The Pursuit of God

Serious Topics for Serious Christians

Applying James 1: The Many Ways You’re Failing God

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If you’ve bought into the delusion that you can be morally perfect after salvation, you’re going to love the book of James. If you’ve figured out that you can’t, you’re going to hate James.

If you’re looking for a way to guilt more Christians into signing up for ministries, you’re going to love the book of James. If you’re trying to slog through a long period of waiting on God and wrestling with “slacker” guilt, you’re going to hate James.

If you’re currently feeling like you’ve got your flesh under control, you’re going to love the book of James. If your flesh is currently winning the day, you’re going to hate James.

The book of James has a very polarizing effect on Christians because it focuses on external proofs of salvation. James wants us all to look at our ACTIONS for assurance that we are saved, instead of looking into our SOULS. And of course whenever we start judging each other and ourselves by our behavior, we are trying to judge each other by our flesh. This is utter foolishness, for your flesh is an unruly beast with depraved appetites. Your flesh cannot be perfectly controlled by you. Only God can keep your flesh in line for you, and He has many reasons why He doesn’t choose to do this on a consistent basis. So when James instructs you to look to your flesh for assurance of your salvation, it’s guaranteed that you are going to end up panicking at some point.

Now if you’re currently in some season of abundant self-control, you’re going to feel great using James’ measuring rod. But just wait, because that season is going to come to an end. When it does, if you’ve bought into James’ salvation verification program, you’re going to end up in a major crisis. After all, real Christians are DOERS, not sitters. Real Christians are walking around in flesh that behaves in glaringly righteous ways. According to James, if you’re ACTING unsaved, you ARE unsaved. What do unsaved people do? They sin, of course. Are you sinning? Knock it off. Don’t try to tell us you’re serious about God while you’re looking at porn or shooting up or sleeping around. Don’t try to tell us you’ve really given your life to Christ while you’re sitting on your duff at home refusing to help out in Sunday School. Real Christians DO things. Real Christians ACT. If we can’t all see behavioral evidence of your love for God with our physical eyes, then clearly you’re just a hypocrite who is on your way to Hell. This is what James is going to try and tell us in this letter.

THE AUTHOR

So who was James? The common assumption is that he was one of Jesus’ earthly brothers. Jesus had many siblings, both sisters and brothers (Mark 6:3). In Matthew 13:55, at least four of His brothers are mentioned by name: James, Joseph, Simon and Judas. It’s commonly assumed that the James listed here is the same James who wrote the epistle of James later on. If this is true, then it looks like James did not become a Christian until after Jesus resurrected.

THE DATE

Of all the books in the New Testament, James’ epistle is the oldest, written perhaps as early as A.D. 45—less than fifteen years after the ascension of Christ and before the first council in Jerusalem in A.D. 50.

THE AUDIENCE

The introduction of James’ book tells us that he is speaking to Jewish Christians—those who have grown up under Old Covenant theology. This is very significant, for under the Old Covenant, salvation was not a permanent deal. Believers had to stay faithful to Yahweh in their hearts. If they started out pursuing God only to later turn away from Him on a soul level, Yahweh promised them eternal damnation.

Now what Christians don’t understand today is that salvation has NEVER come through works. It has always been by grace alone. No one has ever “earned” God’s favor by perfectly adhering to His moral code. By sticking us in these depraved bodies, Yahweh has made perfect moral behavior impossible for us to achieve. He then demands it from us, and this results in an immediate crisis as we come to the obvious conclusion that God is impossible to please. And yet…is He?

THE THEOLOGY

Growing up under New Covenant theology has its disadvantages. Christians are notorious for completely missing the grace that is such a prevalent theme throughout the Old Testament. Today we look back on the Old Covenant and say “Yahweh used to demand perfect behavior from people before He would save them. Thank goodness we live under grace. Salvation is so much easier since Christ came.” Well, no, this is simply not true. Yahweh has never required perfect behavior from us before He will save us. He only demands perfect behavior from us on paper: in the Laws which He instructed Moses to write down, there were endless demands for perfection. Yet in the practice of those Laws, Yahweh never required perfection. On the contrary, He judged people solely by their soul’s response to Him. Those who lived under the Old Covenant and were sincerely seeking God all grew to understand this. This is why we find so many joyous songs in the book of Psalms praising Yahweh’s Laws as laws which lead to life, joy, and peace. When Christians read through the Old Covenant Laws today, they feel oppressed and guilty. Yet this is not how guys like David, Josiah, and Daniel felt. When we read about Yahweh’s obedient followers in the Old Testament, we don’t find a bunch of guilt ridden souls who are despairing of ever being good enough. On the contrary, we find men who are confident of their right standing with Yahweh.

If God knows we can’t overcome our flesh and force it to meet His demands for perfect moral behavior, why does He make such demands of us? To force us to settle into the correct position with Him. We are LOWER than God, not His equals. We are His DEPENDENTS, not His masters. We are His DEBTORS, not His deserving. God wants us to see ourselves as dearly loved by Him, but not as amazingly deserving of that love. God wants us to see His love as a voluntary choice on His part, not as something He gives us only to get something that He needs back from us.

Humans give to get. Humans are dependent on each other to satisfy their endless needs. But God doesn’t need anything from us. When we view His love as something we can control, we are grossly misunderstanding it. When we think God loves us because He’s so impressed by our righteousness, we end up trying to relate to Him on the wrong basis. We must SUBMIT to God as the utterly dependent and powerless creatures that we are. By demanding the impossible from us, God helps us to swiftly come to a realization of our own limitations. If we are going to succeed with Him, we must agree to relate to Him on HIS terms, and that means not treating Him like our equal.

This is where human pride enters into it, for we humans don’t like the revelation that we are tiny specks who can’t do anything good without the help of our magnificent Maker. We don’t like the idea of never getting glory for the things He does through us. We don’t like the idea of never being able to do anything good on our own. Here is where we start refusing to face the glaring evidence of our own limitations that God’s moral Law thrusts into our faces. Under both the Old and New Covenants, we find scores of souls who intentionally deny their dependency on God to do anything good. The Pharisees of old claimed to be morally perfect by their own carnal striving, and thus intrinsically deserving of Divine approval. Today, scores of New Covenant believers make the same obnoxious claims. Once we start trying to downplay our own depravity, we are heading down the road of prideful arrogance. Once we start pointing to our many good works as evidence of our right standing with God instead of focusing on reverential submission and humility, we fall prey to all sorts of delusions. God has always taught that salvation is a SOUL matter—it is a Divine reward for us having a correct INTERNAL response to God. Yet under both the Old and New Covenants, there have been scores of teachers who went around preaching that salvation is a matter of EXTERNAL actions, and that God judges us solely by our EXTERNAL behavior. Once we put the focus on BEHAVIOR instead of SOUL ATTITUDE, hypocrisy is swift to follow. Soon we have Old Covenant believers making a dramatic show out of their offerings to Yahweh, their religious fasting, and their public prayers. Then we have New Covenant believers boasting of how much they tithe, how many hours they spend in ministry, and how many times they’ve shared the Gospel with others. As soon as we turn the focus onto BEHAVIOR, the Church degrades into an ugly mess of carnal competition and boasting. How quickly we forget that God has always said righteous acts are WORTHLESS when our souls are clinging to rebellion. It is SOUL ATTITUDE which we are judged by—it is soul attitude which determines how God views our actions. So then, to thrive with God, we must align our priorities with His and remain focused on the soul while we let Him worry about corralling our flesh.

When our souls are right before God, will good works be present in our lives? Yes, but so will sin. God has no intention of ever fixing our flesh. It will always be depraved, and there will always be times when He lets it overpower us and drag us into all sorts of sordid activities which make our souls groan in repulsion. God says it is our souls that we are judged by, not our flesh. Yet guys like Paul and James and John want us to fixate on our flesh. “If your soul was right, your flesh would be, too,” they tell us. Such utter rot. This was not true under the Old Covenant, and it isn’t true now. God wants us to be stuck in depraved shells while we’re on this earth. We NEED to be trapped like this if we’re going to have any hope of learning humility and submission. Take the flesh away, and we’d all be prideful monsters. Even with our flesh continuously proving what wretches we are, look at how arrogant we are. Look how we constantly downplay our dependency on God. Look at how huffy we get when anyone points out how limited and pathetic we are.

As we go through James’ epistle, we need to be guarded about letting him sell us a revision of God’s judgement system. God says everything rises and falls on our soul’s response to Him. James will try to pollute this truth by putting far too much import on what the flesh is currently doing. As always, we must ask the Holy Spirit for discernment as we read and remember that HIS opinion is the only One that matters.

CHAPTER ONE

James, a slave of Yahweh and of the Lord Jesus Christ: To the twelve tribes who are dispersed abroad: Greetings. (Jam. 1:1)

Here we realize that this letter is going to be one Jewish Christian speaking to other Jewish Christians. Both our author and his target audience have grown up under Old Covenant theology, and none of them have been Christians for very long given the probable date of James’ writing.

Consider it a great joy, my brothers, whenever you experience various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. But endurance must do its complete work, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing. (Jam. 1:2-4)

James is believed to have been a key leader in the Christian church based out of Jerusalem. Jerusalem was filled with zealous Old Covenant Jews who considered Jewish Christians to be the ultimate form of blasphemy. Let’s remember New Testament Jews weren’t hung up on this guff about the Trinity—that absurd theory would be added to the Church’s pile of delusional doctrines centuries later. In these times, everyone understands that God is not “three in one.” God is One, as far as Old Covenant Jews are concerned, and His Name is Yahweh. Jesus was that brazen upstart who came along claiming to be a SECOND GOD—Yahweh’s equal, no less. As far as Old Covenant believers are concerned, Jesus was a demon-possessed blasphemer who deserved to be crucified. They totally reject the absurd rumors that Jesus came back from the dead—no, that had to just be some wild tale that His disillusioned followers came up with. What matters is that Yahweh has said that to worship any other God but Him is sacrilege. Christian Jews are worshiping MULTIPLE Gods—Yahweh, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. These Jews are a disgrace to Israel, and they all deserve to be exterminated. This was the acrid attitude towards Jewish Christians living in Jerusalem. And then there was the mutual hatred between ethnic Jews and the Roman Empire which resulted in constant bloody feuds. So when James mentions “various trials”, he’s talking to folks who are getting pounded on all sides. They are being ostracized by both foreigners and their own countrymen. It’s no fun being a Jewish Christian in Jerusalem at this time.

And yet, James offers hope. He says that all this persecution has an upside: it will result in maturity. That’s certainly worth something. After all, Yahweh doesn’t just want His followers to stagnate, He wants them to be ever growing and maturing into a people who will make Him proud. James urges his fellow Jews to have hope: God is in the mess with them, and He’ll cause it all to work out for their good somehow someway.

Now if any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask Yahweh, who gives to all generously and without criticizing, and it will be given to him. But let him ask in faith without doubting. For the doubter is like the surging sea, driven and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. An indecisive man is unstable in all his ways. (Jam. 1:5-8)

It doesn’t take long for James to show his lack of sympathy for the human condition. Like John, James sets impossible demands on how other Christians should behave, while conveniently ignoring the fact that he is failing his own standards. After all, what human on the planet never succumbs to doubt? Doubting is a part of the human condition. To try and say that faith can exist apart from doubt is utterly ludicrous, for faith only becomes a valid topic once we are speaking of unsure things. Do you say “I have faith that I exist?” No, you say, “I KNOW that I am real.” You can touch yourself, and there you are. With so much sensual evidence bombarding you about the truth of your existence, there is no need for faith. We reserve the term “faith” for things that we struggle to believe—for things that we cannot prove with sensual evidence. How do you know that God is with you? How do you know that “voice” that you hear answering you in your head isn’t just your own wishful thinking? Where there is faith, there is always some measure of doubt, no matter how small. Faith is the struggle to believe something which we feel is being disproved to us through the usual channels of confirmation. If you could see God and reach out and touch Him, you would say, “I know that God is with me.” As soon as the element of doubt is eliminated through sensual confirmation, we change our language to reflect absolute certainty. You don’t have faith that you’re hungry, you know that you are. You don’t have faith that you’re holding a cup of coffee in your hand, you know that you are. But because you can’t see God, suddenly there is an element of doubt. Suddenly we can come up with a thousand theories to explain away all the “evidence” you try to come up with that the God you’re believing in is the real God. You point to Creation and say, “I know God is real because all of this exists.” But then we can say, “All of this was put here by an entirely different god than the One you believe in.” How can you refute this claim with absolute certainty? Because of some warm fuzzy feeling you get when you pray? We can explain that away as a convenient surge of mood enhancing hormones.

Where there is faith, there is a measure of doubt. Where there is no doubt, we don’t use the term “faith” and we don’t talk about “believing”, we talk about “knowing” instead. So for James to say you must have faith without doubt is ludicrous. You can’t have faith without doubt. As soon as you’re dealing with a topic which requires an element of faith—and everything about God requires faith—then there will be an element of doubt. This is basic faith mechanics. So no, you’re not some spiritual flop because part of you is waffling in doubt when you pray to God. It’s more like God is giving you kudos for trying to hold on in the face of all that doubt.

Listen to how viciously James condemns the Christian who struggles with doubt:

For the doubter is like the surging sea, driven and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. An indecisive man is unstable in all his ways. (Jam. 1:6-8)

According to James, if you doubt at all, you’re some loser who is unstable in every area of life. You can’t be counted on for anything. You’re a total zero and God isn’t about to give you one ounce of help. Well, no, God is not such a merciless Ogre. While James is trying to feign ignorance about the human condition and tell himself that he is beyond doubt—which is an absolute crock—God doesn’t play such ridiculous games. He understands how frail and fickle we are because He made us that way on purpose. He understands how hard it is for us to struggle to believe in a God we can’t sensually interact with. God is the One who made senses so important to us—He’s the One who put us down in a physical dimension where relying on sensual feedback is critical to survival. Then He challenges us to relate to Him: a non-physical Being who refuses to show up in some handy three dimensional form. It is HARD to develop confidence and faith in an alien Being who behaves in such mysterious ways. God could make Himself a whole lot easier to relate to, yet He intentionally makes things difficult. And because He makes things difficult, He gives major points to those who try to pursue Him in spite of His stubborn refusal to communicate with them in a way that they could easily understand.

What’s fun about pursuing a God who you know could reassure you of His love for you, yet consistently chooses not to? God is not easy to relate to. Countless Christians have cried tears of frustration when God refuses to break His silence with them or provide much needed direction or give some crumb of sensual reassurance that He really does care that they are alive on the planet. This is real life, but it’s a part of life that Christians are taught not to talk about. Guys like James teach us to feel bad if we’re honest about our struggles with God—heck, to even have struggles makes us failures in James’ book. If we’re not singing continuous praise-alluyahs through the hard times, then we’re shamefully lacking. Well, no, this is utter rot.

God is not the miser of compassion and mercy that James is. God doesn’t expect quivering leaves like us to morph into towers of steel before we dare to speak His Name. God loves creatures who are bumbling, stumbling messes. Humans beings are a frail, fearful lot. To try and make us feel bad about this is like telling a dog he’s flawed for having four legs. The dog can’t change his anatomy, and we can’t change the fact that we are frail and fearful. What does it tell us about God that He created a race of impotent wimps and then died for them on a cross? It tells us that wimpy is what He wants. Fragile is what He loves taking care of. So, yes, you’re going to do a whole lot of doubting in your discussions with God. And when you come to Him with some anxious, fear-filled question, He’s going to pull you up onto His lap and hold you close, not throw something at you and drive you out of the room with angry shouts.

Believers who are poor have something to boast about, for God has honored them. And those who are rich should boast that God has humbled them. They will fade away like a little flower in the field. For the sun rises with its scorching heat and dries up the grass; its flower falls off, and its beautiful appearance is destroyed. In the same way, the rich man will wither away while pursuing his activities. (Jam. 1:9-11)

Later on in this letter, James is going to lecture his audience about not looking down on others because of their economic status, yet that is exactly what he’s doing in this passage. What’s with this hostility towards rich people? It’s not a sin to be rich, and it’s not a badge of honor to be poor. King David, Job, Abraham and Daniel were all rolling in wealth and living in luxury, yet all of these men were very pleasing to God. King Solomon and King Ahab were rich as well, yet they disgusted God. Elisha was dirt poor yet pleasing to God. His servant Gehazi was just as poor as his master yet he ended up getting cursed by God. How much money you have has nothing do with your spiritual standing with God. James has no justification for bagging on the rich, and he’s being ridiculous to talk as if the rich are the only ones who will fade away like flowers in a field. All humans will fade out in such a manner. As Yahweh said through the prophet Isaiah:

All flesh is grass, and all its loveliness is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of Yahweh blows upon it; surely the people are grass. (Isa. 40:6-7)

A man who endures trials is blessed, because when he passes the test he will receive the crown of life that Yahweh has promised to those who love Him. (Jam. 1:12)

What happens to the guys who flunk the test? What does it mean to pass and fail tests of trials anyway? We need to be clear on our understanding of these things, for its comments like this that cause us to start worrying that God will disown us the moment we crumble into a carnal puddle of angry protests. Let’s remember that God knows we are dust. He also knows that we can’t endure bumpkus without His constant empowerment, and constant empowerment to sail through our trials gracefully just isn’t always going to happen. In real life, there will be times we sail, and times we crash and burn. It doesn’t mean we’re failing. Remember that God judges us by our SOULS, not our flesh. Your flesh doesn’t have much patience with being persecuted. Your flesh says NO to anything that makes your flesh uncomfortable. But at the same time, you’re not getting off of this rock until God lets you. As tempting as it is to think we can end our own lives when the valleys come, the reality is that no one leaves this planet ahead of schedule. God is the One who separates soul from flesh, and He is going to keep us down here as long as He feels it is productive to do so. Whether you go out with a cheer or a snivel, it won’t be your glorious perseverance that gets you into Heaven. It’s going to be how your soul responded to your Creators.

No one undergoing a trial should say, “I am being tempted by Yahweh.” For Yahweh is not tempted by evil, and He Himself doesn’t tempt anyone. But each person is tempted when he is drawn away and enticed by his own evil desires. Then after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and when sin is fully grown, it gives birth to death. (Jam. 1:13-15)

What a bunch of hooey. If Yahweh isn’t involved in your temptation, then He is no longer the Sovereign King that He claims to be. You can’t have it both ways. Yahweh says that no one moves a molecule in this universe without His express permission and assistance. But James wants our flesh with all of its carnal desires to exist in some autonomous dimension where it can act totally independently of God. Utter baloney. It is God who lets demons have at us, it is God who arranges our circumstances and chooses what our experiences in life will be. When some sexy woman comes along thrusting her half-covered cleavage in a Christian man’s face, the only reason that man is going to feel turned on in his body is because God has created his flesh to have an intense desire for forbidden fruits. The Christian man might be happily married and want nothing to do with lust in his soul, yet his righteous intentions aren’t going to make his sex drive evaporate or change the lusts of his flesh. In such a scenario, we can hardly say the man is tempting himself. We are spiritual beings trapped in fallen earthsuits. The man’s earthsuit is being riled up by a woman who is intentionally provoking it. Undoubtedly there are also demons involved, trying to get the humans to sink to the lowest level possible. And where is God in all of this? Off in another universe pretending not to notice? Certainly not. God is right there in the middle of it, restraining the demons, deciding how long the woman can play her games, and rationing the man’s self-control.

It is only by the grace of God that we ever withstand temptation. It is due to the depravity of our flesh that we find evil so attractive in the first place. So yes, God is most certainly the Source of our temptation. If it exists, it comes from God—that’s what it means when we say that God is the Maker and Sustainer of all things. As much as James and many other Christians want to keep God’s hands totally unsoiled by evil, such thinking is a complete rejection of what God Himself says.

“The One forming light and creating darkness, causing well-being and creating calamity; I am Yahweh who does all these.” (Isa. 45:7)

“I kill, and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and there is no one who can deliver from My hand.” (Deut. 32:39)

“I have created the blacksmith who fans the coals beneath the forge and makes the weapons of destruction. And I have created the armies that destroy.” (Isa. 54:16)

God’s sovereignty is an essential doctrine. You aren’t going to get far in the faith pretending that God suddenly disappears whenever evil shenanigans are going on. Of course Satan would love you to glorify him as the one who is in charge down here, and guys like the apostle Paul will encourage you to think this way. But our Gods teach that THEY are the Ones controlling evil down here, and the sooner we face this truth, the better (see Understanding the Limits of Satan’s Power).

Let’s think about this pat little formula that James puts out:

But each person is tempted when he is drawn away and enticed by his own evil desires. Then after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and when sin is fully grown, it gives birth to death. (Jam. 1:14-15)

Since every sinner in the world isn’t keeling over dead, it’s clear James is talking about spiritual death here. According to God, it is our sin which condemns us in His sight, for we have all failed miserably at satisfying His demands for perfect behavior. Jesus helps us see this with His famous zinger from the Sermon on the Mount:

“But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in Heaven is perfect.” (Matt. 5:48)

Are you as perfect as Yahweh? The answer is obvious. It’s your failure to be perfect that Yahweh says makes you condemned in His sight. It’s your reverential submission to the Authority of all three of your Creators that gets you un-condemned. Perfect behavior has nothing to do with salvation. Eternal condemnation begins with wrong behavior, but it is sealed by spiritual rebellion. We’re all born into sin—meaning that we’re all born with depraved flesh that is running amuck on us. We all start off lying in cribs screaming for services, and we go on screaming until our guardians start doling out the discipline. Yet when a sinful child dies before ever understanding about who Jesus is and what salvation means, does that child’s sin land him in Hell? No. If we die before God considers us morally accountable to Him, we are graciously received into Heaven. So then, it isn’t our sin which lands us on the wrong side of eternity, but our soul’s willful refusal to submit to the Authority of our Creators. We can’t refuse to submit to Them until we know who They are. It is the Holy Spirit who illuminates our minds with spiritual truths. It is only our INFORMED rejection of our Makers which lands us in Hell. Salvation is a SOUL matter. We are judged by our SOULS, not our flesh.

Don’t be deceived, my dearly loved brothers. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. (Jam. 1:16-17)

It’s always ironic when a guy who is lying to you about how God operates tells you not to be deceived. This passage is a continuation of James’ claim that Yahweh has nothing to do with evil. It’s only the good and perfect gifts that James wants to attribute to God. Well, all the nasty and evil gifts come from God as well. God is the Creator and Sustainer of ALL THINGS.

“The One forming light and creating darkness, causing well-being and creating calamity; I am Yahweh who does all these.” (Isa. 45:7)

We don’t find Yahweh trying to divorce Himself from evil in the Old Testament. We don’t find Jesus cringing at the thought of torturing people in Hell or tearing them apart on earth. In Revelation 14, we read about the winepress of God’s wrath—a figurative metaphor which Yahweh liked to use in the Old Testament as well. The image of stomping the juice out of grapes to make wine was a very familiar one to ancient agricultural people. Well, guess who gets to play the part of the grapes in God’s winepress of wrath?

They were trampled in the winepress outside the city, and blood flowed out of the winepress as high as horses’ bridles for a distance of about one hundred eighty miles. (Rev. 14:20)

Grapes don’t bleed. We humans are the ones getting stomped on in Revelation, and Jesus is the One doing the stomping.

Coming out of His mouth is a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. “He will rule them with an iron scepter.” He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty. (Rev. 19:15)

It’s all fine to talk about Yahweh being “the Father of lights” as long as we don’t start pretending that He’s not also “the Father of darkness.” It’s fine to talk about God blessing you, as long as you don’t start acting like He had nothing to do with your miseries. Our Creators take major offense at us trying to pretend They are less sovereign than They are.

Yahweh chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of first fruits of all that He created. (Jam. 1:18)

James is part of the first wave of New Covenant believers. He rightly recognizes that it is a gift to be given spiritual illumination by Yahweh. And while God has already made it clear that we humans are the element of this Creation that He prizes most, being among the first of those to switch over to Yahweh’s New Covenant is also an exciting privilege.

My dearly loved brothers, understand this: Everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger, for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of Yahweh. Therefore, ridding yourselves of all moral filth and evil, humbly receive the implanted word, which is able to save you. (Jam. 1:19-21)

Whenever someone starts talking like your depraved nature is something you can wash away in the bathtub, you know you’re listening to a fool. You can’t just decide to ditch the evil that lurks within you. But you can choose to be receptive to the Holy Spirit with your soul and that is what matters. God judges us by our soul’s response to Him, not by our behavioral perfection.

But be doers of the word and not merely hearers who delude themselves. 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 one who looks intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty, and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer, this man will be blessed in what he does. (Jam. 1:22-25)

Because Christians call their modern two-testament Bible “The Word”, they tend to misread passages like this. James had never heard of the Bible you use today. There was no New Testament in his day, and when ancient Jews talk about “the word”, they are talking about the SPOKEN words of God. What James is talking about here is spiritual illumination. When God shows you something, you need to pay attention and act on it. Well, yes, this is a given. But the problem is that whenever we think of “doing”, our focus turns back to the flesh.

It is actually your soul that needs to be doing. When the Holy Spirit convicts you that you need to reverentially submit to Jesus as your God and Savior, your soul needs to act on that conviction by choosing to submit. It’s not about behavior, it’s about soul response. When the Holy Spirit tells you that something you did was wrong, you need to act on that conviction by agreeing with Him in your soul. Now your flesh won’t agree with God’s convictions—your flesh loves to sin and when God has a problem with this, your flesh is going to tell God to stuff it. But you aren’t judged by your flesh, only by your soul. It’s when your soul starts getting attitudinal with God and telling the Holy Spirit to go away that you’re going to get in trouble. When your soul chooses to stay in alignment with God by agreeing with His convictions and embracing the truths He reveals to you, then God will be pleased with you.

Now when our souls long to please God, they are very repulsed by the depravity of our flesh. We want to do right behaviorally, but we don’t always have the resources to follow through. That’s alright, because we are judged by our souls (see Pleasing God When You Can’t Control Your Flesh).

There are many people going around telling themselves that they are in a good place with God when they’re really not. This happens today, and it happened under the Old Covenant as well. We end up in this deluded position by hearing the convictions of the Holy Spirit, yet refusing to accept them. Instead, we willfully reject them. And by the way, when it comes to God, there is no neutral position. You are either saying “yes” or you are saying “no”. So while James makes the “hearers” sound like a passive crowd who are simply failing to obey, in God’s eyes, such people are willfully choosing to reject Him. As soon as God starts talking to us, we are held accountable by our response to Him, and we are ALWAYS responding. There’s no such thing as a soul not hearing God when He speaks, for God knows how to make Himself heard. It’s impossible to take a passive stand with God. You’re either embracing Him, or you’re shoving Him away. It’s very possible to be shoving God away in our souls, yet calling ourselves Christians and doing a bunch of good works in our bodies. Jesus shocks us in the Gospel by saying that there will be MANY souls in eternity who have deluded themselves into thinking they are saved when they really aren’t. Talk about a grim surprise.

But the truly happy people are those who carefully study God’s perfect law that makes people free, and they continue to study it. They do not forget what they heard, but they obey what God’s teaching says. Those who do this will be made happy. (Jam. 1:25)

Understanding when James is writing makes this statement very problematic. When a New Testament Jew refers to God’s Law, they are talking about the Torah: the first five books of our Old Testament. The prophet Moses is credited with writing those books, and Exodus through Deuteronomy outline Yahweh’s Covenant with Israel. To instruct Christians to pour over these Laws and strive to obey them is completely wrong. Yahweh has torn up the old contract and drafted a new one through Christ. We are no longer supposed to be avoiding certain foods, presenting sacrifices to God, or calling certain people unclean. Certainly we can learn a lot of valuable insights about who God is and what His priorities are by studying His Old Covenant Laws. But trying to keep them all to the letter? Not hardly.

If anyone thinks he is religious without controlling his tongue, then his religion is useless and he deceives himself. Pure and undefiled religion before our God and Father is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world. (Jam. 1:26-27)

What’s with this sudden emphasis on the tongue? Once again, notice how absurd James gets with his extreme views. If you can’t control your tongue, then your entire belief system is a deception? What kind of sense does this make? So if a Christian has a problem with gossiping, everything he believes about Christ is wrong? Not hardly. Our level of mastery over the moveable muscle in our mouth is hardly the thing that determines the validity of our belief. James is talking like a complete dingdong here. In Chapter 3, he’s going to tell us:

But no one can tame the tongue; it is a restless evil and full of deadly poison. (Jam. 3:8)

So if no one can tame their tongue, we’re all deceiving ourselves about what we believe?? This is just ridiculous doubletalk from a man who has some pretty farfetched ideas about what human beings are capable of. According to James, we can just do away with all of our depravity, control our tongues, and never doubt while we keep ourselves utterly unstained by the world. Feeling discouraged yet?

Let’s review what the markers of condemnation and conviction are. When God speaks to us, we feel encouraged, inspired, and hopeful in our walks with Him. When demons speak, we feel beat down, flawed, and failing. How is James hitting you so far? Are you feeling like the instruction being dished out in this chapter is putting success with God well within your grasp or do you feel like James has just raised the bar of success into the stratosphere? You’re never going to be able to do what James is telling these Jewish Christians to do. James isn’t even doing what James is saying to do. James is so delusional about his own righteousness that he can’t even see it. If he had any grasp of his own depravity, he’d realized that he is miserably flunking every test for success that he’s coming up with. You can’t just swallow whatever the New Testament writers dish out. As we learned in our study of Hebrews, the early apostles have some very delusional ideas about how the New Covenant operates. Their theology is filled with lies, their teaching is filled with condemnation, and if you don’t stick close to the Holy Spirit, you’re going to have your confidence in God blasted to pieces by this five chapter grenade that we call the book of James.

UP NEXT: Applying James 2: Faith without Works is Dead

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