Digging in Deeper: James 4:17

“So it is sin to know the good and yet not do it.”‬‬ (CSB – Read the chapter

Sin is about doing, right? We commit sins. Or, to put that more generically, we do things we shouldn’t do. Different worldview and religious traditions may define the concept differently in terms of its specifics—unless they deny the concept entirely—but every worldview has some kind of a concept of wrongdoing. But what if doing wasn’t all there was…

We understand doing because we can see it. We can experience it. We can fix it. If sin is defined as our doing something God doesn’t want us to do, then we know how to fix it when we have a sin problem. We stop doing whatever it is. If you struggle with lying, you stop lying. If you have a hard time with stealing, you stop stealing. If you are married and are being unfaithful, you stop being unfaithful. If pride is regularly grabbing hold of your heart, you stop being prideful. Whatever it is you are doing that you shouldn’t be doing, you stop doing it. 

The problem here, is that this understanding of sin and its solution leads us into a kind of passivity. Righteousness becomes mostly about not doing things. All of a sudden, Jesus followers committed to right living begin to gain a reputation for not doing things. Consider the old Baptist trope: Don’t smoke, drink, or chew, or go with girls who do; or our all-too-deserved reputation of being opposed to dancing and drinking and card playing (but dominoes are okay). 

In this way, the church has gradually developed the reputation of being anti. Anti what, you ask? Well…everything. Everything fun anyway. Remember John Lithgow’s caricature from the original Footloose? We may have kept ourselves away from sin, but in the process, we also started keeping ourselves away from life in general. We gave up too much. 

So, what’s the solution? Simply loosen up and live a little more? Are we to simply relax about all this not doing? Certainly there are some folks who have leaned in this direction. If in our efforts to pursue righteousness, however, we stop giving the commission of sin much thought, we may soon find ourselves in a mess of it up to our eyeballs. 

The solution to this mess is not to stop thinking about sin, it’s to start thinking about sin differently. And what James tells us here point us in the direction of this new way of thinking. As long as we think about sin primarily in terms of doing it, we are very likely to fall to either legalism or libertinism. What James is telling us here, though, is that sin is not only about doing. James here tells us that we can not do ourselves into a massive sin problem just as quickly as we can do ourselves into one. If there is something good we should be doing and we don’t do it, that’s sin just as much as our doing something we shouldn’t be doing. 

If we are not careful, though, this new idea can lead us to simply add a new category to our legalism. And a category of legalism focused on things we are not doing can become much more of a terror than categories focused on things we are doing. Thankfully, James is not just giving us a new category of sin here, he’s pointing us in the direction of bigger thinking about sin entirely. 

The truth, is that sin is not simply about the things we do or don’t do, it is about a posture of the heart wherein God’s will is put in subjugation to ours. In this, sin is not about any particular action we perform or don’t, it is about our thinking about that action. Pursuing the righteousness of God, then, is not about policing our behavior. It is about asking a very simple, if difficult, question: Are the decisions I am making and the resulting actions bringing honor or dishonor to God? Or perhaps even more simply than that: Am I submitted to God in this? 

Now, in many ways, this kind of thinking is much more difficult for us. It’s easy to simply police our behavior. Legalism may be stifling, but it is convenient. You never have to ask whether or not you’re on the right track. There are rules that tell you. But, if we reduce following God to simply obeying rules, we have lost out on the relationship He created us to have with Him in the first place. Even more importantly, we are not following Jesus at all, but instead our own system of rules, borrowed though it may be from His. There’s no life to be found there as anyone who has experienced it could tell you. 

When pursuing righteousness is about maintaining a heart that seeks to honor God first and foremost in all things, we constantly live with the question of whether or not we’re achieving the mark. That uncertainty is uncomfortable. But, that’s why Jesus sent us the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit living in our hearts is there to help us understand what is honoring of God and what’s not. Over time, as we pursue honoring Him in all things, we gradually develop a kind of spiritual muscle memory for righteousness. This is the result of the fruit of the Spirit growing in our lives. 

Friends, this is a better way to live. Let us pursue righteousness not as rules, but as relationship. Let us keep away from the sin that so easily entangles, not as behavioral management, but as heart tending. Let us not just strive for, but enjoy the life that is truly life.

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