Douglas Webster is very helpful in telling us to see James as a "spiritual director" for the church. James's counsel for the church goes beyond superficialities and guides the church into holiness in its internal relationships. "True spiritual direction not only challenges; it comforts" (Webster 1991:18), and this section of the epistle is a fine example. James is faithful to confront sinful motives and evil practices, and he is equally clear about the promise of God's grace.
There should be no denying our need for James's instruction. It is all too easy to find examples such as the troubled church I described at the beginning of this section. Unspiritual wisdom, selfish fighting and unkind judging are all too common within our churches. Christians' experience of this is disheartening and disillusioning, undermining the health and vision of our churches. James helps us recognize the source of all this in our own sinfulness—not to leave us in deeper despair over it, but that we may humble ourselves before the Lord and find grace for change. Contemporary teaching from this passage must not be timid about confronting the specific sins; the harm being done to the church is too large to avoid it. At the same time, teaching from this passage must not omit the promise of the generous grace of God; our need for that grace is too desperate.
We have found judging in James's text to refer to the act of setting oneself up as a judge and lawgiver, as if one had the authority to determine what is right or wrong about another person's life. I observe it to happen in the church today with particular frequency in three areas: judging the motives behind others' words or actions in church business, judging how others spend money and judging how others are rearing their children. Judgmentalism needs to be confronted in specific areas such as these, so that we can see how we are doing it. We make judgments about others when we have listened and understood too little about them. James wrote earlier in the epistle, "Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry."
Whether it is studied in a small group, taught in a class or preached to a congregation, this word of God has been properly used if it leads the particular Christian community to repentance in personal relationships. This repentance will include several components:
1. Self-examination. James's word, properly applied, will move people to cut through self-justifying claims and accepted patterns to look beneath the surface. We will scrutinize our ways of relating. How are our relationships functioning? What are our underlying attitudes and motives toward each other?
2. Evaluation by God's standards. James's emphasis is on being doers of the law, and he identifies specifics of the law, including purity, peace, submissiveness, mercy, impartiality and sincerity. These will be taken seriously as the standards of holiness in application of this word. For example, in our church one of our relationship mottoes is "Talk to each other, not about each other."
3. Change. In repentance according to James's message, people will be growing. There should be an increasing measure of the specifics of the royal law in the way people treat each other.
4. Grace-reliance. It is woven throughout the passage that we need to learn to rely on God. God's grace gives wisdom from above; our fights are unnecessary and evil because they express our self-reliance instead of grace-reliance; God gives grace to the humble. The trait of humility before God and before each other is therefore emphasized repeatedly. Grace-reliance is the most far-reaching, life-changing, radical stance we need to learn.
IVP New Testament Commentaries are made available by the generosity of InterVarsity Press.