESV

The apostle Paul provides us with a powerful reminder of just how important it is to live according to God’s standards and not the world’s. There is no place for partiality in the family of God.

So let’s not get tired of doing what is good. At just the right time we will reap a harvest of blessing if we don’t give up. Therefore, whenever we have the opportunity, we should do good to everyone—especially to those in the family of faith. – Galatians 6:9-10 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

Words Matter

19 Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20 for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. 21 Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.

22 But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. 23 For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. 24 For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. 25 But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.

26 If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. 27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. James 1:19-27 ESV

One of the most common responses to unwanted and unexpected trials is anger. The intrusion of difficulties into our comfortable lives can cause resentment that ultimately turns to rage. And far too often, our anger can be directed at God for having allowed the trial to disrupt our otherwise comfortable circumstances. But James cautions against being too quick to lash out at God when facing difficulty.

Understand this, my dear brothers and sisters: You must all be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry. – James 1:19 NLT

James suggests that we take a deep breath and thoughtfully consider how best to respond when a trial comes our way. Pointing our fingers at God in anger will do little to solve our problem and even less toward producing righteousness in our lives.

Human anger does not produce the righteousness God desires. – James 1:20 NLT

Anger may be a normal and natural response to unexpected difficulties, but when directed at God, it can be a dangerous game to play. The prophet Isaiah also warned against the danger of unjustly accusing God when things don’t go quite the way we want them to.

How foolish can you be? He is the Potter, and he is certainly greater than you, the clay! Should the created thing say of the one who made it, “He didn’t make me”? Does a jar ever say, “The potter who made me is stupid”? – Isaiah 29:16 NLT

“What sorrow awaits those who argue with their Creator. Does a clay pot argue with its maker? Does the clay dispute with the one who shapes it, saying, ‘Stop, you’re doing it wrong!’ Does the pot exclaim, ‘How clumsy can you be?’” – Isaiah 45:9 NLT

Isaiah goes on to recommend a much more reverent and respectful attitude toward our Creator God.

O LORD, you are our Father. We are the clay, and you are the potter. We all are formed by your hand. – Isaiah 64:8 NLT

So much of what James is saying in this opening chapter of his letter has to do with perspective. That is why he recommends that we ask God for wisdom when facing trials. We need the divinely enabled capacity to see our trials from God’s vantage point. And that includes the ability to maintain a healthy perspective regarding our Creator-creature relationship with God. He is the potter, we are the clay. We have been formed by His hand and He has the sovereign right and responsibility to do what He deems best for our lives.

When writing to the believers in Rome, the apostle Paul utilized Isaiah’s metaphor of the potter and the clay in order to remind his readers of God’s sovereign authority.

…who are you, O man, to talk back to God? Shall what is formed say to Him who formed it, “Why did You make me like this?” Does not the potter have the right to make from the same lump of clay one vessel for special occasions and another for common use?  – Romans 9:20-21 BSB

But James would have us understand that our anger when facing trials and difficulties comes from the inside out. In other words, the trial itself is not the problem. It is simply the trigger that produces our unrighteous reaction. That’s why he encourages an ongoing process of purification and sanctification in our lives.

So get rid of all the filth and evil in your lives, and humbly accept the word God has planted in your hearts, for it has the power to save your souls. – James 1:21 NLT

Long before the trial ever arrived, we should have been doing some serious house-cleaning and soul-searching so that we might be better equipped to respond in reverent reliance upon God. James is recommending a life of dependence upon the sanctifying power of God’s Word. The gospel doesn’t simply save us; it produces the fruit of righteousness in our lives. The apostle Paul referred to it as the fruit of our salvation.

I pray that your love will overflow more and more, and that you will keep on growing in knowledge and understanding. For I want you to understand what really matters, so that you may live pure and blameless lives until the day of Christ’s return. May you always be filled with the fruit of your salvation—the righteous character produced in your life by Jesus Christ—for this will bring much glory and praise to God. – Philippians 1:9-11 NLT

According to James, this life-transforming “fruit” can save our souls. He is not referring to salvation from eternal condemnation. In other words, James is not teaching that anger expressed in the midst of trials can cause a believer to lose his salvation. He is simply warning that any form of unconfessed sin in our lives will have detrimental consequences. That’s why he tells us to “get rid of all the filth and evil in your lives” (James 1:21 NLT). But too often, we allow our distaste for any form of discomfort in our lives to produce anger and resentment. And rather than seeing the trial as a God-ordained test to purify and cleanse us, we simply demand that the difficulty be removed.

“We pray for safety instead of purity because we do not see impurity as dangerous.” – George M. Stulac, James

God speaks to His children through His Word. He uses it to guide, direct, convict, and encourage them. But James warns that it isn’t enough to hear God’s Word; you have to obey it.

…don’t just listen to God’s word. You must do what it says. Otherwise, you are only fooling yourselves. – James 1:22 NLT

Hearing the Word without applying its truths is like glancing in a mirror and then walking away. Whatever flaws and imperfections the mirror may have revealed will be quickly forgotten once you walk away. Whenever the Word reveals an area of your life that needs attention, you must deal with it immediately – with the Holy Spirit’s help.

James reminds us that obedience to the Word of God comes with a blessing.

…if you look carefully into the perfect law that sets you free, and if you do what it says and don’t forget what you heard, then God will bless you for doing it. – James 1:25 NLT

This process is an ongoing one. The Christian life is a constant exercise in self-assessment and Spirit-empowered reformation. And the Word of God is the primary tool the Holy Spirit uses to transform our lives by removing all the remaining filth and evil from our lives. And this process will continue until our final glorification.

James concludes this section of his letter with a rather stern warning against hypocritical behavior. And nothing reveals hypocrisy in the life of a believer quite like a trial. We can be going along quite well, displaying a form of righteousness that has everyone believing we are some kind of super saint. But then an unexpected and unwanted difficulty rears its ugly head and our facade of faithfulness comes crashing down like a house of cards. And, according to James, it is our verbal reaction to trials that exposes our hypocrisy.

If you claim to be religious but don’t control your tongue, you are fooling yourself, and your religion is worthless. – James 1:26 NLT

James seems to have had firsthand experience with this topic because he will revisit the problem of the tongue later in his letter.

…the tongue is a flame of fire. It is a whole world of wickedness, corrupting your entire body. It can set your whole life on fire, for it is set on fire by hell itself. – James 3:6 NLT

As far as he was concerned, the tongue is the Christian’s primary roadblock to sanctification. It may be small, but it can cause a great deal of grief and sorrow. And it is an accurate barometer of our true spiritual condition.

…if we could control our tongues, we would be perfect and could also control ourselves in every other way. – James 3:2 NLT

What James says next seems contradictory or out of place. He shifts from discussing the need to control our tongue to describing pure and genuine religion.

Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you. – James 1:27 NLT

What’s his point? It would seem that James is trying to differentiate between religion that is nothing more than lip service and actual sacrificial service to others. Not only can we use the tongue to curse and rage at the presence of trials. We can also use it to project an attitude of spiritual superiority by professing our allegiance to God. But James would suggest that words are not enough. In fact, in the very next chapter of his letter, he will expand on this hypocritical tendency and the need to walk the talk.

Suppose you see a brother or sister who has no food or clothing, and you say, “Good-bye and have a good day; stay warm and eat well”—but then you don’t give that person any food or clothing. What good does that do? – James 2:15-16 NLT

We need to put our words into action. True faith is life-transforming. It changes our lives as well as all those around us. it puts shoe leather to our religion and provides a practical expression of the sanctifying power of God’s Word.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

Trials, Troubles, and Trust

Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, 10 and the rich in his humiliation, because like a flower of the grass he will pass away. 11 For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. So also will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits.

12 Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him. 13 Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. 14 But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. 15 Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.

16 Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. 17 Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. 18 Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures. James 1:9-18 ESV

So often, we judge the success of our lives based on the circumstantial evidence that surrounds us. If our lives are free from trouble and trials, then we assume that God is pleased with us. But should any kind of difficulty come our way, we jump to the opposite conclusion and assume that God is punishing us for something we have done or something we have failed to do.

But James has been encouraging us to see life through a different lens. We must learn to view our circumstances with the clarifying help of God’s wisdom. And James gives a few examples of what this looks like in real life. First, “the believer of humble means should take pride in his high position” (James 1:9 NLT). Notice who the referent is in this verse. It is a believer who just happens to be poor. But James declares that this individual actually enjoys a “high position” or standing because of his relationship with Jesus Christ. He is a child of God and an heir to the Kingdom of God. His lack of social standing is inconsequential when compared with his status as a royal subject of heaven.

In James’ day, the average person believed that poverty was a curse from God. To be poor was considered a sign of God’s displeasure and discipline. Wealth was considered a sign of blessing. If you were rich, you must have done something to please God and warrant His outpouring of physical blessings. But James puts that fallacy to rest by stating, “the rich person’s pride should be in his humiliation, because he will pass away like a wildflower in the meadow” (James 1:10 NLT).

In other words, the person of means should always maintain a healthy does of humility by remembering that his wealth is temporary. As the old saying goes, you can’t take it with you. At death, his 15 minutes of fame will come to an abrupt and unavoidable end. And James provides a very eloquent description of this inevitable outcome that every wealthy individual faces.   

For the sun rises with its heat and dries up the meadow; the petal of the flower falls off and its beauty is lost forever. So also the rich person in the midst of his pursuits will wither away. – James 1:11 NLT

This thought brings James back to his original charge: “consider it nothing but joy when you fall into all sorts of trials” (James 1:2 NLT). But now he adds a further point of clarification that encompasses the fate of every believer, whether they are poor or wealthy.

Happy is the one who endures testing, because when he has proven to be genuine, he will receive the crown of life that God promised to those who love him. – James 1:12 NLT

It all goes back to the issue of the trials that God uses to test the spiritual condition of our lives. Trials are not punishments, but they serve as divine purifying agents that help to burn away the dross of sin that contaminates our lives. They help to purify and prepare God’s children for the future reward that awaits them: the crown of life that He has promised. Temporal wealth is not a sign of God’s blessing. Poverty is not evidence of His displeasure. And the presence of trials in the life of a believer is not an indication of God’s divine discipline. They should be viewed as instruments in the hands of a holy God who is lovingly purging the impurities and imperfections from the lives of those He loves. That is what led the apostle Paul to encourage the Corinthians to maintain a long-term, future-focused perspective regarding their present sufferings.

That is why we never give up. Though our bodies are dying, our spirits are being renewed every day. For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever! So we don’t look at the troubles we can see now; rather, we fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen. For the things we see now will soon be gone, but the things we cannot see will last forever. – 2 Corinthians 4:16-18 NLT

The apostle Peter shared Paul’s perspective and echoed his call for humility and faith in the midst of present difficulties.

So humble yourselves under the mighty power of God, and at the right time he will lift you up in honor. Give all your worries and cares to God, for he cares about you.

Stay alert! Watch out for your great enemy, the devil. He prowls around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour. Stand firm against him, and be strong in your faith. Remember that your family of believers all over the world is going through the same kind of suffering you are.

In his kindness God called you to share in his eternal glory by means of Christ Jesus. So after you have suffered a little while, he will restore, support, and strengthen you, and he will place you on a firm foundation. – 1 Peter 5:6-10 NLT

Notice that both of these men stress the future glory that awaits the children of God. That is where we should set our sights and focus our attention. The promises of God concerning our eternal heritage are intended to instill hope and produce endurance. The trials of this present age have a shelf life. They will come to an end. And we are to set our hopes on the glorious future that God has planned for us.

But James warns against confusing the tests that God brings into our lives with temptations. He has made it clear that trials are tests. They are intended to expose sin and lead to confession, purification, and further sanctification. But for some, the presence of an unwanted trial can result in sin rather than sanctification. We can become angry and lash out. We can allow the trial to produce envy, lust, and resentment. We may even find ourselves shaking our fists in the face of God and refusing to respond in repentance. Instead, we allow the trial to produce further sin and then blame God for our actions.

Yet James will not give us that out.

Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted by evil, and he himself tempts no one. – James 1:13 NLT

Trials are tests but not temptations. God would never encourage one of His children to sin.  Yet, the temptation to do so is always there. The Old Testament story of Job is a perfect example of a test that could have easily become a temptation. God had allowed Satan to test the righteousness of Job by inflicting him with a debilitating skin disease.

Satan left the LORD’s presence, and he struck Job with terrible boils from head to foot.

Job scraped his skin with a piece of broken pottery as he sat among the ashes. – Job 2:7-8 NLT

In the midst of suffering from this horrible condition, Job’s wife confronted him with far-from-comforting words.

His wife said to him, “Are you still trying to maintain your integrity? Curse God and die.” – Job 2:9 NLT

At that point, Job faced a temptation. He could have listened to the counsel of his wife and blamed God for his unpleasant circumstances. But instead, he called out his wife for her foolish advice and declared his commitment to trust the will of God.

But Job replied, “You talk like a foolish woman. Should we accept only good things from the hand of God and never anything bad?” So in all this, Job said nothing wrong. – Job 2:10 NLT

For Job, the source of his temptation was not God but his own wife. It was an external source. But James states that, more often than not, the temptation is an inside job.

each one is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desires. – James 1:14 NLT

It starts in the heart. Had Job not been a righteous man who had a love for God, he could have easily bought into his wife’s errant advice and lashed out at God for his devastating circumstances. Had his heart not been in the right place, Job could have made the wrong decision. And James points out the inevitable outcome of an impure heart that gives in to ungodly desires.

…when desire conceives, it gives birth to sin, and when sin is full grown, it gives birth to death. – James 1:15 NLT

We can’t blame God for our poor choices because, according to James, He is the giver of good gifts.

All generous giving and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or the slightest hint of change. – James 1:17 NLT

God may test, but He never tempts. He doesn’t cause us to sin. What He does is give us the capacity to respond to the tests of life with faith that allows us to experience His life-transforming power that eventually leaves us “perfect and complete, not deficient in anything” (James 1:4 NLT).

God is not fickle or capricious. He doesn’t tease or tempt His children. But He does lovingly discipline them so that they might experience the full force of His sanctifying power in their lives. God is consistent and unchanging. His character doesn’t fluctuate and His sovereign plan for us remains unwavering and reliable.

By his sovereign plan he gave us birth through the message of truth, that we would be a kind of firstfruits of all he created. – James 1: 18 NLT

God preordained our salvation and He has planned out every aspect of our sanctification and future glorification. And no amount of trials can prevent God from completing what He has begun. This glorious promise is what prompted the apostle Paul to write:

…we believers also groan, even though we have the Holy Spirit within us as a foretaste of future glory, for we long for our bodies to be released from sin and suffering. We, too, wait with eager hope for the day when God will give us our full rights as his adopted children, including the new bodies he has promised us. We were given this hope when we were saved. (If we already have something, we don’t need to hope for it. But if we look forward to something we don’t yet have, we must wait patiently and confidently). – Romans 8:23-25 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

Wise Enough to Know Better

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways. James 1:5-8 ESV

How is one to “count it all joy” when encountering “trials of various kinds” (James 1:2 ESV)? For James, the answer was simple; you need the wisdom of God. The divinely ordained ability to see things from God’s perspective.

Life is filled with confusing and sometimes contradictory circumstances that we can’t explain and try to avoid at all costs. Trials and difficulties seem to be antithetical to the good life that most of us want to experience during our time on earth. They are unwanted and seemingly unhelpful. But James suggests that the presence of trials in our lives should cause us to rejoice because they test our faith and end up producing endurance and spiritual maturity.

But this kind of positive outlook concerning trials isn’t a natural and normal response for most of us. We tend to take the glass-half-full approach and view trials as unexpected interruptions to our daily routine that produce pain, difficulty, and despair. We see them as undesirable disruptions to our normal way of life.

That’s why James suggests that we might have a wisdom deficiency. He seems to know that most of us have a difficult time rejoicing when tribulations and trials show up. Our natural tendency is to gripe and complain. We ask questions like, “Why me?” and “Why now?” We wonder what we might have done to deserve this far-from-pleasant fate. We may even shake our fists at God and demand that He remove whatever it is we are experiencing. But James states that an inability to find joy in the midst of trials may be a sign that we need a dose of godly wisdom. So, he suggests that we take that need to God.

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. – James 1:5 ESV

Godly wisdom provides divine insight into the everyday affairs of life. It allows us to see things from God’s perspective. As human beings, we have a limited capacity for comprehending all that is happening around us. We can’t see into the future and determine the fallout of our present-day experiences. So, we’re left to question how anything we don’t enjoy for the moment can have any hope of producing a positive outcome. We deem anything that makes us uncomfortable or that we find inconvenient to be a personal affront to our happiness. But that attitude fails to take into account the sovereignty and providence of God.

“My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts,” says the Lord.
    “And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine.
For just as the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so my ways are higher than your ways
    and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.” – Isaiah 55:8-9 NLT

God’s ways are not our ways. He doesn’t operate according to our will or ask what we think would be best for our lives. He is all-knowing and fully capable of determining what is proper and appropriate for producing godliness in the life of His child. And the only way we can begin to understand the mysterious ways of God is through a good dose of His wisdom. And when we ask for it, He gladly responds and provides His children with the ability to view the difficulties of life from a new perspective. The apostle Paul provides an apt description of this wisdom-empowered capacity to see life from God’s viewpoint.

And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them. – Romans 8:28 NLT

We may not like or enjoy what we are going through but, as God’s chosen people, we understand that He always has our best interest in mind. According to Paul, “we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago” (Ephesians 2:10 NLT). Like a master craftsman or a painter, God is always perfecting His work, taking great pains to see that the final product is “perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:4 ESV). No detail is overlooked. No blemish is ignored or allowed to remain. And sometimes the art of perfecting His creation requires Him to make renovations that seem radical and unnecessary from our point of view. We view them as invasive and far too harsh. But God’s ways are not our ways. His methodology may not make sense to us but it’s difficult to argue with the final product He produces. 

The apostle John reminds us that we can trust God’s ways and find hope in the ultimate outcome of His redemptive plan.

Dear friends, we are already God’s children, but he has not yet shown us what we will be like when Christ appears. But we do know that we will be like him, for we will see him as he really is. – 1 John 3:2 NLT

Wisdom is the key to weathering the present storms of life and maintaining a confident outlook regarding the future. When we begin to doubt the goodness of God or question the necessity of trials, we simply need to ask Him for an extra dose of His wisdom. But James would have us remember to do so with caution.

But when you ask him, be sure that your faith is in God alone. Do not waver, for a person with divided loyalty is as unsettled as a wave of the sea that is blown and tossed by the wind. – James 1:6 NLT

It’s interesting to note that when most of us encounter trials in our lives, we turn to God, but not for wisdom. When we find ourselves experiencing overwhelming difficulties we acknowledge our need for God by asking Him to remove the unwanted circumstance. So, in a sense, we see the removal of the difficulty as the ultimate answer to our problem. Our hope is in the elimination of the trial, not in the power of God to use the trial for our good and His glory.

To a certain degree, we all share the belief that trials have no place in the life of a believer. We view them as anomalies and undesirable disruptions to our preferred way of life. So, when they show up we ask God to immediately remove them. Rather than asking for wisdom to see our trials from God’s perspective, we ask God to remove the trial altogether. This reveals that our true desire is for a trouble-free existence, not the sanctifying, life-transforming power of God.

James warns against exhibiting a wavering faith. He is referring to a faith that is fluctuating and unstable. It can’t make up its mind. One minute, our faith is in the goodness of God even in the face of difficulty. Then suddenly, we begin to believe that the difficulty is the problem and the only solution is its removal. And when God doesn’t remove it, we begin to doubt.

“The Greek word diakrinomenos, used twice in this verse, is better translated, ‘let him ask in faith, free from divided motives and divisive attitudes, for such a person is like an ocean wave . . .’” – David DeGraaf, “Some Doubts about Doubt: The New Testament Use of Diakrino,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

Doubt is an everyday part of life. It’s normal and natural. But as believers, it should be constantly decreasing in its intensity and the influence it has over our lives. The wisdom of God allows us to see trials and difficulties from an eternal viewpoint that puts them into proper perspective. The apostle Paul knew what it was like to view his temporal, earthly circumstances from an eternal vantage point.

Therefore we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, yet our inner self is being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory that is far beyond comparison. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. – 2 Corinthians 4:16-18 BSB

And that ability to see things from God’s perspective provided him with an overwhelming sense of calm and contentment, no matter what trials or difficulties came his way.

I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength. – Philippians 4:11-13 NLT

James describes those with fluctuating faith as wind-blown waves. They display discontentment with their circumstances and can’t seem to make up their mind whether they want to put their trust in God or in the hope of having their trials removed by God. James paints these kinds of fickle individuals in a less-than-flattering light.

Such people should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Their loyalty is divided between God and the world, and they are unstable in everything they do. – James 1:7-8 NLT

The removal of trials will not produce contentment. A trouble-free life will not result in a godly life. Too often, we believe that the difficulties of life are what makes the Christian life difficult. But Paul and James would both declare that it is a lack of wisdom and faith that are the root of our suffering and discontentment. As long as we fixate on having all our problems removed, we will never experience the joy of having our faith strengthened by having our weaknesses exposed. And nobody knew this better than the apostle Paul.

…to keep me from becoming proud, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger from Satan to torment me and keep me from becoming proud.

Three different times I begged the Lord to take it away. Each time he said, “My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.” So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me. That’s why I take pleasure in my weaknesses, and in the insults, hardships, persecutions, and troubles that I suffer for Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong. – 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

Count It All Joy

1 James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ,

To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion:

Greetings.

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. James 1:1-4 ESV

Many of the early church fathers ascribed the authorship of the book of James to the half-brother of Jesus (Matthew 13:53-55; Mark 6:1-3). Early in Jesus’ earthly ministry, His siblings had a difficult time reconciling Jesus’ claim to be the Son of God. In his gospel, the apostle John reveals that they enjoyed the notoriety of Jesus but remained unconvinced that He was the long-awaited Messiah of Israel.

After this, Jesus traveled around Galilee. He wanted to stay out of Judea, where the Jewish leaders were plotting his death. But soon it was time for the Jewish Festival of Shelters, and Jesus’ brothers said to him, “Leave here and go to Judea, where your followers can see your miracles! You can’t become famous if you hide like this! If you can do such wonderful things, show yourself to the world!” For even his brothers didn’t believe in him. – John 7:1-5 NLT

According to Mark’s gospel, the family of Jesus eventually reached the conclusion that Jesus’ actions were the result of madness. In their estimation, He had lost His mind and needed to be taken into custody for His own protection (Mark 3:20-21). As the half-brother of Jesus, James would have been involved in the family’s debates over Jesus’ lofty claims and potential madness. But somewhere along the way, James came to believe that his older sibling was who He claimed to be: The Messiah of Israel and the Savior of the world.

In the book of Acts, Luke records that not long after Jesus’ resurrection, the 11 disciples returned to Jerusalem just as Jesus had commanded them to do.

Then the apostles returned to Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, a distance of half a mile. When they arrived, they went to the upstairs room of the house where they were staying.

Here are the names of those who were present: Peter, John, James, Andrew, Philip, Thomas, Bartholomew, Matthew, James (son of Alphaeus), Simon (the zealot), and Judas (son of James). They all met together and were constantly united in prayer, along with Mary the mother of Jesus, several other women, and the brothers of Jesus. – Acts 1:12-14 NLT

After Jesus’ post-crucifixion appearances in His resurrected body, His brothers had been transformed from doubters to believers. The apostle Paul records that James, the half-brother of Jesus was among those who were visited by the resurrected Christ.

He was buried, and he was raised from the dead on the third day, just as the Scriptures said. He was seen by Peter and then by the Twelve. After that, he was seen by more than 500 of his followers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he was seen by James and later by all the apostles. – 1 Corinthians 15:4-7 NLT

And after the coming of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, James would go on to be one of the leading figures in the newly established church in Jerusalem (Acts 15:13-21). According to the first-century Jewish historian, Josephus, James died during the reign of Portius Festus who died in A.D. 62. So the date of this epistle has to be sometime before that. The audience to whom James wrote was made up of Jews who had been scattered because of ethnic and religious persecution in Palestine. These displaced Jews, who were official members of the 12 tribes of Israel, had come to faith in Christ and were now living as aliens and strangers outside the confines of the Promised Land. The book is distinctively Jewish in terms of its tone and contains references to Old Testament characters such as Abraham, Rahab, Job, and Elijah. James also makes repeated references to the Ten Commandments and the Law of Moses.

The book is highly practical in nature and attempts to correct potential misunderstandings regarding the role of faith and the need for outward transformation of one’s character. The recipients of the letter were Jewish Christians who were attempting to reconcile the role of the Old Testament Law with the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. They were living as exiles from the land of Palestine and facing persecution for their membership in the Jewish community as well as their newfound identity as followers of Christ. Their non-believing Jewish friends and neighbors would have disagreed strongly with their acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah. Their membership in the “cult” known as The Way would have turned off their fellow Jews and infuriated the Gentiles among whom they now lived. These Jewish converts to Christianity were facing the difficult task of living out their faith in Christ within a less-than-friendly environment. And James is trying to help them balance their reliance upon the Spirit’s indwelling power and their own need to live out their faith in practical and tangible ways.

“The purpose of this potent letter is to exhort the early believers to Christian maturity and holiness of life. This letter deals more with the practice of the Christian faith than with its precepts. James told his readers how to achieve spiritual maturity through a confident stand, compassionate service, careful speech, contrite submission, and concerned sharing. He dealt with every area of a Christian’s life: what he is, what he does, what he says, what he feels, and what he has.” – J. Ronald Blue, “James.” In The Bible Knowledge Commentary: New Testament

James opens his letter with a salutation in which he describes himself as “a slave of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” (James 1:1 NLT). Rather than claiming his unique status as the half-brother of Jesus, James introduces himself as a lowly servant (Greek: doulos) of his Lord and Savior. As a bondservant, James was willing to place his will in submission to that of the Father and Son. He served at their discretion and was more than willing to play a subservient role when it came to accomplishing their will for the body of Christ and the continued spread of the gospel.

James opens up his letter with a rather strange admonition. He calls his readers to consider any trial they encounter as a believer as “an opportunity for great joy” (James 1:2 NLT). James knew they were facing all kinds of difficulties and he wanted them to recognize the God-ordained nature of those trials. As followers of Christ, their trials (peirasmois) were not indiscriminate and pointless. There was a purpose behind them. God was using those uncomfortable and unwanted difficulties to strengthen the faith of His children.

For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. – James 1:3 NLT

James invites them to reflect on their own experience with past trials. They have ample evidence from their own lives to prove the value of having their faith tested. And that is exactly what a trial does. It tests our faith in the goodness of God. It tempts us to doubt that God truly loves us and has our best interest in mind. When we are trying out best to live in obedience to the will of God and find ourselves facing unexpected difficulties, it’s easy to assume that God has fallen out of love with us and is punishing us. This can cause us to respond in anger and disappointment, and even tempt us to turn our backs on the will of God.

But James encourages his readers to remain steadfast, refusing to waver in their commitment to the cause of Christ and the transforming power of the indwelling Spirit of God. For James, the Christian life was a dynamic process, the ongoing transformative plan of God that had a specific end in mind: the believer’s sanctification and ultimate spiritual maturity. That’s why he encouraged them to embrace each trial as an opportunity to watch God work in their life.

So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing. – James 1:4 NLT

The author of the book of Hebrews provided his readers with a similar reminder to find hope and comfort in God’s ability to use difficulties and divine discipline to produce holiness in the lives of His children.

God’s discipline is always good for us, so that we might share in his holiness. No discipline is enjoyable while it is happening—it’s painful! But afterward there will be a peaceful harvest of right living for those who are trained in this way. – Hebrews 12:10-11 NLT

To many Christians, the presence of trials and difficulties seems incongruent with the promises that Jesus made.

I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” – John 10:10 ESV

When you obey my commandments, you remain in my love, just as I obey my Father’s commandments and remain in his love. I have told you these things so that you will be filled with my joy. Yes, your joy will overflow!” – John 15:10-11 NLT

There is an expectation among believers that faith in Christ should produce a trouble-free existence, devoid of difficulties, hurts, and heartaches. And yet, Jesus also promised, “Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world” (John 16:33 NLT).

We live in a fallen world where troubles, trials, and tribulations are par for the course. They come with the territory. But, as Jesus said, because of our relationship with Him, we are not victims but overcomers. The apostle Paul would have us remember that our relationship with Christ makes us victors not victims.

Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written,

“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. – Romans 8:33-39 ESV

We can rejoice in the difficulties because we know that, in God’s capable hands, they become tools of transformation. He uses them to purify and perfect us. Like tools in the hands of a master craftsman, trials become divine utensils in the hands of a loving God that He uses to sanctify and perfect His children. No trial is indiscriminate or unnecessary. No pain is wasted. No suffering is without merit or purpose. The apostle Paul reminded the believers in Corinth of the redemptive nature of difficulties and trials.

We think you ought to know, dear brothers and sisters, about the trouble we went through in the province of Asia. We were crushed and overwhelmed beyond our ability to endure, and we thought we would never live through it. In fact, we expected to die. But as a result, we stopped relying on ourselves and learned to rely only on God, who raises the dead. And he did rescue us from mortal danger, and he will rescue us again. We have placed our confidence in him, and he will continue to rescue us. – 2 Corinthians 1:8-10 NLT

Ultimately, James wanted his readers to experience the same confident assurance that Paul had. Trials tend to make us God-dependent rather than self-sufficient. They expose our weaknesses and provide opportunities to rely upon the power and promises of God.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Last Word On the Matter

Besides being wise, the Preacher also taught the people knowledge, weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs with great care. 10 The Preacher sought to find words of delight, and uprightly he wrote words of truth.

11 The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; they are given by one Shepherd. 12 My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.

13 The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. 14 For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil. Ecclesiastes 12:9-14 ESV

As Solomon begins to wrap up his book, he provides his credentials as proof of the veracity of his words. Referring to himself in the third person, he restates his well-known reputation for wisdom, a gift given to him by God. But he claims to have put a great deal of effort and energy into enhancing that wisdom with further insight and knowledge through the use of diligent study and research. Solomon had spent a lifetime collecting the wise sayings of the sages, compiling many of them in the book of Proverbs. But he had not been content to simply collect and edit these sayings, producing them in written form for others to read.

He listened carefully to many proverbs, studying and classifying them.Ecclesiastes 12:9 NLT

Solomon “sought to find just the right words to express truths clearly” (Ecclesiastes 12:9 NLT). He had tested these truths, taking the time and energy to determine their reliability and truthfulness. Like a metallurgist testing the quality of gold to assess its true value, Solomon had proven the accuracy and soundness of each proverb before passing them on to the people. His goal had been to find teachings that would prove beneficial to life.

Solomon compares proverbs or wise sayings to a goad, a sharp stick that was used to prod animals along. Like a goad, a proverb is a simple tool that can make a powerful impact. Like a sharp stick to the rump of a wayward cow, a proverb can course-correct a person who is straying from the truth and redirect their steps.

He also compares proverbs to firmly fixed nails that provide much-needed stability to life. Proverbs are meant to keep things the way God intended them to be. They hold things in place, providing a sense of security and stability to life. Someone who lacks these time-proven truths or maxims is left to learn the lessons of life the hard way – through painful trial and error. And one of the reasons Solomon seems to have written this particular book was to pass on to those under his care the many life lessons he had learned.

As stated before, Solomon wrote this book near the end of his life, and he had a great deal of wisdom, gleaned from personal experience, that he sought to impart. In one of his proverbs, Solomon expressed this same desire to pass on his acquired wisdom to others.

My children, listen when your father corrects you.
    Pay attention and learn good judgment,
 for I am giving you good guidance.
    Don’t turn away from my instructions.
For I, too, was once my father’s son,
    tenderly loved as my mother’s only child. – Proverbs 4:1-3 NLT

My child, listen to me and do as I say,
    and you will have a long, good life.
I will teach you wisdom’s ways
    and lead you in straight paths. – Proverbs 4:10-11 NLT

And Solomon firmly believed that the proverbs he had collected had been given to him by God, making them divine instructions, not simply the words of men. That’s why he refers to them as having come from one Shepherd. While their human authors were many in number, the truths these proverbs contained came from God alone. He is the author of all truth, and that’s why Solomon warned, “My son, beware of anything beyond these” (Ecclesiastes 12:12 ESV).

There are countless books available and an individual could spend a lifetime searching and studying the written wisdom of men. But according to Solomon, it would prove to be a waste of time. And he knew that from experience because he had done it. He had come to recognize that it was all vanity, like chasing after the wind. And the apostle Paul would have fully agreed with Solomon. In fact, he described the wisdom of men in less-than-flattering terms: “For the wisdom of this world is foolishness to God” (1 Corinthians 3:19 NLT). 

Earlier in that same letter, Paul asked and answered his own question regarding man’s so-called wisdom. “So where does this leave the philosophers, the scholars, and the world’s brilliant debaters? God has made the wisdom of this world look foolish” (1 Corinthians 1:20 NLT). It’s no contest. God’s wisdom trumps human wisdom every time.

As Solomon prepares to wrap up his book and his life, he can’t help but come back to the one truth that held all his thoughts together. It is the one point of clarity in a long life filled with perplexities and incongruities. He refers to it as “the end of the matter.” It’s his summary or synopsis of life.

Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. – Ecclesiastes 12:13 ESV

Now, what’s missing in Solomon’s summary is an understanding and awareness of God’s future plans for his life. Like many in his day, Solomon had no clear theology concerning the afterlife. It was all a mystery to him. As far as he could tell, what existed beyond the grave was nothing more than a black hole.

“Life after death was as enigmatic to him as the unequal distribution of justice. His emphasis was on this life (‘under the sun’) and its opportunities for service and enjoyment; he thought life after death offered no such opportunities.” – Donald R. Glenn, “Ecclesiastes.” In The Bible Knowledge Commentary: Old Testament

So, while Solomon’s admonition to fear God and keep His commandments sounds like solid, biblical counsel to us, we have to keep in mind that he is placing all his emphasis on the here-and-now. He knows that God is sovereign over all. He realizes that God controls all things and is the distributor of all good gifts. He can give and He can take away. From Solomon’s limited, earth-bound perspective, it made sense to keep God happy by fearing and obeying Him. That way, you could hope to enjoy in this life some of the blessings that only He can bestow. And when Solomon speaks of God’s judgment, he seems to have in mind a judgment that takes place in this life. His rewards or punishments are based on thoughts and behaviors committed in this life.

Solomon remains fixated on present, not future rewards. He was expecting all of God’s blessings to show up in this life, not the one to come. Because as far as Solomon could tell, there was no guarantee of life after death.

But as believers in Jesus Christ, we have been given additional insight into God’s redemptive plan. We have the entirety of God’s Word to guide and instruct us. We know that there is an afterlife because Jesus promised it. Paul wrote about it. The New Testament goes out of its way to describe it. Yes, there is a judgment, but its rewards are not temporal in nature. They are eternal.

In his first letter, the apostle John told his readers: “I have written this to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13 NLT). Jesus promised: “I tell you the truth, those who listen to my message and believe in God who sent me have eternal life. They will never be condemned for their sins, but they have already passed from death into life” (John 5:24 NLT).

There is much we can learn from Solomon. But we have to take all that he wrote and combine it with what we have come to know since the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Solomon lived on the other side of the cross but we have been provided with the end of the story, something Solomon did not have. So, when he said, this is “the end of the matter; all has been heard,” Solomon was only partially right. There was more to come. As a matter of fact, the Savior of the world was to come. And it was His arrival on earth in human form, His sinless life, His sacrificial death, and bodily resurrection that removed all the vanity, meaningless, futility and frustration from life. This world, while a wonderful gift from God to be enjoyed, is not all there is. There is far more to come.

“Qoheleth’s intent in his writing is to pass judgment on man’s misguided endeavors at mastering life by pointing out its limits and mysteries. He would prefer that man replace such false and illusory hopes with a confidence based on the joy of creation as God’s gift.” – Robert K. Johnston, Confessions of a Workaholic: A Reappraisal of Qoheleth

But even more important than enjoying God’s gift of creation, is placing our faith and hope in God’s offer of new creation, new hope, new life, new joy, and the promise of a never-ending, frustration-free, sinless future with God.

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. – 2 Corinthians 5:17 ESV

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.