James is a book written to help Christians take their faith to a higher level. Based on the text, it’s written to people who already have a faith in Christ, possibly of Jewish heritage, and who understand the fundamentals of Christianity; but they’re having problems putting it into practice. James spends little time on things like Christ’s deity, baptism, or the nature of the church. Rather, this is a letter about putting faith into action. It speaks to what Christian living looks like in practice. It’s about owning our faith and making it a part of who we are — not just a name we wear.
In this and following articles, I’m going to go chapter by chapter, but it’s always best to read each epistle in one sitting. James and the other New Testament writers didn’t include the chapter breaks or verse numbers we use today. Useful as they are for study purposes, they can also make it easy to take things out of context — adding meaning or removing it from larger thoughts.
As a note, I’m working from the Christian Standard Bible.
Verses 1–18: Trials and Maturity
Consider it a great joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you experience various trials, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing.
James opens with an unexpected theme — maturity through trials. Right after his greeting, James says to his readers that they will endure challenges as Christians. He goes so far as to say these challenges are a good thing because they will result in greater maturity. He then address two seemingly unrelated topics: wisdom and humility. Verses 5–8 say we should ask God for wisdom with confidence, and verses 9–11 tell us we should value humility over riches. In the context, it makes sense that we’d seek wisdom from God in our trials; it’s the eternal question of, “Why is this happening?” Wisdom helps us see past the events of the moment to God’s greater purpose.
Additionally, our trials can challenge us financially. For early Christians, persecution could include the loss of business relationships and even personal property. James reminds us these things don’t matter in the big picture, that we are exulted in humility. Instead of letting trials beat us down, our relationship with God and the love of our fellow Christians can help us emerge with a stronger faith. When we face challenges, persecution, and temptations in this life, we have an opportunity to grow in Christ.
Don’t be deceived, my dearly loved brothers. Every generous act and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights; with Him there is no variation or shadow cast by turning. By His own choice, He gave us a new birth by the message of truth so that we would be the first-fruits of His creatures.
James concludes this thought by reminding us that all goodness comes from God. That should be our focus in trials.
- When persecuted we should look beyond the pain of the moment to remember God’s love for us, and those who persecute us should see that love and hope in our conduct under pressure.
- When facing temptation, we should remember the promises of God are better than the passing pleasures of sin.
- When facing personal tragedy or challenges, we should lean on the goodness of our God and our fellow Christians to help carry us past the pain and back to our hope in Christ.
Verses 19–27: Hearing and Doing
But be doers of the word and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. Because if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man looking at his own face in a mirror. For he looks at himself, goes away, and immediately forgets what kind of man he was. But the one who looks intently into the perfect law of freedom and perseveres in it, and is not a forgetful hearer but one who does good works — this person will be blessed in what he does.
James introduces a couple of ideas in the second half of chapter 1 that he will come back to later in his letter. The first is that we should watch our speech, and the second is that a complete faith takes action. Verses 19–21 tell us we should be quick to hear but slow to speak in anger. In this direct context, James says we should rid ourselves of “moral filth.” Sometimes, we think nothing of the words we use online and in other public spaces, but this passage equates those angry words with trash. Verse 26 goes on to say that anyone who claims to be a Christian but does not control their tongue has a useless faith. Hateful, cruel, or impulsive speech has no place in a mature Christian’s walk.
In the midst of talking about our speech, James says we need to do more than listen to God’s word. We have to put it in action. It’s a stern warning about our speech that he puts this exhortation right here. He’s essentially saying, “Watch your words. Don’t just listen to God’s word; put it into action, or your words will invalidate your faith.” There are many ways we put faith into action and let God’s word change us, but the direct context here is in our language. If we study God’s word and then we cannot control our own words, then we’re like this person who forgets their own face in the mirror.
Miscellaneous Thoughts & Conclusion
- Verse 13 should caution us against attributing tragedy to God. I’m talking specifically about statements like, “I guess God needed another angel in Heaven,” or “Well, God has His reasons.” These statements may mean well, but they do not correctly reflect the nature of God as presented by James.
- In verse 14, James is making the case that God cannot be tempted. In doing so, he presents the path to sin as an equation — desire + temptation = sin. Remove one, and Satan loses his power. He can’t tempt you with something you have defeated desire for, nor can your desires overwhelm you if you don’t invite the temptation in.
- Verse 25 says Christians are under the law of freedom (or liberty, depending on translation). Consistently, the New Testament writers only speak of spiritual freedoms in Christ. They put no stake in the freedoms of this world, and we too should be careful how much emphasis we place on the civil freedoms we enjoy.
- The number of times Jesus, James, and other New Testament writers make a point about what we say and how we say it should give us pause when listening to, praising, or repeating public personalities who “tell it like it is” in harsh, vulgar, or otherwise mean-spirited ways.
In James 2, we’ll look at applying the perfect law of liberty to how we treat prejudice, and we’ll study some more about how faith and action compliment each other.