None of us like tests. Well, some do. Very few of us like tests. We might be familiar, for example, with having to test the emissions of our vehicles. Not the same kind of test we normally fear, but we don’t relish the prospect of failing any test, and we don’t like to be told about the bad stuff coming out of our car.
James, the half-brother of Jesus and author of the eponymous book in the Bible, wants us to dislike the bad stuff coming out of our hearts. He doesn’t want us to fail the “omissions” test.
Our hearts drive our actions, or, in some cases, our inaction. James 4:17 tells us:
So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.
How do we know the “right thing,” or whether we aren’t doing it? There are two ways we might understand the sin described in this statement:
- Knowing the right thing and doing the wrong thing, or
- Knowing the right thing and doing no thing
Both, the Bible tells us, would be sin. But what help does James give us?
James gives us a test of sorts for how to evaluate the action or inaction that is being driven by our heart. The immediate context of James 4:17 is a passage calling on believers to humble themselves so that God might exalt us (James 4:7-16). In other words, exalting ourselves is contrary to humbling ourselves. He mentions three areas in which we tend to exalt ourselves: how we talk about sin as though we had no problem with it; how we talk about others to put them down; how we talk about the future with no regard to God.
The Primary Test
So, here are the categories for “doing the right thing” from James 4:7-16:
In James 4:7-9, we see that we are to examine ourselves for sin, mortify it, and speak honestly about it to God and to others (James 5:16). We are to Resist the devil, Repent and return to God, Reject sin in heart and mind, and Rue sin (mourn its presence and effects). The “right thing,” then, includes all of that. If we aren’t resisting, repenting, rejecting, and ruing, we are failing to do the right thing.
One of the easiest sins to commit, and the one we are most likely to join others in committing, is speaking against other people. There are times we are to “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15), so what James means here (James 4:11-12) is the type of speech that results only in complaining about others, rather than helping others. The right thing is to refrain from engaging in that sort of speech ourselves, rebuke those who we hear doing it, and engaging in speech that actually builds others up, rather than that tears them down.
Making plans for the future presumptively, without regard for God’s providence over every step we take, is evil boasting (James 4:13-17). James doesn’t mean here that we mechanically add “If the Lord wills, we will do this or that” to every expression of our intent about the future. The right thing is to recognize, before making plans, that every aspect of our lives is now, as a Christ-follower, subject to God’s will and mission.
The student deciding whether to take AP courses should take into consideration how they help him serve God. The graduate interviewing for jobs should consider not only benefits packages and office arrangements, but how this work will facilitate his disciple-making. The parents considering a job promotion and relocation should think about whether church life will be adversely affected.
In this primary test, the right thing is to 1) ensure that I am in a posture of humility and penitence before God; 2) speak well of others; 3) live in obedience to God. Apply these to relationships to other believers in your church, to family, to friends. Apply them to your decision-making process regarding time, vocation, and recreation. Apply them, in other words, to the things you do and the decisions you face every day.
The Broader Test
The whole book of James is about doing the word, rather than merely hearing it (James 1:22). So we might think about every aspect of life that James has covered to get a broader context for the “right thing” of James 4:17
- Count it joy when you experience trials (1:2)
- Ask for wisdom sincerely (1:5)
- Attribute temptation and sin to your heart (1:13)
- Receive and do the word of God (1:19-25)
- Bridle the tongue (1:26)
- Visit orphans and widows (the helpless and powerless, 1:27)
- Don’t show favoritism (2:1)
- Clothe and feed the hungry and naked (2:14)
- Submit your desires to God (4:1-17)
- Repent of materialism (5:1-6)
- Do not despair the Lord’s delay (5:7-11)
- Be sincere in speech (5:12)
- Depend on and submit to your faith family (5:13-15)
- Confess sins (5:16)
- Bring back wandering saints (5:19-20)
In one sense, meeting the primary test (Self-examination, Speech, and Submission) is foundational to meeting the broader test of the whole book, producing works that emanate from saving faith.
Questions to Ask
On the whole, James focuses here on inaction, not doing the right thing, but his instruction also applies to doing the wrong thing.
Keeping in mind whether you are doing the wrong thing or not doing anything at all when you should be, and considering the primary test that involves self-examination, speech, and submission, ask yourself whether you are doing the right thing with regard to:
- Your fellow church members
- Your church leaders
- Your wife, or husband
- Your children
- Your work
- Your money
- Your time
Jesus calls his disciples to live for him in every aspect of life, and with the living word and abiding Holy Spirit, we have all we need to please him.
We don’t merely refrain from the obvious sins. We don’t merely consider God’s will for us when we face big decisions. Every moment, every day, we are either doing the right thing, or doing the wrong thing, or doing no thing.