Connections 09.02.2018: Authenticity

James 1:17-27

I’m writing these words on the day Aretha Franklin died (August 16). She recorded many hits, but her signature song is “Respect” (1967), which was written by Otis Redding (who was born in Dawson, Georgia, just twenty miles from my Good Wife’s hometown of Leary, and grew up in Macon, the world headquarters of NextSunday Resources).

In Aretha’s version of the song, she demands respect from the man in her life. It also became a civil rights anthem, as people heard in it a call for respect from a society that all too often withholds it.

I don’t think this week’s lesson text is about respect. But as I read it with the song “Respect” playing in my mind, I’m drawn to these lyrics that Aretha sings to the man as she insists on his respect:

I ain’t gonna do you wrong while you’re gone
Ain’t gonna do you wrong cause I don’t wanna.

Not only is she not going to do him wrong—she doesn’t even want to. She’s not going to do right by him because she has to—she’s going to do right by him because she wants to.

Her outer actions come from her inner motivation. What you see is who she is. And who she is is what you get.

It’s a matter of authenticity.

James talks a lot about our efforts to be who we are supposed to be. He encourages us to become more authentic in our Christian practice so that our lives demonstrate our faith. But we ought not lose sight of the fact that we couldn’t do our part had God not done God’s part. God has given us the gift of salvation (vv. 17-18) that enables us to grow toward being more complete followers of Jesus. Our goal is to have our actions demonstrate what is really in our hearts. And what is really in our hearts is God’s grace, love, and mercy that we receive through Jesus Christ.

About ten years ago, Rolling Stone magazine produced a list of the top 100 singers of all time. Aretha Franklin was #1. Most of the others are generally acknowledged to be great singers. Here’s the rest of the top ten, omitting #7: Ray Charles, Elvis Presley, Sam Cooke, John Lennon, Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding, Stevie Wonder, and James Brown.

Now I’ll tell you who #7 is: Bob Dylan. We might wonder how in the world Dylan got listed along with those other tremendous singers. Let me quote what Bono (singer for the band U2) said in the article about Dylan’s singing:

When Sam Cooke played Dylan for the young Bobby Womack, Womack said he didn’t understand it. Cooke explained that from now on, it’s not going to be about how pretty the voice is. It’s going to be about believing that the voice is telling the truth (Rolling Stone, November 27, 2008).

We want our voices to tell the truth about who we are as Christians. We also want our attitudes, our opinions, our perspectives, and our actions to tell the truth about us.

It’s all about being authentic.

Discussion

1. Why do you think James calls God “the Father of lights” (v. 17)? What does he mean by this title?
2. What does it mean for James’s readers to be “a kind of first fruits of [God’s] creatures” (v. 18)?
3. Why does “anger not produce God’s righteousness” (v. 20)? What does it produce instead?
4. In verses 22-25, James seems to say that we should focus on God’s word rather than on ourselves. Is there a positive role for introspection and self-examination in the Christian life? Are they compatible with a focus on God’s word?
5. James summarizes Christian living in verses 26-27. How would you summarize his summary?

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.

Christopher Church, “James,” Hebrews-James, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2004), 343–44.

Michael Ruffin is husband to Debra, father to Joshua (Michelle) and Sara (Benjamin), grandfather to Sullivan. A graduate of Mercer University and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, he has previously served as a pastor and as a university professor. He lives on the Ruffin Family Farm in Yatesville, Georgia. He is the Connections Series Curriculum Editor.

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