During one of the seasons in my life, I worked third shift (overnight) at a high-end grocery store. The pressure was high to do things right, and I was good at my job. They were considering me for management and I would have made it to the top if I hadn’t gotten back into the ministry. There was one night we were unloading boxes from the truck and one was loaded wrongly. It was upside down and full of pickle jars. I picked up the box, it opened, and the jars of pickles were falling and shattering on the floor. The back room smelled like pickles for hours after we cleaned up. My first instinct was to try and hide it. After all, I was in line for a great future in the company. I could have swept all of the pickles and pickle jars under the other pallets quickly and we could have gotten more work done. That cover up would have been revealed sooner or later. So, instead of covering it up, I made a radical decision: apologize, clean up my mess, and continue working.
Every person in this room would admit to being imperfect. In fact, everyone over the face of the earth would admit to being imperfect. What I find in life, though, is that most people, no matter how spiritual or God-fearing they claim to be, try to cover up their specific sins rather than apologizing, cleaning up, and continuing in life. We admit that we are imperfect, but then we don’t admit the mistakes that we make when we’ve made them.
This month, we’ve been exploring the idea that “faith without works is dead…” If confession is an action and one commanded by God. I am afraid that without regular confession of our sins, our faith is dead. This leads me to wonder if we are hindering our own spiritual vitality as individuals and as the Church by refusing to confess the sins in our lives.
James 5:7-20 (HCSB)
Therefore, brothers, be patient until the Lord’s coming. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth and is patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, because the Lord’s coming is near.
Brothers, do not complain about one another, so that you will not be judged. Look, the judge stands at the door!
Brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the Lord’s name as an example of suffering and patience. See, we count as blessed those who have endured. You have heard of Job’s endurance and have seen the outcome from the Lord. The Lord is very compassionate and merciful.
Now above all, my brothers, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath. Your “yes” must be “yes,” and your “no” must be “no,” so that you won’t fall under judgment.
Is anyone among you suffering? He should pray. Is anyone cheerful? He should sing praises. Is anyone among you sick? He should call for the elders of the church, and they should pray over him after anointing him with olive oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick person, and the Lord will restore him to health; if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The urgent request of a righteous person is very powerful in its effect. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours; yet he prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the land. Then he prayed again, and the sky gave rain and the land produced its fruit.
My brothers, if any among you strays from the truth, and someone turns him back, let him know that whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his life from death and cover a multitude of sins.
Patience and endurance
As we finish our current study of James’ letter, I want us to be reminded of each section’s context. James wrote this letter within the framework of his statement, “Faith without works is dead” (2:17). Within this context, James calls his readers to remain patient until the Lord’s coming and to practice endurance. This is one of the themes throughout this letter and throughout Scripture.
In chapter 1, James states that the testing of our faith produces endurance and that our endurance makes us mature and complete in this life. He also states that those who endure will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love Him. Then, throughout the rest of his letter, James gives the ways in which one must have endurance in this life; specifically regarding the denial of self. We must endure through this age of sin and suffering. We must endure trials and temptation. We must endure.
I think of a runner who is in the middle of a marathon. He or she must be patient because the race is not over and must endure because he or she cannot rest quite yet. We do not see the runner stop to catch his breath hoping that it will get him to the finish line before the other runners. No, he denies himself so that he can finish well and enjoy rest after he crosses the finish line.
Scripture is constantly calling God’s people to patient endurance in this life. There will be a great day of rest, but that day has not yet come for us. Until we cross the finish line, we must have patient endurance because the race is not over and because we cannot rest quite yet.
Endurance is difficult, though. If it were not difficult, we would not call it endurance. Everything in us wants to rest, just like every muscle in the runner wants to stop. We desire an easy and stress-free life, just as the runner desires to stop putting stress on his joints. We desire to experience the fruits of our labor before we even finish the race. We take it easy, hoping all the while that we will finish the race well. We can see evidence of this in our society and in our churches. We would rather be entertained in front of late-night television than gather our families around God’s Word. Many churches today feel more like concert halls than the body of Christ. We would rather be lazy than get up and do something good meaningful. When we sin against God or against our brother, we would rather ignore it like we don’t need any correction. We want to create a world for ourselves now that mirrors what we think eternity will be like, forgetting that Scripture calls us to patient endurance. When we pursue comfort to this degree, we end up forsaking people who do not know Christ because we have fooled ourselves into seeing the world as somethings get that it is not. The world is currently sinful, dirty, obnoxious, selfish, unreasonable, and oxymoronic. If we are not willing to endure the world patiently, if we want to separately ourselves from the world, and if we condemn the world with our actions; then our faith is dead.
Our objective in the current age is not to get everyone on earth to act a certain way, to judge others for their sin, or to create a comfortable environment for ourselves. Our objective is to endure with great patience for the sake of our own maturity and for the sake of others in this world. When we choose to live like this, the church will actually look more like God and will represent God better in this world.
2 Peter 3:9 says this about God: “The Lord does not delay His promise, as some understand delay, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish but all to come to repentance.”
If we remember, we previously talked about both controlling our tongues and complaining about others. James add to that conversation, here, by reminding us, again, that we should not complain about others. The fact that James spends so much time convincing his readers not to speak ill of one another (so much time that we’ve had to mention it the for three weeks now), should be an indication that we ought to spend more time thinking about how we speak of others and to others. If we practice patience well in this life, then we will not complain about others. Instead, we will strive for understanding. We will strive to endure any sort of shenaniganary for the sake of our own spiritual maturity and for the sake of others in this world.
James continues his application: “Now above all, my brothers, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath. Your “yes” must be “yes,” and your “no” must be “no,” so that you won’t fall under judgment.”
This command from James strikes me as slightly odd. It does not seem wrong to make promises or to enact legal agreements with other people or parties. In fact, throughout Scripture, we witness God making covenants with people (particularly Abraham, Isaac and all of Israel). If God makes promises to people, then surely making promises is not wrong, because God cannot sin.
There are two options we have when thinking about James’ command not to make promises. First, he may be urging his readers not to engage in the vain oaths of the world or even not to make empty, false promises. In this case, “Your ‘yes’ must be ‘yes,’ and your ‘no’ must be ‘no,’” is James’ way of telling his readers that they ought to be honest and genuine in every agreement; not being greedy and not taking advantage of the system. “Your ‘yes’ must be ‘yes,’ and your ‘no’ must be ‘no.’” Don’t create any ambiguity to try and gain an upper hand.
Second, there may have been a problem where people were using oaths as an excuse to be dishonest. There is an unspoken clause in the rules of promise making today. I have heard that if we cross our fingers, any promise made is null and we don’t have to keep it. I am also amazed at the oath that people have to take in the courtroom before testifying: “I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God.” It is almost like if we don’t take that oath or make that promise, we all of the sudden have permission to lie from the stand. If we have to make a promise or swear to convince people that we are telling the truth, it means that we are not trustworthy. It means that we have made a habit out of lying or out of being a little deceitful.
When I think about God’s nature, I have to admit that He honors His word just as He honors His promises. His promises are not more powerful than His word. Both are entirely truthful and He makes sure that He follows through. There is no way to distinguish between the promises that God makes and His simple “yes,” or “no.” Perhaps this, then, is the challenge. Let our word be just as powerful and just as binding as any promise so that we are not guilty of deceit and so that, according to James, we will not fall under judgment.
The righteous person and prayer
Finally, we get James’ words on confession. “The prayer of faith will save the sick person, and the Lord will restore him to health; if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The urgent request of a righteous person is very powerful in its effect.”
In my life, I have prayed for people and they have been healed and I have prayed for people without seeing any apparent result. Here is what I know: that the power to heal and to provide forgiveness to people regarding their sin belongs to God and only God. I do not know how He chooses who to heal and who not to heal, I only know that the decision is His and I trust Him to be just in every decision He makes.
I also know that in the context of this section of Scripture, the sickness being referred to is a physical sickness and the healing a physical healing. We are also told that the prayer of a righteous person is powerful in its effect; not because the righteous person is given power, but because of the one (God) who brings the effect. James also ties confession to righteousness.
Now, to be righteous is to be in right standing before God. In order to receive righteousness, we must confess our sins. To confess is to admit that we have done something wrong, ask God’s forgiveness, and then strive not to give in to that sin any longer. James not only says it is important to confess, but to confess to one another. Yes. That means we have to make ourselves vulnerable to our brothers and sisters in Christ.
I am amazed at the tendency in the church, and in the world today. We want to admit that we are not perfect, but we also want to hide our sin from one another. We to not confess to one another. If faith without works is dead, then our faith is dead when we choose not to confess our sins to one another. We wonder why our prayers have no effect, while at the same time we are sweeping our sins into a hiding place where no one can see them.
If we struggle with any sin that we choose to keep hidden, it will keep us from being close to God and it will keep us from having a Godly impact in the lives of others. We should be quick to inspect our own lives and confess. We should not examine the lives of others and condemn. We are to be a people of confession, not of condemnation.
In this life and on this earth, then, we strive to have patient endurance. We do not deal underhandedly to try and get our way. We let our “yes” be “yes,” and our “no” be “no.” We also confess our sins to one another instead of condemning one another. This is how we live a righteous, holy life. This is how we prepare for God to make a real impact through us. It is not by building ourselves up to make ourselves look strong. It is not by hiding our weaknesses. It is about being honest regarding our struggles and confessing every sin to one another. The more vulnerable we are to one another, the more God’s grace and mercy will shine through.