I have never achieved enough success to be mistaken for a gardener, but for several years I did try to grow vegetables. One year I decided that I was going to make a serious effort at growing peppers. Peppers all seemed similar to me, so it made perfect sense to place the bell peppers, jalapeños, and banana peppers side by side. Unfortunately, the bees did a wonderful job at making sure the pollen got around. My failure to keep the plants distinct from each other led to a type of hybrid that was neither bell peppers, banana peppers, or jalapeños.
Last month, we looked at the first half of James 1. If James was indeed writing to Christians who were scattered because of the persecution in Jerusalem (James 1:1), then they must have felt disoriented. Perhaps they asked, “If Jesus Christ is truly the Lord, then why am I experiencing the trials that I am experiencing?” In the first half of James 1, James reminds them why Christians go through trials.
Christians are often tempted to lose their distinctiveness to conform to the expectations of those around them. In the second half of James 1, we see James urging his readers to remain distinct from the world in several ways.
First, Christians are to maintain a steadfast resistance to sin. There’s no reason to think that James expects Christians to live sinlessly. The gospel, which James calls “the word of truth” (James 1:18), reminds us of our deep need for forgiveness. But there is a difference between someone who, by God’s grace, fights his or her own sinful tendencies and someone who views sinful desires as natural or even inescapable. God only gives good gifts; He does not entice us to sin (1:13, 17). The root of our sin is our own corrupt desires. If these desires were plants, the fruit would be death. Unlike the world, Christians don’t automatically trust our desires. God calls us to reject the direction in life that our sinful desires would take us. As the Puritan John Owen said, “Be killing sin, or it will be killing you.”
The second way Christians should be distinct from the world is in the way we respond to the Word of God. For every Christian, God has planted the Word in their heart through the gospel of Jesus Christ (James 1:18). The fact that He’s caused us to be born again through the Word is evidence of His goodness. By listening carefully to the Word of God, Christians are to become patient listeners. As we listen to God’s Word, we reject the temptation to lose our temper to compromise biblical standards. In our world today, there should be a key difference between the self-promotion prevalent in the world and Christian character. Listening to the Word does not constrain us; it frees us, since it is indeed the “law of liberty” (James 1:25).
The last way we see the distinction Christians should maintain is the way that Christians should take care of the needy. Throughout Scripture, widows and orphans are prime examples of those who are at the margins of society. The idea behind James 1:27 is that we who are able are to help those who are not. Genuine Christianity always benefits the least of these.
The peppers we grew that year were not great, but they were edible. When Christians lose their distinctiveness, however, a far worse result occurs. Their religion becomes “worthless” (James 1:26). God calls us through James 1 to something greater, and a distinct, “unstained” religion is exactly what the world needs (James 1:27).