Phil McGraw is a famous psychologist known for his daily talk show on the Oprah Winfrey Network. “How’s that working for you?” is Dr. Phil’s favorite question to ask counselees who are frustrated with life. James, the half-brother of Jesus, asks a similar question throughout his New Testament letter, which he wrote to Christians who were scattered by religious persecution. James asks, “How’s your faith working for you?”

That question reminds me of Rich Mullins, the famous Christian music artist, who had James in mind when he lyrically compared a faith that does not work to the foolishness of a screen door on a submarine. Both Rich and James agree that an active faith is better than an inactive one. A living faith far exceeds a dead faith, and it will not sink.

Our next stop on the ultimate road trip through the Bible is a general New Testament epistle filled with gritty, useful, and everyday spirituality. James shows us what real faith in Jesus Christ looks like in action. So, how is your faith working for you? Does it spring into action when you face the trials of life? Does it work to overcome temptation? Does it control your tongue, eliminate racism, and bring about real social justice? Does it resolve conflict in your relationships? James links all these practical matters and more to authentic faith.

Let’s get to know James before we learn from his letter. The New Testament mentions four men named James, including James, the son of Zebedee and brother of John. Both of Zebedee’s sons were among Jesus’s disciples. However, James, the Lord’s half-brother, is more likely the author of the New Testament letter called James.[i]

James became a significant pillar in the Jerusalem Church.[ii] He was so well known that Jude, another one of Jesus’s siblings, identified himself simply as “the brother of James” (Jude 1:1). However, it was not until after Jesus’s resurrection that James called his brother Lord and Christ (1:1, 2:1, 1 Corinthians 15:7). Until then, all of Jesus’s siblings expressed skepticism about His Messiahship (John 7:3-5). Can you blame them? They played stickball (or something like that) with Jesus in the streets of Nazareth. It would be hard for me to call either of my brothers Messiah unless one of them died and rose from the dead.

Trials and Temptations

James jumps right into the deep end of life by saying, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness” (1:2-3). James encourages the scattered Jewish believers to expect the Lord to test their faith through various trials. When He does, choose joy, seek divine wisdom (1:5-8), and maintain an eternal perspective (1:9-11).

When facing the trials of life, we can either fold up like an accordion or firm up our faith. In an interview with Dial In ministries, John MacArthur said, “The single most validating reality in life is not some hidden idea in your head; it’s trials. It’s what your faith can survive.” James points to an eternal reward for those who refuse to fold up during trials, writing, “Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him” (1:12).

Seamlessly, James transitions from various trials to daily temptations (1:13-18). Read his words slowly and carefully.

Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. 1:13-15

Temptation is the common experience of all humanity (1 Corinthians 10:13). As nobody gets an excused absence from the trials of life, no one is immune from the daily solicitations of the evil one. The devil even tempted Jesus in the wilderness. Moreover, James makes it clear that the source of temptation is the devil, not God. God tests our faith, but He never tempts us with evil.

James also presents us with four stages of temptation—desire, deception, disobedience, and death—followed by the solution for temptation. In summary, reflect on the goodness of God (1:19-21), reach for the truthful word of God (1:22-25), and remember God’s purpose for your life (1:26-27).

Love and Good Works

James begins chapter 2 by addressing the ugly truth about showing partiality in the church, a sin that has many expressions. Today, people inside and outside the church talk much about the evils of racial and economic bias, and rightly so. James takes aim at those who show partiality to rich people.

For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? 2:2-4

James pulls no punches. He goes on to shine a spotlight on the foolishness of favoritism (2:5-13). Partial and biased people are evil judges, spiritually irrational, and lawbreakers. Furthermore, they are unmerciful and do not love their neighbor.

Then, James transitions to his favorite topic—a faith that really works! “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?” (2:14). The discussion that follows in 2:14-26 is not without controversy. Martin Luther, the Catholic monk who is associated with the Protestant Reformation, read James and rejected the book’s canonical authority based on this passage, calling it “an epistle of straw.”

Zealous Luther believed James was theologically opposed to the Apostle Paul, who advocated for justification by faith alone, not by works (Ephesians 2:8-9). James, on the other hand, argued that faith without works is dead, even using Abraham to make his point. Are James and Paul in disagreement? Or do they present two sides of the same theological coin?

James is a commonsense theologian. If he were alive today, he might reside in Missouri, the Show-Me State! James wants you and I to show him our faith in action. If Luther had cooled his passion for reform even slightly, he might have seen how James and Paul complement each other theologically. Like Paul, James has no room for a faith that merely hides in one’s head or one that is as useless as a screen door on a submarine. James writes, “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!” (2:19).

Speech and Wisdom

Next, James gets even more gritty and useful about our everyday faith in the Lord Jesus Christ by warning about the human tongue. He begins by cautioning teachers who “will be judged with greater strictness” (3:1). Earlier, James urged every person to be “slow to speak” (1:19) and then linked true religion to the ability to bridle one’s tongue (1:26).

In all, James has a lot to say about what we say. He compares the tongue, which is small but powerful, to a bit in a horse’s mouth and a rudder that turns a ship. Positively, he says, “If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body” (3:2). Negatively, “the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness” (3:6). Like a spark, it can set the whole forest on fire. Sadly, I have heard too many gossipy tongues set churches ablaze. I must ask, how’s your tongue working for you?

James finishes the third chapter with a discussion about wisdom that works (3:13-18). Biblical wisdom is the ability to apply divine truth skillfully to all areas of life. James identifies two kinds of wisdom—that which “comes down from above” and the kind that is “earthly, unspiritual, and demonic.” Then, he provides a closer look at each.

For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace. 3:16-18

Conflict and God’s Will

In the fourth chapter, James turns his attention to conflict resolution (4:1-12). Inner conflict boils down to our lusts or wants, also known as the desires of our flesh. I want. I want what I can’t have. I can’t get what I want. Sound familiar? The problem with our wants travels deep into our inner being. For example, like Cain, who killed his brother Abel, unbridled inner conflict can lead to murder; the root of our fights and quarrels is envy.

Another reason we can’t get what we want is that we fail to ask God, the one Person who can give us the desire of our heart (Psalm 37:4). Prayerlessness creates a vacuum that frustrates our inner conflicts. Even then, unanswered prayer means we must examine our motives. James says, “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions” (4:3).

The conflicts we experience boil down to one question: Are you a friend of God or the world? James describes friendship with the world as spiritual adultery, noting, “He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us” (4:5). James pulls no punches by saying friendship with the world is enmity with God.

In 4:7-12, James offers several practical ways to resolve the inner and outer conflicts we face. Namely, submit to God’s authority (4:7a), resist the devil (4:7b), draw near to God (4:8b), pursue purity (4:8b), practice lament (4:9), be humble (4:10), and discipline your speech (4:11). Then, James pivots to how our faith works with God’s will. The half-brother of Jesus takes a “business unusual” approach to life.

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”—yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin. 4:13-17

James is not against planning. However, he warns about the dangers of planning presumptuously, as his brief argument turns on the word “instead.” The boastful, business-as-usual person does not consider the brevity and unpredictability of life. He or she also plans without God and prayer. However, the wise person plans his or her life by saying, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” The Latin phrase Deo volente, meaning “God willing,” captures the idea.

Patience and Prayer

Finally, how is your faith working during times of prosperity and adversity? Sounding a bit like a social justice advocate, James starts the fifth and final chapter with a warning to the rich who “have lived on the earth in luxury and self-indulgence” (5:1-6). He rails on them for ripping off their laborers. He wants the rich to bless, not oppress, the poor.

Then, James encourages patience when suffering (5:7-12). “Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord.” He points to the farmer who patiently awaits the arrival of his harvest and then to the prophets, “who spoke in the name of the Lord.” Also, “You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.”

For those who face the adversity of physical illness, James prescribes fervent prayer and uses Elijah, the prophet, as his inspiration (5:13-20). “Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, 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 heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit.”

James gives us much to consider at the intersection of real-life and faith in Jesus Christ. So, how’s your faith working for you? Truly, a faith that works is better than a screen door on a submarine.

[i] We refer to James as Jesus’s half-brother because they had the same mother, Mary, but not the same father.


[ii] See Acts 12:17, 15:13-21, 21:18, and Galatians 2:9, 12.


Patrick Michael Coogan says:
I really like the article written in the devotions. Thank you for teaching and strengthening me.

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“Every detail in our lives of love for God is worked into something good.”

Romans 8:28 MSG