Originally published in the North Central Chronicle on October 10, 2008.
This summer I worked at a Bible camp for the third straight year. (Don’t worry, we didn’t praise a likeness of George W. Bush like those crazies did in Jesus Camp did.) The theme for the summer was character. We studied the Book of James because each of its five chapters gives clear and direct advice on how to live a life with Christ-like character. I realized that even though Scripture is instruction for Christians, its lessons apply to everyone. The character qualities James lays out, if followed, make Christian teachings relevant to every person, religious or not.
Here are a few things I learned this summer that inform my character and broaden my understanding and appreciation of Jesus and of Christianity. It’s Spark Notes, Jesus-style.
Don’t play favorites. It’s what James, the brother of Jesus, calls the “Royal Law”: love your neighbor as yourself. The Law hammered in the importance of hospitality and loving your neighbors, but James, following Jesus’ lead, extended it further: you should love not only the neighbors you like or those who are well-off, but those who might not deserve love or get it very often.
This lesson relates directly to the parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus, after telling the story, points out the contradiction of the two religious men who passed by the mugging victim on the road; he says they really didn’t love God if they didn’t help that man in need. The Good Samaritan, however, stopped and helped the man, quite possibly saving his life. This Samaritan, who to the Israelites back then would have been viewed as a second-class citizen, did right by God because he loved his neighbor even though he was considered an enemy. He didn’t play favorites.
The easiest place to play favorites is at home with family. Sibling rivalries and family turmoil can create the deepest divisions between people, but learning to love even the most self-centered or immature family member just as much as the others is the best way to live by the Royal Law.
Watch your mouth. “The tongue is a small part of the body,” writes James, “but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark.” Working with kids reveals just how true this is. In a heated moment, words can fly out uncontrollably and cause all sorts of lasting damage.
But James insists that you can’t build a person up with your words one day and then tear him down the next: “Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing,” he writes. “This should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring?” If you allow yourself the selfish indulgence of cursing someone out or spreading malicious gossip, you’ve already lost the battle.
Holding your tongue is not easy, but it is simple. When you come upon a situation that inspires in you a creative comeback or pointed slur, don’t say it. Just don’t. Stop, think, then don’t say a word. You may think the other person deserves what was coming to them, but chances are they don’t. If you forgive them and let it go, you win.
Be humble. James quotes a proverb when he writes: “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Believing in God isn’t essential when it comes to humility. Sooner or later those who let pride be their guide will meet crash and burn, sometimes painfully. That’s why I love humility. It forces you to acknowledge that sometimes you can’t do things on your own, that you need to come to a place of spiritual, emotional, or physical brokenness before you can build yourself up again even better than before.
Humility is not putting yourself below others; it’s putting others above yourself. Jesus did this well. It’s a little harder, though, for the rest of us to get right. We all kind of suck at it, so there’s always room for improvement. Families are, again, a perfect practice field for this. Be willing to be a humble servant when you visit home: do chores without being asked or give a little sibling a ride somewhere without grumbling. It can be painful sometimes to elevate others above our own swollen egos, but doing so will be rewarding for you and appreciated by others.
Be patient. Along with humility, patience can be the hardest thing to learn and do well. But it is so very important to be patient. James explains: “See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop and how patient he is for the autumn and spring rains. You too, be patient and stand firm.” James equates patience with standing firm, enduring hardship for the promise of something good.
In the original Greek, to “stand firm” is sterizo kardia, or “strengthen the heart.” So by persevering through the most obnoxious, maddening, kill-me-now-God moments, you are strengthening your heart and your resolve, allowing yourself more patience for the next time you need it.
I learned this first-hand every day at camp. Answering the same obvious question for the seventeenth time can wear on your very being, but by having patience and being kind in each response, I was strengthening my heart and modeling what good patience looks like. Sometimes I wasn’t very patient and wanted to wring the kids’ necks, but I got better. And that’s all it takes-the willingness to get better.
Let’s be real: this all sounds great, but we’re not saints. It would be much easier to not do these things, honestly. But I challenge you to challenge yourself, to check if your words and your actions are right. Not correct, but right. That’s the kind of reality check we all need.