I’m currently reading the book of James. Although I’ve read it several times, I am always amazed at its practical and straight-forward wisdom. You know the writer is going to say something relevant when they talk about the trials we will face (not just if, maybe, sometime you find yourself in a difficulty…). Three well-known teachings from James are being doers of the Word, not just hearers of it (1:22); faith requires works (2:17); and the importance of taming the tongue (pretty much all of chapter 3, hmmm…).
The second one, “faith is dead when it doesn’t result in faithful activity” (CEB), is one of the most controversial. It seems to contradict Paul’s faith-only righteousness by requiring works-righteousness. This is probably why Martin Luther thought James should be excluded from the canon. But I don’t really think that is what James is saying. I think he’s actually saying the same thing Jesus said:
“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, then you will produce much fruit. Without me, you can’t do anything.” – John 15:5 (CEB)
Jesus sets the expectation that faith will physically manifest itself in our lives.
What is the source of conflict among you? What is the source of your disputes? Don’t they come from your cravings that are at war in your own lives? – James 4:1 (CEB)
But then I started chapter four. And the wording of James’ questions really struck me: he wasn’t asking who was the source of our conflicts but rather what. We remember that James was writing to believers, so he isn’t talking about conflicts with unbelievers or Jewish religious leaders or Roman authorities. He’s talking about those we call brother and sister.
Often in our church conflicts, it is so easy to see the source of the dispute as someone. I’ve done this – thinking that if someone could just understand the situation, if someone could give up their own way, if someone could submit to authority, if someone would just read their Bible, etc., the problem could be solved. It is so easy to make someone the problem. But James doesn’t even go there.
Instead James points the source of conflict and dispute back to myself.
Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye. – Matthew 7:3-5 (NRSV)
This doesn’t mean that someone else is never in the wrong or that their attitude isn’t creating conflict. This teaching simply requires humility in our interactions with one another. I see this taking at least two forms.
First, as Jesus suggested, we need to be aware of what is going on inside us before we focus on what’s wrong with the other person. Sometimes this may be a sin, such as pride or envy. But other times, it may be an unmet need. If I feel unloved, I’m going to treat others in an unloving way. If I have been hurt, I will put on my armor and go on the offensive so that I cannot be hurt again.
Second, we need to see the other person as a person and not a problem. It is very easy – especially in the Church – to get so focused on a ministry objective you are passionate about that you will walk over anyone who doesn’t see it as important as you do. C.S. Lewis said, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less.” I may need to set aside my good thing to listen to someone about their good thing. I may need to submit to the greater good. I may need to yield my rights in deference to loving others as Christ loves me.
These things aren’t easy. It is much easier to hide the cravings that are at war within me by pointing out someone else’s shortcomings. It is easer to just go ahead with my plan rather than listen to someone else’s plan. Or at least, it seems easier. The truth is, we know it’s not actually easier in the long run. It takes a long time to undo conflict and disputes that have made people the problem – sometimes damaging relationships in ways that are never reconciled.
Wisdom is easy to hear but difficult to do. May we help one another is being doers of the Word, living our faith, taming the tongue – and submitting to one another as we come near to God together.