Journey Through James 1:27 – Pure Worship

Verse 26 showed an aspect of worthless religion. Now verse 27 tells us what God considers pure and faultless or unblemished religion. The word religion comes from the Greek word threskeia which is defined as ritual worship/worship expressed in ritual acts. It’s the external expression of our relationship with God – worship. So, in this verse James is once again talking about the expression of our faith in Christ. He is essentially talking about the fruit that reveals our commitment to Jesus.

What does this outward expression of pure worship look like? First it “means caring for orphans and widows in their distress”. The word translated to care for can also be translated to look upon or visit, look out or select. Distress can also translate as persecution, affliction, tribulation from the root word meaning pressure.

Is James saying that we should look after literal orphans and widows? Or is there more to this? What do orphans and widows have in common? They have no one to take care of them or care about them. No one to look out for them. I believe James is referring to anyone who is even figuratively or effectively orphaned or widowed; anyone who doesn’t have someone looking out for them or caring for them. Anyone alone and in distress. And how would you know if someone was in distress unless you knew them and were looking out for them, unless you have a relationship with them?

Several commentaries pointed out something very significant that I initially missed. The first act mentioned is focused outside oneself to others. Then focusing on oneself is mentioned. Those who focus only on their spiritual, personal health epitomize the phrase, “too heavenly minded to be any earthly good”. Here James is purposefully pointing out that pure worship starts by caring for others first. That’s certainly consistent with Jesus’ example. But it doesn’t neglect oneself completely. We must also keep ourselves unstained and undefiled by the world. Consider this: the world’s way is to “look out for number one”. So, by caring for those whom no one else is caring for, we already begin to keep ourselves from being polluted by the world. Looking outward and not inward is already an anti-world viewpoint.

But if we don’t purposefully check our perspectives and default ways of thinking and compare them with God’s way, the world can still pollute the way we think and ultimately act. I am finding more and more that some of the ways I “naturally” think about things are contrary to God’s ways. I need to constantly ask for His wisdom and perspective to point those areas out and transform my mind to His way not the world’s way.

Who are the widows and orphans that God has put into your life to look out for and care for?

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Journey Through James 1:26 – Whoa!

This verse follows verses where James focuses on doing not just hearing. He now makes it clear that actions alone are not enough. What we say matters too.

Have you ever said, “Well, you should know that’s not what I meant”, or “I should be able to say what I want and be given the benefit of the doubt”? This verse challenges this kind of thinking. Let’s look at it more closely.

The Greek word translated “tight rein” in the NIV is chalinagogeo, which can be translated as bridle, curb, restrain, sway, hold in check. James uses a strong word to indicate how firmly we are to control the words we speak. Bridle and rein are often used in the context of controlling a horse. Something much stronger than humans. This word is more than just being careful, it’s willfully and skillfully exerting control over something that is powerful. These verses from Proverbs show the power of the tongue:

“The words of the reckless pierce like swords, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” Proverbs 12:8

“The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit.” Proverbs 18:21

In chapter 3 James will also address in more detail the consequences of not taming our tongue.

Then in Matthew 15:18 Jesus says, “ But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them.” Jesus says this in the context of what you put in your mouth doesn’t defile you, but what is in your heart, which is revealed by your words, does defile you. So, in this case, words speak louder than actions. Words spoken without thinking can reveal our true heart. If we are truly “religious” – letting God be in charge of our lives – everything we say should reflect this. If we’re not truly “religious”, then our words will indicate that, no matter what we believe about ourselves.

Here are some ideas of where words said unthinkingly can come from:

  1. Our focus on being heard which demonstrates selfishness.
  2. Not considering how those listening will hear the words which demonstrates a lack of love. No, we can’t always know how our words will be understood. But if we care more about the listeners than being heard, there is a better chance that when we do speak, even if clarification turns out to be needed, the care for them and their situation will come through, and they will be open to having further dialogue.
  3. Assumptions that everyone will understand what you mean which demonstrates pride. Assumptions are dangerous and often lead to misunderstanding.

What are your ideas of the source of speaking before thinking?

Some versions of this verse also say, “and so deceive his own heart.” What is this deception? I believe the deception is that we can say whatever we want and still be religious.

I’ve had conversations where we’ve talked about the use of specific words and ideas in conversation that are offensive and hurtful to some and not others. We talked about how to be true to who we are while at the same time considering someone else. This verse seems to clarify the issue for me. I must tame my tongue. Put it under the Holy Spirit’s control, not my own. My desire to be able to “be free to be me” is not Biblical. It is selfish. And who am I anyway? I am trying to become who God wants me to be. His love showing through me would be careful to speak words that are affirming and not hurtful.  Ephesians 4:29 makes it clear that our speech is to build others up and benefit them, not to benefit us and our need to be known or heard.

I need to remember that no matter how much I “do” for God, my words can undo them all. I need to always be aware of the power of words. I don’t want it said of me by God or anyone else that, “my religion is worthless”. This verse just emphasizes even more the importance of being “slow to speak” as James urges in verse 19. That gives me time to make sure I’m connected to the Holy Spirit and let Him speak through me, if I even need to speak at all.

Journey Through James 1:22-25 — Mirror, Mirror

This is a very familiar passage of scripture. It seems obvious in the overall point. But I want to look a bit more at the reasoning presented here.

Verse 22 is kind of the thesis statement with Verses 23-25 being the supporting arguments. However, it is significant that it follows verse 21 where James states, “humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.” So, in verse 22, we have the further understanding of that. Humbly accepting the word is more than just hearing it. What is the deceit that happens to those who listen to the word, but don’t put it into practice? It appears that the false reasoning here is that if I just listen to God’s word, I can be saved. In verses 21 & 22, humbly accepting the word which leads to salvation requires putting that word into practice. It requires letting that Word transform and live through me. That’s part of the humility we examined in the last post. There’s no humility in hearing something and going on with life as if it doesn’t apply to me. I need to examine myself when I “hear” (listen or read) the Word and make sure I’m not just giving it a “nod” in agreement, but I am actually allowing it to change the way I live and act.

Verses 23-24 gives an analogy of what it looks like to hear, but not do. James compares it to looking at oneself in the mirror. The mirror shows clearly what we look like. If we are looking carefully, we can see our spots and blemishes, and take care of them. But once we turn away, we can easily forget they are even there. So, if you listen and look at the law with intentionality and put it into practice right away, you won’t forget what it says.  And this hearing and doing comes with a promise. Those who continually and intentionally look and listen to God’s word and put it into practice, “will be blessed in what they do.” Which makes complete sense to me. If you are living out God’s word, putting it into practice, then you are doing what God desires of you. And God promises His blessings if you are pleasing Him.

These verses seem obvious. But I wonder how many times I’ve heard a Word from God and just let it slip away. I know it can happen when I’m reading the daily verse on my phone or my Bible devotions in the evening. I read it and check it off my list of things to do. I need to continue to work on being very intentional EVERY time I “hear” God’s word and ask, “God, how do I make this a part of my life?”.

Journey Through James 1:21 – Weeding

The first word of verse 21 needs clarification. It is translated “Therefore” or “So”. This start to a sentence always requires an answer to what preceding statement/thought is being completed. The two possibilities that come to my mind are:

  1. “Therefore” instead of letting emotion reign and lead to anger (referring to verse 20)
  2. “Therefore”, during the trials of this life (referring to the beginning verses of the chapter)

I believe it applies more fully as a conclusive “therefore” to this whole chapter so far. But let’s look at the rest of the verse and see if this holds true.

The word for “moral filth” from the Greek means filth or pollution – “moral dirtiness”. The Greek word used here means evil, wickedness, malice. In the context of this verse specifically it means malice, ill-will, desire to injure. The Greek word used for “so prevalent” means surplus or abundance. Not in the sense of “extra” beyond a certain amount that is good, but that wickedness grows and develops into a superabundance or overgrowth unless rooted out completely. After reading several commentaries, the most common idea here for “evil that is so prevalent” is an “abundantly existing hostile disposition to our neighbor”. This certainly describes the world today. Some things never change.

This “uncleanness” and “hostile disposition” are so prevalent in our world, that they can insidiously take root without us recognizing or realizing it. We need to be willing to truly examine ourselves to see the evidence that they exist in us. It can be easy, very easy, to defend or justify why we should be able to have a “hostile disposition” towards someone or some group. I would argue that these are the same justifications we use to defend being angry which I listed in my last entry. But the second half of this verse tells us how we can root out these attitudes.

Here the Greek word for “humble spirit” or “humility” is gentleness, meekness. Perhaps referring to a gentle disposition in contrast to the hostile disposition we’re to root out. The Greek word here for “accept” is receive, accept, welcome. The meaning of the phrase “…the Word planted in you which can save you” may seem obvious, but I’ll state it anyway. Since Jesus saves us, I will make the small leap that Jesus living in us is the Word planted in us.

This analogy of planting resonates with me, as I like to garden. When there are a lot of weeds, sometimes the roots of the good plant struggle to get enough nutrition and space to grow well. But if the weeds are rooted out, and the plant allowed to flourish, then it’s easier to recognize new weeds and remove them without compromising the health of the desired good plant. The Word is in us, but sometimes it isn’t allowed to grow well. But if we accept God’s Word and meekly allow it to open our eyes to the attitudes/perspectives/habits/responses, etc. that need rooting out in us, then His Word – Jesus — flourishes in us, and those “weeds” become easier to recognize and remove before they take too much hold.

So, here is my verbose interpretation of this verse:

So, to honor God through the trials of this life (which are ever present), get rid of everything that pollutes and dirties your soul, completely root out all hostile dispositions to others, and with a meek and gentle disposition, which acknowledges God’s superior wisdom and understanding, be willing to see, acknowledge and grow Jesus in you, who saves you.

Journey Through James 1:19-20 — Be Very, Very Quiet!

Does verse 19 start a new thought in James’ letter, or is it a continuation? There are differing opinions on this in the various commentaries I read. Let’s see what we can figure out.

Verse 19 is a whopper! I will be honest with you. Being “quick to listen” and “slow to speak” is very difficult for me. But it makes perfect sense. There are some scriptures that I feel like I don’t completely grasp their meaning, but this one really seems to be completely understandable.

How can we meaningfully speak on anything without first understanding the situation? And we can’t fully or even mostly understand until we listen. I tend to think I understand what someone means even before they’ve finished speaking. But, besides being rude, I am often wrong. Maybe not completely wrong, but when I continue to listen and ask clarifying questions, I realize that I wouldn’t have had the complete picture had I just jumped in with my assumptions of what was meant. Does anyone else do that? Plus, often people just need to share and be heard; to unburden their minds and hearts.

So, that’s being quick to listen. Then the “slow to speak” allows time for me to check in with God and make sure I’m speaking with wisdom from Him and not in my own understanding. And sometimes that means not giving any advice or even saying anything. So hard! Plus, the thoughtful response shows that I really listened and want to come alongside them and am not just rushing to finish the conversation.

So, then we get to “slow to get angry”. Why would that follow the other two statements? Well, maybe the conversation someone started with me is uncomfortable and points out an area of sin or error in me that needs correcting, and my immediate response is to get defensive and angry. Maybe someone is sharing how they were wronged and hurt, and I get defensive of them and join them in their anger. Maybe the words somehow center on the trial I’m going through and the “unfairness” makes me angry. Maybe someone shares their opinion that differs from mine, and I immediately want to defend my position rather than honestly wanting to understand theirs first, which can easily lead to anger on both sides.

And let’s be honest. As these examples illustrate, man’s anger is never pure. Oh, we justify it, calling it “righteous anger”. But according to verse 20, human anger doesn’t produce God’s righteousness in us. Anger is a strong emotion. As with all strong emotions, it can lead to impulsive words and actions. God’s righteousness can only be worked out in us when we take the time to seek Him and His wisdom. It rarely is produced when we act impulsively out of strong emotion. And, as one commentary stated, man’s anger and divine righteousness are typically at odds with each other. And that certainly seems to be proven repeatedly in today’s world.

So back to our original question, is this a new thought by James or a continuation from the previous verses? I think it’s a continuation on what righteous living looks like. What does produce righteousness? How can we live these verses out, even when it’s difficult? The next verses in James have the answers.

Practicing verse 19 & 20 is a challenge for me. But I have asked God to bring these easy to memorize words to my mind in every conversation. The times I have put them in practice have led to some of the most meaningful, relationship deepening, satisfying interactions I’ve ever had. Without a doubt, if we all lived out these two verses, even if imperfectly, today’s world would be a much more compassionate, loving, accepting, safe and freeing place to live.

Journey Through James 1:18 – Chosen!

Coming on the heels of explaining that sin leads to death, and God does not cause temptation, but gives everything good, we see how far His good goes.

“He chose” – of the infinite choices He could/can make – “to give us” – out of all creation – “birth” – as opposed to death. Though we choose sin that leads to death (verse 15), He chose to give us birth and life, not death. He gave us this “through the word of truth” – the gospel message.

“…that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all creation.”

What are firstfruits? According to Leviticus 23:10, Exodus 23:19, 2 Chronicles 31:5 and Proverbs 3:9, firstfruits were the first harvest of crops, whether grain, olive oil or grape juice (new wine) and were given to God. They were offered to God to sanctify the rest of the harvest. 2 Chronicles 31:5 indicates that the tithe and firstfruits are tied together, both given as a dedication that the whole of everything belongs to God. Strong’s concordance of the Greek word used translates it as “the beginning of sacrifice” and defines it as the earliest crop of the year and can be used metaphorically to mean the earliest converts. Psalm 78:51 also refers to the firstborn as the firstfruits of manhood, and in Jeremiah 2:3 Israel is stated as the firstfruits of God’s harvest.

So, at the basic level, as firstfruits of crops are sanctified, consecrated, set apart, for God, so Christians as part of God’s creation are consecrated, set apart, for God. As humankind is made in God’s image, Christians are an example of God’s best of creation. While creation is dying due to sin, God shows through us that there is a way to overcome this death. Firstfruits also implies more “crops” to come.

So, all of this causes me to ask what kind of an example I am as I’ve been set apart and chosen by God. And it reminds me of my responsibility to share the “word of truth” and provide the opportunity for life to all around me.

God “chose” us. What an amazing honor! Let’s live like it!

Journey Through James 1:16-17 – So Good!

Only two verses again today. I thought we’d get to three, but there is just so much to learn.

Verse 16: Don’t be deceived/misled/fooled about what? Is it about the former truth that God does not tempt or about what follows in the next verse? What if it’s both?

When we are in tests/trials/temptations, I have heard and even said things like, “This is God’s plan” or “God is maturing me/you”. Given verses 13-15, God does not cause the testing. That comes from our sinful desires only. So, I need to make sure that I am not being misled into thinking or teaching otherwise.

Verse 17: Everything good comes from God, and they are good and perfect gifts.

The literal translation is “every act of giving good and every gift perfect from above”. The Greek word used here is translated “every act of giving”. This is interesting. To me this implies not just God’s act of giving good to us, but also His acts of giving good through us.  It’s not a new truth that all the good given us and the good we do come from God. But, sometimes I want to pat myself on the back particularly when I do something good during a trying time. This is a good reminder to not be misled into taking the credit for the good I do.

Perfect in Greek means complete/having reached its end. One of the commentaries I read suggested that perfected good leads to life, which James may be using as a contrast or parallel to verse 15, where completed sin leads to death.

Therefore, all good, from us and to us, in the present and when life here is complete, is from God. And this won’t ever change, because God never changes. He created all light, the light that causes shifting shadows. But He doesn’t shift or change. He is always the same.

So, if God never changes, what do I do when God reveals something to me about Himself that doesn’t fit with what I know of Him? There have been times I’ve decided I just can’t understand God and just won’t try. Other times I’ve ignored new revelations about God and His character. But what I am learning to do instead is ask for wisdom to see the errors of my perception of God and for Him to change my understanding, rather than keeping God in the box I have created for Him. It’s certainly easier to put Him in a box. But no box is big enough to hold all knowledge and understanding of Him, so I need to allow Him to change and transform me and how I live as my understanding of Him grows. Not easy!

So, given these two verses, two things are made clear to me. God does not cause trying times, and all good that occurs during and as a result of those trying times are from God. And because of Romans 8:28,” And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose”, God will bring about good somehow even in trials. Praise God!