Passage – James 1:1
James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ,
To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion:
It is easy to skip over this introduction. It’s only 19 words. It doesn’t say much. But it reveals a lot. If we don’t slow down and observe the relationship between James and the believers he was writing to, then we’ll treat the book of James like a series of winsome and practical social media posts.
Ministry and counseling are all about relationships. If that’s true, we should take time to ask: Who was James? Who were these early Christians? What kind of relationship did they share? What were they going through? How did James approach these friends in light of the challenges they were facing? If we do, our ministry approach, especially to those who are suffering, will be sharpened greatly.
Who Is James?
If James were writing his Christian resume, he would have said, “James, half brother of Jesus. Lived with the Messiah for 20+ years. Currently, caring for Mary – the mother of Jesus – while leading a growing house church movement.” That’s all true. James would not have been lying if he said these things. But that is not the approach he took.
James starts with, “A servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.” James begins with, “I am one of you,” rather than “I’m special.” In general, this is the better social strategy. Social grandstanding is off-putting. But, as we will see later, when ministering to people who are suffering, it is even more important.
In hard times, friendship matters more than social standing. In effect, James starts his letter by saying, “Like you, I am a servant (in a lowly position) and am someone who calls Jesus, ‘Lord.’” This is not a letter from a famous person trying to make hurting people feel special; like a celebrity visiting military troops stationed abroad. It is a correspondence between people on the same social and spiritual tier striving to honor the same Savior in hard times.
When we’re caring for one another in hard times, we shouldn’t lead a conversation with:
- Let me tell you what degrees I have.
- Let me tell you how many books I’ve read.
- Let me tell you the experts I’ve talked to about what you’re going through.
Is education beneficial? Yes. Can books provide useful guidance? Yes. Do experts have helpful things to say? Yes. Do these things come first in a helping relationship? No. If we lead with these things, we’re communicating, “If you were smart enough or more well connected, you could get yourself out of this situation.” Instead, in one another care between believers, we lead with, “You’re not alone. I’m with you.”
That is what James does. He says he is a servant – “I want to know what’s hard and am willing to help in any way I can” – and has a shared purpose in life – in this case, James and these believers shared a common commitment to honor Jesus as Lord. Counseling between believers is best done from beside (not above) by those who have a shared direction and values.
Who Are these Early Christians?
They are the “twelve tribes in the Dispersion.” What does that mean? The early church faced persecution. The recipients of James’ letter were some of these new converts to the new religion of Christianity who were faced with a difficult choice.
- Renounce their new faith and stay in Jerusalem where they had jobs, extended family, social connections, and knew the language (Hebrew).
- Remain true to their faith and flee; meaning they would be without jobs, social connections, and would be rebuilding their life while speaking their second language (Greek).
These believers were originally Jews who recognized Jesus as the Messiah. They were convinced of the deity of Christ and resurrection to such a degree that they were unwilling to renounce their new Christian faith. Unless they wanted to be imprisoned, they had to flee. Because they fled, they faced all the hardships that are common to people who try to start a new life in a new land.
- They had to start their careers over and, therefore, experienced poverty.
- They didn’t have social connections to get good jobs, so they were taken advantage of.
- They wrestled with questions about whether their choice to flee was “worth it” and whether God had abandoned them.
- They faced many lose-lose situations where they didn’t know what to do. Hence, there was a temptation for their faith to become passive when there didn’t seem to be any good options.
- Limited resources created rivalry within their group. When someone in the group started to get ahead, they were tempted to leave the others behind and just socialize with the new, more well off, friends.
- Subsequent raw emotions created strife and intense conflict between believers who fled together.
- Resentment built towards their employers who profited greatly from their work but didn’t reward them with raises or promotions.
- They began to wonder if praying did any good.
These are the life challenges and social dynamics James addresses in his letter. These bullet points take you section-by-section through the book of James. We shouldn’t read the book of James as a buffet or practical insights on living well. That’s too light, too trite.
The book of James is a tear and sweat stained letter navigating seemingly impossible situations between people striving to love one another amid circumstances they hated. The book of James, if read correctly, isn’t interesting; its excruciating.The book of James is a tear and sweat stained letter navigating seemingly impossible situations between people striving to love one another amid circumstances they hated. Click To Tweet
Reading the book of James devotionally while sipping coffee in an air-conditioned room on a cushy couch doesn’t do the book justice. If that is where we are – admittedly, that’s akin to where I’m writing this commentary from, it creates contextual dissonance between us and the original audience. If that’s you too, don’t stop the journey. But do ask yourself some questions.
- What are the impossible situations you find yourself in?
- What makes you wonder if your faith is “worth it”?
- What contexts tempt you to show partiality towards people with whom you should be loyal?
- Where has your faith become passive because obedience seems pointless?
- When do you give yourself too much freedom to speak harshly because you’re hurting?
- When do you give yourself to empty daydreaming about a better life?
- What do you think is “just not worth praying for” anymore?
If you’re not willing to be this honest, you may not be ready for the book of James to read you (i.e., allowing the Bible to interpret your life, not just you interpreting the text). In hard times, there’s no point pretending that these questions don’t exist. The book of James is written in a clear, direct style because James knew his friends were in this kind of situation. There was no reason to play games. Either their new Christian faith made a difference, or they made the biggest mistake of their life when they fled home.
What Kind of Letter is This?
The book of James is a unique New Testament letter. It’s kind of like the epistles that Paul and Peter wrote, but not quite. In many ways, James is a hybrid book: part epistle, part Proverbs. That’s why many Bible teachers refer to James as the New Testament equivalent of the Old Testament book of Proverbs. If we’re going to counsel from James well, we need to understand this.
The context of these early believers helps us understand why James would take this approach. Undoubtedly, whenever James got to hear from or about these friends, he was peppered with difficult, raw questions. They needed practical help, not lofty insights. They were tired from hard work and harsh conditions, so they didn’t have a lot of time for reflection.
James adapted his style to their need. We should show the same flexibility. We should adapt how we approach an individual based on their need. That’s almost so self-evident that it could go without saying. But it offers a significant correction for how Christians often think of counseling and caring for one another.
We can often be prone to think there is a “Christian answer” (singular) for each life struggle. We want to know the biblical answer to our question and assume if we communicate that, we’ll be effective.
- What does the Bible say about depression?
- What should I say to someone who has experienced trauma?
- How should parents handle a child who questions the rules of the house?
- Add your question, but make it sound like there is one, correct answer.
If we pay attention as we explore this book, we’ll see that the person we’re speaking to and the context they’re in should shape our approach. There are some things that are universally true, but universal truths without contextualization become cliché, rushed, and impersonal. They’re no less true, but they can be much less helpful.
Use your sanctified imagination. Consider whether James spoke to his house church with the same tone and approach as he wrote this letter. It seems unlikely.
- His house church met weekly and in person. These dispersed believers were far off and, therefore, could only receive a letter.
- Most people in his house church would have had stable lives – jobs, fair bosses, social connections. His friends who fled would be in more desperate situations.
- The situation of those in his house church would lend itself to reflection, learning, and incremental change over multiple conversations. Those receiving James’ letter were exhausted and a letter that read like a conversation would have been too long for them to read.
The differences in these situations call for different approaches in how James would pastor and counsel them.
It would be awkward, bordering on rude, for James to interact as directly and succinctly with his house church as he does in this letter. The book of James has a lot of commands. A large percentage of his verbs were imperatives. If the same percentage of his verbs were commands in day-to-day conversations, he wouldn’t be a very effective pastor or friend.
We should notice how much listening is implied in this letter. Each topic James addressed was a hardship he had heard about, empathized with, wept over, prayed for, and explored in a conversation. James couldn’t have written a letter with this degree of specificity if he hadn’t. This book is a “final draft” response to many conversations. In counseling language, this letter is the case summary; not the session-by-session dialogue.
As we explore the book together, let’s not just copy-paste these answers to our friends. That’s lazy counseling, even if its biblical. Let’s see how these timeless truths were contextualized to particular situations and then ministered through valued relationships.
Approaching the book of James this way isn’t “less biblical.” It is actually learning from every point in the process of inspiration – hardship that prompted this book to be written, the emotional and relational experience of recipients who received it, the pastoral relationship that facilitated it, and content of what was written – to be full orbed ambassadors (II Cor. 5:20) of the hope the book of James conveys.
With this approach we’ll realize that the effectiveness of the Bible to address the hardships we face isn’t just contained in the words written on the page. The effectiveness of the Bible also involves the context of relationships the Bible creates – the church. The Bible isn’t just a book of theological truths and instruction for godly living. The Bible is a book that birthed the church, a context of relationships that are vital to experiencing the full redemptive impact of the truths it contains.
- What “social escalating habits” are most annoying to you?
- What surprises you most about how James introduces himself in this letter?
- What’s an example of when someone tried to comfort your hardship with an answer instead of through relationship?
- What stands out to you about the circumstances of these early Jewish Christians?
- What parts of their experience can you relate to most?
- If you are going to be as honest about life as the book of James, what questions do you need to be more willing to engage?
- When have you been most prone to give a “Christian answer” (singular) to life struggles?
- How well do you listen when people share hard things that don’t have easy answers?
- In light of understanding the context better, what part of the book of James are you most excited to study?
* * * This article is part of a series entitled A Counseling Commentary on James.
* * * If you enjoyed this article, you may also be interested in my series A Counseling Commentary on Philippians.