an image of the first page of the letter to James in the Bible

An Overview of James Chapter 5: Maturity and Trust

James has focused his entire letter on Christian maturity — both in our faithfulness to God and in our conduct toward others. It’s not enough to just call ourselves Christ followers; we must be continually striving to grow closer to Him in our behavior, our morality, and our internal attitudes. Now James concludes his letter, and he does so by talking about where we place our trust in this life. This is very much a continuation of the thoughts James shares in chapter 4.

I’m working from the Christian Standard Bible.

Verses 1–6: Do Not Trust Wealth

Come now, you rich people! Weep and wail over the miseries that are coming on you. Your wealth is ruined and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your silver and gold are corroded, and their corrosion will be a witness against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You stored up treasure in the last days! Look! The pay that you withheld from the workers who reaped your fields cries out, and the outcry of the harvesters has reached the ears of the Lord of Hosts. You have lived luxuriously on the land and have indulged yourselves. You have fattened your hearts for the day of slaughter. You have condemned — you have murdered — the righteous man; he does not resist you.

James 5:1–6

James is exceedingly clear: you and I should not put our hope in our worldly possessions. He goes so far as to condemn those who amass their wealth at the expense of mercy and justice. He uses prophetic language to get his point across.

  • Their silver and gold corrodes, probably from stagnating in storage for too long rather than being used for the wages they owe.
  • The corroded silver and gold testify against and will consume them.
  • Withheld pay cries out.
  • The workers’ cries reach the ears of God.

James goes as far as to say that these wealthy individuals who seek ways to cheat their workers and withhold pay are guilty of murder. We live in a culture where such behavior is written off as “just doing business” or “looking after our shareholders.” This is not right. If we’re privileged enough that others rely on us for their livelihood, we should never engage in such practices. If we’re not in that position (as most of us will not be), we should never condone or justify this kind of greed. God believes it more important that we look after the needs of others than our luxuries.

Verses 7–12: Trust Instead In God

Therefore, brothers, be patient until the Lord’s coming. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth and is patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, because the Lord’s coming is near. Brothers, do not complain about one another, so that you will not be judged. Look, the judge stands at the door!

Brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the Lord’s name as an example of suffering and patience. See, we count as blessed those who have endured. You have heard of Job’s endurance and have seen the outcome from the Lord. The Lord is very compassionate and merciful.

Now above all, my brothers, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath. Your “yes” must be “yes,” and your “no” must be “no,” so that you won’t fall under judgment.

James 5:7–12

James contrasts the impatience and callousness that can come from trusting in our wealth with the patience and strength that comes with trusting in the Lord. He puts this patience in context of a farmer who has to keep a long-term view of their work, knowing that a lack of patience could result in a ruined crop. Our trust in God encourages us to be patient with Him as well as with one another.

Take people like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, and Job as examples of this kind of patience and trust. Their examples testify to us that our patient faith can endure anything through the Father. These people should be role models to us, not simply icons of faith. We should look at they way they endured their trials, at the ways they overcame discouragement and outright persecution, and resolve to do the same.

Then we get to the “above all” statement. This is the summation of everything James has written so far regarding our mature faith. Putting God’s word into action, showing generosity, overcoming prejudice, taming our tongues, growing in humility, and putting our trust where it belongs — all of this boils down to a very simple principle: be honest.

  • If we are honest with our perspective about suffering, we will understand that pains of this life are temporary and look past them to God’s greater purpose for us.
  • If we are honest with God’s word, then we will put it into practice when it demands change in our lives.
  • If we are honest with the example Jesus has left us, then we will put others before self, discard prejudice and discrimination, and seek mercy before secular judgments.
  • If we are honest with ourselves, we will be mindful of the ways we use our words, tempering our language even when incensed or frustrated.
  • If we are honest about our place in Creation, we will be humble before God and put His will before our own.
  • If we are honest in humility, then we will place our trust in the Creator rather than the perishable things He has created.

Verses 13–20: Trusting In Prayer

Is anyone among you suffering? He should pray. Is anyone cheerful? He should sing praises. Is anyone among you sick? He should call for the elders of the church, and they should pray over him after anointing him with olive oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick person, and the Lord will restore him to health; if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The urgent request of a righteous person is very powerful in its effect. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours; yet he prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the land. Then he prayed again, and the sky gave rain and the land produced its fruit.

My brothers, if any among you strays from the truth, and someone turns him back, let him know that whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his life from death and cover a multitude of sins.

James 5:13–20

Finally, James sums up his book with an encouragement to pray. This is where we put our trust and patience into action. Do we trust in God? Then we will trust in the power of prayer. Here, the mature Christian finds peace and fulfillment. Here, we give everything over to God.

James ends with this: those who are mature in Christ, be ready to help restore those who have gone astray. With every point of maturity in this letter, the opposite can occur. We should always be willing to help each other along our journeys and restore one another when necessary. The mature Christian does not write off another Christian over secular differences or spiritual struggles. The mature Christian seeks to heal and restore.

Miscellaneous Thoughts and Conclusion

  • You can’t read James 5 and come away with the thought that Jesus and His apostles would be OK when we shrug at someone struggling to make ends meet with their full-time job to say, “Then get a second job.”
  • It’s interesting that James inserts a comment about complaining about one another in his section about being patient with God. My takeaway is that being patient with each other is part of being patient with God. “As you have done to the least of these…”
  • James makes it clear that basic honesty is the ultimate litmus test for true Christianity. If we follow leaders or teachers who claim a Christian faith, but they can’t pass the test of basic honesty, we’re following the wrong people.
  • We do find examples in other letters of withdrawing fellowship from those who have fallen away. In each of those cases, however, the withdrawn individual caused major damage to the local congregation involved. Withdrawal should never be a default course of action.

If the attribution is correct, James would have written this letter before the events of Acts 12. He would have been writing to Christians who had heard and received the gospel news and were now ready to put that gospel into action. Putting Christ on in baptism is just the beginning of our Christian journey. We should always let God’s word refine and perfect us. Let’s be honest in our assessments of where we are as followers of Christ, and let’s put James words into action, growing closer to our Savior day by day.

Speaking Truth While Teaching the Truth

I recently linked to an article from Sojourners regarding the recent political climate having an adverse affect on honesty in Christian conversation. The truth is, however, that this is not a new problem. Recent events have perhaps exacerbated the problem, but we’ve historically demonstrated a rather tenuous relationship with the truth when it comes to making sure things fit our personal narratives of how we perceive the world.

Getting Things Right

One example comes from a congregation we were recently visiting. The preacher was leading a series about other Christian faiths, and that day’s lesson was on Catholicism. At one point in the lesson, he said something to the effect that the Catholic Church sells indulgences so that people can buy their way out of Hell or make early payment for future sins. Both of these are flatly untrue. I can’t say I fully understand every detail of the Catholic doctrine of indulgences, but I do know these are myths.

Anecdotes, misconceptions, urban legends, and myths — when preached or taught as truth, these undermine the greater truth we are trying to spread. They become obstacles to others coming to the truth of God’s word. This is one of the reasons James writes, in the beginning of James 3:

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body. If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things.

Sweating the Details

If someone listening to my preaching can’t trust me to rightfully discern between factual and fictional information, how can they trust me with the bigger truths of God’s word? If someone hears me misrepresenting what they believe, how can they trust me to rightly explain what I believe? If I can’t be trusted to do my homework on secular illustrations or doctrinal explanations, how can I be trusted to study and rightly divide scripture?

II Corinthians 8:21 mentions that we aim to be seen honorably both to God and to our fellow humans. This means we should get things right, even if they aren’t part of scripture. We need to check to see if our lessons that touch on science are relying on outdated or debunked information. We need to make sure that the stories we share as true actually are true. While we defend our own doctrines, we have to get the doctrines we attribute to others right. That’s being truthful in all things.

Practical Application

I have to apply this to myself as well. I’ve occasionally shared a story about African missionaries and neckties that I think is true — but now I’m not so sure. I tried to track it down to the source I thought it came from but have been unsuccessful. It’s a humorous anecdote that I think well illustrates the challenge of unintentionally teaching culture-specific values alongside the gospel. But I have to stop using it as I don’t know if the story is true, and the illustration loses all power if it’s not.

Do all illustrations have to be true stories? Jesus certainly allowed himself to use fictional illustrations in his use of parables, so no, I don’t think every anecdote and illustration has to be true. Fiction is fine as long as our audiences know we are speaking in fiction. If we are presenting something as real, as truth, we need to be sure it is. We always have to make sure that we are telling the truth while we are speaking truth.