“Show me”

One of my many professional hats is family life educator. I write and teach about marriage and parenting, help couples prepare for life together, and run workshops and seminars to bolster participants’ practical knowledge and skill. Often, I find myself teaching married couples the critical importance of listening well and curbing the impulse to simply spout whatever angry words come to mind.

In church contexts, I typically draw upon the book of James, who had a lot to say about how Christians should live in community with one another. One gets the sense, reading his letter, that James saw a good deal of bad behavior between people who professed to follow Jesus but still let prejudice, anger, selfishness, and pride rule their lives.

I guess some things never change.

James seems to have been particularly concerned with what we might call the “communication behavior” of Christians and its moral root. He advised people to be “quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger” (1:19, NRSV) and warned them of the evils of an unbridled tongue (3:1-5) — and we will, of course, come back to these passages in the coming months.

This post marks the beginning of a new series, which I am calling “Working Faith” because this is at the heart of James’ message (note: I will continue to post reflections on the Psalms, but for now, less frequently). Faith is not just a matter of intellectual belief, nor even of the emotion of trust, though both are involved. To James, true faith is not demonstrated by signing a doctrinal statement but living in a way that shows you’ve been changed by what you believe — that your habits of thought and behavior have been transformed by the gospel.

I think here of the many couples I’ve worked with, especially those whose weddings I had the privilege to officiate. There they stood, beautifully decked out in their flowing gown and tuxedo, making promises of love to one another. Do they believe in those promises? In that moment, yes. Will they continue to believe in those promises if they’re not backed up by loving behavior? Not likely.

James is suggesting something similar: You say you have faith? Great. Show me.

Not everyone, however, has been equally enthusiastic about the message of James. Most famously, perhaps, Martin Luther, whose Ninety-Five Theses catalyzed the Protestant Reformation, once called James “an epistle of straw.” One might think on that basis that Luther would have been happy to see the letter scrubbed from the Bible.

But the reality is more complicated. He included the letter in his German translation of the Bible. He praised it for containing good and right teaching. He preached on it. He quoted it frequently in his writings.

This is hardly the behavior of a man who believed the letter to be worthless! What he appears to have meant is that if you had the letter of James by itself, but not the gospel of John or the letters of Paul, you would know nothing of the good news of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus. He worried that James sometimes seemed to contradict Paul on the crucial doctrine of justification by faith — though many modern scholars believe Luther to be wrong on that score.

Thus, we will explore the letter bit by bit, highlighting not only what James taught about right relationship between believers, but a right relationship between faith and works. But before we do that, let’s take a stab at two preliminary questions: who was James, and to whom was he writing? We’ll examine those questions next.