Chapter 26: Letters from James

There is an irony in trying to suggest that mankind is both indebted to live within the structure of laws and proclaiming that in the execution of law lies freedom. The concept of thinking about "law" tends to lead us toward a path of structure, control, obedience, discipline, self-denial. It typically takes us away from the portrait of a life that is about freedom, liberation, and independence. That's the irony of James' law to me. Anybody who has ever tried to read James' letter is left with the impression that ethics trumps liberation. Actions speak in the face of faith. Paul says "we are saved by grace, not by works, lest anyone should boast"...James says "show me your faith by your works". Seems like two roads - two ideals - two different mindsets of religion. One seems to be about the power of God's saving son, Jesus. The other seems to be about owning up to accountability and personal duty. So how do these two become the same thing? How does one go about living out law and claiming to celebrate a life saved by God's merciful grace alone? James teaches that the answer depends on your understanding of law. James teaches "do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says." (1:22). Sounds pretty straight forward. Do what the word says. But what does the word say? James calls us to look intently in the perfect law that gives freedom (1:25). He does this with a mirror. Instead of taking a quick and easy glance in the mirror so that we can check out our appearance and quickly be on our way - he asks us to slow down, think a little more deeply, and LOOK INTENTLY. We need to contemplate more deeply WHICH law we are to live by. When we look intently at James' law, we discover a new kind of law. He calls it "the perfect law of freedom". He asks us to take a good, hard look at our view of law in order to see what the application of law will look like in our lives. It is no accident that James describes his law as a "law of freedom". He could have just as easily left it at "law". But he wants us to see something that will only be seen if we think the way he is thinking. James isn't writing about ethics, or law, or rules. The "how to live" part of James' writing is obvious enough. How to treat others. How to control your tongue. How to not practice favoritism. How to seek wisdom. How to pray. It's the "why" part that James presents that is so different. WHY do we do these things? He's writing about learning to do things in life with a completely new motive. He's writing about living in mercy. There are a lot of concepts of law. But only one concept of religious law that gives freedom. It's the law of mercy. The one where God looked at us and said "I will love you more than I will judge you." Even though I have the right and the ability to exact judgment and condemnation upon you, I will extend mercy. And it's not cheap. It's not easy to grasp and it's not easy to practice. Practicing mercy never has been. You have to look intently to really get at it. You can't just give it a glancing look and expect to really understand what it costs to look intently into the nature of the law of freedom. And when you do, you realize that the law of freedom that James is presenting costs a lot. And it is awesome! You hear it again in James 2:8 when James keeps telling us what this perfect law of freedom requires. He takes the law of freedom and holds it up against the "royal law found in Scripture". James says that if you want to keep the royal law - you are going to have to keep all of it. But if you keep the law of freedom and mercy - you are going to have to keep all of it too! And then James creates a fork in the road. James 2:12. "Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment." You can look intently into the law that will create judgment - or you can look intently into the law that gives freedom and mercy. Either way, the actions of each day are judged and driven by a deeper reality. The 'why". Judgment or mercy. So here's the question. When God looks intently into my heart. Will He look upon a heart that tried to follow judgment? Or mercy? I'm really hoping for mercy. When I see how James begins his letter, I have to really slow myself down in order to appreciate what has just been written. "James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ". I cannot imagine being the younger brother of Jesus. I have a younger brother. Younger brothers take a beating. Younger brothers are tough. Younger brothers get used as test-subjects, exploited and made fun of with your friends, used as escape goats when you need a fall guy. They are tough. They are skeptical. They are gritty. When they see their older brother do the things that Jesus did - it must have been confusing to say the least. Intimidating and mind-blowing on a calm day. Jesus feeds crowds, gives sight to blind, confronts Jewish leaders from the metro, and defies authorities. He controls weather, runs with a dangerous band of brothers, and hangs out with social castaways. They see their brother hanging on a cross - concerned for the well-being of mom. Not pleading to be taken down. Not pleading for a retrial. Not complaining that he was framed. But dying like big brothers are supposed to. Must've been mind-altering. And then big brother comes BACK! What is a little brother supposed to do with something like that!? History calls him, "James, the brother of Jesus". To be introduced as someone else's brother is sometimes a little bit of a sideways-slanted intro. It means "even if you don't know much about this guy - his brother is much more of a big deal". James doesn't even call himself a little brother, though. James sees himself as a servant of God and the LORD Jesus Christ. Catch that? James sees Jesus as LORD. Who does that? It takes a lot of faith to make the jump from seeing Jesus as your brother to your Lord. It means you have deeply weighed the facts. You have taken some long walks. You have done some serious thinking. It means you are all in. The next time that life tries to take away your faith. The next time that you think you have hit a speed bump in your faith and just can't put your trust in Jesus anymore..remember what James must have gone through to write such a brief - but life-changing - introduction. Try writing it yourself.

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