THE LETTER OF ST. JAMES
This nation is going through a time of great social and cultural conflict. No matter which side you take in this conflict (Christians can be either a Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal), you must admit that we have not encountered a time like this since the days of the Civil War. You see people carrying frightening signs which say, "“The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure” (Thomas Jefferson). A famous Russian sociologist has claimed that within ten years there the United States of America will split into 5 separate countries. All these are frightening prospects. How should the Christian respond during crises like the one we're going through?
James' generation likewise was going through a time of great social and cultural upheaval. For the past 120 years the nation of Israel had been reduced to an imperial province in the Roman Empire. It had benefitted from the Pax Romana (the Roman peace), a peace which was maintained by the iron fist of the Roman legions. Many, if not most Jews had never reconciled themselves to Roman rule. Within 5-10 years Jewish nationalists will hurl the Jewish state into a conflagration which will haunt it for 1878 years. Because of the Jewish rebellion of 67-70 AD, the Romans will burn the Temple, level Jerusalem, crucify thousands, and lead even more into slavery. All the seeds of rebellion are ripe while James is writing this letter. How should Christians respond to what was going on in James' day? James' advice to his congregation applies well to Christians of today.
OATH TAKING (5:12)
At first blush it appears that verse 12 is an independent saying that James just happens to throw in at the last moment. Starting in verse 1 of chapter 5, though, James has been dealing with the social unrest which has been plaguing his country. Wealthy landowners supported by the Roman legions have been oppressing the common laborer. Like locusts Roman legions devour the land (at least in the mind of the Jewish nationalist). Many Jews will join guerilla bands which will strike small units of Roman soldiers. Joining these bands was no small matter. Initiation was essential. You had to swear with a binding oath in order to join these bands. (For such an example, look at Acts 23: 12-15 in which 40 Jews took an oath not to eat or drink until they had killed Paul. Since Paul didn't die for another 5-10 years, they lost some serious weight.)
Jesus, in another context, had addressed oath taking (Matt. 5:33-37). Although James is addressing a different context, his step Brother's words apply equally well here. We are NOT to swear to any political party; that can truly turn out to be a disaster for you (ask the 40 Jews who took the oath to kill Paul). The kingdom of God is going to come about by God's methods, not man's.
Whereas I do believe that Christians should vote on the basis of social issues, I've seen too many Christians who have hurt the cause of Christ because of their unbridled allegiance to a particular political party. Neither George W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, nor Barack Obama ushered in the kingdom of God. For the past 20 out of 34 years a "conservative" has run the White House, and yet not all is rosy in this nation. In fact at least one of these conservative presidents has done serious harm to the uniqueness of Jesus Christ by claiming that Muslims, Jews, and Christians worship the same God.
James' words on oaths, though, apply to more than just political oath-taking. It applies to other areas in life too. When you step back and survey the American landscape, you see a country full of oath-breakers. (You could call them "liars," but in our politically-correct society people would feel that is too harsh.) The truth though is that every married couple is married not on the basis of love but on the basis of a love which is willing to take an oath. Most girls will jump into a bed with a guy only after he has promised to love her forever. (If a ring on a man's hand doesn't guarantee faithfulness, what makes a woman think he will be faithful if he doesn't have a ring?)
One of the 2 breaks up the marriage claiming: "Oh, but I don't love him (or her) anymore." Tough. Love alone is not what brought you together. It was love that was willing to commit. When the love goes, the "commit" still stands. "I didn’t' realize it was going to be so hard to remain in a marriage relationship." Tough. That person swore "for better or for worse, until death do us part." Again, a person might say, "Surely no one takes that oath seriously." Then why take it? To this Lewis replies:
Tradition claims that St. James was a fervent pray-er. According to St. Jerome, De Viris Illustribus, "After the apostles, James the brother of the Lord surnamed the Just was made head of the Church at Jerusalem . . . went alone into the temple and prayed in behalf of the people, insomuch that his knees were reputed to have acquired the hardness of camels' knees." For James, prayer is a vital ingredient in advancing the kingdom of God. Whereas Paul many times closes his letters with a prayer for his readers, James exhorts his readers to pray.
Look at James' emphasis on prayer in the following verses: "Is any among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praises. Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will restore the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven him. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another that you may healed. The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much. Elijah was a man with a like nature as ours, and he prayed earnestly that it might not rain, and it did not rain on the earth for 3 years and 6 months. And he prayed again, and the sky poured rain, and the earth produced its fruit."
Why are James' readers suffering? Most likely because of the political and social upheaval in their country. It was by no means extraordinary that one of Jesus' 12 original disciples was actually a Jewish freedom fighter, Simon the Zealot. Some of his readers may have been arrested for subversive activities. Others might simply be suffering at the hands of the oppressive landowners (5:1-6). Or James may just be referring to some kind of suffering in general which life brings upon us. Whatever the cause, some of James' readers were suffering.
What advice does James give to those who suffer? How should we respond to suffering? "Let him pray!" In fact, for James, praying is probably the chief way to respond to the joys and sorrows of life. We tend to act first and pray later. We tend to decide what we are going to do and then ask God to bless us, when if we had asked God first what He wanted from us, we wouldn't have to ask Him to bless us.
I am not against political activism on the part of any American. My problem is that many Christians are watching their favorite political news outlets and getting all worked up without praying about what is going on. I used to get really upset about politics. I don't get upset as much as I used to. The main reason is that I now pray for whoever is in places of power. I used to criticize political leaders a lot; now I pray for them more than I criticize them. I pray that God surround them with His angels and protect them from spiritual and physical harm, that God place obstacles in front of them when they are wrong and bless them when they are right, that God remove evil counselors from their midst, and that God impress upon them that He is going to hold them spiritually accountable on Judgment Day for the way they have led this country. Now what political leader would have problems with that kind of prayer?
I've heard Christians claim though that this or that politician is our enemy and that they hope that politician dies a natural death. With all due respect to whoever says this, the politician that Christian hates happens to be either God's son or daughter or somebody He wants to be His son or daughter. As Christians we need to value people the same way that God Himself values them. Hate is not to be a part of the Christian's vocabulary, regardless whether that politician is a Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative.
But isn't all of this wishful thinking? Don't we need to be realistic and realize that action is what works? This attitude reminds me of a story my mom lovingly and joyfully used to tell (and which I don't agree with!). One African-American congregation prayed each week that God would shut down a local porn house, that God would burn it to the ground. One Sunday morning the pastor came to the church so excited because the porn house had burned to the ground. When the pastor cried out: "Our prayers have been answered," a lady in the congregation replied: "Pastor, I put feet to my prayers!" She had burned it down herself! Now that story may elicit laughs; however, I believe it contradicts what James is teaching here. Prayer, not vandalism, is what brings about the kingdom of God.
But does prayer really work? Look at the story of Elijah, a story the Bible includes because it wants us to imitate Elijah. Israel was in such sin that Elijah prayed that God would bring a severe drought upon the land which lasted until Elijah prayed that God would lift the drought.
It is no telling what great things have happened in our world's history because people prayed instead of burning down buildings. The early church conquered the Roman Empire not by sword but by prayer and the preaching of God's Word. The last great spiritual awakening in the US (early 1900's) resulted from a small group of Christians in Scotland who prayed that God would bring great revival to the people of Scotland who had fallen away from God. Not only did great revival spread throughout Scotland (giving us the Peter Marshall's and the Eric Liddle's), it also spread throughout Wales and the southern part of the US. Revival was so great in Wales that the jails ended up being empty and policemen formed barbershop quarters to sing religious songs in churches. So many people were saved in the US and so many Christians committed to the ministry that Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY couldn't accommodate all the new ministers. In order to accommodate all these new ministers, Southern Baptist leaders had to form a new seminary in Waco which later moved to Ft. Worth. This new seminary, birthed in the flames of evangelism, became the greatest center for conservative evangelism in the 20th century, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, all because a few committed Christians prayed for their country of Scotland.
"Oh," you might respond, "but these were GREAT Christians! I am no ELIJAH!" James scuttles that objection: "Elijah was a man with a nature like ours!" He had fears. In fact after he demonstrated God's power in a way surpassed in the Old Testament only by the exodus out of Egypt itself, he ran for his life from the wicked queen Jezebel. Just like we tend to whine, Elijah too whined: "Woe is me! I alone am left of all Israel! I alone in Israel worship You, God!" Not only was Elijah guilty of whining; he was also guilty of falsehood. God informed him that at least 5,000 in Israel were still faithful to the Lord. Elijah was no different than us, and yet he through his prayers brought down an evil king and queen.
Does all this mean that if we pray we are guaranteed that we will get what we prayed for? No. Earlier James had said that even though we pray, many times we do not get what we ask for. Why? "Because you ask with wrong motives so that you may spend it on your pleasures" (James 4:4). Legitimate praying comes out of a real relationship with God. He's not a vending machine which dispenses what you want if you deposit the right coins of prayer. I try to give my son and daughter whatever they ask for--within reason. In the same way, God who is much wiser than any of us wants to bless His sons and daughters--but always within reason.
Moreover, many times God does not give us what we want because He is working through the situation we find ourselves in. When I start to suffer, the first thing I do is ask God to remove that suffering. Well, just like God used suffering to perfect Jesus (that is, He went from perfection to perfection throught suffering, Heb. 5:8), how much more then will God use suffering to perfect us? Your growing and developing into the image of Christ is far more important to God than your comfort.