Being Bound To God

The Letter From James


Pure, unspoilt religion, in the eyes of God our Father, is this: coming to the help of orphans and widows when they need it, and keeping oneself uncontaminated by the world. [27]

James at once raises the central issue of the letter: What does it mean to be a Christian? Does our faith make any difference? James sends happy greetings to those who are scattered and tells us - Yes. [1]

In the first place, a Christian can be happy even in unhappy circumstances. Now there's a pious sentiment which has been greatly overplayed! But not by James: James notes that difficulties are an opportunity for us to grow, but what then? There is no special virtue in merely enduring a hard life; your endurance must bring you to the goal. [2-5]

Here solid faith makes a difference. Without faith, we are tossed this way and that by the storms of life. What use are we that way? Before we could do anything useful, or even before we could receive a gift which God is be giving to us, we are off again in some other direction, abandoning whatever we might have gained by enduring. [6-8]

Another source of happiness for Christians is the reversal of fortune. It is easy enough to understand how the poor person will be glad to be recognized as a person of worth in the eyes of God. Those of us who are rich should be just as glad to lose our special status and preferential treatment when we enter God's service. Hanging on to them would be a long-term commitment to a short-term benefit. [9-11]

Finally, we know that God promises a happy life to those who hang in there to the end. [12]

All this is not to say that God brings evil into our lives in order to achieve some larger purpose. On the contrary! God is immune from such thoughts. The temptation to do bad things comes from our own desires. These are not merely desires we happen to have, but desires which we have made our own, which we have made a part of who we are. God, on the other hand, is good. God is the source of all the good things we have and could have. God has turned us around so that we each can see life as it really is and so to live fully. [13-18]

So, then, how does our faith make a difference? Because we have learned constancy and endurance, we will learn also to conform ourselves to God's plan rather than incessantly try to substitute our own. Because we have learned to see life as it is, and to identify the real source of good and bad in our lives, we know we must not lose sight of God's measure of us. [19-25]

Therefore, a religion which shoots off its mouth is not the religion for us, whether it is mouthing pious quotations of scripture or hurling anathemas against its personal and political enemies. Instead, the religion which ties our lives to God is one which meets the needs of people and avoids the hedonism of immediate gratification. [26-27]


A body dies when it is separated from the spirit, and in the same way faith is dead if it is separated from good deeds. [26]

Is it clear then how helping the helpless is a religious matter? James already pointed out that changing the status of the rich and the poor is a source of happiness for both. But it is more than this, for God chose the poor for the place of honor. So if we dishonor anyone simply for being poor, we are insulting God. Conversely, rich folks tend to be opposed to God's way, so honoring the rich simply for being rich is also an insult to God. [1-7]

At this point, many of us have sighed and said, "Why can't Christian religion be simply put into some clear rules? All this theologizing tires the mind!" Good enough; but we already have the rules - and one of them has been to love your neighbor [Leviticus 19:18; compare also Deuteronomy 1:17]. So when we look at people and classify them as being "like us" and "not like us" we are already breaking the law. This is not getting any simpler; it seems that every little thought we have brings another accusation against us! [8-11]

Just following the rules is not the easy was out it seems, but God does provide a simple way. We will all face the judgement, but Christ has brought us the rule of freedom, which is that if we are compassionate, and refuse to hold other people's failings against them, then we will be treated with the same kind of mercy. So James says "mercy triumphs over judgement." [12-13]

Very well, then, let's think kind thoughts of everyone. And is that enough? No. The governor who says to the prisoner, "I wish you didn't have to sit in prison," but doesn't offer to commute the sentence, is not very merciful. But we have been offered clemency, or rather a full pardon, so we know how it should be done. Suppose you have faith like a mustard seed; Jesus taught that the value of such a seed is shown when it grows and provides shelter for the birds. It is all very well to say "Go in peace" if we are willing to plant the seeds that grow into peace. If our faith does not bear fruit, if it has no consequences, it is useless. [14-17]

The story of Abraham and Isaac provides an illustration. When God asked Abraham to sacrifice Isaac on the altar, Abraham not only had faith but acted on his faith. "Faith worked together with his work, and by means of actions faith reached its goal," James says. Faith is the beginning of action, and action is the fruit of faith. [18-26]


Peacemakers, when they work for peace, sow the seed which will bear fruit in holiness. [18]

Being a teacher is rather presumptuous. We teachers consider ourselves wise enough to tell other people what is right and wrong, and we fully expect them to believe us and to do what we tell them. So when we make a mistake, it is not only our mistake; it becomes multiplied in the lives of our students. As teachers, we have to expect closer scrutiny. [1]

But the truth is that all of us are making mistakes. If nothing else, we keep on mispeaking - we say the wrong thing, we say it the wrong way, we speak unclearly or misleadingly or often enough just ignorantly. Even for those who are not teachers, our wrong words come back to shape our own thoughts and our thoughts shape our actions - for we are all teachers of our own selves. Little words have great effects; even though the tongue which we speak with is a small part of the body, the words it speaks can steer our lives. [2-12]

Those of us who are teachers dream of going down in history as the wise and understanding teacher who shaped some great person's life, or perhaps becoming the wise advisor who is sought out by both great and small. Enough of that! The truly wise person is the one whose deeds demonstrate wisdom. Selfish dreams of fame and honor demonstrate the opposite. [13-15]

The people who truly have wisdom from God are those who plant the seeds of peace. And the good harvest of planting in harmony is justice. [16-18]


Everyone who knows what is the right thing to do and doesn't do it commits a sin. [17]

Temptation comes from our own evil desires, James said [1:14]. How does this happen? We want something that someone else has, or which we think someone has. (How often do we covet a life of comfort, security, or popularity that no one is really living?) Our attempts to achieve our selfish goal are frustrated and we become angry. One thing leads to another and all harmony is disrupted. And why are we unable to attain all that we desire? Precisely because are goals are selfish. Even when we ask for God's gifts we have in mind the chance to use them for our own ends. [1-4]

Well, isn't that how God made us?

But God has also provided the means to overcome our fierce desires. This is the way of humility. The way to reach a high position is to let God place us at whatever height is most fitting; whatever position it is, it will be higher than we can achieve for ourselves. [5-10]

Sometimes when we seem unable to rise as high as we imagine that we should, we try to create the illusion of high status by suggesting that those around us are even lower than we are ourselves. So we criticize and pass judgement. In so doing we judge our neighbor, but we also pass judgement on that law which says we are to love our neighbor. In setting ourselves above the law, we pretend to be above the one who gave the law. Now we have truly made ourselves ridiculous in our pretension. [11-12]

Then again we may deceive ourselves by conducting our lives as if we were more in control than we can be. Laying out complex plans for the future can be pointless boasting. It is good to make plans and to think about the future, so long as we do this humbly and conditionally, ready to adapt our plans to God's. [13-16]

The sin of not doing the right thing is the sin of doing something else instead. We spend our time chasing after things we don't really want, puffing ourselves up or putting our neighbors down, and trying to set in order a universe which God has already set in order. It is terribly hard to abandon these futile pursuits long enough to do the things which are really important. And this is sin. [17]


… be sure that anyone who can bring back a sinner from the wrong way that he has taken will be saving a soul from death and covering up a great number of sins. [20]

What subjects the rich to such a condemnation? For James follows his Lord and his heritage in omitting nothing in his words against the rich. In saying this, James identifies the rich with the sinners and hypocrites of the previous chapter. [1]

These rich people have piled up their riches at the expense of their employees and given themselves lives of luxury. So they have lived counter to every precept which James has stated: They sought immediate gratification rather than a committed endurance. They are not willing to accept the status God has set for them. They do not provide for those in need. Their actions overstate their own worth and they exhibit no mercy. Instead, they demonstrate a terrible prejudice against the poor. They condemn themselves. [2-6]

Patience, then, until the Lord comes to execute judgement: the patience of the farmer. Now, a farmer is industrious. A farmer does not sit idly by hoping that the fields will produce crops on their own. But the farmer is also patient; when the seeds are all planted the farmer waits for them to sprout. Similarly, the prophets did not sit quietly in the shade of the trees, waiting for justice, but they did accept God's way and God's time. [6-11]

The opposite of this kind of patience is exemplified by using God's name or attributes as a way of forcing things to happen. If making complex plans is pointless boasting, what kind of presumption is it for us to say "By heaven I will do this"? Saying such a thing is a way of trying to force an alliance between our own desires and God's power. [12]

The kind of endurance which James endorses is one which is in constant contact with the Lord and with the Lord's family. In whatever situation we find ourselves, we ought to talk with God. We ought also to pray with and for each other. This kind of prayer sets right our relations with God; in our praising and praying we are affirming that Jesus is the Lord and we are offering ourselves to do the work which God has set for us. Indeed, our prayers are a part of the work itself, for prayer connects us with God's power in the proper way. [13-18]

The way which James lays out for us is one we may often slip from, for we are overcome by our human desires, or at least distracted by them enough to lose sight of the goal. Sin is setting up our own desires as our idols and putting off truly important work for the unimportant. None of us is immune from this sin. But we can help each other to return to the true way. [19-20]

Scripture quoted as the heading for each chapter is quoted from the Jerusalem Bible (Doubleday & Co., 1966).

September, 1994
Formatted February, 2006

This page is valid HTML

Pivot Rock Ensign