If failing to do the right thing is sin, then we’d best have some idea what the “right thing” is.
The problem is that our attitudes toward sin are, well, sinful. We suppose that since we don’t habitually murder, rob, and steal, we don’t have much of a sin problem. But God has a much broader view of sin. He is holy, after all.
The Christian life is not simply a matter of avoiding the “wrong thing,” especially the “big” wrong thing, such as murder or robbery or theft, but of doing the “right thing,” and we’re told, in James 4:17
So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.
James is concerned that the believer’s faith result in good works, because all living faith works. Only a dead faith produces no works, no good deeds, and James wants believers to know that living a life pleasing to God, and delightful to us, requires that we not only refrain from bad deeds (sins of “commission,” those we commit), but that we not refrain from doing good deeds (sins of omission, duties or expectations or commands that we omit).
Hence, the “right thing.”
The Reality of Omission
Sin. Not doing what we ought is sin just as doing what we ought not.
And sin, though it does not condemn the believer, disrupts his fellowship with Father, Son & Spirit as well as fellowship with other people. For the believer, unconfessed sin grieves the Holy Spirit, impedes prayer, and steals joy. It deceives, hardens, and dulls the heart. It may even effect the health and vitality of the body (Psalm 51).
And habitual, repeated, consistent sins of omission, if they characterize one’s life, may be an indicator that there has been no real change, no real conversion, no living faith, just as surely as habitual sins of commission.
It is in our interest, then, not to mention obedience to God, to root out sin and kill it wherever it appears in our thinking, feeling, and doing. We do well to examine where we are sinning by omission.
The Reach of Omission
Significant. Most believers don’t habitually murder, rob, and steal, but we should recognize that we commit other sins such as slander, anger, and deceit fairly regularly. We might even be sensitive to those things, and try to avoid them.
But when we consider not only what God expects us not to do, but also what he expects us to do, we realize the extent of our sin.
Consider, for example, the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17). Consider Jesus’ summary of those commands: Love God and Love Neighbor (Matthew 22:34-30). Consider the thirty to forty (depending on how you count) “one another” commands in the New Testament. Consider the command to make disciples (Matthew 28:18-20), to pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 4:17), and speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15).
If omission effects us just like commission does, then we should realize that sinning by omission is serious, and affects us much more than we might initially suppose.
The Reason for Omission
Self-interest. Why do we sin? Because we like it. Why do we sin by omission? Because we like it.
We fail to give food and clothing to those who are hungry and naked because it would require sacrifice of resources and time. We fail to “bear one another’s burdens” because we prefer a manageable, risk-free discipleship. We forsake assembling together because we prefer time at the lake, the golf course, or the ball park.
We fail to do the right thing because we think we know better. We fail to do the right thing because we think we will produce better results doing our own thing.
The Remedy for Omission
Submission. James gives this charge in a passage focused on putting aside our own attempts at self-exaltation by submitting to God. This submission, for those with living faith, will manifest itself in how they speak about three main areas of life. Living faith submits to God and speaks rightly about personal sin (James 4:7-10), about others (James 4:11-12), and about the future (James 4:13-16).
The “right thing to do,” in the immediate context, is honest self-examination and contrition, guarding our speech about others, and making future plans in light of God’s sovereignty and his call on our lives.
As with any sin, omitting an obligation should be confessed, repented of, and turned away from. We should relish this opportunity to submit to God by doing what he commands.
God’s commands, which reveal his will for us, are not as we suppose, restrictions on our liberty or limitations on our self-actualization. They are God’s gracious provision that indicates his desire for us, and that result in a life that is pleasing to God and pleasant to us.
When we sin by omission we are undercutting our own progress in holiness, slowing the process of our becoming like Christ.
Do the Right Thing
Doing the right thing is obeying God’s commands in situations and circumstances that we encounter every day in our relationships to others at work, at school, at home, or at church. Let’s not fail to do the right thing.