James: Faith and Work
James brings an action-oriented perspective to the principles that we can trust God to provide for us and that we must work for the benefit of others in need. If faith is real—if we truly trust God—then our faith will lead to all kinds of practical actions for the benefit of others in need. This perspective makes James an eminently practical book.
Stephen Colbert discusses how his faith intersects with his humor and why humor is an appropriate way to deal with serious issues.
James begins by emphasizing the deep connection between daily life and spiritual growth. Specifically, God uses the difficulties and challenges of daily life and work to increase our faith. “My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance, and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:2–4). “Any kind” of trial can be an impetus for growth—including troubles at work—but James is particularly interested in challenges so intense that they result in “the testing of [our] faith.”
What kinds of challenges do we face at work that might test our faith in—or faithfulness to—Christ? One kind might be religious hostility. Depending on our situation, faith in Christ could expose us to anything from minor prejudice to limited job opportunities to dismissal or even bodily harm or death in the workplace. Even if others don’t put pressure on us, we may tempt ourselves to abandon our faith if we think that being identified as a Christian is holding back our careers.
Another kind of trial could be ethical. We can be tempted to abandon faith—or faithfulness—by committing theft, fraud, dishonesty, unfair dealings, or taking advantage of others in order to enrich ourselves or advance our careers. Another kind of trial arises from failure at work. Some failures can be so traumatic that they shake our faith. For example, getting laid off (made redundant) or dismissed from a job may be so devastating that we question everything we previously relied on, including faith in Christ. Or we may believe that God called us to our work, promised us greatness, or owes us success because we have been faithful to him. Failure at work then seems to mean that God cannot be trusted or does not even exist. Or we may be so gripped by fear that we doubt God will continue to provide for our needs. All of these work-related challenges can test our faith.
What should we do if our faith is tested at work? Endure (James 1:3–4). James tells us that if we can find a way not to give into the temptation to abandon the faith, to act unethically, or to despair, then we will find God with us the whole time. If we don’t know how to resist these temptations, James invites us to ask for the wisdom we need to do so (James 1:5). As the crisis passes, we find that our maturity has grown. Instead feeling the lack of whatever we were afraid of losing, we feel the joy of finding God’s help.
In speaking about wisdom, James begins to develop the principle that we can trust God to provide for us. “If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you” (James 1:5). It may seem surprising that we can ask God for wisdom about the tasks of ordinary work—making decisions, assessing opportunities, trusting colleagues or customers, investing resources, and so on—but James tells us to “ask in faith, never doubting” that God will give us the wisdom we need. Our problem is not that we expect too much help from God at work, but that we expect too little (James 1:8).
It is absolutely essential to grasp this. If we doubt that God is the source of all we need, then we are what James calls “double-minded.” We have not yet made up our mind whether to follow Christ or not. This makes us “unstable in every way,” and we will not be able to accomplish much for the benefit of anyone, or able even to “receive anything from the Lord” on our own behalf (James 1:7). James is under no illusions about how hard it can be to trust God. He knows all too well the trials his audience is already beginning to experience throughout the breadth of the Roman Empire (James 1:1–2). Yet he insists that the Christian life must begin with trusting God to provide.
He immediately applies this to the economic sphere in James 1:9–11. Rich people must not delude themselves that this is due to their own effort. If we depend on our own abilities, we will “wither away” even while we go about our business. Conversely, poor people should not think this is due to God’s disfavor. Instead, they should expect to be “raised up” by God. Success or failure comes from many factors beyond ourselves. Those who have ever lost their livelihood due to recession, corporate sale, office relocation, crop failure, discrimination, hurricane damage, or a thousand other factors can testify to that. God does not promise us economic success at work, nor does he doom us to failure, but he uses both success and failure to develop the perseverance needed to overcome evil. If James 2:1–8 invites us to call on God in times of trouble, then verses 9–11 remind us to call on him in times of success as well.
Notice that although James contrasts the goodness of God with the evil of the world, he does not allow us to imagine that we are on the side of angels and those around us on the side of devils. Instead, the divide between good and evil runs down the middle of every Christian’s heart. “One is tempted by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by it” (James 1:14). He is speaking to church members. This should make us slow to identify church as good and workplace as bad. There is evil in both spheres—as church scandals and business frauds alike remind us—yet by God’s grace we may bring goodness to both.
In fact, the Christian community is one of the means God uses to raise up the poor. God’s promise to provide for the poor is fulfilled—in part—by the generosity of his people, and their generosity is a direct result of God’s generosity to them. “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights” (James 1:17). This affirms both that God is the ultimate source of provision and that believers are responsible to do all they can to bring God’s provision to those in need.
James continues his practical guidance with words about listening. Christians need to listen well both to people (James 1:19) and to God (James 1:22–25). “Be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:19). We listen, not as a technique to influence anyone else, but as a way to let God’s word “rid [ourselves] of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness” (James 1:21). Interestingly, James suggests that listening to others—and not just listening to God’s word—is a means of ridding ourselves of wickedness. He does not say that other people speak God’s word to us. Instead, he says that listening to others removes the anger and arrogance that keep us from doing God’s word spoken in Scripture. “Your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. . . . Welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls” (James 1:20–21). When others speak words that we do not welcome—words of disagreement, criticism, dismissal—it is easy to respond in anger, especially in high-pressure situations at work. But doing so usually makes our position worse, and always discredits our witness as Christ’s servants. How much better to trust God to defend our position, rather than defending ourselves by angry, hasty speech.
This advice applies to all kinds of work and workplaces. Listening is well established in business literature as a crucial leadership skill. Businesses must listen carefully to their customers, employees, investors, communities, and other stakeholders. In order to meet people’s true needs, organizations need to listen to the people whose needs they hope to meet. This reminds us that the workplace can be fertile soil for God’s work, just as the Roman Empire was, hardship and persecution notwithstanding.
To give one example, the first result on the Harvard Business School Publications website www.harvardbusiness.org on Sept. 18, 2009, browsing under the topic “Interpersonal Skills,” is “Listening to People.”
This brings us to the second principle of faithful work—working for the benefit of others in need. “Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves” (James 1:22). This principle follows naturally from the principle of trusting God to provide for our needs. If we trust God to provide for our needs, then it frees us to work for the benefit of others. On the other hand, if our trust in God does not lead us to act for the benefit of others in need, then James suggests that we don’t really trust God. As James puts it, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress” (James 1:27). Belief means trust, and trust leads to action.
The source of James’s insight seems to be Jesus himself, especially his teachings about the poor and the practical care he showed to a variety of marginalized people. This can be seen, for example, in James’s allusions to Jesus’ teachings regarding the special place of the poor in God’s kingdom (James 2:5; Luke 6:20), along with Jesus’ warnings about rotting treasures “on the earth” (James 5: 1–5; Matt. 6:19).
This has direct application to work because meeting needs is the number one mark of a successful workplace, whether in business, education, health care, government work, the professions, nonprofits, or others. A successful organization meets the needs of its customers, employees, investors, citizens, students, clients, and other stakeholders. This is not James’s primary focus—he is focused particularly on the needs of people who are poor or powerless—but it nonetheless applies. Whenever an organization meets people’s true needs, it is doing God’s work.
This application is not limited to serving customers in established businesses. It requires even greater creativity—and demonstrates God’s provision even more—when Christians meet the needs of people who are too poor to be customers of established businesses. For example, a group of Christians started a furniture factory in Vietnam to provide jobs for people at the lowest level of the socioeconomic spectrum there. Through the factory, God provides for the needs of both overseas customers needing furniture and local workers who were previously unemployed. Similarly, TriLink Global, an investment firm led by Gloria Nelund, helps start businesses in the developing world as a means to meeting the needs of poor and marginalized people.
Christians’ duty does not end with serving the poor and needy through individual workplaces. Social structures and political-economic systems strongly affect whether the needs of the poor are met. To the degree that Christians can influence these structures and systems, we have a responsibility to ensure that they meet the needs of poor and needy people, as well as the needs of rich and powerful people.
Interview by William Messenger on July 29, 2010, in Hong Kong. Name of source withheld by request.
Al Erisman, “Gloria Nelund: Defining Success in the Financial World,” Ethix 80 (March/April 2012), available at http://ethix.org/category/archives/issue-80.
James applies both of his underlying principles as a warning against favoritism toward the rich and powerful. He begins with the second principle—working for the benefit of others in need. “You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ But if you show partiality, you commit sin” (James 2:8–9). The sin is that when we favor the rich and powerful, we are serving ourselves rather than others. This is because the rich and powerful have the potential to bestow a bit of their riches and power on us. The poor can do nothing for us. But they are the people in need. James illustrates the point by depicting the special treatment that a wealthy, well-dressed person might be given in church, while a poor, shabby person is treated with contempt. Even in something as simple as coming to church, the poor are in need of a word of welcome. The rich—being welcomed everywhere—are not in need.
James draws on Leviticus 19:18—“Love your neighbor as yourself”— to indicate that showing favoritism toward the rich and excluding or slighting the poor is no less an offense against God’s law than murder or adultery (James 2:8–12). Doing this means that either we are not treating our neighbors as ourselves, or we are failing even to recognize that a poor person is our neighbor.
Although James is talking about church gatherings, there are workplace applications. At work, we can pay attention to people who can help us or to people who need our help. In a healthy workplace, this might be merely a matter of emphasis. In a dysfunctional workplace—where people are pitted against each other in a struggle for power—it takes courage to stand on the side of the powerless. Refusing to play favorites is especially dangerous when we are faced with socially entrenched favoritism such as ethnic discrimination, gender stereotyping, or religious bigotry.
Although James couches his argument in terms of working to benefit others in need, this application implicitly raises the principle of trusting in God. If we truly trusted God for our provision, then we wouldn’t be tempted to favor the rich and powerful so much. We wouldn’t be afraid to associate ourselves with the unpopular crowd at work or school. James is not exhorting us to do good works despite lacking faith in Christ and trusting God’s provision. James is demonstrating how good works are made possible by faith in Christ. Ironically, the poor themselves already live this truth on a daily basis. “Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?” (James 2:5). This is likely an allusion to Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount or Plain (Matt. 5:3; Luke 6:20). The poor are not inheriting the kingdom because they are better people than the rich, but because they put their trust in God. Lacking the means to depend on themselves, or to curry favor with the rich, they have learned to depend on God.
James takes up the topic of work in detail in the second part of chapter 2. When discussing work, he invariably uses the plural “works” (Greek erga) rather than the singular “work” (Greek ergon). This leads some to suppose that James uses “works” to mean something different from “work.” However, erga and ergon are simply plural and singular forms of the same word. James is describing any kind of work, from works of kindness, such as giving food to someone who is hungry, to on-the-job work, such as increasing the sustainable yield of rice paddies. His use of the plural shows that he expects Christians’ work to be continual.
James’s focus on work has led to deep controversy about the letter. Luther famously disliked James because he read James 2:24 (“You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone”) to be a contradiction of Galatians 2:16 (“A person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ”). Other leaders of the Protestant Reformation did not share this view, but Luther’s objection came to dominate the Protestant reading of James. Although we cannot go into the long debate about Luther and the book of James here, we can inquire briefly whether James’s emphasis on work is at odds with the Protestant rejection of “justification by works.”
What does James himself say? James 2:14 is arguably the centerpiece of his argument, so we will consider this section before moving on: “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works?” James bluntly answers his own question by stating, “So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (James 2:17)—as dead (as he notes in a carefully chosen example) as someone in desperate need of food who receives only empty words of well-wishing from his neighbor (James 2:15–16). James takes it for granted that believing in Christ (trusting in God) will move you to feel compassion for— and act to help—someone in need.
We have opportunities every day to meet the needs of people we work for and among. It can be as simple as making sure a confused customer finds the right item for their need or noticing that a new co-worker needs help but is afraid to ask. James urges us to take special concern for those who are vulnerable or marginalized, and we may need to practice noticing who these people are at our places of work.
This is the heart of the book of James. James does not imagine that work is at odds with faith. There can be no “justification by works” because there can be no good works unless there is already faith (trust) in God. James doesn’t mean that faith can exist without works yet be insufficient for salvation. He means that any “faith” that doesn’t lead to works is dead; in other words, it is no faith at all. “As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead” (James 2:26). James doesn’t command Christians to work for the benefit of others in need instead of placing faith in Christ, or even in addition to placing faith in Christ. He expects that Christians will work for the benefit of others in need as a result of placing faith in Christ.
The insight that Christian faith always leads to practical action is in itself a lesson for the workplace. We cannot divide the world into spiritual and practical, for the spiritual is the practical. “You see that [Abraham’s] faith was active along with his works,” James says (James 2:22). Therefore we can never say, “I believe in Jesus and I go to church, but I keep my personal faith out of my work.” That kind of faith is dead. James’s words “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24) challenge us to work out our commitment to Christ in our daily activities.
The rest of the letter gives practical applications of the two underlying principles of trust in God and working to benefit others in need. Given our assessment of James 2:14–26, we will proceed with the perspective that these applications are outworkings of faith in Christ, valid in James’s day and instructive in ours.
See Gk. #2041 in James Strong, Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon (Ontario: Woodside Bible Fellowship, 1995), and #2240 in Gerhard Kittel, Gerhard Friedrich, and Geoffrey William Bromiley, eds., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985), 6:635.
Luke Timothy Johnson, “The Letter of James,” vol. 12, The New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998), 177.
For a discussion of how this understanding of faith squares with that of Paul, see Douglas Moo, The Letter of James (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 37-43, 118-44.
James follows up his practical guidance about listening (see James 1:19–21) with similar advice about speaking. Here he employs some of the fiercest language in the book. “The tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. . . . It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (James 3:6, 8). James is no doubt well aware of the Old Testament proverbs that speak about the life-giving power of the tongue (e.g., Prov. 12:18, “Rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing”), but he is also aware of the tongue’s death-dealing powers. Many Christians rightly take care not to harm others through harsh speech at church. Shouldn’t we be just as careful at work not to “curse those who are made in the likeness of God”? (James 3:9, referring to Gen. 1:26–27). Water-cooler gossip, slander, harassment, disparagement of competitors—who has never been injured by harsh words in the workplace, and who has never injured others?
James 3:14–4:12 also employs the paired principles of dependence on God and service to others in need. As usual, James puts them in reverse order, discussing service first and trust later. In this case, James starts with an admonition against selfish ambition, followed by an exhortation to submit to God.
Selfish Ambition Is the Impediment to Peacemaking (James 3:16–4:11)
Selfish ambition is the opposite of serving the needs of others. The passage is aptly summarized by James 3:16: “For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.” James highlights a particular practice that overcomes selfish ambition: peacemaking. “A harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace” (James 3:18). In typical fashion, he alludes to a workplace—grain harvesting in this case—to make his point. He names several elements of peacemaking: grieving for the harm we do others (James 4:9), humbling ourselves (James 4:10), refraining from slander, accusation, and judgment (James 4:11), and mercy and sincerity (James 3:17). All of these can and should be employed by Christians in the workplace.
Selfish Ambition Is Overcome by Submission to God (James 4:2–5)
Selfish ambition causes quarrels and fights within the Christian community, and James says the underlying cause is their failure to depend on God. “You covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures” (James 4:2–3). We fail to depend on God when we don’t even ask him for what we need. Interestingly, the reason we don’t depend on God is because we want to serve our own pleasures rather than serving others. This wraps the two principles into an integral unit. James states this metaphorically as an adulterous love affair with the world, by which he means the wealth and pleasure we are tempted to believe we can find in the world without God (James 4:4–5).
Again echoing the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:9).
James borrows the metaphor of adultery from the Old Testament prophets, who frequently used it to depict the pursuit of wealth and pleasure as substitutes for God.
Although James uses the metaphor of adultery, he is talking about selfish ambition in general. In the workplace, one temptation is to use others as stepping stones to our own success. When we steal the credit for a subordinate’s or co-worker’s work, when we withhold information from a rival for promotion, when we shift the blame to someone not present to defend themselves, when we take advantage of someone in a difficult situation, we are guilty of selfish ambition. James is right that this is a chief source of quarrels. Ironically, selfish ambition may impede success rather than promote it. The higher our position in an organization, the more we depend on others for success. It can be as simple as delegating work to subordinates, or as complex as coordinating an international project team. But if we have a reputation for stepping on other people to get ahead, how can we expect others to trust and follow our leadership?
The remedy lies in submitting to God, who created all people in his image (Gen. 1:27) and who sent his Son to die for all (2 Cor. 5:14). We submit to God whenever we put our ambition in the service of others ahead of ourselves. Do we want to rise to a position of authority and excellence? Good, then we should begin by helping other workers increase their authority and excellence. Does success motivate us? Good, then we should invest in the success of those around us. Ironically, investing in others’ success may also turn out to be the best thing we can do for ourselves. According to economists Elizabeth Dunn of the University of British Columbia and Michael Norton of Harvard Business School, investing in other people makes us happier than spending money on ourselves.
Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton, Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013).
James moves to a new application in giving a warning specifically about business forecasting. Somewhat unusually, he focuses first on the principle of trusting God. He opens with sobering words: “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there, doing business and making money.’ Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes” (James 4:13–14). It might seem that James is condemning even short-term business planning. Planning ahead, however, is not his concern. Imagining that we are in control of what happens is the problem.
The following verse helps us see James’s real point: “Instead, you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wishes, we will live and do this or that’” (James 4:15). The problem is not planning; it is planning as if the future lies in our hands. We are responsible to use wisely the resources, abilities, connections, and time that God gives us. But we are not in control of the outcomes. Most businesses are well aware how unpredictable outcomes are, despite the best planning and execution that money can buy. The annual report of any publicly traded corporation will feature a detailed section on risks the company faces, often running ten or twenty pages. Statements such as “Our stock price may fluctuate based on factors beyond our control” make it clear that secular corporations are highly attuned to the unpredictability James is talking about.
Why then does James have to remind believers of what ordinary businesses know so well? Perhaps believers sometimes delude themselves that following Christ will make them immune to the unpredictability of life and work. This is a mistake. Instead, James’s words should make Christians more aware of the need to continually reassess, adapt, and adjust. Our plans should be flexible and our execution responsive to changing conditions. In one sense, this is simply good business practice. Yet in a deeper sense, it is a spiritual matter, for we need to respond not only to market conditions but also to God’s leading in our work. This brings us back to James’s exhortation to listen with deep attention. Christian leadership consists not in forcing others to comply with our plans and actions, but in adapting ourselves to God’s word and God’s unfolding guidance in our lives.
These warnings seem to echo both Jesus’ teaching and the Old Testament prophets. See, for example, Ezekiel 34:3; Amos 2:6–7; 5:12; Micah 2:2; 6:12–16; Matthew 6:19; Luke 6:24–25; 12:13–21; 32–34; 16:19–31; 18:18–30. Note also that James 1:1–18 focuses on understanding past and present success and failure, while this section focuses on forecasting the future.
James returns to the principle that work must serve the needs of others. His words in the beginning of chapter 5 are scathing. He warns “the rich” to “weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you” (James 5:1). While the gold in their vaults and the robes in their closets may look as shiny as ever, James is so certain of their coming judgment that he can speak as if their riches were already decomposing: “Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted” (James 5:2–3). Their self-indulgence has succeeded only in “fattening” them “for the day of slaughter” (James 5:5). The day of slaughter seems to be a reference to the day in which God judges those whom he called to lead and care for his people, but who preyed on them instead (Zech. 11:4–7).
These rich people are doomed both for how they acquired their wealth and for what they did (or didn’t do) with it once they had it. James echoes the Old Testament as he excoriates them for their unjust business practices: “Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts” (James 5:4; cf. Lev. 19:13). Money that should be in the hands of laborers sits instead in the treasuries of the landowners. And there it stays—they hoard their wealth and ignore the needy around them (James 5:3).
Business leaders must be especially diligent about paying their workers fairly. An analysis of what constitutes fair pay is beyond the scope of this discussion, but James’s words “the wages you have kept back by fraud” (James 5:4) are an accusation of abuse of power on the part of these particular wealthy landowners. The workers were owed wages, but the rich and powerful found a way out of paying them without incurring punishment by the legal system. The rich and powerful often have means to subvert the judiciary, and it’s astonishingly easy to exercise unfair power without even recognizing it. Abuses of power include misclassifying employees as independent contractors, inaccurately registering workers in a lower skill code, paying women or minorities less for doing the same job as others, and using children for jobs so dangerous that adults refuse to do them. Misuse of power can never be excused just because it is a so-called standard practice.
James also condemns those who “have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure” (James 5:5). The question of what constitutes living in luxury and in pleasure is also complex, but it confronts many Christians in one way or another. James’s chief concern in this passage is the well-being of the poor, so the most relevant question may be, “Does the way I live enhance or diminish the lives of poor people? Does what I do with money help lift people out of poverty or does it help keep people impoverished?”
Leviticus 19 is one of James’s favorite Old Testament passages; see Luke Timothy Johnson, Brother of Jesus, Friend of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 123ff.
James concludes his letter with a variety of exhortations on patience, truthfulness, prayer, confession, and healing. As always, these appeal either to the principle that faithful works must benefit others or that it must be done in dependence on God, or both. And as usual, James makes direct applications to the workplace.
James begins with a workplace example to illustrate the looming return of Christ: “Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near” (James 5:7–8). He then echoes these words as he draws to a close: “Elijah was a human being like us, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain and the earth yielded its harvest” (James 5:17–18).
Patience at work is a form of dependence on God. But patience is hard in the workplace. Work is done to obtain a result—otherwise it wouldn’t be work—and there is always the temptation to grasp for the result without actually doing the work. If we’re investing to make money, wouldn’t we like to get rich quick rather than slow? That mentality leads to insider trading, Ponzi schemes, and gambling away the grocery money at the slot machines. If we’re working to get promoted, shouldn’t we position ourselves better in our supervisor’s eyes by any means available? That leads to backstabbing, stealing credit, gossip, and team disintegration. If we’re working to meet a quota, couldn’t we meet it faster by doing lower-quality work and passing off the problems to the next person in the production chain? And these are not only problems of personal morality. A production system that rewards poor quality is as bad or worse than the worker who takes advantage of it.
“Above all, my beloved, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your ‘Yes’ be yes and your ‘No’ be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation” (James 5:12). Imagine a workplace in which people always told the truth—not simply avoiding lying but always saying whatever would give the hearer the most accurate understanding of the way things really are. There would be no need for oaths and swearing, no retroactive clarifications, no need for contract provisions defining who gets what in the case of misstatements or fraud. Imagine if sellers always provided maximally informative data about their products, contracts were always clear to all parties, and bosses always gave accurate credit to their subordinates. Imagine if we always gave answers that communicated as accurate a picture as possible, rather than subtly concealing unflattering information about our work. Could we succeed in our present jobs or careers? Could we succeed if everyone became maximally truthful? Do we need to change our definition of success?
James returns to the principle of dependence on God in his discussion of prayer. “Are any among you suffering? They should pray” (James 5:13). “If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God” (James 1:5). James is inviting us to get specific with God. “God, I don’t know how to handle this production failure, and I need your help before I go talk to my boss.” God is able to accomplish what we need, though he does not guarantee to answer every prayer exactly as we expect. Many Christians seem strangely reluctant to pray about the specific issues, situations, persons, needs, fears, and questions we encounter every day at work. We forget James’s exhortation to ask for specific guidance and even particular outcomes. Have faith, says James, and God will answer us in the real situations of life. “Ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you” (James 1:5).
Confession and Healing
James exhorts us to confess our sins to one another, so that we may be healed (James 5:16). The most interesting words for the workplace are “to one another.” The assumption is that people sin against each other, not just against God, and at work that is certainly the case. We face daily pressure to produce and perform, and we have limited time to act, so we often act without listening, marginalize those who disagree, compete unfairly, hog resources, leave a mess for the next person to clean up, and take out our frustrations on co-workers. We wound and get wounded. The only way to be healed is to confess our sins to one another. If someone just shot down a co-worker’s promotion by inaccurately criticizing that person’s performance, the wrongdoer needs to confess it to the one wronged at work, not just to God in private prayer time. The wrongdoer may have to confess it to the rest of the department too, if he or she is really going to heal the damage.
What is our motivation for confession and healing? So that we may serve the needs of others. “Whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death” (James 5:20; emphasis added). Saving someone from death is serving a very deep need! And perhaps— since we are all sinners—someone else will save us from death by turning us from the error of our ways.