The silence was broken by a request from the teacher—would anyone like to make a suggestion for what to study next? One woman hesitantly raised her hand: “Now that we’ve studied Romans, I think I’m ready to study Romans.” Everyone knew what she meant. We wished we had known what we knew now when we started Romans. The perspective we now had on the entire book would’ve given great clarity in the beginning. Many details we wrestled with early on fell away in importance in light of the overall message of the gospel. The time spent together in Romans was so life-changing, it was hard to imagine moving on to anything else.
This is how I feel now about the book of James. 2010 was an extremely difficult year for me. Trials came in waves. Each new wave made the last one seem like child’s play. For my own benefit, I decided to do a personal study on the book of James. James is famous for his call to believers to “consider it pure joy. . .whenever you face trials of many kinds” (James 1:2). But I wanted more from James. I wanted him to tell me how. I settled in to his epistle for as long as it would take. The best way for me to describe that year? I feel like I moved in with a prophet.
What does it mean to move in with a prophet? In this case, it meant that James was with me every waking hour. When I was folding laundry, he was there. When I was wrestling with quarrelsome thoughts or anger, he was there. When I was locked in the bathroom to have a good cry, he was there. I learned to read James repetitively. It was hard for the Word of God to implant unless I mulled it over in my mind—unless I meditated on it until it took root. I learned to think about it, even while I was doing the most mundane things like washing dishes or taking a shower. I learned to approach Scripture with low expectations of myself (to understand its message or apply it to my life) but high expectations that it is powerful enough to change me—even if I comprehend only a little of what I take in.
Sometimes Christians read their Bibles and pray because that’s what they are supposed to do rather than reading and praying because they actually believe there’s power there. I have learned that the Lord reveals His Word as He wants to reveal it. I can’t make it implant. However, I can look intently into James’s letter at any time I want and find something there. I have been exhorted, comforted, amazed, brought to tears, and had my eyes opened to my sin. I have seen the beauty of true humility where previously a tremendous amount of pride existed. I have learned to read repetitiously not because I should do it, but because I am needy, blind and thick-headed.
When I first moved in with James, I didn’t know how well we would get along. You see James has this reputation of being all about suffering well, controlling tongues and practical Christian living. Practicality in Christian circles has come to mean that it’s time to get out pens and paper and write down a list of what we are supposed to do. But I’m not so good with rules. Guilt doesn’t motivate me for long. I don’t suffer well, and my tongue gets me into trouble all the time. When James moved in with me, I expected a daily hand-slap and an exhortation to DO better.
My past experiences with James have come in the form of lessons from other people interpreting the book for me. I recall a lesson here on taming tongues, and a lesson there on the importance of caring for widows and orphans. Whenever you break up a book of the Bible into pieces, this is what it can become—lessons in moral living. And so, for a week or two I worked on suffering well. I’d get that ball in the air, when the lesson on anger came around. Then there were two balls in the air. Each week a new ball was added to the mix until sooner or later, I couldn’t keep up with all the areas of my life that needed work. Eventually all the balls dropped and I found myself under the covers just trying to believe that Christ can accept me. Turns out, He does His best work on me when I’m hiding under the covers clinging to His righteousness instead of my own (2 Corinthians 12:9).
It is necessary to break up books of the Bible into pieces over time. It is valuable to investigate every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. But in the process, we can’t lose sight of the overall message or turn it into something that it’s not. The book of James is a real letter written to real people who were suffering real pain. It was meant to be read (and applied) in its entirety. On this side of my study, I see that James was never intended to be a book of how-tos for believers to successfully keep all the balls in the air. On the contrary, James spent the first three chapters saying: We are an absolute mess! The solution he gave was not a moral list of do-betters (have you noticed he gives no steps to controlling the tongue, but instead claims that it can’t be done?). Yes, even James gives Jesus as the only solution to our sin: “but He gives us more grace” (James 4:6).
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