17 Every good gift, every perfect gift, comes from above. These gifts come down from the Father, the creator of the heavenly lights, in whose character there is no change at all. 18 He chose to give us birth by his true word, and here is the result: we are like the first crop from the harvest of everything he created.
19 Know this, my dear brothers and sisters: everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to grow angry. 20 This is because an angry person doesn’t produce God’s righteousness. 21 Therefore, with humility, set aside all moral filth and the growth of wickedness, and welcome the word planted deep inside you– the very word that is able to save you.
22 You must be doers of the word and not only hearers who mislead themselves. 23 Those who hear but don’t do the word are like those who look at their faces in a mirror. 24 They look at themselves, walk away, and immediately forget what they were like. 25 But there are those who study the perfect law, the law of freedom, and continue to do it. They don’t listen and then forget, but they put it into practice in their lives. They will be blessed in whatever they do.
26 If those who claim devotion to God don’t control what they say, they mislead themselves. Their devotion is worthless. 27 True devotion, the kind that is pure and faultless before God the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their difficulties and to keep the world from contaminating us. (CEB)
Within Protestantism, the Letter of James is kind of like the family secret no one wants to talk about. It’s in our Bibles, but we’re all a little embarrassed about it because we’ve probably heard that James doesn’t quite jive with certain Protestant theology. In his preface to the New Testament, Martin Luther called James an epistle of straw compared to Paul’s letters, although he cut the statement from later editions of his Bible. Luther even wanted to remove the books of Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation from the canon of Christian Scripture because he didn’t agree with them for theological reasons.
If you’ve heard that, I have news that might offer a bit of relief: United Methodists aren’t really Protestants. We came out of the Church of England tradition called Anglicanism. John Wesley was a priest in the Church of England.
Anglicanism was an English thing that happened in 1534 because of a dispute about church jurisdiction (and because Henry the VIII wanted a divorce from Catherine of Aragon).
Protestantism was a European Continental thing that happened because of theological differences with Catholicism back in 1517.
Methodism, itself, didn’t begin until 1729 when John Wesley was a fellow at Lincoln College at Oxford, and Charles Wesley was a student. So, while we Methodists are often lumped in with Protestantism, we aren’t really Protestants. We never even protested Catholicism on theological grounds.
But back to Martin Luther.
He really liked Paul’s letters, and came up with a theology of Salvation by Faith Alone. James proved to be a stumbling block to Luther’s theology because the only place in the Bible where we can find that phrase, “faith alone” is James 2:24, which states that we are justified, or shown to be righteous, by faithful action, NOT by faith alone. Paul, from whom Luther supposedly got this idea, did not say that we are saved or justified by faith alone. The closest Paul got to it was when he said, “You are saved by God’s grace because of your faith” (Ephesians 2:8a CEB). Yet, Paul went on to say, “This salvation is God’s gift. It’s not something you possessed. It’s not something you did that you can be proud of. Instead, we are God’s accomplishment, created in Christ Jesus to do good things. God planned for these good things to be the way that we live our lives” (Ephesians 2:8b-10 CEB).
Paul and James both understood that faith results in faithful action; in doing good things. John, also, spoke of the same idea in a slightly different way. He said, “Little children, let’s not love with words or speech but with action and truth” (1 John 3:18 CEB). When we love anyone, that love naturally leads us to do loving deeds. When we have faith, when we believe, that faith naturally leads us to faithful action.
But, of course, we don’t have love or faith apart from God as James notes: “Every good gift, every perfect gift, comes from above” (James 1:17 CEB). We recognize God’s goodness and providence in our music every Sunday when, after our offering, we sing, “Praise God from whom all blessings flow” (United Methodist Hymnal #95). All we have comes from God, who made the stars above.
God chose to give us birth, James says, “by his true word” (James 1:18 CEB) with the result that James’ generation of Christians were like the first crop from the harvest of everything God created. The People of Israel offered the first fruits of their harvest to God as a way of acknowledging that God had provided the harvest, and as a way of giving thanks (c.f. Leviticus 23:9-14). Sustenance and abundance are gifts provided by God and, as an offering, those first fruits of the harvest were considered holy.
James goes on to talk about how we relate to each other. Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to grow angry. It sounds a lot like my mother’s wisdom, which was “think before you speak.” When we act this way, we reflect God’s character which, James has already told us, doesn’t change at all. Scripture mentions God’s patience with us in many places. Often times, patience is used alongside other words, like compassion, mercy, faithful, steadfast, and love (c.f. Exodus 34:6; Psalm 86:15; 103:8; Numbers 14:18; Nehemiah 9:17; Joel 2:13, etc.). We are to show patience and forbearance with each other in our listening and in our speech because God always shows patience and forbearance with us.
James noticed that the little things matter. Our ability to listen and speak matters. Our words and our actions have meaning. Our words are how we express ourselves and recognize how others are expressing themselves. We use words to grasp and convey everything about ourselves and the world we see, taste, touch, smell, and hear! On the bathroom wall of my fraternity house, someone had written, “A drunk man’s words are a sober man’s thoughts.” Believe it or not, I got those same words out of a fortune cookie at the China Buffett here in town. Words reveal our inner thoughts and emotions, and we need to be careful about which words we let come out of our mouth.
That old child’s rhyme that says, Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me, is a horrendous lie. Words can hurt. In chapter 3, James talks about the tongue as a fire that can set a whole forest ablaze. One little word whispered over here can get out of control and cause damage beyond imagination. I’ve pastored five churches in Indiana, and I served at thirteen as a seminary student in North Carolina. I’ve seen oak-solid ministries and reputations nearly go up in smoke because of one little fiery tongue.
At the same time, I’ve seen people who’ve always been thought little of by others built up and transformed because of words that were kind and uplifting. Words can build up or tear down. When we’re quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to grow angry, we’re displaying the character traits of God. An angry person doesn’t produce God’s righteousness, so with humility, James encourages us to “set aside all moral filth and the growth of wickedness”: the stuff that leads us to angry and unholy words and deeds.
Instead, we’re to take responsibility for our anger. We often speak of our anger as if it’s everyone else’s fault. He made me angry. She made me angry. But a wise woman once told me that no one can make you angry. Your anger is your response to something. Your anger belongs to you, and you are responsible for it. Anger is strong stuff. But James doesn’t tell us to swallow our anger, or stuff it, or let it roll off our backs like water on a duck. Instead, he encourages us, with an imperative, to display the patience of God toward each other: be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to grow angry.
This is hard work. I have to confess that I fail at it as often as anyone. As I was writing these very words on Friday evening, my daughters barged into the room where I was working and started asking me questions about where the electrical tape was. They were paying no attention to the fact that I was trying to write a sermon. I said, “Girls, I’m working,” but they continued to make a racquet with their questions and their clamorous search for the electrical tape. And I raised my voice. I told them, “Get out! I’m trying to work, and you’re disturbing me!” As soon as they left the room, I looked and noticed that I’d just written, “everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to grow angry,” and I decided that I was done working for the evening. I couldn’t even follow James’s directions with my own daughters. It’s hard work. But it’s worthwhile work.
James tells us we should welcome the word planted deep inside of us that has the power to save us. It’s curious that James uses “word” twice. It’s λόγος (logos) in Greek. God gave us birth by the word and planted the word deep inside of us that is able to save us. At first, I wondered if James used the word “word” similarly to the way John did by connecting the Word of God with Jesus Christ (c.f. John 1:1-5, esp. 1:14). But, James follows up this counsel to welcome the word planted deep inside of us with the claim that we must be doers of the word and not only hearers who mislead ourselves. He continues with the example of people looking at themselves in a mirror.
Those who hear the word but don’t do the word are like those who look at their reflected image, walk away from the mirror, and forget what their image looked like. Maybe James connected the “word planted deep inside of us”—the word we’re to act upon—with the image of God in which we were created (c.f. Genesis 1:27). If so, those who fail to do the word have forgotten what the image of God within us looks like.
We’ve all likely heard the adage that Practice makes perfect. Doing is what makes habits. In fact, studies show that it takes approximately 66 days to make a new habit stick. Becoming a doer of the word requires practice. It requires commitment. It requires, as James suggests, studiousness and attention.
James recognized that our words have power. But he also recognized that our actions have more. We must be doers of the word. When we put the word into practice in our lives, it’s then that we reflect God in our character, our speech, and our actions. It’s then that we’ll be blessed in whatever we do because everything we do will be a reflection of God’s activity.
Note that it doesn’t say we’ll be successful in whatever we do; but blessed. Success is often a worldly standard that’s usually based on numbers and dollar signs. Blessedness is a gift of God’s grace.
Our actions prove or disprove our devotion to God. We can say that we have it. We can come to worship every Sunday. But if we don’t control our speech, then we’re misleading ourselves, and our claim of devotion to God is worthless. If we’re truly devoted to God, our actions will show it. James gives us two specific examples of true devotion: caring for orphans and widows and keeping the world from contaminating us.
In James’s culture, orphans and widows were the most vulnerable people in society. In many cultures today, they still are. The majority of the world’s poor are woman and children. In the United States, women are more likely to experience homelessness than men. But there are others in our society who are incredibly vulnerable. I would add refugees, immigrants, homeless, and diseased to James’s list. True devotion to God results in our activity of caring for the most vulnerable among us.
It also says we’re to keep the world from contaminating us. I think that’s a simple note for us to pay attention to the things that we’re paying attention. Are we chasing after things that the world values or the things that God values? Care for others is what God values. Jesus quoted Hosea 6:6 and paraphrased 1 Samuel 15:22 when he said, twice, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:13, 12:7).
At the same time, I think this requirement to keep the world from contaminating us is inseparably linked to caring for others. If we want to do what God desires—if we want to internalize and live out God’s values instead of the world’s values—then we must love our neighbor as our self (c.f. Matthew 19:19, 22:39; Mark 12:31-33; Luke 10:27-37).
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!
~Rev. Christopher Millay