Dangers to Christian Living in James (Essay)
If I said that the Christian life is constantly under threat, you would say, “Duh.” But where’s the biggest threat coming from?
It seems to me that the Christian culture in America has mostly taught us that the primary threat to Christian faith comes from sources outside of ourselves. We fear the culture: TV, movies, certain books, the radio, or the Internet, and we worry that threats from outside will chip away at our faith (or our religion… but that’s another post). We think of biblical persecution and look for it everywhere so that we can wail against it, even if it is perceived in such a minor thing as a political campaign ad. Our Christian culture promotes an us versus them mentality that encourages us to insulate and shield ourselves from anything that is different and external to our Christian bubble.
It is interesting, then, that these kinds of external dangers are almost completely ignored in James.
The dangers to the Christian life that James emphasizes are internal. The biggest threat to your Christian walk is in you.
Yes, James acknowledges the reality of external trails of faith. With three verses (1:2-4). Out of 108. So are there external threats to one’s faith? Yes. Plenty of external things might give occasion for your faith to waver. But these are not James’ focus.
Instead, he focuses on internal threats. He writes of the dangers of doubt, of the pursuit of wealth, of various temptations, of anger, of desiring your neighbor’s toys or life, of judging one another or otherwise sowing dissension, and of swearing oaths, to name a few.
Of all the internal threats to faith that James mentions, I’d like to look at four that it seems he spends the most time on: the temptation towards partiality, so-called faith without action, the danger of words, and the threat of pride.
In 2:1, James writes, “My brothers and sisters, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory.”
There is a danger in our hearts to treat some among us as better than others. James gives the example of praising and giving honor to the rich man who comes to church on Sunday while telling the poor man to sit in the back. For James, making these kinds of judgments are “evil thoughts” (2:4).
But why? Isn’t this the normal thing to do? If both Steve Jobs and a homeless man visited our church on the same Sunday, we would of course give the honor to Steve Jobs. I wonder, would we even greet the homeless man, or would be too put off by his appearance and smell? Why would we do otherwise? James writes:
Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters, 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? (2:5-7)
The great commandment to love your neighbor as yourself means, at least in part, that partiality – showing favoritism – is sin (2:8-9). All people are equal before God because all people are created in his image. Additionally, we are to consider others better than ourselves (Phil 2:3). James emphasizes the danger of partiality in our own hearts. If we show partiality, it reveals that we have not understood the gospel, or worse, that we have ignored it.
James also emphasizes the internal threat of cultivating a faith that is without action (Jas 2:14-26). Even the demons have correct doctrine (2:19). Now, it is possible to have faith without living it out with concrete deeds. Apparently, that kind of faith, all other things considered, can even be True. The only problem with it, James says, is that it is dead.
That “a person is justified by works and not by faith alone,” in the context of the rest of Scripture, means that faith that doesn’t do anything is no justifying faith, but only a sham (2:24). A nod of acknowledgment to God is not the same as obedience.
If we are not doing our faith – if we are not both seeking and showing understanding (as Kevin Vanhoozer says) – then our faith is empty, useless, and rotting.
Then there are the dangers of one’s own words (3:1-12). The tongue, as James refers to it, is capable of steering that which is much larger than itself. It is capable of “staining the whole body” (3:6) and both blessing and cursing (3:10). The tongue “is a restless evil” (3:8). We must be on guard in the very way we use words. They are a threat to the true Christian life.
Pride is also a danger to Christian living according to James, and this is a needed warning in light of his discussion of faith without works (3:13-18).
There are two ways to perform works. One is with humility and meekness; that is true wisdom (3:13). The other is out of “bitter jealousy and selfish ambition” (3:14). Such works are accompanied by pride and bragging. This, James goes so far as to say this is “earthly, unspiritual, demonic” wisdom antithetical to the truth (3:15). Prideful works are the opposite of the righteous works that accompany true faith.
All four of these dangers — partiality, faith without action, words, and pride — are internal threats to pure Christian living. For James, the biggest threat to the gospel in your life is not from without — the government, the evils of a secular society, the spread of Islam, etc. — but from within.
Filed under: Essays | 1 Comment