One of the saddest phone calls I have ever received came from an elder at another church; he barely knew me but was searching for help. His church was without a pastor at that time. The board of elders had interviewed a man and had voted to recommend calling this candidate. Only one elder had dissented, and he had asked his fellow elders to postpone action for one week of further consideration and prayer. The elders had agreed to this reasonable request. However, now it appeared that the one dissenting elder had used that week to begin a campaign of criticisms against the pastoral candidate within the congregation. The church became deeply torn with fears and passionate opinions. By the time the issue came before a larger meeting of church members, there was such rage and shouting that the elder who was phoning me, and who had moderated the meeting, said to me painfully, "I found myself wondering, `Are these Christian people? Are these believers?' " He was agonizing over his divided church and asking for counsel.
Suppose this elder could call a meeting of the congregation to receive spiritual counsel from the apostle James. The people of the church would find him a tough realist. We like to think of ourselves as wise, and we are quick to justify our own role in conflicts. But James is exactly the kind of counselor we need—one who will not let us deceive ourselves and who will bring clarity to the complex issues. For Christians who want to learn true spirituality, James cuts to the heart of the matter.
We will miss the point if we do not recognize the continuity of thought between the previous section and this one. James has just given his readers a sobering picture: the certainty of judgment and their vulnerability in that judgment because of the terrible evil they do with their speech. It leads to one of the most fundamental questions of life anyone must face: How can I hope to purify my behavior (such as my speech) when it flows from my corrupt inward character? How can my heart be changed from its selfishness? Is there any hope?
James writes now about this hope: that there is a spirituality available from God. This is to be distinguished from Paul's focus in Romans 3. Paul would write about the impossibility of attaining a righteous standing before God by self-reliant observance of the law—and then about "a righteousness from God, apart from law" through Jesus Christ. James is writing about the impossibility of living the Christian life (for example, controlling our tongues) by our own resources—and then about a spirituality that comes from God. Aspects of this spirituality will include gaining wisdom from God, asking for provision from God, living in friendship with God, drawing near to God and being lifted up by God. It is all from God; it is all attained by reliance on God; it is a spirituality that comes because God "gives us more grace" (4:6). Though his focus is different from Paul's in Romans 3, James's message is just as much a message of God's grace.
James develops this message by asking a series of three questions, which introduce the three sections of this passage.
IVP New Testament Commentaries are made available by the generosity of InterVarsity Press.