Among the many rich resources given to us in The Holy Bible are the commandments. We
can draw an analogy between the numerous commandments in the Bible and the instructions
given in most formal training, whether written or oral. Training teaches one what to do to
accomplish certain things. It can be generalized or very detailed, and it includes considerable
information needed to provide context.
But anyone who has ever become committed to a vocation, avocation or recreational
activity knows that experience teaches much that is not learned in a classroom or from a book.
These are detailed practices, often called “tricks of the trade,” that enable us to be more effective,
efficient, and productive as we do what is spelled out in the classroom and the book. For
example, everyone knows how to change a light bulb, but most of us don’t know that if you have
to change a light bulb where the glass is broken, you can press a potato into the metal base to
unscrew the remains of the bulb from the fixture. Using cream of tartar to clean the film from an
automobile windshield and cutting up an onion under water to prevent unpleasant effects on
one’s eyes are other examples of “tricks of the trade.” No doubt everyone in this sanctuary could
give us examples of special ways to do the things he or she is expert in doing.
James helps us take a closer look at certain commandments and find ways to be more
effective in our performance. James emphasized the importance of what we do in obedience of
God, noting that hearing the Word is only part of the process. God wants us to act upon his
Word and produce fruits. Jesus encouraged us with, “My Father is glorified by this, that you
bear much fruit and become my disciples.” If that wasn’t enough, he told us, “Every tree that
does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” We frequently enjoy singing
about fruits of the spirit defined by Paul in his letter to the Galatians. Paul defined fruits of the
Spirit as, “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-
control.” Giving appropriate priority to the productivity of our performance can be considered a
trick of the trade of discipleship.
Jesus told us to love our neighbors, but James addressed a human frailty. “But if you show
partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.” James 2:9. We are
likely to find those most like ourselves easier to love. Loving our neighbors is obedience.
Identifying and implementing ways to avoid prejudice and discrimination against the poor and
those we deem to be “the other” is a trick of the trade.
In urging our awareness of a pitfall that we might underestimate, James is almost comical
in his characterization of “the tongue,” which he compares to a dangerous beast that cannot be
tamed. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and
has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue—a restless
evil, full of deadly poison. James 3:7-8
From James’ description one can almost visualize a disembodied tongue traveling among us as a
super villain. Indeed, the tongue can be used in ways that do much harm. Diligence and skill in
dealing with the power and challenges of our oral and other communications are tricks of the
trade. Lawyers use the term “withdrawn” when they say inappropriate things in the courtroom,
knowing full well that improper communication cannot be unheard.
Much scripture, including the admonitions of Jesus, is directed toward keeping peace
among us. To the Christian this is important at all levels, from the individual to the nation. God
told us not to murder, but James shows us how murder and other unacceptable consequences of
disputes and conflict result from undisciplined lust for power, wealth, prestige or other self
serving objectives. In James 4:1-2a, we read, Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do
not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain
it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts.
We also realize that God created in us creatures that will have disputes and conflicts, and if we
are to glorify God, we will have to deal with our differences in ways acceptable to God.
Avoiding disputes and preventing disputes and conflicts we can’t avoid from inflicting their
potential damage require us to develop tricks of the trade. In today’s passage James is reminding us of a couple of related things. They deal with our response to our circumstances. His reminder that if we are cheerful, we should sing praises is almost lost in this passage, where more emphasis is given to suffering and sickness. But our
response to good cheer is important. If we are cheerful, whatever problems we have are few,
small and/or being overcome by the gifts God gives us for coping. We are experiencing a
blessing which we all too often take for granted. James is telling us that we should, we must be
mindful of the circumstances that make us cheerful. And we must acknowledge our joy to God
and our sisters and brothers. This is important for us and for those around us who often are
influenced by our behavior. Singing praises and other expressions of joy and gratitude to God
can be considered tricks of the trade.
In this passage, more attention is given to the possibility that we are suffering or sick. If
we are suffering from illness, if we are troubled, if we are injured, if we are overwhelmed with
despair, if we are having any physical, mental, or spiritual pain, the first response is prayer.
James tells us to pray and then expands his direction to include prayer by the “elders of the
church.” James was referring not just to ordained pastors, but to those most involved with the
church and most experienced with its role as a supportive family. Learning to be a church in this
sense is a trick of the trade, as is learning to rely on the church for the support we all need.
Prayer is not having God do our will. Prayer is sharing in the embrace of God’s love, confident
of God’s concern for our well being.
James addresses another human characteristic in today’s scripture, our tendency to wander
from the way defined by the Word. “My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders
from the truth and is brought back by another, you should know that whoever brings back a
sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death….” Here, James is dealing with a
particular need and a particular means of addressing that need by Christians, by you and me. As
we seek to learn and follow the way of God, we are constantly bombarded with temptations and
distractions. As he began his ministry, Jesus was confronted by Satan and several well-defined
temptations. This experience and Jesus’ response provide an example for us. But temptations
we face are insidious, often not easily recognized, and almost never presented by someone with
horns and a pointy tail. I offer a true example.
Many employees of large corporation were pilots with access to small airplanes. The
company has severe restrictions against flying these planes on company business. However, it
was a common practice for these employees to fly and charge automobile mileage. A Christian
employee was to make a trip where private flight saved many hours and avoided an overnight
stay, actually saving the company money. The employee’s manager offered the employee the
use of the manager’s plane, which the employee accepted, fully intending to claim automobile
mileage on his expense account. In his opinion, this action inflicted no harm on the company or
anyone else. Only later, after serious thought and self examination, did he realize that
notwithstanding all of the rationalization, what he intended to do was dishonest.
Another familiar example is the popular use of the expression, “O my God!” (often
abbreviated OMG). Very early in the 10 commandments, we are told, “You shall not make
wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses
his name.” The words, “O my God!” can be used in prayer, but often they are trivialized and are
as inappropriate as using God’s name in a curse.
These are but two examples of the infinite number of ways we faithful may “wander from
the truth.” Others include seemingly trivial acts of dishonesty, withholding of forgiveness,
unkind and hurtful words spoken in anger and other sins we often overlook or perceive as minor.
Often as we “wander from the truth,” our sins are of omission, inattention to our Christian duties.
James is reminding us of an often forgotten opportunity that God gives us, the opportunity to
help each other back to the truth. Indeed, we are charged with ministering to each other in many
ways, including providing God-given guidance to each other.
How do we, as Christians, do that? First, we must say or do nothing that would lead or
encourage another to wander. We are examples to others far more often than we realize.
Next, we avoid any responses to others that can be interpreted as approving sinful
behavior. We must not passively appear to accept by our silence bigotry, vengefulness,
dishonesty and other disobedience of God’s will.
We seek every opportunity to minister to our sisters and brothers, by listening to them and
showing them compassion. Compassionate listening, in and of itself, is a powerful ministry. It
may or may not lead to an opportunity to minister to another more directly. The difficulty we
encounter going beyond these steps is illustrated by a quotation attributed to Gertrude Stein: “It’s
awfully important to know what is and what is not your business.” The extent to which we can
actively try to redirect a wandering Christian is determined by specific circumstances, especially
the relationship and whether the wanderer might be receptive to our opinion. In most instances
dealing with adults, our efforts are likely to be limited to responding to what the person chooses
to share.
In any event, our responses must be loving, respectful, and almost always non-judgmental
and non-directive. Carefully worded questions are usually preferable to statements. For
example, an angry and frustrated divorced woman tells us of her intention to tell her young
children what a deadbeat their father is because he is not up to date with his support payments.
We see a potential for damage here, and may want to use questions to explore this with her from
the children’s perspective. Sometimes our role is to refer someone to an expert or someone
better equipped to provide the counseling the person needs.
To repeat, important elements are love, respect, and a non-judgmental, non-directive
approach. The first two are essential and the others are almost always necessary for success.
Most of us would be pleased to save a physical life if given the opportunity. How gratifying to
realize the our use of a Heimlich maneuver, CPR, or a water rescue saved a physical life. Let us
remember that some of our most important “tricks of the trade” can “[bring] back a sinner from
wandering” and reward us with the extraordinary satisfaction of “[saving] the sinner’s soul from
death.”
May it be so.