Uniform 02.02.2014: Doing the Hard Thing

James 1:19–27

Nearly thirteen years ago, I made a commitment to a man. I spoke words and donned a ring. He heard those words, and so did everyone else in the church. God heard them, too. Over the years, I have learned again and again that those words and that promise are not enough. Sometimes, it’s harder than I ever imagined to live out those words. It’s much easier for my husband and me to lose our relationship amid the busyness, distractions, and frustrations of a life lived together in the same house every single day. It’s easier to turn off and shut down than to try to live out the words we spoke on our wedding day. But we are both called to something much higher. We are meant to “put our money where our mouth is.” That phase simply means that we need to interact, to connect, and to keep striving together in this difficult life.

Is it easy? No. But that’s what makes it all the more precious and meaningful.

There are two main parts to faith in Christ: belief and action. This week’s brief passage from James is packed with action. James tells us what kind of character to have (vv. 19-21) and what to do with the Scripture we read (vv. 22-25). He even explains the point of true, “pure” religion (vv. 26-27). (Hint: It’s not going to worship or Bible study.)

His words make sense to us. Of course we know that we can’t just read the Bible, pray, or go to church. We must translate those spiritual disciplines into a faith that is lived out and that shows the love of Jesus to others.

It sounds easy. But anyone who has tried it knows that it’s not.

When we hire writers for Uniform Bible study units, we send guidelines to help them understand the focus of each session. One of the points for this week’s session reads, “Adults find cultural compromise easier than and preferable to firm choice in moral and ethical decisions.” I had to read that sentence several times, but the more I read it, the more sense it made.

I don’t know about you, but I find it easier to stay silent about my faith when debates rage rather than to speak up and share my countercultural opinions. I find it easier to try to put myself in a nonbeliever’s shoes and sympathize with him or her than to express the way I really feel about Jesus. It’s easier for me to talk with my Sunday school class about human rights than it is to take what may be a dangerous step that actually makes a difference in someone’s life.

Jesus summarized the entire Law of God like this: “Love God with everything that is in you, and love people the way you love yourself” (Mt 22:36-40). His words are beautiful, powerful, shocking, and frightening. They ask much of us. Sure, we believe they are true and right, but how can we even begin to do what they say?

At a very basic level, James tells us to start by “putting our money where our mouth is.” When we make a commitment to something in our hearts and with our words—when we nod our heads in agreement with Jesus’ summary of what it means to follow him—we need to back it up in the living of our lives.

Is this easy? Of course not. But, again, that’s what makes it all the more precious and meaningful.

Do the hard thing. Don’t just listen. Don’t just talk. Act on what you hear and say about Jesus. That’s what makes it real.

Discussion

1. The Uniform writer guidelines for this session had the following statement: “Adults find cultural compromise easier than and preferable to firm choice in moral and ethical decisions.” Do you agree with this? Why or why not?
2. What are some of the “precious and meaningful” relationships, jobs, or other commitments in your life? What is easy about them? What is hard?
3. Is there an area of your life where it’s easy to speak your mind but difficult to live out what you say? Why do you think this is so?
4. What do you fear the most when you think about living out what you believe about God?
5. How might you overcome your fears as you strive to live like Jesus each day?

Reference Shelf

In 1:19-25 James urges a new perspective on integrity. James offers guidance for those seeking justice—beware, for human anger does not produce God’s justice (1:20). Clarence Jordan’s rendering, “a man’s temper contributes nothing to God’s cause,” calls to mind Mohandas Ghandi’s and Martin Luther King Jr.’s practice of nonviolent resistance. Deaf to cries for human retaliation, James offers another way out of conflict: listen to the other, do not interrupt, wait your turn to speak (1:19). Turn the critical gaze inward, first radically reform your own life, and accept the word with power to save lives (1:21).

James calls on believers to be persons of integrity, just as God is the one without “variation or shadow due to change” (1:17). In particular, James demands that those who have heard God’s word act out the truth they have heard read aloud in worship. In ethics, knowing what is the right thing to do or even why that course is morally correct is insufficient; the ethical person not only knows what is right and why it is right, but also does the right thing, even when doing so demands moral courage.

The mirror does not lie, but not all who glimpse themselves act on what they have seen; too many quickly forget what they looked like. Likewise, Scripture reveals what we are like— ephemeral as a wildflower (1:10), grand as the image of God (3:9), morally responsible (4:17), blessed despite struggles (1:12; 2:5). The wise not only take these lessons to heart but incorporate these life lessons in their doings.

James’s second beatitude is for those “doers who act” (1:25); the promise is that “they will be blessed in their doing.” Frederick Buechner has described vocation as the place God calls you to be “where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” Precisely in the course of acting on what has been heard—by loving one’s neighbor as oneself (2:8), do active believers find joy.

James closes chapter 1 with a challenge of a new perspective on religion (1:26-27), that at once looks back on the demand to be doers of the word (1:22,25) and anticipates the call to active concern for the poor in chapter 2.
James offers two tests by which the worth and purity of one’s religion can be assayed. The first is the test of a bridled tongue, that is, of controlled speech (1:26). James warns that those who lash out with angry words (1:19) or bad-mouth one another (4:11; 5:9) are self-deceived. Those merchants who boast of a future under their control (4:13-16) are similarly deceived. The second test is that of active compassion towards those who are from the “world’s” perspective of no account (1:27).

Orphans and widows represent those poor, oppressed, and exploited ones who are unable to rescue themselves from their harsh circumstances. To “visit them” is not to pay a social call but to intervene in their lives, as God visited the Hebrew slaves in Egypt, upsetting the powers that oppressed them and setting them free. James defines religion that matters as visiting and helping orphans and widows, that is, “spending time with them, joining them in their oppression, and sharing basic necessities with them.” James’s sense of justice is not a dispassionate requirement for equality rather a caring advocacy for those in need for whom the Christian community has special responsibility. James is concerned for the poor and vulnerable and ‘leans’ in their direction; in James’s view Christians owe these least fortunate more; in James’s experience, the rich can and do fend for themselves.

The “world” represents “the institutions, the structures, and the value system that promote injustice or are indifferent to it.” The “world” confuses having with being, and thus encourages acquisitiveness rather than solidarity with those in need. For James, as for Jesus, life does not consist in getting and grasping more and more; all worth comes as a gift from God, who has birthed James’s com- munity, giving them new life and a new status as “first fruits,” whether they be sisters or brothers in need of food and clothing or else those with the means to assist those “family members” in need. “Keeping oneself uncontaminated by the world” means not conforming to the twisted, dehumanizing values of society at large:
“Christian communities must the avoid accommodation to this unjust system and not fall into the trap laid by its value system.”

As Tamez has noted:

Our contemporary value systems are backwards. For people today, perfection is linked to success, competition, and excelling at the expense of others. For James, it is the opposite; for him it is to attend to the needy in order to be consistent with what we believe and what we read in the Bible.

For James, believers display pure religion when they do not buy into the world’s dismissive estimate of the underprivileged but care for them as those especially loved by God (cf. 1:9; 2:5). Those whose love and faith compels them to merciful action toward those pressed down in the struggle find that by this active care their own faith is brought to maturity and integrity (1:5) and shows evidence of being alive (2:17,26).

Resource

Edgar V. McKnight & Christopher Church, Hebrews–James, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2008).

Kelley Land, a graduate of Mercer University, has been an assistant editor for Smyth & Helwys curriculum since 2001. She is a member of West Highland Baptist Church in Macon, Georgia. She enjoys reading and writing fiction, spending time with her husband and two daughters, and watching British television shows. Her goal for 2014 is to learn to play the piano.

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