The most powerful force on earth
James 5: The prayer of a person living right with God is something powerful to be reckoned with.
One righteous person praying is the most powerful force on earth. It’s true you know. Prayer is the most powerful and most underutilized force available to us. Righteous praying influences the God who’s already inclined to bless us. I think I believe this but tend to not act as though I believe it. Prayer’s more an “add on” to what matters to me. I sometimes do the best I can do and then toss in a prayer for good measure. In doing it that way I do it exactly backwards. What I need to learn to do is pray first and then add my efforts to it. James’ example of a powerful pray-er is Elijah. This righteous man prays for rain, and then, when he sees the first evidence that his prayer is being answered, takes action, preparing for that answer to come. His template, then, is: pray first, then, stop praying and start acting as though that prayer is being answered. I really do believe that Elijah is correct in this but all too often I don’t act like it.
Take Away: Pray first and then act.
Planning for tomorrow with an eye toward God
James 4: You don’t know the first thing about tomorrow.
James challenges Christians in how they talk about the future. He advises us to not state with an attitude of certainty what will happen tomorrow. Instead, we’re to be humble about it, saying things like, “If it’s the Lord’s will we’ll do this or that tomorrow.” Now, he’s not giving us some formula to say as much as he’s describing an attitude we’re to have. He’s opposed to Christians living self-willed, God-ignoring lives in which we imagine ourselves to be self-sufficient and operating independent of the Lord. He’s not against my making plans and having dreams. At the same time, he’s in favor of my planning and dreaming with an eye toward God. The Lord, himself is a planner, operating on a scale far beyond my comprehension. As an individual created in his image I too plan, thinking about a desirable future and working now to bring it to pass. However, unlike my Heavenly Father, my view is limited and because of that, my expectations are flawed. I remember that I’m to pray for my “daily bread” trusting the Lord to supply the need of the day. To plan for the future while ignoring God isn’t only foolish. According to James it “is evil.”
Take Away: Ultimately, my future – my life – is in God’s hands and not my own.
Taming the tongue
James 3: You can tame a tiger, but you can’t tame a tongue.
A person can live a good life, honest and sensible, committed to doing good things and yet still have a tendency to say things that aren’t very Christian. One problem is that we see sins of speech as less serious than sins of action. People who would never dream of robbing anyone of anything will thoughtlessly gossip about another, thereby robbing them of their reputation. Sins of words are slippery, hard to pin down. A person might say something that’s absolutely innocent. The listener, though, misunderstands the meaning, hearing something that isn’t there at all. Another person might say the same thing but intend it to be hurtful in some way. In one case it’s just a misunderstanding. In the other case it’s sin. James emphasizes the fact that no one can win the battle of the tongue. Try as I might, in and of myself, my words will betray, humiliate, and condemn me. On the surface, it appears James leaves us in this sorry state of affairs. However, a different picture is painted as I read these words in the context of the passage. James says, “My friends this can’t go on.” A few paragraphs later he describes the Christian community as a place where people are treated “with dignity and honor.” On one hand, I can’t control my tongue (or my thoughts, or, sometimes, my actions). The only hope I have is to surrender my tongue to the Lord. As I give it, and my whole self, to him, making him Lord of my life, he goes to work transforming me into the person he wants me to be. It’s a more than one time surrender. In fact, I may have to bring my tongue back to the Lord on a regular basis. As I do that, he takes control doing for me what I can’t do for myself.
Take Away: “I surrender all” is a song that needs to be sung repeatedly.
Faith without works
James 2: Faith expresses itself in works.
The most famous portion of the Bible on the topic of faith is Hebrews 11. While that chapter describes faith in a different way it actually underscores the truth of James’ words here. If faith isn’t put into action it’s something less than faith. If works of righteousness are accomplished outside of faith (maybe out of a sense of obligation or guilt) those works are something less than righteous. Faith and works, according to James, are joined at the hip. When the writer of Hebrews embarks on this topic he takes us through the faith hall of fame, listing for us people who inspire us to greater faith. Now, as James deals with this topic, he takes us out to the streets challenging us to practical acts of faith. He challenges us to treat people as valuable just as they are. He tells us to not just speak words of faith but to back up those words with action. After all, he says, belief without action betrays itself as impotent. James doesn’t ignore the great examples of faith completely. He takes us back to Abraham, who, in faith, takes action more than once. James is having none of this sitting around trusting God kind of faith. He demands, “If you really believe, go and do something about it.”
Take Away: What more can I say? Faith without works is dead!
Praying in times of pain or confusion
James 1: If you don’t know what you’re doing, pray to the Father. He loves to help.
James writes his letter to Christians in general, scattered throughout the region. His writings might be labeled “common sense Christianity” because he covers many topics and always in a reasonable, “tell it like it is” way. For instance, he doesn’t deny that hard times have come to many of them but at the same time he tells them that such an unwelcome set of circumstances isn’t all bad. In fact, they can rejoice when, in the midst of trials they catch themselves responding as genuine people of faith. As hard times continue they can be pleased as they realize that they’re handing such times better than they would have earlier on. It isn’t fun to go through hardship, but there’s reason to rejoice when I realize I’m responding as I think Jesus would and that I’m maturing in my relationship with him. James knows this sounds like so much gibberish to many people; outsiders for sure, but also to some believers who’ve concluded that if they’re faithful to the Lord and trust in him things will always go well for them. The Apostle has some advice for that crowd too: pray about it. If I’m in a fix and can’t imagine how God can work in such a disaster, I don’t have to pretend I’m handling things just fine. Instead, I can turn to the Lord and confess that I’m having a hard time seeing him anywhere in all this mess. James is absolutely sure that the Father will hear and respond to such a prayer. I guess it would be better if my first response was the best one, but if that doesn’t happen, the next choice is a good one too as in absolute honesty I run to the Father, telling him I just don’t get it and I sure don’t like it. After all, James assures me, “God loves to help.”
Take Away: It’s encouraging to catch oneself responding to an unwelcome situation as we believe Jesus would respond.