Faith Works: A Study in James


How does faith work with people you don’t like? 

As a young pastor, my wife Grace and I started out teaching a Bible study for college-aged kids. Near the university were numerous homeless kids who intermingled with the university students in the local coffee shops and concert venues. As a general rule, the college kids looked like typical clean-cut middle and upper-middle-class suburbanites. The homeless kids wore a lot of black, slept in their clothes, bathed infrequently, and smoked a lot of cigarettes.

To reach both groups, I would preach a very late-night service with no childcare in a punk rock concert venue. Every once and a while, a clean-cut Christian family would show up for church. I remember one family that was entirely out of their element, so I approached them to welcome them. They asked if they had the right address and if we were a church. I explained that we were trying to be missionaries to kids who did not know Jesus and we were far more concerned about them meeting Jesus and having the Holy Spirit in them than what we were seeing on the outside. To their credit, this family overcame their awkwardness, attended a service, and stuck around for a season to serve the homeless kids. I was very proud of them as they obeyed the heart of what James 2 is encouraging.

We all imagine ourselves as impartial to outward appearances, but reality often reveals our biases. In the beginning of chapter 2, the Apostle James exhorts believers to demonstrate their faith through action by not showing preferential treatment. The Bible says that man looks at the outward, but that God looks at the inward (1 Samuel 16:7). Jesus also rebuked religious hypocrites who looked good outwardly to others but looked awful inwardly to God (Matthew 7:15, 23:7-8). Judging someone outwardly is easy – we do not need to meet them, get to know them, or learn anything about them. Getting to know someone inwardly is harder – we need to approach them, ask questions, listen, and hear about their life journey and where they are at with Jesus Christ.

A conversation about money and status in the church is often uncomfortable, but James discusses these issues often. James, the practical theologian that he is, urges believers to only make distinctions that God Himself makes. We’ve all got some preferences that can become our prejudices and, if we don’t take James’ instruction to heart, we can discourage fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, and miss out on some relationships that will help us mature as well.

Understanding social dynamics does not require a degree in sociology. All it takes is witnessing lunch hour at your local high school. You’re either in a certain group, or you’re out. But the church, James says, is a family where partiality is a sin.

The one unifying factor in the Kingdom of God is that all Christians have received mercy from God in Christ. Social hierarchies of rich and poor, black and white, those with status, and those with none no longer apply in the family of God. In the Kingdom, it’s not about what we do, what we have, or who we are but rather what Christ has done, what Christ has given, and who we are in Christ.

Our response to others through the power of the Holy Spirit is impartiality and mercy. Through Jesus, mercy triumphs over judgment.

So, as brothers and sisters in God’s family, how could we judge each other by external appearances? Who are we trying to impress? James reminds us that God has blessed the poor with rich faith. Some of us, being free from worldly possessions, have leaned into Christ and learned the joy of steadfast faith. As C. S. Lewis says, “He who has God and everything else has no more than he who has God only,” except the one with everything is more tempted to forget the one who gave it all to him.

As Christians, we are each glad that God has chosen to give us mercy rather than judgment. In fact, without mercy, we could not have a relationship with God. James is asking that we model our earthly relationships after our relationship with God. Rather than judging people that God has saved and given mercy to, we should not judge them but join Him in giving them mercy. This looks like love, grace, kindness, and patience that help us both become more like Jesus Christ.

Towards what groups of people have you been partial or judgmental? How can you repent of these attitudes and practice mercy?