I finished studying the writings of the Apostle Paul and moved into the writings of the Apostle James. One of the first things that I learned – or possibly relearned – is that this James is the half-brother to Jesus Christ and may possibly be the oldest son of Mary and Joseph. (See Matthew 13:55.)
It took some time for James to accept that his brother was the Son of God. I think that I might have the same problem if one of my brothers started claiming to be divine. However, like James, I would be totally convinced if the resurrected Christ appeared to me! We know that James was converted because he later became an Apostle of Jesus Christ and the first bishop of the Church in Jerusalem. (See Acts 12:17.)
The writings of James show that he was a humble man. He could have been prideful and had the attitude, “I am the brother of Christ.” However, he began his epistle with the words, “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” (James 1:1). This simple sentence shows his humility even though he most likely had great influence as the brother of Christ as well as the held high offices that he held in the His church.
Since James was the bishop in Jerusalem, he most likely wrote his epistle from Jerusalem. Unlike Paul, he wrote his epistle to the general church members rather than to members in specific locations. He addressed his epistle “to the twelve tribes which are scattered aboard” (James 1:1). This means that he was addressing people in all ages and not just those of his own day.
James, the brother of Christ, was most likely stoned to death in A.D. 62 by order of the Sanhedrin. Therefore, he wrote his epistle prior to that time and most likely sometime between A.D. 45 and 60.
As I read the book of James, I was impressed with his teachings. He covered a variety of topics, which may mean that his writings were taken from numerous sermons. The thing that stands out to me is his emphasis on living the principles of the Gospel. In fact, he emphasized the importance of not only knowing the gospel but on living it. Here are just a few of his teachings that emphasize works as well as faith.
Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.
Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works (James 1:17-18).
But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves (James 1:22).
For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also (James 2:26).
Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin (James 4:17).
James throws into the mix some teachings about speech. He compares the tongue to a bit in the mouth of a horse or the helm of a ship. He explains that we put a bit in the mouth of a horse in order to control the animal, and we use a fairly small helm to control the direction of a large ship. He says that the tongue is able to control the body even though it is so small.
For in many things we offend [meaning stumble or err] all. If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man, and able also to bridle the whole body (James 3:2).
I understand from this verse that we must learn to control our tongues – meaning the words that we say – in order to become perfect. Many of us may be frightened by the commandment to become perfect, but there is no reason why we should. This morning I listened to a talk given by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in the October 2017 General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He titled his talk, “Be Ye Therefore Perfect – Eventually.”
Elder Holland reminds his listeners that the New Testament meaning for the word perfection is to be finished or complete in our refinement. Jesus Christ is the only perfect person to ever walk the earth, but He made it possible for all of us to become perfect some time in eternity. No mere mortal will reach perfection in this life, but we can move in that direction by living Christian principles. Elder Holland counsels us to refrain from tearing ourselves or others down in the process.
What I now say in no way denies or diminishes any commandment God has ever given us. I believe in His perfection, and I know we are His spiritual sons and daughters with divine potential to become as He is. I also know that, as children of God, we should not demean or vilify ourselves, as if beating up on ourselves is somehow going to make us the person God wants us to become. No! With a willingness to repent and a desire for increased righteousness always in our hearts, I would hope we could pursue personal improvement in a way that doesn’t include getting ulcers or anorexia, feeling depressed or demolishing our self-esteem. That is not what the Lord wants for Primary children or anyone else who honestly sings, “I’m trying to be like Jesus.”
To put this issue in context, may I remind all of us that we live in a fallen world and for now we are a fallen people. We are in the telestial kingdom; that is spelled with a t, not a c. As President Russell M. Nelson has taught, here in mortality perfection is still “pending.”
So I believe that Jesus did not intend His sermon on this subject to be a verbal hammer for battering us about our shortcomings. No, I believe He intended it to be a tribute to who and what God the Eternal Father is and what we can achieve with Him in eternity….
Elder Holland continues by counseling us to focus on the achievements of the Father and the Son and stop dwelling on our own failures. We should recognize the magnificence of Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ. We should love them, admire them, and seek to become like them. “Our only hope for true perfection is in receiving it as a gift from heaven – we can’t `earn’ it. Thus, the grace of Christ offers us not only salvation from sorrow and sin and death but also salvation from our own persistent self-criticism….”
My brothers and sisters, except for Jesus, there have been no flawless performances on this earthly journey we are pursuing, so while in mortality let’s strive for steady improvement without obsessing over what behavioral scientists call “toxic perfectionism.” We should avoid that latter excessive expectation of ourselves and of others….
Brothers and sisters, every one of us aspires to a more Christlike life than we often succeed in living. If we admit that honestly and are trying to improve, we are not hypocrites; we are human. May we refuse to let our own mortal follies, and the inevitable shortcomings of even the best men and women around us, make us cynical about the truths of the gospel, the truthfulness of the Church, our hope for our future, or the possibility of godliness. If we persevere, then somewhere in eternity our refinement will be finished and complete – which is the New Testament meaning of perfection.
James and Elder Holland encourage us to live the teachings of Jesus Christ to the best of our ability. However, we must not let our human failings discourage us and cause us to waiver or leave the straight and narrow path. We must continue to move toward the eventual goal of perfection as we cling to the word of God, exercise our faith, and show our faith by our works. In other words, we must live the teachings of Jesus Christ.