Traditionally, the author of James has been contributed to James the Just, (the brother of Jesus) and the leader of the Jerusalem Church in the Book of Acts. Certainly, outside of the question of authorship, we can find in the letter of James an interacting with Paul’s ideas, most prominently his discussions of works and faith.
The audience for the letter is a group of Jewish Christians (addressed to the twelve tribes in the Dispersion 1:1) whom are apparently struggling with certain trials that they deem opposed to God’s promise, and part of issue is that they stand divided among one another according to the Law, which has created distinctions for them regarding the relationship of (their) works and God’s promised liberation (as people of the Law). Included in this is an apparent socio-economic divide between rich and poor. Of primary concern is the fact that their current situation (struggle) and this division has led them to question whether God’s promise is true.
The author is deeply Jewish and familiar with their shared Jewish history, connecting their current struggle (their trials 1:1-3) to their prophetic lineage and entrenching it in the language of traditional wisdom literature (such as Ecclesiastes).
The author’s main concern is that his audience is standing divided, and that this division, born of their comparing their own experience to others, is causing them to second guess (be double minded about) God’s covenant promise. The author wants to remind them that God raised them up (as Jews) as the first fruits of His witness to the world out of poverty, and therefore they should find in God’s witness to them (their faith) a love and concern for others (works). It is by loving others, the author submits, that they can be reminded of God’s faithfulness to them and persevere through their trials. This is the nature of the wisdom literature the author employs.
Trials as Joy: The Wisdom of Steadfastness
Establishing the Jewish nature of his audience (the 12 Tribes of the Diaspora) and the reason for this letter (their trials), the author makes a familiar Pauline assertion in labeling their trails as “joy”. The reason trials should be counted as joy is because they produce “steadfastness” (1:2) through the “testing” of our faith. This word “testing” carries with it a sense of “bearing witness to” or “revealing” or “being made known”. The full effect of this steadfastness is a faith that is revealed as “perfect, complete, lacking in nothing (1:2-3)
What is clear is that the author sees this revealing as a gift, turning to a concern for their “lacking” in this wisdom (1:5) and encouraging them to ask God “who gives generously” without “reproach”, a word that connotes giving without distinction, requirement or judgment. The problem, the author posits, is not whether God is with them in their trials and giving them all they need to persist in their trials, but that they are second guessing the truth that He is. Rather than asking in faith (in awareness of this promise), they doubt (and forget and question this promise). The author presents doubt as the counter image to steadfastness, imagining it as a wave tossed around by the wind (1:6), a picture then applied to the doubter. Doubt leads to this sort of double mindedness, with the author suggesting that if we assume that God is not with us, we might as well not even ask in the first place (1:7), as we will find ourselves in the same position. Rather than seeing their trails as an example of how God is not with them, they should see their trials instead as an opportunity for God to be revealed in faith, not in the taking away of these trials, but in the forming out of these trials. This, the author insists it what can protect their doubts from leaving them “unstable in all their ways (1:8).”
The Humiliated and the Exalted: Steadfastness as a Forward Thinking Idea
The very nature of steadfastness implies a sense of direction. We are being brought somewhere, and our trials “as” testing have a purpose. The author imagines this as a form of a present-future liberation (in their experiences and struggles their faith is being made perfect, complete and lacking in nothing). The author now turns this unfolding admonishment to a concern for the socio-economic division that apparently exists within or around them. Here the Wisdom tradition emerges with a bit more clarity, with a call for the “lowly” brothers to being exalted and the “rich” being humiliated (lowered) (1:9). Just like the flower rises and falls, earthly (material) things will pass away. In contrast, their hope in this steadfastness is the “crown of life”, that which will not pass away (1:12).
To reinforce this idea, the author returns to the idea of trials as joy and trials as testing, contrasting this with trials as “temptation”, which is how the audience is apparently seeing their present circumstance. The author is insistent that no one see their trials as God’s “temptation”, because God doesn’t tempt (our doubting) and God cannot be tempted (our faith). How do we distinguish between the two? By recognizing the nature of “desire” (1:13). Temptation emerges from desire, which leads to sin, which leads to death. This is why we should not be deceived into seeing our trials as temptation. Temptation is born from desire, which the author recognizes as the devil. The revealing of God’s faithfulness in the midst of our trials (that He is still with us and persevering with us and that this world is being liberated) is not given so that we should fall away in our struggle, it is given as a truth that stands above our experiences rather than being dependent on it. The good gifts, the author insists, are what come from God, and they come with no variation of change (contrasting with the variation of the waves in the wind). This is the point of this steadfastness. This is the differentiation between the riches that pass away and the riches that don’t. This is the differentiation between testing and temptation. One if hopeful, one is not.
Their Jewish Heritage and God’s Faithfulness: Hearing the Word
The author now moves to consider his audience’s Jewish heritage. They (the Jews) were raised up as the first-fruits of God’s witness in the created world (1:18). This is what they were brought forth for by the “word of truth” which brought them to life and gave them their witness (to God’s faithfulness). They are called to “receive” this word, the covenant that has been written on hearts and minds (implanted in them 1:21) with the kind of “meekness” that declares life not death. Meekness shares a quality in nature with humility, the position of the lowly and that which the author calls the “rich” towards.
Here the author established the nature of “hearing” this implanted word, employing once again the Wisdom Tradition. The admonition is to be quick to hear, slow to speak, and therefore (by nature of these two things, or as an outcome of these two dispositions), be slow to anger. The inference then is that being slow to hear and quick to speak leads to anger, and anger is what causes them to doubt this word of truth. By being quick to hear and slow to speak in relation to this word, the righteousness of God (the word of truth that is without variation, the fullness of steadfastness that the word promises) becomes our witness rather than our doubt.
Only here, the author insists, the way we can hold on to this word which we hear, the word the precedes our faith, is to actually do it and live it (1:19-22). Those who “only” hear are led to deception, because simply hearing opens us up to second guessing what is true about God. The steadfastness that this “testing” (our trials) produces “reveals” to us what we have forgotten, and acting on the promise (in faith) is the best way to remember.
This is also the nature of the mirror analogy in 1:23-24, where they look in a mirror (hear the word) and instantly forget what they look like (who they are as God’s children). By contrast, by looking into (hearing) the perfect Law (the covenant word written on their hearts and mind, which is Jesus) they are led to blessing and “remembering”, which then leads to persevering (steadfastness). This is the Law of Liberty rather than the Law of Works. What we hear precedes us and is reality we already live in. Only the author insists that it is the doing, the living out of this faith, that reminds us of what is already ours. Our doing acts in faith, it doesn’t produce faith. And what is the doing? The works are “to visit orphans and widows in their affliction.” (1:22-25) This is the work of moving to the lowly places for the sake of those in the lowly places, reminding us not only of what God has done in our lives, but of what God is doing in the world.
The Israelite Heritage and The Work of Faith
Here the author does some neat things in bringing these threads of perseverance (steadfastness), Israel’s heritage, God’s promise, faith and works together. We are brought back to where we started, with God giving generously without reproach (without condition). If this is true, then show no partiality (be without condition) in regards to faith in this promise that they hold to (2:1), because if you don’t, you will become judges with evil thoughts (2:4), and therefore not much of a judge at all as they will remain bound to the bias’ of their own position. What the author is doing here is providing the connective piece between faith and works that can help bring them together in a way that bears witness to God’s promise (our faith). Looking back into their shared heritage and history, this neat argument thread is presented to underscore this connective piece. The question comes, “has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich (2:5)? And also, looking back on their own history and present circumstance, are not the rich the ones who oppress you?
What this means is that they (the Jews) are the recipients of God’s good gifts “as” the poor and the lowly, given to them without reproach (2:5-7). Therefore, find God’s grace for the world in your works. The Law, which has been summed up according to the perfect Law, is this- love others. Don’t show partiality in your love for others, because then you will expect God’s love to arrive with partiality into your own experience, and that will leave you doubting God’s promise (judgement) of liberation for both yourself and the world (2:9). Here the author submits them to being under the Jewish Law, which only reveals their failure to earn this promise (2:10). This is why faith (in the perfect Law) must precede works. The works don’t determine the promise, they simply remind us of the promise (faith) of our liberty. “So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the Law of Liberty (2:12).
So What Good is Faith Without Works
What good then is faith without works? If this faith isn’t leading somewhere, towards liberty, why then have faith? After all, without faith all we have is death (2:17), so a faith without promise (direction) is nothing more than death. In contrast, faith that leads somewhere is a belief (faith) that is completed. This is what our works point us towards and remind us of. They speak love into those spaces where love has been forgotten, hope where hope has been forgotten. The faith we hold becomes aware and justified in our witness (works) (2:24).
Doubling down on this, the author points out a further distinction between Law and grace (without partiality). Those who teach are most aware of the Law (in their Jewish context), and when you are aware of the Law you become aware of your own stumbling, and thus you are set under greater judgment by nature of this awareness (3:1-2). You can try and say you are perfect under the Law and thus deserving of something better than your present trials (which leads to the trials being evidence of God’s lack of promise), but the Law just proves that you are not (3:2).
It is for this reason then that we should remain aware of how powerful the tongue is, given the words they confess to and the way those words reveal the desires and content of the heart (leading to a piece on the power of the tongue). By trying to present our works as the means by which we should be distinguished within our social and economic positioning (the rich and the lowly), this tongue then blesses God and curses those made in the likeness of God at the same time (double mindedness), and this ought not to be so (3:11). This language of blessings and curses is familiar to the the Israelite history, and something they would have understood very clearly in their context. This is the very paradigm that we find in their own story as God’s people, with God throughout the Israelite story trying to pull them out this way of thinking. In 4:11-12, the author moves to show once again that when you “teach” the law as a means of judging others according to their position under the Law (according to works), you judge yourself, and whoever knows the right thing and fails, that becomes their sin (judgment) under the Law (4:17). This cannot lead to liberty.
Therefore, because wisdom is meekness (3:13), don’t let your tongues boast of falsehoods when you in fact have jealousy and selfishness in your hearts (concerned for your position in the midst of trials, and comparing your position to others). Jealousy and selfishness leads to (earthly and material) ambitions and disorder, which is from the Devil, not God, just as temptation is from the Devil. What God’s promise is about is liberty and hope, not the idea that these trials exist as a judgment or a means of failing. Testing, in faith, is a forming work, not a condemning one.
The Measure of Desire
Now the author brings this all back to this measure of desire when trying to distinguish between testing and temptation. The reason, the author says, you do not ask God (in faith) for the good gifts is because your passions are at war within you (4:1), and this war of passions all begins with the desire of your heart. As it is said, God gives and you spend it on your passions (4:3), which only leads you to doubt whether God’s promise (the good gifts) is true. Friendship with the world, the measure of this desire, is enmity with God, the author insists. You say you are God’s people but are acting opposed to his desire for you and the world. This is why grace comes to the humble (4:5-6) and why testing reveals that promise for the purpose of steadfastness, because when you live in ways that don’t reveal a different reality to the world, you forget the promise yourself. Therefore, submit to God and resist the Devil (4:7). And what distinguishes God from the Devil? The unwavering promise versus the ever changing doubt (thinking that this promise is not longer true), love versus showing partiality to others, attending to the lowly rather than becoming rich.
And here’s the picture we gain from the Letter of James. Draw near to God and God draws near to you (4:8). This is how we remember the promise that God is leading this somewhere, and that we are being formed out of our struggle. This is the picture of the humility we are asked to lean into rather than trying to position ourselves in comparison to others according to our circumstance (4:10). In this conversation of faith and works, there is only one lawgiver and judge (God), the one who is able to save and destroy. And the one lawgiver is moving us in love and liberty. Therefore, don’t worry about tomorrow, but rather lean into the faith (promise) we have been given today. Because when we fail to do this, it is sin, and it positions us within our doubts, and all we are then left with is a directionless life, one that leads to death (which is a world that is left to its struggle without liberation). This is the proclamation of the Ecclesiastical Wisdom in 4:13-15.
This is perhaps most pertinent when it comes to this socio-economic division between rich and poor. This is why we find in the final chapter a warning to the rich, which unfolds as a call to humility. It paints a picture of those enjoying riches and pleasures while others are oppressed and have no means of enacting justice for themselves (5:11). If God is a liberating and loving God, this is the work that we must be engaged in, regardless of our own circumstance. And the reason for this is because the lowly are the righteous in the Kingdom of God, and the riches that do not fade are based on love and humility, not that which leads to earthly riches. This comes back to the book’s audience needing to be reminded about the lowly places that God’s love found them (all) in within their history. This is a reshaping of their understanding of their struggles (and their understanding of Israel’s struggle). Rather than seeing it is a picture of God’s failure, the author raises this up as a picture of God’s promise and faith. The call to have patience in suffering is actually an encouragement to the oppressed. Patience is a blessing and a revealing (5:11), a hopeful and life giving venture.
So (reaching back into the Israelite tradition), don’t be divided by the Law (5:9), because then you will just judge yourselves. The one who can bring justice (the one who has the power to save and destroy… the one lawgiver) is coming. This is your and our faith, so trust in this (5:8;5:9). And if you forget this, look to your own tradition (the prophets) as an example of this patience in suffering (5:10). Just as Elijah was a man fallible (doubting like them), he prayed for the oppressed and it was given in his righteounsess (his right positioning, his trusting in faith rather than doubting it, a trusting that came from acting on it). So do the same, sick and healthy together, the suffering and the cheerful together. Help one another out. For whenever we bring back a wanderer (one who is doubting), we save our own soul from death (we remind ourselves of the promise of God’s liberating promise) and cover a multitude of sins (doubt, evil thoughts, actions that do not come in love, partiality). Here the author is talking about spiritual death, a living as if there is no grace versus living like there is. God’s declaration is that grace breaks through our trials in a way that is forming us into this promise of a future where this suffering will give way to liberation. Therefore, coming back to the idea of asking for good gifts in faith not doubt, let your yes be yes and your no be no. Don’t swear to any other promise than the promise of God’s liberation (5:12). This is the direction to which the prayer for faith points.