A few weeks ago, a student from my on-campus Bible study expressed an interest in studying the book of James together in our group. I agreed, forgetting for a moment one simple, long-standing opinion I have about the book of James. I don’t like it. It doesn’t make me feel good. I don’t mean to sound blasphemous, but I tend to agree with Martin Luther when he famously called James “an epistle of straw.” One of the international students from our group astutely observed that reading James is the spiritual equivalent of taking a cold shower; it isn’t pleasant, but it definitely wakes you up!
As I began to take said shower in preparation of studying James with the students, I felt myself growing anxious. How do I explain this works-focused book in the context of our gospel of grace? How do I balance James’ call to action with the apostle Paul’s call to fully rely on God? How do I echo James’ words about the importance of our actions without making God sound like the Behavior Police? And how do I teach from this book without being reductive and simplistic?
I hear the voice of Archie Bunker reading the first chapter of Genesis to his son-in-law. “There it is,” he says, “in black and white. We didn’t crawl out from under no rocks, we didn’t have no tails, and we didn’t come from monkeys, you atheistic meathead!” I appreciate his clarity-of-thought, but come on. I don’t want to Bunker my way through the book of James, saying, “See? There it is. Just get your acts together. Just be better people or your faith is worthless.”
Knowing My Role
The anxiety I feel while teaching from a difficult, confusing or even controversial passage of scripture is not unique to me. I imagine every pastor or teacher feels it at one point or another, because the Bible is filled with passages that, when isolated, hold the potential to both deter the faithful reader and arm the skeptical one. Part of being a follower of Christ is wrestling with these difficult passages of scripture, and trusting that The Holy Spirit can help them make sense to us. The anxiety I’m talking about only seems to creep up when I confuse my job with The Holy Spirit’s job. I Corinthians 2 tells us that “no one can know God’s thoughts except God’s own Spirit, and we have received God’s Spirit so we can know the wonderful things God has freely given us.”
I’m still very new to student ministry, but there’s something about which I’m growing more convinced. If I make it my responsibility to always be interpreting the scripture for these kids, not only am I making myself anxious by trying to do The Holy Spirit’s job, I’m actually robbing the students of a valuable spiritual skill: knowing how to read the Bible. I don’t want a group of college students who are learning to think, act and understand the scripture like me. I want a group of students who are learning to read the Bible, wrestle with its teachings and allow The Holy Spirit to do the heavy lifting.
I guess that’s another thing about which I would agree with Martin Luther. Let’s teach these kids how to read the Bible, not just how to think like us. Let’s guide them and teach them when we can, but let’s also teach them to rely on The Holy Spirit to make it all make sense, because let’s be honest. If He inspired the whole Bible, He probably has a better grasp on it than you or me….or Archie Bunker.