Recently I received a challenge from a friend of mine to find a thoughtful approach to a particular verse that has been used in the past to browbeat people and make them feel guilty for not doing what they should be doing. As is my habit in this sort of reflection, I would like to provide the text for today’s discussion, briefly discuss how it has been used in a particular way, and then examine how the verse may be viewed in another light when we examine the larger context of where the verse appears so that we may encourage people to be thoughtful and reflective without resorting to guilt trips. In doing so I hope that we may view this scripture in a more positive light than it is often seen to be.
Our scripture for today is James 4:17, which reads: “Therefore, to him who knows to do good and does not do it, to him it is sin.” It is easy to see that when we neglect the first word of this verse, and take the verse out of its context and make it a stand-alone principle, and then define what sort of “good” we are supposed to know how to do but are not doing, that this verse when misused can be used as a club to attempt to coerce other people into behaving in a particular way. For example, if we are the sorts of leaders of churches or other institutions who wish to fill up the time of others with incessant and wearisome activities, this particular verse can be used to say that those who do not want to spend all of their free time in attendance of church and Bible studies and Spokesmen’s club and service projects and sports activities and fundraisers and so on are not doing what is good and therefore are sinning, not respecting the need of people to provide for themselves and their own well-being as well as to have the proper amount of rest and relaxation as well as personal time for prayer and Bible study that are necessary to live a balanced and godly life. We cannot give to others in service unless we have first provided for our own well-being, and therefore we must pay attention to our private development out of which our public service and worship flows. This has often been neglected in the past, to our harm individually and collectively through burnout.
One obvious way of placing this verse in a larger biblical context is to recognize that this verse is talking about one of the four biblical categories of sin. One type of sin that is fairly obvious is “missing the mark” (the Greek word hamartia or the Hebrew word ‘awon), where we have a standard of behavior that we are to meet and we fail to meet it. An example of this would be if we were a parent and got so afraid and angry about what a child had done that we exploded in wrath rather than correcting in love. Our behavior, motivated by fear or anger rather than love, would “miss the mark” of what is proper for a Christian and we would therefore be guilty of sin against God as well as sin against our children by setting them a poor example of God’s justice through our abusive behavior. The second type of sin is a “transgression” (expressed by the Hebrew word pesha’), where we cross over a boundary and enter into forbidden ground. An example of this sort of sin would be for an adult to pursue intimacy with someone under the age of 18, crossing over the boundary of adulthood and engaging in conduct that threatens the well-being of a young person who is protected by law on account of youth from exploitation and abuse.
In addition to these two well-known categories of sin there are two others that are described by the Bible as well. Here in James 4:17 we see that an additional category of sin that needs to be considered is a sin of omission. While the first two categories are sins of commission, acting in a way that either misses the target of appropriate behavior or crosses over a boundary into inappropriate territory, this third category of sin is a sin of omission, in failing to act in such a way as we know how to act. The Bible discusses this sort of sin in the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37), which show the sin of the priest and the Levite in terms of failing to act in love and charity towards someone in need because of a misguided concern for their own ritual purity and their own hardness of heart. When we know the proper standard of love and respect to behave towards others and we fail to do it out of pride of position or a lack of love towards others, we are committing sin. This type of sin does not have to do with filling our time with activities but rather about filling our lives with thoughtful consideration of the needs of others based on our own resources and our own godly love and compassion for those we are around.
Likewise, the fourth category of sin, sinning against our conscience (see 1 John 3:20-21, Romans 14:1-23, 1 Corinthians 8:1-13), is also a specific type of sin that deserves some reflection. Since it is our conscience by which our conduct is regulated, to do that which we do not believe to be right is to sin not because the deed may be wrong itself, but because it offends our conscience, and therefore may harden ourselves to sin in other ways that are against God’s way by leading us to feel guilty. That which we do out of guilt or shame, or because we feel forced or coerced into doing it, rather than doing it out of love, is of sin because it leads us to do that which we believe is wrong, and harms our own spiritual state before God. For example, if we believe it is morally unjust to eat meat, but yet we feel embarrassed or pressured into eating meat, we are committing a sin even though the Bible nowhere considers it a sin to eat clean meats (like chicken, beef, or lamb). If our conscience is overly sensitive or overly delicate, we must gradually strengthen it through accurate knowledge, rather than act contrary to it and therefore harm our ability to follow our conscience in other issues or to allow our conscience the time to grow and mature in grace and knowledge. Likewise, in concert with our obligation to love others, we ought to respect the consciences of others, even when that conscience is overly sensitive and delicate, so that we may put the well-being of our brothers and sisters above our own personal pleasure.
In order to understand the context of James 4:17, and its proper relationship to our love and outgoing concern for other people, we need to grasp the implications of the first word in the verse: “therefore.” When a writer or speaker uses this term, there is an intended relationship between a statement being made and what precedes it (and often what follows it). This connection may be a formally organized logical argument like a syllogism, or it may be a more informal argument where a discussion sets up a groundwork for an inference. Nevertheless, the existence of the word “therefore” explicitly makes a connection between a statement and a larger context, so that in order to understand the statement made we must examine that context.
Fortunately, the context of James 4 and 5 is very straightforward and makes it clear what it means to James to know to do good and not to do it. James 4:1-6 discusses the origin of fighting and quarreling and strife in our lusts and in our pride, but shows that God is gracious and rewards the humble. James 4:7-10 comments that Christians are to repent, to cleanse our hearts, and to humble ourselves in God’s eyes so that He will lift us up rather than seeking to lift ourselves up. James 4:11-12 tells us to avoid judging our brothers and sisters nor speak evil about them (which is surprisingly hard for those who call ourselves Christians to do). James 4:13-16 discusses the folly of boasting about tomorrow instead of humbly stating that if God wills something, then we will accomplish our plans and purposes. James 5:1-6 discusses the judgment that will come upon those who abuse their economic power and authority to exploit the poor and vulnerable. James 5:7-12 discusses the patience and perseverance and longsuffering that Christians are to exhibit in their lives. James 5:13-18 discusses the outgoing concern we should have in forgiving others of our sins and growing in faith. James 5:19-20 closes the book of James with a concern for bringing back those who are in error and have fallen into sin and transgression with love and outgoing concern.
We may therefore see from the context of James (indeed, from the whole book of James, if we will take the time to examine it in detail), that James is dealing with practical Christianity, and the ramifications and implications of the love that we are to have for our brothers and sisters in Christ. The book of James as a whole is unified by its concern for the practical implications of faith and for love and outgoing concern for others, whether that means avoiding partiality towards the rich against the poor, providing for social justice, caring for widows and orphans in their need, or such internal matters as curbing the excesses of our tongues (or pens or keyboards, which is not always easy for some of us to do), cleansing our hearts, and profiting from our trials however little we may enjoy experiencing them. It is in this larger context that if we know to do good and do not do it, to us it is sin, because Christianity is a religion not of theoretical knowledge, or of surface politeness, but of genuine self-sacrificial love and outgoing concern for others by following the model of Jesus Christ’s obedience to our Heavenly Father and His love for us as adopted brothers and sisters in sacrificing Himself to ransom us from slavery to sin and death. We therefore ought to live godly lives after His model, even if that costs us our comfort or even our lives.
In looking at James 4:17, we ought to be very careful to view it as a mirror to ourselves, so that we examine our own thoughts, our motives, our words, and our behavior in light of God’s unchanging standards, rather than using it as a club against other people to make them feel guilty about not doing enough. We are known by our fruits, but our fruits are not the result of careful posing and calculated design, but rather the organic outgrowth of our faith in God and our love for others. We can all do better; we all have sins and transgressions and weaknesses and shortcomings to repent of and to overcome; we all have areas of virtuous conduct that can serve as a model for others; we all have God’s Holy Spirit working within us and helping to shape and refine our character through the trials and tribulations as well as the opportunities for love and service towards others that we have in our lives. May we therefore do good as we know how to do, and learn and apply God’s ways to ever more closely resemble our Father and Elder Brother, rather than the corrupt world around us that so easily ensnares us in its ways.