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I’ve taken up an uncomfortable and dangerous activity.   

I’m reading the book that James wrote.  

Each time I read James I am confronted with areas of disconnection and inconsistency in my life.

Among others things, it uncovers disconnections between what I believe and how I live; inconsistencies between how I treat people and how I should treat them; dysfunctions in areas of how I speak, how I use finances, and how I pray.

James also supplies prescriptions for wholesome living – and it draws me toward Jesus Christ.   

I'm not alone

I’m not alone in this. Earl Palmer writes that James “points us to a good and durable cure for all doublespeak religion or lifestyle. … I want to write down some of the ways that James has challenged me in how I live my life and in how I think about life.”

So, in this series of posts, I want to walk with you through this wonderful little book. I want to listen to what he says – more importantly, I want to hear what the Spirit says – and respond honestly, practically, and wholesomely. In the end, I know that we will not be the same.  

Before we start let’s ask a few basic questions: Who was James? To whom did he write – and about what and why?

Who was James?

Most probably, the writer of this book is the same James who was the Lord’s brother (Galatians 1:19) and a leader of the early Christian community at Jerusalem (Acts 15:13ff.). 

This James was a younger (half) brother of Jesus, born to Mary. On one occasion, the apostle John notes that Jesus’ own brothers – including James – did not believe Jesus (John 7:3-5). And yet there was a change in his life. After the resurrection of Jesus Christ we find “Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers [including James]” praying with the followers of Jesus (Acts 1:14). 

In hindsight, what had James discerned about Jesus? How had they played together within the close confines of a large Galilean family? No doubt he recalled Jesus' unwavering love and devotion to his Father; His sacrificial life and death; the power and glory of His resurrection.  

It is notable that James identifies himself simply: “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” (James 1:1a). In this humble statement, he acknowledges the supremacy of the Lord Jesus. He does not refer to his family connection, or use a title such as “apostle.” James declares himself as “a servant of God and the Lord Jesus Christ.” 

In Greek, this word for servant is doulos, meaning one who is “in a permanent relation of servitude to another, his will altogether swallowed upon the will of the other” (R. Trench).

To whom did he write?

James writes “To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion [or, scattered abroad]” (1:1b). 

Commentators generally propose that this is a reference to Jewish people who had become Christians (Christ-followers) in or about Israel. By extension, this reaches to all Christ-followers no matter where and when they live – those in faithful covenant relationship with God through the Lord Jesus Christ. 

What did James write about, and why?

The letter, or epistle, of James is a no-holds-barred confrontation with fragmented Christian faith and dysfunctional Christian living. 

For instance, this letter contains the only uses of the word translated “double-minded,” or literally, “double-souled” (dipsuchos). The first occurrence is diagnostic (the problem): a “double-minded [person], unstable in all his ways” (James 1:8). The second occurrence is prescriptive (the solution): “purify your hearts, you double-minded” (James 4:8). This illustrates much of what the letter is about – identifying negative attitudes and behaviors, and then recommending healing and wholeness in those areas

Here’s a sketch of the structure of the letter James wrote. Like a physician, he diagnoses the disintegration and fragmentation in our lives, and then he prescribes the cure that moves us toward wholeness in Christ we desire: 

  • 1:13-27           blaming God vs. worshiping God by hearing and doing
  • 2:1-13             partiality within community vs. loving your neighbor as yourself
  • 2:14-26           separation of faith from action vs. demonstrating faith by action
  • 3:1-18             dysfunctional speaking vs. living the wisdom that is from above
  • 4:1-12             unhealthy desires and conflict vs. submitting to God as judge
  • 4:13-5:11        arrogant planning and boasting vs. waiting patiently for the Lord’s return
  • 5:12                 making oaths vs. speaking truthfully.

In the following posts, we will explore each of these contrasts – the problems and the solutions. 

Listening with an open heart

I recently came across the Chinese character for listening. It’s a combination of ear + king (respect) + ten (all) + eyes + one (undivided) + open heart. What an amazing picture of the skill of listening well – attending in respect and completeness with an undivided and open heart.

For now, I suggest that you take time to read through James carefully and thoughtfully. Be listening for those areas in which you sense discomfort with what James is saying. What is behind this discomfort you experience? Be specific. Is it a habit or an attitude or an action that you have done or that you practice? 

Our object is to listen deeply to James. In this way, it is hoped that we will identify those areas of our lives that are disintegrated, or fragmented, or dysfunctional, or hollow, or incomplete, or divisive, or impure. 

As we continue to listen, we begin to see the life of our Lord Jesus that manifests what it is to be pure, integrated, real, functional, and complete – and then, by His grace, to be living toward wholeness

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Photo credit: Painting or icon of James the Just (source unknown). 

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