Be positive! It’s the only way you’re gonna get through life in Christ.
James 1.1 KWL
- James, slave of God and of Master Christ Jesus.
- To the 12 tribes in the diaspora. Hello.
Who was James? This’d be Jesus’s brother
Protestants figure James is the son of Mary and Joseph, Jesus’s mom and adoptive dad.
Roman Catholics, and many Orthodox Christians, don’t care for that idea. They believe Jesus’s mom remained a perpetual virgin; that Mary and Joseph’s “marriage” was more of a guardian/ward deal, so Jesus was her only offspring, and James was either Joseph’s son through a previous marriage, or he was Jesus’s cousin James bar Alphaeus (“the Less,” ’cause he wasn’t Jesus’s other cousin James bar Zebedee) who was one of his Twelve,
The cousin theory is pretty popular. People even claim the Greek word adelfós/“brother” can also mean cousin. It can now, but nobody was using it that way in the first century. (Actually… nobody was using it that way till Christians started floating the idea Jesus’s siblings
Thing is, Paul listed James outside the Twelve,
He wrote the letter we call James to “the diaspora,” the Jewish communities scattered throughout the Roman Empire and, for that matter, the whole world.
Dispensationalists claim because James was written to Jews, and because it appears to them to teach salvation by works instead of grace, (it absolutely doesn’t; I’ll explain another time) it was written with an Old Testament mindset, and therefore we “New Testament” Christians needn’t follow it any more than the Law. Martin Luther kinda wanted to stick it in the New Testament Apocrypha, if not pull it from the bible entirely, just because he really wasn’t sure how to reconcile sola grazia with James’s talk about good deeds and faith-works.
But James wrote it years after Jesus died for our sins, and wrote it to Jewish Christians—people who followed Jesus, same as he. People saved by God’s grace, same as he. And now that we’re saved by grace, God has some good works for us to do.
The apostles’ letters were written to fellow Christians. Unless they’re dealing with individuals and circumstances particular to that specific place, or point in history, they apply to all Christians. Us included. If you wanna weasel out of good works, or embrace cheap grace instead of the real thing, don’t try to disguise it by claiming all the good-works bits of the bible don’t count just because they don’t save.
The key to persistent faith: Joy. Optimism.
James 1.2-4 KWL
- 2 My fellow Christians, whenever you’re surrounded by the various things which challenge you,
- command everything to be joy.
- 3 Realize the reliability of your faith is achieved by persistence.
- 4 Persistence has to be seen to the end, so in the end it’d be solid and leave nothing out.
James’s first order of business is usually rendered “count it all joy” (
I’m an optimist. I haven’t always been one. I spent many years being negative. My excuse was “I’m just being realistic.” We live in a
So at one point, God ordered me to cut it out. I was trying to share Jesus with people, and my negativity was getting in the way. Who wants to hear good news from a person who’s all bad news?
I didn’t even see this contradiction till I changed my attitude. James never made sense to me till then.
Here’s the problem: Plenty of Christians are pulling the very same stunt I was. They’re negative, hateful, angry jerks, but they’re disguising their bitterness and lack of love as “keeping it real.” They totally can’t see the fruitlessness of their joylessness.
Their excuse (same as mine used to be) is, “Optimism is self-delusion.” The world is awful; if we’re gonna look at it through rose-colored glasses, we may as well wear blinders, and pretend everything’s just wonderful when it really isn’t. Optimism is fantasy. Naïveté. Foolishness. Intellectual deficiency—you must be too stupid to see what’s right in front of you.
True, there are self-delusional optimists. That’s not what James meant. Not what God means. Of course there’s suffering in the world;
The trials in our lives will develop our character… one way or the other. Either we’ll become optimistic, joyful overcomers, or bitter, pessimistic victims. Look at all the survivors of torture, prison, the Holocaust, disasters, and personal loss. Some of ’em came out of these things really angry and misanthropic. Suffering produced character, but it’s the wrong kind of character! Why? Attitude. What attitude did you bring with you through your suffering?—hope, or despair? Joy, or outrage? Faith in God, or resignation to one’s fate? That’s what makes all the difference.
With the wrong attitude, we won’t survive our trials with a whole, complete faith. We’ll have left something behind. Inner peace, trust in God, love for humanity, or our own sense of humanity. Only with an optimistic, hopeful, joyful attitude will our testing produce stronger, better Christians. Without it, you’ll either quit Jesus in a cold rage because you’re convinced he never came through for you, or you’ll turn into one of those lobotomized Christians who “believe”—but not really.
The reason I call this faith—and the Christians who practice it—“lobotomized” is because, like a person after a lobotomy, it doesn’t do anything. Doesn’t feel anything. Doesn’t make trouble, which is why psychiatrists used to order lobotomies.
Likewise this version of Christianity, which appears to be religion, but it’s not solid, and left all sorts of things out. It’s all cold and dead inside. Fruitless. Easily angered. Their version of God doesn’t really love anyone, and he left us all alone. So in return they do nothing for God’s kingdom either.
We see it all the time in those Christians who insist, “I trust God with all my heart!” but in practice… it’s only to a point. Beyond that point, they trust money, politics, guns, their friends, and their own resourcefulness. They’re the Christianists who never bother to follow the Sermon on the Mount because it’s “not practical in the real world”—as if Jesus were only speaking of an imaginary one.
They’re the Christians who lack joy, lose their temper over the smallest issues, don’t care about their fellow human beings, who fixate on the End Times instead of the present day. Who justifies all this misbehavior by believing they do actually think like God: Back when they turned to Jesus and he put the Holy Spirit in ’em, they suddenly, magically had the mind of Christ. Problem is, they didn’t really. They never pursued wisdom. They learned how to redefine all their bad behavior as “fruit” instead of grow the real thing. They think they’re fixed instead of still broken, right instead of wrong.
God warned me away from that path, so I’m paying it forward. The solution to this problem? Yeah, seize joy. But more than that: Ask God for help.
God must direct our growth.
James 1.4-5 KWL
- 4 Persistence has to be seen to the end, so in the end it’d be solid and leave nothing out.
- 5 But if any one of you leaves out wisdom, ask God.
- He gives to everyone liberally, not scoldingly. Wisdom will be granted by him.
Jesus stated over and over again his kingdom is among us,
So it means we gotta seek wisdom again.
Too often Christians don’t bother with the scriptural definition of wisdom. We quote verse 5 (
Lobotomized faith doesn’t bother. Woe to those of us who think we’re fine as-is. Such people refuse to grow in wisdom—and why should God bother to teach ’em anything further?
So back to the first century. The folks first reading James had likely been through a rough time. Romans persecuted Jews as well as Christians, so if you were Jewish Christian, life was awful, and when you’re suffering God can feel distant. James had to remind ’em of the sort of God they were dealing with: Not a God who’d tear them a new one, but who “gives to everyone liberally, not scoldingly.”
But that’s not God. The Holy Spirit is infinitely kind. He’s never gonna say, “Oh I’m not giving you wisdom; look what you did with it last time.” He won’t make us relive our miseries before he helps. He’s awesome that way. And the result of turning to him—the fruit of the Spirit—is wisdom and joy.
The man of two minds.
James 1.6-8 KWL
- 6 Ask!—in faith, never as a skeptic:
- Skepticism’s like windblown, fanned-out waves of the sea.
- 7 That person doesn’t figure they’ll receive anything from the Master,
- 8 like a man of two minds, standing for nothing in every way he goes.
How we ask for wisdom (and really, for anything from God) is also important. God grants wisdom generously. We need to receive it in the same generous spirit. Graciously—and not with the attitude of, “Well I think I want it, but I’m not wholly sure ‘heavenly wisdom’ is any use. After all, the world’s more complicated than the ‘Jesus-loves-me’ simplicity of Sunday school.”
Ask, James instructed, in faith. Trust God to come through for us. And while there’s occasionally a time for skepticism, this isn’t it. You don’t call the paramedics, then before they save your life you stop ’em and say, “Wait, where’d you go to school?” Same with making prayer requests: We came to God. If we thought there was any better source of help, why’d we go to God? It’s like hiring a caterer, and while she’s five hours into making your feast, you go out and buy a bucket of chicken just in case. Who does that? Skeptics. Doubters. And, usually, jerks.
James’s word for skepticism, dia-krinómenos/“by judgment,” tends to get translated “wavering” (
As a bishop James likely dealt with lots of such people. Some Christians live to nitpick the preacher, or challenge their authority—sometimes directly, sometimes with dozens of little jabs. They claim they’re keeping leadership on their toes; really they’re trying to knock ’em over, and make ’em as unstable and inconsistent as they themselves are.
How’d they get that way? Life made ’em bitter, and they trust no one. (God either.) Or often they were raised that way by bitter parents, and honestly don’t know how to turn it off, try to trust Jesus, and see what happens. Hence dí-psyhos/“[of] two souls,” a person with two lifestyles—a mind which seeks after God, and another mind which doubts God and undermines every religious gain they might make. Their contrariness hobbles their Christianity. They snuff out any miracles God might perform. Then blame him for it.
This bad behavior passes for “wisdom” all the time in our culture. It’s not wisdom. It’s stupidity.
If we want God to grant us wisdom, we gotta ditch the aloofness. Get rid of the frustration. Trust God. The prayer of faith, as James later pointed out, accomplishes a lot.