First, a note on “Desire”: James 1:14-15 tells us that “one is tempted by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by it; then, when that desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and that sin, when it if fully grown, gives birth to death.” In many ways, this verse shares with a certain understanding of Buddhism what Mark Epstein, Buddhist and psychotherapist, calls “the demonization of desire” (Epstein, Open to Desire, 5). We can hear this in a verse from The Dhammapada: The rain could turn to gold and still your thirst would not be slaked. Desire is unquenchable, or it ends in tears, even in heaven(v. 186, tr. Thomas Byrom). On the other hand, Epstein is insightful in discussing the role of desire in Western culture. “The usual way of approaching desire in our culture… is to indulge it either mindlessly or guiltily” (5). The insight of Buddhism and of James is that desire indulged mindlessly becomes unquenchable, leads to death. Some could argue that both James and Buddhism, in response, argue for the complete elimination of desire. I argued against that in my earlier comments on these verses. Here I want to spell that out further as I think it has something important to say to our lives as Christians and can help us as we read on.
I have been greatly helped in all this by Mark Epstein’s work. There is more to desire than just suffering. There is a yearning that is as spiritual as it is sensual. Even when it degenerates into addiction, there is something salvageable from the original impulse that can only be described as sacred. Something in the person (dare we call it a soul?) wants to be free, and it seeks freedom any way it can…. There is a drive for transcendence that it implicit in even the most sensual of desires. While there are certainly currents in both Eastern and Western spiritual traditions that dismiss or denigrate desire, encouraging us to forsake it through renunciation or sublimation, there is another more controversial alternative…. Rather than treating it as the cause of suffering, desire is embraced as a valuable and precious resource, an emotion that, if harnessed correctly, can awaken and liberate the mind…. [One] must learn how to use desire instead of being used by it. (7-8)
Human desires are often intertwined, so interconnected that it is often difficult to disentangle them. So we often pursue one desire, thinking that we are pursuing another, and the end result is suffering, frustration, dissatisfaction. Desires so intertwined and interconnected, followed mindlessly, unquestioned, become insatiable, and the result of this endless pursuit of insatiable desire is something less than life as God intends it to be lived. If we are willing to interrogate our desires, query them, question them, hold them without clinging to them, we have the opportunity to follow them more healthfully and helpfully. Wisdom might be the ability to query desire, and follow desire to God who gives life.
James 2:1-13: Chapter one ended with a definition of pure religion – caring for the less fortunate and “keeping oneself unstained by the world.” One of the ways the world might affect us is in allowing the same partiality we find in the world in the church. Favoritism has been an issue throughout the history of the church – favoring the wealthy, the well-connected, or keeping the poor or the colored on the margins. The writer here is rhetorically brilliant – if you play favorites do you really believe in the Lord Jesus Christ? Powerful words. Playing favorites based on obvious outward distinctions is giving in to evil thoughts.
Not only is this giving in to evil thoughts, but it is to forget how often God uses the poor to be rich in God’s grace, to be at the heart of God’s kingdom. When paying excessive attention to the rich, we may be missing the very movement of God in the world. Furthermore, the rich are often the ones who oppress.
Rather than be partial toward the rich, the community of faith is to fulfill “the royal law” – “love your neighbor as yourself.” “Flattery and showing partiality toward the rich were expected behavior in the society of [James] day” (New Interpreters Study Bible). Given that societal pressure to show partiality, the writer strongly emphasizes the law of love. One may not murder anyone, or commit adultery, but failure to love is just as much missing God’s purpose as doing such things. Live as if you will be judged by this law of love. Mercy overcomes judgment, so be merciful.
James 2:14-26: Having taken up the importance of love, and of acting out love, the writer now moves to the topic of faith, and the importance of living out one’s faith. Some see these verses as opposed to Paul’s views on faith, but that misses the fact that each wrote in different contexts, and rather than arguing opposing positions, emphasized different sides of the message as needed in those distinct contexts. People who have been struggling to live their faith against difficult odds need to hear that it is God’s freely given love and grace which finally save, not one’s own efforts. At the same time, people also need to hear that faith that does not work through love is not a very lively faith. That is James’ emphasis. Faith lacking works, lacking loving action, is dead faith.
The real test of spiritual practice lies in the practitioner’s behavior. There is sometimes a tendency to think of the spiritual life as primarily introspective, divorced from the concerns of everyday life and society. This, I believe, is plainly wrong and is also rejected in this epistle. Faith that does not translate into actions is no faith at all. (Dalai Lama, Revelations, 361).
James makes his case as if arguing against an imaginary opponent who wants to argue that he can demonstrate faith apart from works. James argues that it is much easier to demonstrate faith by works, in fact, such a demonstration is necessary. Faith is brought to completion through works, it is not simply believing the right things. The theme of completion finds its way back into the letter – remember it was present in 1:4. I am reminded of some of the words of John Wesley. Neither does religion consist in orthodoxy, or right opinions (“The Way of the Kingdom,” sermon). In that sermon, Wesley goes on to argue that true religion consists in righteousness, peace and joy in God’s Spirit – righteousness including love for God and love for others, the latter meaning doing good to all persons.
James 3:1-12: The writer picks up a theme introduced in both chapters 1 and 2 – the need to discipline one’s speech. He begins by writing of those for whom speech is central to their vocation – teachers. “Teachers played an important role in the early church” (New Interpreters Study Bible). Those who teach will be judged “with greater strictness.” One probably thinks here of a final judgment, but the words hold true for judgments in the present time. Don’t we hold teachers and leaders to higher standards? Don’t we expect spiritual teachers to follow their own teachings?
Perfect control of speech would be perfect control of life, and none of us is there yet, the writer tells us. He goes on to discuss, using rich metaphors, the importance of the tongue and the need to control it. This theme is found in other wisdom literature, Christian and non-Christian. “Beware of anger of the mouth. Master your words. Let them serve truth.” (The Dhammapada, 232. Byrom tr.)
However, the writer seems to get quite caught up in the dangers of the tongue, almost losing the sense that it can be controlled at all. Here are verses 5-8 from The Message: It only takes a spark, remember, to set off a forest fire. A careless or wrongly placed word out of your mouth can do that. By our speech we can ruin the world, turn harmony into chaos, throw mud on a reputation, send the whole world up in smoke and go up in smoke with it, smoke right from the pit of hell. This is scary: You can tame a tiger, but you can’t tame a tongue – it’s never been done. The tongue runs wild, a wanton killer.
How can we tame such an animal? Maybe we can’t completely, but the writer pulls back from that conclusion to note that the tongue can bless God, bless others. Yet the same tongue also curses others, others made in the likeness of God. To then say, “this ought not to be so,” implies that we can do better. The writer is telling us that how we use words is vitally important, and that we often use our words poorly, destructively. As God’s people, as people of faith, we should do better. The writer, with his use of nature metaphors, is also saying, “of all God’s creatures, only humans violate the integrity and consistency of creation” (People’s New Testament Commentary).
Being mindful and cautious in our use of words is a significant challenge in our day and time. Words surround us. They come at us from every direction. Human beings have become ingenious in multiplying the ways we can get words to others – cell phones, text messaging, the internet, i pods. We have come a long way since the transistor radio. We should take these words to heart, and to tongue.
A brother asked Abba Sisois, “I long to guard my heart.” The old man said to him, “And how can we guard the heart if our tongue leaves the door of the fortress open?” (Spiritual Formation Bible)
James 3:13-18: As he has before, the writer returns to a theme introduced earlier – here it is wisdom. He poses a rhetorical question – who is wise? Just as faith is demonstrated by good works, so, too, wisdom. There is a false wisdom that is full of itself – full of selfish ambition and envy. Such wisdom creates disorder and wickedness. True wisdom is pure, peaceable, gentle, merciful, full of good fruits, shows no partiality. Wisdom makes peace and leads to peace and justice/righteousness. Verse 18 could be translated: “And the fruit of justice is sown in peace among those who make peace” (People’s New Testament Commentary) Here are some of these verses as rendered in The Message: Do you want to be counted wise, to build a reputation for wisdom? Here’s what you do: Live well, live wisely, live humbly. It’s the way you live, not the way you talk, that counts…. Real wisdom, God’s wisdom, begins with a holy life and is characterized by getting along with others. It is gentle and reasonable, overflowing with mercy and blessings, not hot one day and cold the next, not two-faced. You can develop a healthy, robust community that lives right with God and enjoy its results only if you do the hard work of getting along with each other, treating each other with dignity and honor.
The challenge of these verses is not understanding them. The challenge is living them, living wisely, living humbly, living well.