In my last post, I discussed Paul’s teaching that we are justified by faith and faith alone. James 2:14-26 is often seen as a contradiction of Paul, but what James said was not directed at Paul, and for that matter what Paul said had not been directed at James. Paul was speaking to a group of people who felt that they could earn their righteousness by obeying the law to the letter, and often to the point of neglecting mercy and compassion. James was speaking to his brothers and sisters—those who already claimed to have a faith in God but were not showing it in their actions.
James is not saying that we need to have both faith and works in order to earn salvation. If that were the case, we would be claiming that Christ is not our only saviour, but that we are saviours for ourselves. This is not supported in the rest of scripture at all, and it is not what James is teaching either. Faith in Christ is all we need for salvation, but true faith is more than just saying so; it is more than just intellectual agreement. That is an essential first step, but it is not the last step. True faith naturally results in obedience to Christ, and in the character of Christ being displayed through us. Good works are the only way that other people will be able to see our faith.
If we were to go to court to claim our innocence in some matter, we would be judged on our actions; that is how the jury would decide if what we said is true. The same principle applies to our faith. Our actions are the evidence that shows the world that our faith is real. Good works are the fruit of the tree that has faith as its root. You are known by the fruit that you bear. (Matthew 12:33)
It is a case of what motivates us. Are we doing what we believe is right, as Paul’s audience was, because we are trying to earn gold stars, or are we doing what we believe God wants us to do because we love Him and want to serve Him? Ephesians 2:8-10 ties it all together for us. We are saved by faith, but we were designed to do good works.
I have come to realize that a major theme in James 1 is humility. James 1:12 tells us that we will be rewarded if we endure the testing that we face. What must we do to endure testing? We need to let go of our pride and our feelings of entitlement. How do you react when you face trials? I have to admit that I usually try to avoid them. I think it is quite common for people to pity themselves and want to escape the unpleasant circumstances that they are in. But the Bible tells us that we face testing to humble us, to strengthen us and to bring good to us. (Deuteronomy 8:16, James 1:2-4) A wise pastor once suggested that instead of lamenting our trials that we ask God what He wants us to learn from them. Candy Hemphill Christmas, founder of The Bridge Ministry has said that she has learned something about God—“that if you ask Him a question, He will answer. Now, you’re going to have to get ready for the answer, but He will answer. It might not be what you want to hear, but He will answer.” Are we willing to submit to God’s answer, to His plan? That takes humility.
I think it is natural for people to think that trials are a punishment from God. Job’s friends did, and so did Job’s wife. Job, on the other hand, asked why we should expect good things from God and not accept the bad. (Job 2:7-10). When God answered Job, (Job 40:1-14) He reminded him that there is a God, and Job isn’t Him. Neither are we. We need to trust God and His love for us. We need to trust what He tells us in Jeremiah 29:11, that His plan for our future is a good one. The trials that we face along the way are stepping stones to that good future. God is more interested in our character than He is in our accomplishments or wealth, and He can bring good from everything that happens to us. (Romans 8:28)
I wonder what would happen if we thanked God for our trials and looked for the lessons in them rather than complaining about our lot in life. Let’s try to focus on making the best of the present instead of wishing for something better in the future. Let’s see how we can help other people instead of throwing ourselves a pity party. Let’s trust God to bring good out of every circumstance in our lives.