The Letter of James: Chapters 4 and 5

Here Stuart looks at division and conflict; challenges to the rich; and patience in suffering and prayer.

Man and woman seated on wall. The woman has her head in her hands.
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In this last session, we will dive into the final two chapters of James’ powerful letter. Chapter 4 expands on where chapter 3 left off, with a consideration of what causes conflict and the remedy to that all too human problem.

At the end of chapter 3, we spoke about how the tongue gives expression to the interior state of the heart; of our thoughts, and emotions. When there’s a problem in that interior state, the mouthpiece that is our speech can lead to pain and hurt. But the tongue is the symptom of the issue; the cause is deeper. Here, in chapter 4, James opens up that cause for us.

Chapter 4

The source of division

Verses 1-10 of chapter 4 form a series of densely packed arguments. We can unpick the first argument (vv.1-3), though, like this:

  • There are quarrels and conflict among people
  • The cause is interior: the passions or pleasures of the heart
  • Our orientation is selfish, so when we are moved by passion or pleasure, we act to attain what we want
  • If what we want is held by another person, we objectify them as an obstacle to our desire and try to remove them so that we can get what we want
  • If, though, we were to ask God for what we want, and what we want is for our good; we can trust in his provision
  • Our problem is we ask for things that fuel our selfish desires

Notice the movement of James’ argument here; it begins with our selfishness, and our wants. It ends with the same insight. Think back to what James has said in earlier chapters about impartiality and charity.

We live in a deeply divided world, on every level: nations are at war, or posture against one another. Communities within nations can be at odds with one another. Families fall apart. Friendships break down. This sorry state is due, James argues, to the fundamental state of our broken and sinful hearts. We are motivated by a sense of ‘what’s in it for me?’ When a group of people come together with that kind of an attitude, others become challengers or rivals, rather than brothers and sisters.

James also touches on how our actions can be driven by the power of our wants and desires – what he calls our passions. The response to this situation is outlined in verses 7-10: humility, bowing down before God and recognizing that he, not we, are the centre of the universe. Our selfishness is simply misplaced. As James says in verses 14 and 15; our life is so fragile, so passing, how then can we be so selfish?

The Eastern Christian tradition places enormous emphasis on this topic. Many Christians and non-Christians have written on the need to manage and contain our interior passions. An interesting book on this theme is the Ladder of Divine Ascent by St. John Climacus.

James also returns to the efficacy of prayer. James has enormous confidence in the power of prayer because he has enormous confidence and trust in the prayer-answering God. In this letter, which is so laser-focused on the practicalities of life and how we ought to strive to live, God is inescapably present and powerfully active. Perhaps, more than any other New Testament book, here we are presented with a God who doesn’t just listen to prayer but actively answers it.

Questions to consider

  1. When have you experienced conflict or division, and how did you respond to it?
  2. In what ways can you seek to practice humility in your daily life?
  3. Do you believe that God not only hears but answers your prayer? If you do, how does that change the way you pray?

Chapter 5

As we come to the end of the letter, James offers three final thoughts for us to consider:

  1. A word to the rich
  2. Being patient in suffering
  3. A final word on prayer

A word to the rich

Have a read through verses 1 to 6 of chapter 5, if you can, then read them out loud. Aren’t they striking?

James presents us with a stark warning to who he terms the “rich”. Are we to understand by this passage that it’s immoral to have wealth? Or is there any particular virtue in being poor? Should we all sell everything we own to be deliberately poor? Well that’s not the message here.

This passage is concerned with justice and the impartiality that has been a constant theme of this letter. Read verses 4 to 6 closely, do you see the issues that James is raising?

  1. Defrauding people
  2. Self-indulgence
  3. Condemnation

Remember back to James’ concern with the interior dispositions of the heart. James had identified in the community that he was writing to, that the rich among them were living out of an attitude of self-reliance that had made them numb to the needs of their brothers and sisters. Worse, it had led them to feel comfortable mistreating the less fortunate in order that they might benefit.

We don’t need to be financially rich to fall into those traps. We can be self-indulgent, self-referential and judgemental of others. If we find ourselves in that position, we should hear James’ words to the rich ringing in our ears.

But this passage ends with one of my favourite little verses: “He does not resist you.” Notice how that little characterization of the righteous person slips in at the end; selfless, humble, the righteous person doesn’t strike back in anger.

Being patient in suffering

That little verse ties the preceding paragraph to what James has to say on being patient in suffering. The righteous person is patient for one reason in particular: faith that Jesus is coming back.

Every Sunday we affirm this belief when we recite the creed at Mass. Jesus is coming back! That’s not supposed to be a vague hope, or even just a piece of factual knowledge that is added to a dead faith (think back to what James said earlier). Rather, the knowledge that Jesus is coming back, and coming back for us, should be a powerful motivator in how we live our lives.

Verse 8 sums up this insight for us: “Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand.” James means to root our hearts in real, living, trusting faith in God in such a way that it firmly shapes our lives in humility, service, and charity. This is the great preparation for Jesus’ coming, and we don’t know when that will be.

A final word on prayer

James wraps up his letter by returning once again to prayer. This really is the letter of prayer!

We’ve been encouraged in the letter to be humble, patient and joyful, especially in the context of trials and sufferings. But does that mean we are simply passive in the face of suffering? Or that we just accept it? No, James encourages us to pray!

If we read this passage in isolation, we might misunderstand what James is driving at in this advice. Remember that throughout the letter James has built up a picture for us of a God who actively intervenes and answers prayer for his people. If we are suffering, and James calls on us to pray; it’s because we can trust that God will act to alleviate that suffering, occasionally in miraculous healing or deliverance (think of Lourdes, for example), or more often, in the grace needed to bear that suffering well. Either way, God can be trusted to provide whatever the situation we find ourselves in demands. Indeed, verse 14 gives us the biblical underpinning for one of the great sacraments of the Church: the Anointing of the Sick. It’s given to us precisely in this context of an active God.

Verses 16 and 17 continue James’ teaching on prayer with these words: “the prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.” We are righteous if we are in the state of grace, and so our prayers have great power as they work, as they ascend before the throne of the Lord. James goes on in verse 17 to give the example of Elijah, emphasizing that he was no different from us; if he could pray and God responded with miracles, why not also with us?

But there’s another angle here as well, isn’t there? What about the righteous in heaven? The saints and angels, and most wonderfully, the Blessed Virgin Mary. Their prayers have great power, as James tells us; and they’re waiting to pray with and for us whenever we need them.

Finally, James ends his letter quite abruptly but fittingly with an encouragement to look after one another; to keep one another on the path of discipleship, watching out for each other and supporting one another on that journey. James’ letter itself is an exercise in that watching out, he continues to watch over our journey through his words all these years later. Thanks be to God.

Questions to consider

  1. How do you react when you read James’ words in 5:1-6?
  2. How does the knowledge that Jesus is coming back shape the way you live your life?
  3. In what ways could you orientate your heart?
  4. What do you understand by the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick and its purpose?

Concluding Prayer

Loving Father,
Thank you for the gift of this Letter of James.
I praise you that you are a God who Speaks
and that you speak to me today through your Spirit.
Guide me and open my heart
as I continue to be inspired by James in my faith and in my life.
Through Christ our Lord.