Christianity is Not a Syllabus: Reflection on James 1

“Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.” – James 1:19 (ESV)

Few things intimidate me more than a syllabus. I’ll never forget the first time I read the required reading material, assignments, and overall tone set for the Entrepreneurial Process course I took in college. I considered dropping the course before it started. The thought of earning a grade by completing the daunting tasks outlined in that entirely too long packet sucked the confidence out of my mind and the energy from my body. I surely couldn’t live up to those standards.

The first chapter of James reminds me of how I felt after reading that syllabus. Verse two delves into the matter of trials to come, and it only gets more demanding from there. Seek wisdom. Don’t doubt. Be humble. Persevere. Be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry. Be rid of evil. Obey commands. Keep a tight reign on your tongue. Look after orphans and widows. Don’t be polluted by the world.

The content of this chapter snowballs into what can feel like a daunting list of what is required to be a Christian. Chapter two even tells us faith without works is dead. So much emphasis on works seems contradictory to the Gospel of salvation by grace through faith—why is there seemingly such contradiction from the book of James?

I’ve struggled a lot with the pressing temptation to strive for perfection, do all that is asked of me, and find no fault in myself. However, that expectation is hardly realistic, dangerously arrogant, and not at all Biblical. The understanding of the Gospel with which we approach the book of James affects the way we perceive the commands we find in it. The lens through which we read it enlightens our understanding of living out the Christian life.

This book does not assert we earn our faith, or our salvation, by our works. It rather suggests works stem from true faith, almost like an inevitable byproduct of faith. Salvation by grace through faith precedes these works, and we are enabled by the grace of God, not our own strength, to obey his commands. As God works in our lives, his grace gives us the strength we need to do the things he has called us to do. Our works are fueled by God’s love, not dripping with our own striving.

New City talks a lot about rest. We take off Sabbath Sundays, make rest a point of conversation, and even include it in our core values. I used to think rest had only to do with taking time off work and making space for God, which is true and good, but I’ve learned rest can mean more than that. Living in rest means trusting in what God has already done for us and in us, knowing the good we do is a response to our rescue, not the means for it. When we live in rest, we need no further justification. We trust in God’s saving power and in his strength, which gives us the energy we need to do the kinds of things James calls us to do.

It may seem intimidating to receive all these mandates in the first chapter of a book that says so much about the validity of our faith. James, however, holds rich instruction for demonstrating our love for God. As we choose continually to die to ourselves and worship God through our actions, we learn to further depend on his strength to continue in relationship with him.

 

Rachel Smith, New City Stories Contributor