My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don’t show favoritism.
In the 70’s, the country singer Ray Stephens released one of those corny “love-everybody” songs that regularly surfaced during the era. “Everything Is Beautiful” packed wall-to-wall platitudes—“We shouldn’t care about the length of his hair or the color of his skin,” etc. As a kid growing up in a tradition that placed a lot of credence in appearances, one phrase haunted me: “There is none so blind as they who will not see.” I’d never heard that proverb before. Stephens’s point was clear: those who can’t find beauty in our differences choose blindness voluntarily. That made great sense. How could anyone dismiss someone else as unchristian because he/she doesn’t fit a “Christian” profile? We see what we want to see, and that’s the surest way to see more or less than what’s really there.
Years later, the oldie spun out of my jukebox memory while reading James 2. It startled me, though, how James upholds the same principle from the opposite angle. He advocates voluntary blindness, pressing us to ignore differences altogether. Whether or not “everything is beautiful” is irrelevant, because beauty—or any other virtue—is a quality we assess, a comparative value defined as much by what it isn’t as what it is. It’s within our bounds to appreciate virtues of one and regret shortcomings of another. But James makes no bones about our having no grounds to prefer one person to another because we respect his/her attributes more favorably. It’s judging.
Seeing is Not Believing
James constrains us against favoritism as believers. For Christians, equality is neither a matter of politics nor a manner of politeness—it’s a mandate of faith. We believe God forgives and accepts us with the same justice and equanimity He offers everyone. When we prefer some to others, we reveal doubt we’re all fundamentally the same, namely, sinners redeemed (or able to be redeemed) by grace. Titus 3.5 reminds us, “He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of His mercy.” Grace comes without merit. It’s not a reward. It’s not recognition of how good we are. It’s a gift that anyone who believes in God’s mercy can claim. Therefore, viewing some as better—or, conversely, worse—than others implies entitlement no one has.
Seeing is not believing, if our eyes notice differences that refute the equality of all, the very equality our faith depends on. But, you say, it’s humanly impossible not to recognize differences, whether surface traits or behavioral ones. That’s true. Side by side, a homeless alcoholic and the Pope appear nothing alike. But faith in God’s equal compassion for both blinds us to the variables and focuses solely on the common feature: two humans in equal need of His grace. Anything else we choose to see or believe is a judgment and, regardless of how right or wrong we perceive them to be, it’s essential to see we’re wrong. James urges us, “Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment!” (James 2.12-13) Faith in God’s mercy means nothing if it doesn’t extend to to everyone. That’s what we see—that's all we see—because that’s what we believe.
In verses 8 and 9, James writes, “If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers.” When we view others differently, we love them differently. It’s easy to love people who look and act like us. That requires nothing. Honoring Christ’s commandment to love, however, demands voluntary blindness on more occasions that we expect.
This is a “royal law”—an edict given by our King. It is absolute and unavailable to personal interpretation. Obedience to this law is our first and only priority, leaving no justifiable rationale or extenuating circumstances to explain non-compliance. It demands mental, emotional, and spiritual commitment, which in turn demand readjusting perceptions. Diversity is an optical illusion. There are no good people and bad people. Some Christians aren’t better than others. No one is above us. No one is below us. We’re all the same. We have to see that. If we can’t, we need to look at our faith with fresh eyes—specifically, with our Father’s eyes.
Diversity is a beautiful, honorable quest in human affairs. But in matters of faith, it's an optical illusion.
(Tomorrow: Guest Lists)