3 Lessons for Students from the Book of James

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We are excited to announce the release of new curriculum on Rooted Reservoir this summer. In addition to the curriculum already available, now you will find six new offerings: Genesis, Exodus, James, 1 Peter, 123 John, and Jude. Whether you’re a parent who wants to study the Bible with your family, or a youth minister looking for curriculum for your small groups, large groups, or Sunday school teaching, we’ve built this flexible curriculum to help you disciple the teenagers in your life.

Martin Luther famously ranted, “St James’ epistle is really an epistle of straw, compared to these others, for it has nothing of the nature of the Gospel about it.” Yikes.

Now, normally, I am not one to contradict Martin Luther, but in this case, I can’t help but push back, with a few hundred years of scholarship on my side. Spoiler Alert: not only has the book of James persevered as an integral letter in the New Testament, but it remains one of the most pragmatic and relevant books of the Bible. Addressed to Christians scattered across the Mediterranean, James—one of the pillars of the early church and the brother of Jesus, no less—wrote what has been called the “Proverbs of the New Testament,” a letter littered with practical wisdom and instruction for Christian living.

While James does place significant emphasis on works accompanying or reflecting faith, he remains true to the heart of the gospel of grace. Given this balancing act between works and grace (more on that later), the wide array of subjects addressed, and James’ tendency to be blunt—the ESV Study Bible notes that “there are over 50 imperatives in the book’s 108 verses”—James can be an intimidating book to tackle. However, as a book written to Christians struggling with internal divisions in the midst of a hostile culture, James is chock full of wisdom for students. Here are just three timely nuggets:

Endurance Through Trials  

“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” (James 1:2-4) 

By design, James begins and ends his letter by offering hope and encouragement in the midst of trials. As Christians, facing trials is not optional (i.e. when you meet trials), and his audience was all too familiar with living amidst persecution and poverty.

In the past sixteen months alone, our students have gone through the wringer. They’ve endured a gauntlet that has included a pandemic, racial injustice, quarantine, a divided nation, economic downturn, a rising death toll, a bizarre election season, a draining school year, and so much more. Though it’s hard to appreciate the short and long-term ramifications of these life-altering trials, perhaps more than any living generation, students today have been battle-tested. And in all likelihood, more upheaval is on the horizon.

Because hard times are a given in life, and because our students have already been forced to reckon with things that challenge most adults, James’ instruction on trials is especially pertinent to young people. Yes, we can expect trials to come. But we can trust that our faithful perseverance in the face of adversity is actually a part of becoming more like Christ (v.4). We know that God will equip us with all that we need to endure (v.5-8), and that there is reward waiting in heaven when we have finished the race (v.12). Moreover, James encourages us to practice patience, to “establish your hearts for the coming of the Lord” (5:8). Ultimately, he prepares us to faithfully and patiently endure trials by living with a heavenly mindset.   

Quick to Listen

“Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.” (James 1:19-20)

In our current political and cultural climate, the voices that shout the loudest drown out responsible and patient listeners. We’re setting a terrible example for young people about how to have open and productive conversations with people who disagree with them. Even the most rudimentary principles of communication etiquette are being re-written by the rise of social media. And while social media is not inherently bad (I’ll holster those takes for another post), Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, etc. tempt even disciplined users to post without thinking, rewarding bold, brazen behavior with likes and retweets.

In a soundbite culture, we only listen for what we want to hear—if we listen at all—and we make up our minds about people and ideas before we hear them out. Shouting, shaming, and “cancelling” our opponents has become the new normal,. Not only is this detrimental to our society, but it sets an incredibly un-biblical example for students.

For teenagers—allegedly not the most mature demographic in the world—the opportunity to instantly and effortlessly post comments, rants, pictures, videos, and yes, memes, opens the door for bullying, immaturity, foot-in-mouthing, and all kinds of harmful and regrettable behavior.

Again, this is not to say that students should flee social media, but simply that we need to help them build a biblical framework for how they interact with others, both in person and online. The early churches were being torn apart by “speaking evil against a brother” and by proud people who used words to tear each another down (James 3:1-12; 4:11-12). James reminds us that we are neither the law nor the judge of others, for there is only one “Judge, He who is able to save and destroy” (4:12). Humbled before God rather than eager for the “gotcha!” moment, students can learn how to listen before they speak and to think before they post.

Living Faith

“What good is it, my brothers, if a person says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?…So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” (James 2:14, 17)

Finally, James’ primary concern for Christians remains as relevant as ever. As Christians, we cannot simply say we believe and behave as we wish. Upon hearing God’s Word, we are to be transformed and spurred into action (1:22-24). If we say we believe but do not care for the physical needs of those around us, we deceive ourselves and show our faith too be empty (2:14-17). Faith that is alive leads us to “visit orphans and widows in their affliction,” and to care for those who have been oppressed, marginalized, and treated unjustly.

Despite this emphasis on our works, James draws us back to the truth of the Gospel: we can only be saved by God’s grace. Our good works are not the means of our salvation. He reminds us that “whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it,” and therefore all are guilty and condemned under the law (2:10). Using Abraham as an example, he reminds us that Abraham first “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:6). Then, Abraham “completed” and “fulfilled” his faith with his willingness to obey God at all costs (Gen. 22; James 2:21-24).

As such, James properly understood leads us away from legalism and back towards God’s grace, but he offers an important reminder that our faith should be fruitful. In a time when cries for justice need to not only be heard but acted upon, James offers a powerful reminder to our young people. What if we raised a generation of Christians who didn’t just proclaim belief in Christ as King, but who lived like it? Who said “I will show you my faith by my works” (2:18) and fought for justice and for the marginalized and for all of God’s people?

James is by no means a cakewalk of a book, and it’s easy (and tempting) to get lost in the weeds. Still, the short letter is brimming with wisdom for our students. You can check out Rooted’s Bible Study Curriculum on the book of James here on Rooted Reservoir, and I encourage you and your students in your study!

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