Faith is a Feedback Loop
Today we begin exploring James together. I have a love-hate relationship with this New Testament book. James—alongside Hebrews and Revelation—was one of the last books to be accepted into the New Testament when our Christian ancestors compiled the Bible. Martin Luther, pioneer of the Protestant Reformation, called this scripture “a letter of straw.” To this day, many well-meaning preachers accuse the Book of James of having “no theology,” of teaching us nothing about God or salvation in Jesus Christ. We'll get into this book's complicated history later. But its troubled past isn't why I love and hate James. I love James because this book of scripture makes me want to be a better person. I hate James because it makes me painfully realize how far I have to go. I picked James for our new series because, amid winter's sloth, sometimes we all need a moral kick in the pants like that. So let's dive in.
First, who was James? James is the Greek translation of the Jewish name Jacob. And there's a few possible candidates in the New Testament. There's James, son of Zebedee, and James, son of Alpheus: those two James-es were both in Jesus' inner circle of twelve disciples. But they are quickly executed in the Book of Acts, in the first days of the Church, so it's unlikely they wrote this letter. The other major James in the Bible is the brother of Jesus, sometimes called St. James the Just. This brother is named-dropped in the gospels of Matthew and Mark and appears as a powerful church leader in Acts, 1 Corinthians and Galatians. According to tradition, James came to believe his brother was the Messiah sometime after Jesus' resurrection and eventually became the first bishop of Jerusalem. And the tradition is that James wrote this scripture sometime around 45-47 AD. The other popular theory is that James' followers wrote this letter sometime after his death by compiling notes from his sermons and lessons, likely in the 80s to 100s AD. As a reminder, in those days students often wrote in the name of their teacher: this was not seen as dishonest but as a way to honor a deceased mentor. That theory might explain why James' middle chapters are so segmented. But it's also possible James simply imitated Proverbs and Ecclesiastes in his writing style, which have a similar tone, outlook and structure to this book. Whoever ultimately put pen to paper, James the brother of Jesus was involved in its creation regardless, so I'm not overly troubled whether it was the man himself or his students a few years later. Either way, you're getting James' thoughts here.
So why were James' ideas finally written down, and who was meant to read them? James' greeting here goes to “the twelve tribes in the dispersion,” which is a reference to the original twelve tribes of Israel. But many of those tribes were wiped out long before the New Testament, so he can't mean it literally. Instead, James uses an ancient image—Israel's twelve tribes—to signal to readers that he sees Christianity as an extension of Old Testament faith and to show that his letter isn't meant for any one congregation but should be read by all mature Christians everywhere. Second, recall those complaints about James: some today say it has no theology, the Reformer Martin Luther called it a letter of straw. James does indeed go light on talking about who Jesus is, what God is like, how salvation works, etc. That's because—unlike the gospels and many other New Testament letters—James was not written for nonbelievers or the newly-converted but rather for mature, experienced believers. James assumes his readers know who Jesus is, understand the basics of our religion, know their Old Testament, etc. and so skips past all that to zero in on its readers' current trouble: these mature Christians are discouraged or lazy in living their faith. They still very much love Jesus and trust in the Lord, but after years of faithfulness, they're tired and weak. And thus problems are emerging: factions and favoritism divide them, they act hypocritically, they gossip and slander each other. James knows these Christians understand the basics of their faith, but they're failing to apply that faith to their day-to-day lives. So this book uniquely skips past the basics of belief... to give a reminder and a call to action to make faith not only a belief in your head but also a daily pattern of action.
Our congregation has lots of people with manufacturing backgrounds, whether as factory workers, engineers, or managers. Who here—either as their job or a hobby—has worked with metal, like building, fixing or designing cars, blacksmithing, handy-man work, etc? When you want to work metal, one of the most common ways of doing that is by putting it under stress, right? You turn up the heat, crank up the pressure... and the metal bends into the new shape you want... or fuses to a second piece of metal... or turns liquid so you turn it into an alloy or pour it into a mold. In order to make a metal useful, you have to work it, heat it, pressure it... until it is strengthened and shaped exactly how it's needed. Even after you've turned all that metal into, say, a brand new Chevy, even then you'll want to stress it some more by testing that car, by putting it through its paces or running diagnostics to ensure its brakes, lights, engine, and more all work seamlessly together. You stress the car to make the vehicle useful. Mechanics do not test scrap metal: they test and stress cars that are going back out onto the roads.
In the mind of James, the brother of Jesus, this life of faith is like metalworking. “Consider it pure joy, sisters and brothers, whenever you face trials, because you know the testing of your faith produces endurance... which has the full effect of making you mature and complete, lacking in nothing.” When James speaks of testing and trials, he's not thinking of classroom exams or Law & Order courtrooms. It's like metalworking: the difficulties of this life—James argues—are a refining fire, something that strengthens us like molten iron turned into toughened steel. You may be cracking under pressure now or melting from the heat... but on the other side you will find yourself stronger, like brittle iron turned into hardened steel.
But—you might say—that's all well and good for the future. But I need some strength from God here and now if I'm to survive! Sure, enduring trials and difficulties may make me “mature and complete” eventually, but I need some help to get through them first. And so James follows up with the next few verses: “If any of you lack in wisdom, ask God... and it will be given you. But ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind, [like the Minnow in Gilligan's Island during that three hour tour].” That first part I like: if you need wisdom—which I see as a synonym for faith in JAmes—if you need help, with faith ask God. That's great and gives me hope. But the second half, where James talks about doubting, that discouraged me at the start. So let me clarify, in case that cofused you down too.
“Doubt” here does not mean the honest uncertainty we have when we ask for things in prayer. Sometimes God says “yes” to our prayers, sometimes it's “no” and sometimes it's “not yet.” Uncertainty over how God will answer our specific requests isn't what James condemns, for that’s part of a wisely humble life. The “doubt” James laments also is not honest introspection that wrestles with the big questions of life, that asks the tough spiritual questions that strengthen and mature our faith. Rather, the “doubt” James criticizes—what he calls a storm-tossed wave of the sea, bounced to and fro by the littlest breeze—is a lack of trust in God, a general disbelief in God, a lack of commitment. To James faith is not only a mental exercise or a feeling of the heart: it is a lived, daily habit of trusting in the Lord. If you lose that, of course you'll feel tossed to and fro: you've overlooked the God who is your foundation, your shelter from the storm. But when your faith daily trusts in God—not your money or your ego or anything else but God—it helps you to see past present difficulties and so weather any storm. So as you endure trials, you learn to trust God—which is faith—and thereby God gives you the faith that helps you keep enduring.
Having discussed enduring difficulties and how a lived faith helps you overcome them, James shifts focus: “Let poor believers boast in being raised up and the rich in being brought low.” Poor folks celebrating being lifted up by God, I get. But rich people celebrating being laid low? How? Why? If you take this section on its own, you'll be lost, but if you link it with the previous verses, it makes sense. Poor believers boast in being lifted up, because for them Jesus promises and demands a world where none go hungry. And rich believers boast in being brought low, because they recognize earthly wealth is a passing thing. As James says, “it disappears like flowers scorched by summer's heat.” The rich can boast in being brought low: a) because Christ's eternal kingdom is the great equalizer, where nobody is wealthier there than anyone else—so the rich are lower in a sense—but where everyone is far richer in blessings than we could ever dream—so it's ironically no real loss—and b) the rich boast in being brought low here on earth because they know their earthly gifts are meant to be used to lift up others. Poverty is a trial of suffering and causes many temptations and dangers to the needy. Wealth likewise tempts rich believers into greed, selfishness or pride. But in Christ James finds that both wealthy and poor can find blessing and relief. Believers poor and rich celebrate, because Christ's eternal kingdom ultimately equalizes everything in a flood of divine abundance... and because, in our sharing as Christ's Church today, the rich provide for the needy, going lower to lift others up higher and thereby lessening temptation for themselves and others. Thus are the twin dangers of riches or a lack thereof overcome, eternally and today, by Christ and his Church.
I used to be the sound guy for my church as a kid, and I learned some basic audio tech in music and theater as well. One of the worst things you can do with a microphone is create a feedback loop. If you've ever heard a shrill single note come over a speaker system, often getting louder and louder quickly and causing your ears to hurt, that's a feedback loop. What typically causes a feedback loop is someone with a microphone accidentally stands too close to a speaker. The microphone picks up sounds, which are broadcast through the speaker, which are then picked up by that microphone, which are broadcast through the speaker, and round and round we go. I can go cause a feedback loop now if you want. Do you want me to? No? Well you're no fun. But you can get feedback loops in other places too. You take someone on a date. They call you a few days later. You go on another date. They kiss you. You go on many dates. You fall in love. You get married. Each action causes, reinforces, and amplifies future actions in a big circle.
In talking about enduring trials, in talking about making faith a lifestyle of trust in the Lord, in remind rich and poor alike that Christ and his Church are the great equalizers... James reminds us believers that faithful Christian living... is a feedback loop. The feedback cycle is launched when God's grace delivers us from sin, death, and evil and causes us to have faith, to trust in God's promises, to rely on the Lord. That relationship with God leads helps us endure trials, make faith a part of our daily living, view money differently, and generally behave differently. This in turn trains us to rely more on God—which is another way of saying it teaches us to have faith in God, i.e. it strengths our faith—which thus propels us towards those behaviors that in turn reinforce the faith that propels us. Faith is a feedback loop between trust and action, hope and lifestyle. Saving faith is begun by God's grace, but by God's grace, faith and faithful living can form a self-reinforcing feedback loop.
James writes to mature Christians. His readers know about salvation in Jesus already. But James reminds them and us that faithful living strengthens our faithful believing and trusting in God. When we grow tired of church, when Christianity becomes a chore, when faith is difficult... James reminds us that faithful actions—whether enduring trials, dealing with wealth, or anything else—faithful actions strengthen our spiritual muscles of hoping and trusting, which in turn help us better embrace the joy the Lord gives us through Jesus Christ and each other. Faith lived not only in mind and heart but also in action… ends up strengthening itself. Praise God for the strength of faith, given to us out of God’s gracious love. Amen.
 If you want a brief survey of any book of the Bible, I always recommend The Bible Project’s videos as the best place to start. Their book-by-book series gives a snapshot of the major themes, structure, historical context, and suspect authorship for every book of scripture, and their video series since then focus on tracking major themes or key words as they develop across the Bible. While by no means the final word on the subject, their video on James is a fantastic introduction to the book we'll be exploring for the next several weeks.