Equipping Christians & churches for whole-life discipleship in the world.

James (9): Doing and Being

December 5, 2011
05 Dec 2011

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.
James 1:27

To James the word ‘religion’ describes neither the Christian faith nor Christian, ‘churchy’, activities. He is talking here about what the Christian faith looks like, as seen in the lives of those who believe in Jesus (2:1).

What God, the Father, wants for his children is character, a quality of life that reflects his father-heart. This, James says, is to be seen in two areas – reaching out to those in need, and practical holiness. These two themes engage his attention throughout his letter (see 2:1-26 and 3:13-5:6).

‘Visit’ those in need, he says – a word that implies making a conscious decision, going out of one’s way: it’s costly of time, of physical and emotional energy. Whether they are people we know about personally, or people who turn for help to organisations that we are involved with, James says: reach out to vulnerable people – the homeless, the elderly, refugees, unemployed or excluded youth. And stand up for their rights.

That’s one side of the coin. The other relates less to what we do than to who we are. Keeping oneself unstained by the world is not simply a matter of avoiding certain kinds of unwholesome behaviour. It springs from single-minded devotion to the Father. The ‘double-minded’ are seduced by the world’s promises and misled by its values – the promises of wealth and success, the values of the marketplace.

But perhaps more relevantly to most of us, the ‘world’ creates busyness. We are so busy at work, at church, ferrying children, going to the gym; our minds are so busy that we are always thinking of plans, of dates, of things that ‘need to be done’. So busy that we have neither time nor creative thought to devote to the needy people around us.

Let’s try to clear the clutter, and live a life that is characterized by simplicity, contentment and generosity.

This is what speaks to the world.

 

Helen Parry

James (8): Careless talk costs lives

November 28, 2011
28 Nov 2011

If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues,
they deceive themselves and their religion is worthless.

James 1:26

I can’t help wondering about James’ experience of the church. To us, perhaps, this verse conjures up a picture of gossiping and back-biting – the ‘religious’ clustered in little groups, nattering after the service. But a much longer passage in chapter 3 shows that the problem is more serious, and that it is one of James’ major concerns in seeking to teach young Christians how to live.

‘The tongue’, he writes, ‘is a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person’ (3:6). Comparing the tongue to a spark that ignites a bush fire that rages uncontrollably, engulfing all in its path, James illustrates the terrible potential of the tongue to destroy, undermine or enflame other people, bringing unimagined, and often unintended, harm.

But how does the tongue ‘corrupt the whole person’? The tongue, of course, expresses the person. As Jesus said, ‘A tree is known by its fruit…Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks’ (Matt.12:33-34). The trouble is the inconstancy of the human heart – even the ‘redeemed’ heart. Careless words spoken in haste or in jest are surely evidence of hearts that are not fully sanctified. But worse than that, James suggests that words work both ways: that intemperate speech – criticism, gossip, bitter words – actually corrupt the heart of the speaker.

Both James’ and Jesus’ teaching challenges the hypocrisy of religious people. To bridle our tongues, we need to examine our hearts.

I sometimes try to monitor my subconscious. What is my instinctive response to a Porsche driver who cuts me up on my bike at the traffic lights? How do I speak to, or about, someone who irritates me to distraction? Indeed, how can I learn to love that person beyond irritation and distraction, so that the put-down or the sneering aside are as far from my tongue as the magnetic poles?

Give me, Lord, an undivided heart, and guard the door of my lips.

 

Helen Parry

James (7): Slummy Mummy

September 19, 2011
19 Sep 2011

Anyone who listens to the word but doesn’t do what it says is like someone who looks at their face in the mirror, and, after looking at themselves, goes away and immediately forgets what they look like.
James 1:23-24

Lucy Sweeny’s light-hearted weekly column ‘Slummy Mummy’ is adorned with the silhouette of a mother so frazzled that she has failed to notice that her skirt has got hitched up in her knickers. We may laugh, but most of us will sympathise, having ourselves often been so preoccupied, in such a rush, that we have forgotten to look in the mirror before going out. More embarrassing, however, is to see the hitched-up garment but forget to unhitch it. Most of us have done that, too – if not with a skirt then with a dirty smudge on the forehead or a mis-knotted tie.

James, with his talent for a striking image, uses this common experience to urge not vanity but honesty. Honesty in how we read the Bible or listen to sermons, honesty in how we judge ourselves, and honesty in responding with integrity to what the Lord shows us.

When we first become Christians we may be thoroughly convicted of sin, and spend time examining ourselves and dealing with behaviour, habits and attitudes that are clearly inconsistent with the word of God and the example of Jesus. But once we are established in our faith we may settle for a default position, to which we naturally return even after reading or hearing something that challenges us to change.

James understands the temptation. He describes God’s word (v.25) as ‘the perfect law that gives freedom’. Do we remember that the call to obedience is an invitation to freedom – freedom from ourselves and from the things that hold us back? But we need to read and to listen intently, not cursorily or superficially, and to carry God’s word to us out into the day – in the turmoil of family life, in the office or classroom, in our relationships and our plans.

Remembering and acting is what releases God’s blessing on what we do.

 

Helen Parry

James (6): Lead us not into temptation?

August 8, 2011
08 Aug 2011

‘…one is tempted when, by one’s own evil desire, one is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin.’
James 1:14-15

In these verses, James puts the responsibility for sin not on external temptation but on the sinner.

Tantalisingly, James doesn’t define either ‘evil desire’, or ‘sin’, or give examples of what he has in mind. This is rather surprising, because this is an extremely practical letter, which does not simply teach theological or ethical principles, but earths them in the lives of James’ readers. Nevertheless, here he leaves us to decide for ourselves what is evil or sinful.

Our first reaction is probably to think of the more blatant sins, perhaps induced by an ‘irresistible’ sexual temptation or craving for illegal drugs. But James doesn’t classify sins. Indeed, he writes later on, ‘if you show favouritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as law-breakers. For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of all of it’ (2:9-10).

And that’s the problem for us all. Where do legitimate desires end and evil desires begin? Maybe the words ‘legitimate’,’ law’ and ‘law-breakers’ get us off on the wrong foot. The liberty of the gospel sets us free from legalism. Even Paul, who described himself as ‘in regard to the law, a Pharisee’ (Phil.3:5), could write, ‘Love is the fulfilment of the law’ (Rom.13:10).

Thus it is against such values – the values of the Gospel – that we must measure ourselves. As James later writes, ‘Anyone who knows the right thing to do and fails to do it commits sin’ (James 4:17).The Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote in his journal that he repented of eating a whole biscuit when half would have been enough. For him, this was sin.

Our desires may be physical or material, but just as often they are for success, power, recognition or praise. As we aspire towards Christlikeness, we see ourselves more clearly. Most of us know our weaknesses; many of us condone them. All of us need to be vigilant, and to test, and where necessary resist, our desires.

 

Helen Parry

James (5): The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate?

July 25, 2011
25 Jul 2011

The brother in humble circumstances ought to take pride in his high position. But the one who is rich should take pride in his low position… the rich man will fade away even while he goes about his business.
James 1:9-11

Many of us, I imagine, regularly feel that we are fading away even while we go about our business. But that doesn’t seem to be what James is getting at here.

It’s clear that the Christians James was writing to, came from a wide range of backgrounds. Wealth and poverty is a recurring theme in this letter. So is James actually commending poverty? The same question is provoked by Jesus’ words in Luke 6:20. Does Christianity – as some have averred – endorse poverty, as a means of keeping the masses in their place?

But, going back to the rich going about their business – at least most of us have a business to go about, and this must be a cause for heartfelt thankfulness. James reminds us, however, that those who have much (‘the rich’ – and by the standards of James’ time all of us in secure jobs in the West today must consider ourselves rich) will ‘pass away like a wild flower’ (v.10).

It’s not that the poor receive blessings that are denied to the rich, or that the rich are more contemptible than the poor. All are equal in the eyes of God, and the blessings of the Gospel are available to all. But he knows very well what each of us thinks of ourselves.

To those who, because of their humble circumstances – which may include not just poverty, but unemployment, disability or anything else that prevents them flourishing – have what is nowadays called ‘low self-esteem’, James assures them of their high position as children of the King and inheritors of a kingdom. But to those who are rich, going about their business insouciantly, and trusting in the security of their jobs and their savings, James reminds them of their ‘low position’ – their vulnerability, dependent just like the poor on the mercy of God.

And as we look at pictures of destitute people starving in East Africa, let us – as well as doing what we can to help them – see them as potential heirs of the kingdom just as we are.

 

Helen Parry

James (4): Double, double, toil and trouble

July 11, 2011
11 Jul 2011

Ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind; for the doubter, being double-minded and unstable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord.
James 1:6-8

Double-minded, duplicitous, two-faced – the list could go on. All imply untrustworthiness. And the opposite – single-minded, simple, single-eyed (see Matt.6:22, AV) – imply sincerity, honesty, transparency, virtues that Christians are bound to aspire to.

But can any of us escape from double-mindedness? James is demanding, as a condition for answered prayer, a standard that few can reach. ‘Ask in faith, without wavering,’ he writes, ‘for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind.’

What is it that makes us waver in our faith when we pray? James’ image of the wave may throw light on this. The direction of a wave is determined by the tide, constant and predictable. But acting on that wave, the wind inconstant and unpredictable blows it this way and that, heaves it up and crowns it with white horses of foam. Many are the winds that batter our faith – misfortune, suffering, rationalism, the scepticism of other people, and, above all, the experience of seemingly unanswered prayer.

Other people’s stories of answered prayer may be so foreign to our own experience that we are tempted to think sceptically, ‘Who’s to say that that thing wouldn’t have happened anyway, without any prayer?’

Perhaps our God is too small. Perhaps we tend to create him in our own image and limit him by the paucity of our expectations. James gives a beautiful picture in v.5 of a God who gives to all generously, ungrudgingly, without finding fault. A God who is pure grace.

Whether the object of our prayer is personal – a long-drawn out and intractable problem at work, a family member who shows no sign of becoming a Christian – or worldwide in scope – like peace with justice in the Middle East – may we like Peter walking on the water keep our eyes on the Lord, not on the wind and the waves (Matt.14:28). The Lord who is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love. The Lord to whom nothing is impossible.

His grace, his power, is the inexorable tide that ultimately brings the wave to shore.

 

Helen Parry

James (3): Heads and Tails

June 20, 2011
20 Jun 2011

Let perseverance have its full effect so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault.
James 1:4-5.

Reading these verses I think of the many times that, when counselling or praying for someone, I have quoted the second of these verses – ‘if any of you lacks wisdom…’ – while ignoring the first. James has argued that spiritual maturity is gained through perseverance, with no short cuts. But wisdom cannot be acquired by training alone. Life’s dilemmas demand both.

Our temperament, or the theological tradition in which we have been trained, may incline us to adopt one perspective and overlook the other. My endurance, faithfulness and self-discipline, I may believe, train me to be self-reliant, to trust my own experience, my instincts, my judgment. Or – it is the Holy Spirit who fills me, who enlightens and enables me, and I cannot make a right judgment unless he shows me the way.

Paul makes this paradox explicit in his letter to the Philippians. ‘Work out your salvation with fear and trembling’, he writes, ‘for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose’ (2:12-13).

Every day – in matters large and small, in the workplace, in the home, in our social lives – we have to form an opinion, to make decisions, to take responsibility. In some cases experience and common sense may be all we need. In others, there may be a clear Scriptural principle that determines the issue. I don’t, for example, need to pray for guidance as to whether to have an affair with my brother-in-law, or to omit an item from my income tax return.

But in the many cases where neither Christian maturity nor biblical precept gives a clear answer, we are to pray for wisdom. In the hurly burly of professional or domestic life it may be easy to forget this. But God doesn’t expect us to do it on our own – he gives generously without finding fault.

 

Helen Parry

James (2): Joy is…

June 6, 2011
06 Jun 2011

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds
James 1:2

Our lives are full of trials and temptations – pressures of all kinds, fears, pain and gut-wrenching grief. We paint trials in sombre colours, as things to be endured and prayed about, in the hope that the Lord will act. ‘These things are sent to try us’, we may say, with long faces. Or ‘if only this problem would just go away’.

In Greek, the word generally used for both trials and temptations is the same, a word that most often has a positive, rather than a negative, connotation. ‘Count it pure joy’ wrote James. ‘You can’t be serious’, we reply. If indeed the writer of this letter was James, Jesus’ younger brother, he had seen his brother tortured to death on a Roman cross, Stephen stoned for his witness to Jesus as Messiah, and the fledgling church scattered by persecution. But somehow he could still count it pure joy.

Why? Because ‘the testing of your faith produces perseverance’ (v.3). Paul says exactly the same in Romans 5: ‘We also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance’ (v.3). It isn’t clear what kind of suffering Paul has in mind, whether it was directly related to a profession of Christian faith. But here James says ‘trials of many kinds’. Whatever the trial – whether as a result of our faith or, more likely, of our fallen world – we are told to rejoice, because that is how mature Christian character is formed.

Ours is often described as a ‘risk averse’ culture. We might also describe it as pain averse, challenge averse, discipline averse, controversy averse. The making of mature Christian disciples is critically important in such a climate. Without belittling our own pain, or that of other people, let’s pray about difficulties, and but let’s also confront them with joy, and rise to their challenges, sustained by faith and hope.

 

Helen Parry

James (1): To the Diaspora

May 23, 2011
23 May 2011

James… to the twelve tribes scattered among the nations 
James 1:1

These were the people to whom James’ letter was written – Jewish Christians who were living in scattered communities round the Mediterranean basin. It was hundreds of years since the ‘promised land’ had been under Jewish control. Many Jews had fled as the result of war and the territorial ambitions of neighbouring empires, most recently those of Greece and Rome. The Jews (as today) were enterprising people, many of them seeking economic opportunities far from home.

How had the news of Jesus spread among them? Acts gives us clues: in the persecution that followed the stoning of Stephen, ‘all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria… [they] preached the word wherever they went’ (Acts 8:1, 4); Paul travelled ever further afield, reaching not only the urban people in the cities where he preached, but, as in the case of Ephesus, staying there so long that ‘all the Jews and Greeks who lived in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord’ (Acts 19:10); and as a result of Paul’s disagreement with Barnabas (Acts 15:36-41), Barnabas took the gospel to his place of origin, Cyprus.

If this letter was written – as is generally believed – by James, the younger brother of Jesus, who became the leader of the fledgling church in Jerusalem, he would have heard from pilgrims coming to Jerusalem of the small groups of Christians in towns from North Africa to Rome. James’ pastoral concern for them is evident. How should Christians live? How were they to keep it up, as tiny minorities in pagan and often hostile countries?

Much has changed, but much has not changed, in the 2000 years since then. In numerous cities with large non-Christian majorities, small churches struggle. In some cases they struggle for survival; in others for recognition and influence.

Who cares about these brothers and sisters in Christ? In an age of email and easy communication, do many of them feel isolated and overlooked? ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ asked Cain, cynically. The answer is Yes. As James gleaned information and then acted on his knowledge, we can seek information about such isolated Christian communities – even immigrant churches in our own cities – and encourage them with prayer, with giving and where possible with direct communication.

 

Helen Parry