Faith and works: the lessons of James

Before we leave the book of James, it’s worth pausing to reflect on some of the major themes and lessons of the letter. In doing so, we’re going back over ground that we’ve covered repeatedly in the last several months. But the challenges he raises are not the kind that we can read once and move on: these are lessons for a lifetime of growing in faithfulness.

Perhaps the most important overarching theme is the relationship between “faith” and “works.” I put those words in scare quotes because James’ debate with his readers is over what these words mean. Some believers seemed to consider faith to be mostly an intellectual issue, as if all that mattered was that a person said they believed the right things with their minds. The problem was that they thus separated right belief from right behavior: you could have genuine “faith” without corresponding “works” or deeds that demonstrated that faith.

James argued the contrary: what good is the kind of “faith” that doesn’t result in changed behavior, in changed lives? He used the metaphor of the “implanted” word of the gospel to insist that such a seed should grow and produce fruit, much as Jesus himself would have argued. If you have the gospel in you, James insisted, it should show in how you live.

Depending on how one interprets James’ words (and of course, these things are contested), some of the believers’ behavior was downright reprehensible. Rich Christians who employed poor Christians, for example, were taking advantage of them, possibly even to the point of trapping them in their poverty. Some may even have died.

This was the more serious end of a whole spectrum of behavior in which those who supposedly believed in Jesus acted more like citizens of the Roman Empire than citizens of God’s kingdom. They had the same worldly aspirations, the same lust for success and status. Their so-called faith had no bearing on their values or the way they treated others.

As someone who writes and teaches about relationships, I am particularly struck by James’ consistent emphasis on how we speak. Within the church, there has always been the idea that the truly faithful, the most dedicated of believers, would make some heroic sacrifice for the gospel. In my generation, the message was, “God is calling you to be a missionary to Africa!” (often with the underlying tone that made out Africa to be such a God-forsaken place compared to America).

There’s nothing of this in James. The more persistent message is: “The truly faithful know how to control their tongues.”

How mundane.

But for precisely that reason, how profound.

Think about it. I don’t consider myself to be an especially ambitious person; raised the way I was, I have something of an allergy to self-promotion. But that’s not to say I don’t secretly desire various markers of success. And to put it even more pointedly: these things are often more important to me than thinking about what I’m saying, why I’m saying it, and how others will be affected.

What are our ambitions in life? Would “Get control of my tongue” make the list? “Stop boasting”? “Stop making empty promises”? How about, “Don’t speak until you’ve really listened”?

James teaches us that faithfulness needs to show in our lives, especially in the way we relate to others. It doesn’t need to be headline-making change. Rather, we must recognize in our heart of hearts that we desire things that put us in competition with our brothers and sisters, in a struggle for some kind of status or recognition.

Can we tune our hearts to the law of love instead? Can we learn to listen, intently and compassionately? Can we rein in our tongues instead of letting them run wild?

James, I think, would be pleased.